The Good We Can Do

Everyone’s experience with depression is different, and that’s what makes it difficult to talk about or advise on. Even when you have an idea of what depression is like, or personal experience with it, you can’t speak for everyone.

Sometimes, it manifests as anger or frustration that things are happening in your head that you can’t control. Sometimes, it manifests as an exhaustion, an emotional emptiness that can never be filled. Sometimes, it manifests as an acute anxiety, a keen awareness that something is wrong and it will never be right. I think the one thing that brings depression and its various expressions together is a keen emotional distress that makes it very difficult to deal with the world as it is.

A lot of people who suffer from depression don’t have the words to describe what is happening to them — either because it’s really difficult to understand your own emotions in that state, or coming up with a way to make other people understand is so hard and you’re already so drained. And it can be incredibly difficult if you’re a friend or loved one of someone going through a depressive episode; you want to help, but you have no idea what to do. This can be especially true for those of us trying to help someone online, where we can’t be physically present with them.

For so many people who suffer from depression and mental illness, their friends and loved ones, words are all we have to help (or hurt). That’s what this entire week has been about — the importance of using our words to deal with this issue. Words — even well-meaning ones — that come from a place of ignorance or misunderstanding can be devastating. We have the power to use our words to alleviate the suffering of those in our community who are most vulnerable, and most in need of assistance. While we have the right to say whatever we want however we want to say it, we also have the responsibility to address any negative consequences those words have had. And, where possible, spread knowledge and compassion that contributes to a culture of support, not judgement.

It really matters to me that we understand this, because knowing how important the power of words can be to someone in a bad place will hopefully encourage us to use those words to the best possible effect. That’s all I want.

I can speak about my personal experience with depression and suicide, and how I’ve recovered from it. I can talk about the things that have helped me in my lowest points. But I’m just one data point. I know there are a lot of other people out there who have different experiences, and I want to hear from you, too. What’s helped? What hasn’t? What would you say to friends who have been at a loss to know what to do?

For now, here are a few things that I think will help us deal with mental health issues. I’d really love to hear from others with suggestions on what to add to the list.

LISTEN, ACTIVELY. Sometimes, people in the throes of depression just want to know that there is someone who understands their problems and how it makes them feel. If a depressed person comes to us with a litany of problems, it’s not necessarily for an attempt to solve them. It’s just “These are all of the things going wrong with me; this is why I feel like there’s no way for me to feel better. I feel miserable.”

Sometimes this might not even be the root cause of their depression. It’s like clearing an attic full of old boxes, looking for that one thing you’ve buried there years ago. Folks looking for the cause of their issues need to sift through a lot of stuff before they find something that looks like the reason they feel worthless, or hopeless, or fundamentally broken. Active listening can be the thing that helps to continue that process; just being present, accepting and understanding their feelings, knowing that they’re in a safe space to do more.

START WITH THE BASICS. Depression, at least for me, made it extremely difficult to do the basic things I needed to do to care for myself. I wouldn’t eat. I wouldn’t bathe. I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning online, looking for anything that made me feel better. I know now that sitting in my own funk and hunger deprived of sleep really didn’t help things at all, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time.

If we’re in a position at all to give advice or help someone who’s depressed directly, I’d recommend starting with these small and simple things. Encourage them to eat well, get enough sleep, keep themselves clean. Doing these basic things can help break the cycle of destructive thoughts and give us a sense of control about *something*, which is a small but important step up from rock bottom.

SEEK KNOWLEDGE, SPREAD KNOWLEDGE. Mental health issues are easily misunderstood. It’s true that some people take on a self-diagnosis as an excuse for poor or anti-social behavior, but I think it’s much more common that people suffer from issues they aren’t even aware of. Depression, anxiety disorder, and a whole host of issues affect a large number of people who don’t know the symptoms or don’t even have access to medical care. Even those of us who have been diagnosed can have a poor understanding of exactly how our brains are misbehaving.

It’s not feasible for all of us to become psychologists, but attaining a working knowledge about depression and other issues affecting our friends can be tremendously helpful. Doing our best to spread knowledge — while respecting each person’s individual experience — can help to remove many of the common, most-entrenched misunderstandings about the people who suffer from mental issues. Signal-boosting resources can put professional help in the hands of people who have no idea where to turn.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS. I will fully admit to being an extremely difficult person to deal with during my worst bouts of depression. I have been paranoid, lashed out at people who don’t deserve it, and very needy. There are people who have had to walk away from me for their own well-being while I was in this state, and while I was hurt and confused at the time I totally understand the action now that I’m on a more even keel.

This can be a very difficult thing to do, but if someone with mental health issues is threatening your own emotional well-being it might be best to pull away a bit. It’s OK to recognize that you don’t have the tools to help this person; when you’ve reached your limit, gently explain that you can’t offer the help they deserve and do what you can to point them in the direction of professional resources that will be better able to serve them. I know that in so many places professional assistance is difficult if not impossible to obtain; I hope to have a better answer for these situations later.

ENCOURAGE ENGAGEMENT WITH PROFESSIONALS WHERE POSSIBLE. One of the things that has absolutely helped me is finally deciding that I needed professional help. I’ve learned how to manage anxious thoughts and self-destructive loops with cognitive behavioral therapy, learned that a chemical imbalance can be righted with medication, worked out past issues through speaking with a psychologist. Now that I know that it’s also likely I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and ADHD, I can work on further refinements to my understanding about myself to get even closer to where I want to be.

I know there can be a general distrust about therapists, especially among those of us in the fandom with alternative sexualities and fetishes. I know there can be significant concerns about medications, and it’s true that the process of finding the right one can be difficult and long. I know that the expense and uncertainty involved in working through these issues in a professional setting can, in certain cases, make things seem worse before they seem better. But coming out of the other side with a set of tools that allow us to better understand ourselves and work with errant thoughts is ultimately worth it.

If possible, please encourage people with mental health issues to seek out professional resources. It may take some time to find a therapist or treatment that works, so while they’re figuring it out they may need to lean on friends and loved ones to push through discouragement and fear. That’s OK. With these things, process can come slowly and discovering and untangling the knots of our own psyche can be intense. I believe in the process, though, and I believe in the results. That may not be true for everyone, but at least making the attempt is fruitful.

Thanks again to everyone for reading this week, offering their suggestions, feedback and support. I know this has been a pretty difficult ride for almost everyone involved, and I hope that I’ve made my intentions and desires clear. I don’t want 2 to stop performing comedy — it’s something he’s clearly put a lot of work into, that many other people enjoy, and it has never been the issue for me. I merely want him to recognize the power he has as a writer and speaker with a broad platform, and to be more careful with sensitive subjects. I totally understand his brand of comedy, but challenging jokes (and opinions) require a deft touch and an intricate understanding not only of the subject matter but how people are affected by the things he says and the ideas he expresses. As someone with the power to change minds and affect lives, he has the responsibility to get it right.

I’ll continue trying to do that myself. My understanding of these things is changing and refining all the time, and I’m still learning how to be engaged and sensitive to the unique struggles of my fellow minorities in geek spaces. I want to get it right, and I want to encourage everyone out there to try to do the same. We can be challenging, irreverent and questioning of sensitive subjects. But we can also be compassionate, intelligent, open and accepting. We can’t get there, though, without caring about the things we say and do.

4 thoughts on “The Good We Can Do

  1. One big symptom of depression for me is disengaging from just about everyone, so one thing that’s helpful is for friends to initiate contact. Another related thing is what a friend calls “airing out”: a local friend taking me someplace for coffee or foods or just letting me come over to get out of the house. Online friends can just make an effort to say hi or share cool stuff or rp. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about my depression or anxiety; sometimes it’s too hard to talk about it.

    (And writing this is honestly embarrassing; I don’t expect people to do these things or want to impose on people at all.)

    One thing that doesn’t usually help is people trying to fix me; I end up just feeling worse. I also don’t know how to convey that the process of getting better is long as well as up and down; I wish I could magically feel better *for* the people in my life, but I can’t.

  2. If there’s anything I’ll take away from the whole thing, it’s that our fandom is full of fantastic people like you whom I have yet to meet. Thank you for taking the time and mental energy to write this series of posts. If you are at EF this year and I run into you, I’ll make sure your beer (or any suitable choice of beverage or treat) is on me. 🙂

  3. I sought counseling through work I found it helps as I’m on medications that interfere with most antidepressant drugs. And had a Drug make me feel worse. But even then its temporary the coverage for mental health is atrocious in both Canada and the USA and this needs to change. I am researching alternatives and keeping an open mind as pills and talking are not everything. This is a complex disease. I also found what did spin me deeper was yes people leave you. Even before I was in the darkest pits. I would say many as soon as I wasn’t happy fluffy sexy big beast. This ended interest/ engagement and more friendships that i had once thought were life long and true. If somebody is depressed shunning them and leaving them to stew in their emo. I humbly feel this just spins the worthlessness the sadness and the loss deeper. Yes WE the depressed are not easy to handle. And yes you ( various readers) have your limits but how you engage us and treat us literally means if today’s therapy session will have any meaning. Or make any progress. It can undo work thats been done to heal. Ie reaching out to your support network. Often I just need a distraction a sounding board or a virtual hug to get through the shite in my head and it gives me just enough to get up in the morning. The stigma of my depression has shown especially in this fandom its cost is great. I went from a well known and fairly respected name to virtually nothing in short order. Some is my own doing. The massive disconnect exists is how we seem to think we are fully in control of our words our minds at all times the very problem with an illness of the mind is we are not in full control. And a “healthy” person needs to realize the conscious mind is only 5%- 10% Of whats going on. The consciousness is a little dude riding an elephant. I imagine in the mentally ill its ornery mammoth. How we choose to express depression is a problem, I agree. But we cannot simply HIDE that we have depression from everyone. Nor should we have too have to its an illness. I am sick. People get sick. And one day I hope to make a recovery. These posts have opened up avenues for hope. When I often feel hope is a wasted emotion. Finally Jakabe is owed a great deal of thanks for carrying this conversation on and saying things that have needed to be said in eloquent ways. Where they will be paid attention to.

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