People want to be helpful. We especially want to help our friends. Their distress calls to us and we want to be there to do all that we can to help. Few of us, though, understand what that looks like. We throw out statements like, “If you need anything, let me know” and “I’m here to support you.” I want to highlight something very important: these statements are empty; they have no concrete meaning without an explanation or context.
I once tried to talk to someone who offered “anything I needed” about the exhaustion of managing loss day-to-day. I was met with so much awkwardness that I had to make light of it and change the subject. If there’s one thing I don’t want to do while I’m feeling low, it’s manage another person’s awkwardness around my mental state. That awkwardness makes me want to hide how I’m feeling from those I care about and only talk about it with my therapist. This may be what a lot of other people want for me to do. But I’m going to assume good intentions of those offering support by thinking they genuinely want to help.
The problem might be that they just don’t know how.
Before I dive further into this post, I’m going to be clear that I’m not a licensed therapist. I am not a mental health professional, nor am I certified to provide professional pastoral care. I am speaking purely from my experience as someone who has been on the receiving end of these statements. Therefore, I am going to talk about how it feels to hear to these statements, and then suggest some ways to reframe how we offer help.
Recently, I’ve been in a pretty bad bout of depression following the death of yet another friend. I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my life, so I’m no stranger to grief, but this one has hit me particularly hard because of how close it comes to being me. Depression left unchecked can spiral out of control with deadly results. I’m not sure that’s what happened with my friend, but I know that she took her life, and it triggered me to the point of seriously thinking about taking mine.
I’ve struggled with depression for a long time. I know my signs and thought patterns well enough to be able to predict when I shouldn’t be alone, so as soon I start to feel myself spinning out of control, I get help. During that process, I’m usually met with an onslaught of friends offering help and support. I know enough about myself to know when I need people to be around, so I’m able to ask people to come over. When they arrive, they inevitably have more questions about what I want to eat, whether I want to leave the house, and what we should do. To all of those questions my answer is, “Uh… I don’t know.”
In my lowest states, I don’t know what I need. The darkness around me is thick, obscuring my vision of everything but my own faults. I don’t feel the need for food and water because the only sensation I can feel is heaviness. Other people might experience depression in different ways, but checking on those basic needs is a good start. Checking-in without overloading on the questions is better. Questions can be helpful. Offers are better.
So we muddle through it together. One person with a clear(er) mind and one that is fogged by crippling amounts of pain, loss, sadness, shame, and guilt. Two different minds with different scopes of what care looks like. The person with the clear mind can see meeting needs for food, water, shelter, etc. The person feeling low cannot see that far, so food and water needs may not be met by this person if left alone. That’s when the clear-minded, helpful friend can step in and say, “Hey, I’d love to take you to lunch.”
The key is transparency. If by “help” you mean bring a meal, say that. If by “support” you mean sit and listen, say that. If by “anything I need” you mean consoling back rubs, say that. If , when you say “whatever I can do to help,” you mean get me to the nearest mental health professional who can treat me, say that. Here’s what I’m getting at: say what you mean.
Say what you mean.
Knowing your capacity for involvement helps keep your friend from feeling like he or she is burdening you. It also reduces the likelihood that you’ll feel resentment for having too much asked of you. Not everyone is going to be able to listen, or to make phone calls, or sit in the waiting room of the psychiatrist’s office. That’s ok. But if you’re offering support, you need to be clear about what it is that you’re willing to do so that you don’t get stretched beyond your capacities, and so that your friend who’s feeling low doesn’t think you can give more than you actually can.
So be clear about what it is you can do, provide those options to your friend, and let your friend pick what sounds best. It’s about creating good boundaries for both of you so that support doesn’t turn into codependency. For example, a friend recently called me to tell me that she was going be in my neighborhood, that she was willing to come sit with me and talk (or not talk), and that she could bring me food. She gave me the option to decline any and all of these options. She knew exactly what she could do and said it. What was most helpful for me was having the options.
When I’m depressed, it feels like watching my life careen towards a cliff without the power to stop it. It feels like I’m spiraling down a dark hole with no light and no end point. There is a breath of fresh air in feeling like I have a choice in something, even if it’s as simple as what’s in my burrito. I need that choice. It puts the power of my life back into my hands. Choices empower me to feel like I can make a decision, even if it’s small. Those small steps add up until big choices are completely manageable.
First, I need to know that I have the option of making little choices.
So instead of offering “support,” try offering a meal, or a walk, or a movie, or anything specific. It makes a world of difference.