Friday Five: 5 Unbelievably Unhelpful Things to Say to Someone with a Mood Disorder

I’ve been living with depression since at least age 19, and probably far longer, just without a diagnosis.  Over the years most of my loved ones have been amazing – they give me space but make sure I know they’re around, and they understand that there’s nothing they can do to “fix me.”  Then there are other people, usually acquaintances and people on the internet (go figure), who have it all figured out and want to be sure I know it.  There’s nothing quite as useless as unsolicited advice on the internet.

But even if you really do want to help, and really care, it’s easy to stick your foot in your mouth with people dealing with mood disorders.  It’s not necessarily your fault; our minds are conditioned to go to the most negative place possible much of the time.  However, with all of my experience, I can share with you some things that, no matter how they’re intended, are either unhelpful or even harmful.

1.  But you don’t have any reason to feel depressed – your life is great!  It’s not like somebody died.

Do you know what experts call being sad when something sad happens and then feeling better when life is better?  BEING NORMAL.

The whole point of depression et al as mental illness is that your emotional responses are out of synch with actual events.  They may start out appropriately, but then they continue long past the end of the precipitating event.  Someone dumps you and two months later you still can’t get out of bed.  That’s not romantic, that’s pathological. 

Or, say, nothing has gone wrong but you can’t seem to shake that sadness.  Your life is going really well by any objective standard but you can’t enjoy it, feel disconnected from everything, can barely get out of bed.  Healthy people have emotions; in people with mood disorders, emotions have them.

Now here comes a well meaning friend or family member to invalidate the feelings that are practically (or might end up literally) killing you – telling you that what you’re feeling is an overreaction, as if you didn’t already know there was something off in your brain.  Comments like that can cause a lot of damage to an already damaged psyche.

2.  Can’t you just pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you know, a little tough love?

Again: if depression were the kind of thing you could just shake off, it wouldn’t be depression. This one, along with “can’t you just think positive?” infuriates me.  Gee, I never thought of that!  That’s all it takes?  All this time instead of spending hours in doctors’ offices and thousands of dollars on appointments and therapies and drugs, all I had to do was fake a smile?  I’M CURED!!!

When someone uses anything from #2 I know I’m dealing with a person who does not understand mental illness at all.  On the one hand, good for them.  If they don’t understand that means they’ve never had to carry a mood disorder on their backs until they were too bent down to walk.  Unfortunately that doesn’t feel so great to us.

3.  All you need to do is lose weight/go vegan/go gluten free/do yoga/pray.

Yes, and all you need to do is shut the hell up, but I suspect we’ll both be unsuccessful.

People love to evangelize their lifestyles by assigning them magical qualities to draw in as many new converts as possible.  I swear to God I’ve had gluten blamed for everything in my life that’s ever gone wrong. Of course, my weight has gotten equal blame for everything up to and including sore throats and sinus infections (I wish I were kidding).  And to hear the new Vegans for Sainthood people preach you’d think the second I start stuffing myself with kale I’ll be a whole new woman…you know, not just a woman who can’t leave the bathroom for a week.

That’s not to say that becoming a vegan gluten free yogini wouldn’t help you feel better (although it might annoy the piss out of your friends); but no one thing works for everyone, and part of the burden of mood disorders is that it takes time, work, and often money to find the things that do work.  We blunder into a lot of dead ends – and unfortunately those dead ends can actually end with death if things go too far.

What seems most effective is a multifaceted approach along with a heaping helping of patience.  There are going to be days, or weeks, that I can’t function.  I’ve been coming out of one this past week that lasted over a month, and it felt like my entire life was just put on indefinite hold because I didn’t have the strength to live it.  There is no magic bullet – anyone who tells you there is is an arms dealer.

4.  You should make a list of everything you have to be grateful for.

…because not only do I feel too depressed to get out of bed, I really want to enhance that by feeling guilty for all the crap I’m not appropriately thankful for.  Right.  That whole gratitude thing is a nice idea in theory, and if you’re emotionally stable it can be a good wake-up-call to help refocus your attitude, but if you’re not stable, all it does is make you feel like a complete piece of shit because you should be grateful for that life you’re too depressed to live!

5.  Wow, I’d love to be manic once in a while.  I’d get so much done!

Manic and productive are not the same thing.  When mania, or in my case hypomania, rears its ugly head and fifty arms, you’re not just checking stuff off the to-do list; you’re making a dozen more lists before you’re even halfway through the first one, because there’s ALWAYS MORE TO DO and you have to do it NOW.  TODAY.  AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  You can’t sit still; you have a lot of wacky ideas and can make commitments and plans that are far beyond your capability.  You get bright ideas like “I should stop taking my meds! I feel great!” and then push yourself so hard that BAM! You crash and throw yourself headlong into a depressive spiral.

Hypomania is the same general idea only less extreme – in fact, I don’t mind the hypomania as much as the violent crashing and cycling between it and depression.  But in the grip of a hypomanic episode I become very edgy and even angry, say things I don’t mean, and good lord do I like to join things!  Never mind I already have 80 commitments this month; what’s 10 more?

Here’s the secret to talking to someone with depression, bipolar, et cetera:

Whenever you’re going to give advice to someone with a mood disorder…don’t.  Just don’t.  This goes double, or triple, when your advice is unsolicited.  Instead say something like, “If I can do anything let me know,” and make sure to invite your friend to events but don’t take it personally if she doesn’t come.  Above all, don’t tell someone how she “should” feel or what she “should” do.  If there’s something your friend can’t get done offer to help with it.  Don’t emphasize how worried you are – you might as well say “You need to get better because it bothers me and I’m tired of dealing with you,” because whether you mean it that way or not, that’s what your friend will hear.

Sounds like a lot of inconvenient walking on eggshells?  Well, it is.  Just imagine what it’s like to be made of eggshells.

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5 thoughts on “Friday Five: 5 Unbelievably Unhelpful Things to Say to Someone with a Mood Disorder

  1. Been there, done this. I’ve gone through what probably amounts to a year of counseling sessions, at least six different drugs…and all I heard was that it was my own fault I wasn’t getting better. I didn’t want to be helped. This started a bit over fifteen years ago…and my family is still trying to “fix” me. My mom moans about how she “went wrong” with me, and that I don’t stick with anything long enough for it to be effective. I’ve tried to explain that it’s like getting a knife in the chest, but they ignore me, or dismiss it.

    Sorry, guys; Suzie Sunshine is dead, and she’s probably not coming back. But I can’t convince them of that, and things just get worse.

    Thanks for this. It helps for a few minutes to know that I am not alone, not the odd man out. Maybe I’m not the only one whom no one wants to deal with, or be around…because I’m depressing and negative and make them feel bad. I just wish that the feeling of belonging lasted longer.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever said any of this to you…if I have, you have my permission to bite me…

    It’s equally maddening when you have relatives who think ADHD doesn’t exist or that you should just stop sugar and red dyes, or whatever the current fad is and you’ll be fine (not taking into account I don’t do sugar or red dyes…).

    What works for one person doesn’t always work for someone else. Getting active and eating the right things always makes me feel better…but the same things for someone else might make them even more depressed and no one can determine that but the individual.

  3. LOVE it!!!!!!! I’ve been married for 30 years & it took forever for my husband to understand that nothing he suggested worked! (It seems that so many men want to “fix” things.) Now he listens to me & gives me my space when I need it, instead of giving “suggestions”. Now he just asks if there’s anything I need or anything he can do. Between his understanding & having 2 close friends with depression, it helps me get through the day…
    Thanks for your honest posts. They’re muchly appreciated. Hang in there!!

  4. Oopsies I’ve used #4 on my new bf who thinks he has an anxiety disorder–and that’s especially bad considering I have anxiety/depression meeself!

    Great list—absolutely right—people, in general, could afford to drop less unsolicited advice and get with the compassionate listening 😀

  5. #5 – OMG YES. UGH.

    #2 – same goes for quitting smoking. Oh, you mean I can just chew this magic piece of gum?! WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT. See Dictiornary re: “addiction.”

    Also: YOU FTW. <3

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