How can I "deal with" a very close family member with depression?
April 2, 2009 7:01 PM   Subscribe

How can I "deal with" a very close family member with depression?

A close sibling of mine is depressed. This sibling is in treatment, seeing a therapist and taking medication to treat the depression. While I see that the treatment has definitely helped--this person is functional (holds down a job, follows through on committments, etc) whereas that was once not the case--I am hearing a lot of "I'm sad." I hear this several times a week. While I understand that people get sad, especially when they fixate or focus on certain events (like a divorce, for instance) or their current circumstances (crappy boss, junky car, etc), I have always been of the opinion that if you don't like something, DO SOMETHING about it, don't just wallow in it. Today I actually told my sibling to take action on the circumstances that are depressing/saddening, and all I got was "you don't care."

I need advice on how to deal with--react to--engage with someone this close to me who is emotionally sensitive but stubborn in changing. I don't want to go through life ignoring this small part of this person's life, but I can only go so far giving my perspective when advice is sought. I also know that sometimes, people just want to complain, but this happens so frequently I have decided to say something about it.

(By the way, I'm fine with having my advice ignored. Lots of people do it. What I'm not OK with is inaction on something that is clearly bothering someone. Give me a perspective on how to deal with that, please.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
If your sib is clinically depressed--and, given the treatment you mentioned (talk therapy and meds), that seems likely--s/he simply is not capable of "DOING SOMETHING" about it. If s/he had cancer, would you say, "GET BETTER" and expect it to happen? Depression is an illness--it cannot be wished away. I understand your frustration, but try to understand that your sibling's sadness is not a choice. Be thankful s/he is taking positive steps--and apparently efficacious ones--to deal with it.
posted by shallowcenter at 7:09 PM on April 2, 2009 [30 favorites]


They're in treatment, they're employed and able to follow through on committments where "this was once not the case"-- it sounds like they ARE doing something about it, unless I'm misunderstanding your question. What are the actions you think they need to be taking?

It's OK to say, "I may not be the best person to talk about this with, since I do care, but I don't understand clinical depression", if it's too much to listen to reports of continued sad feelings, but be compassionate about it.
posted by availablelight at 7:15 PM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Depression is not 'stubbornness' though. Your sibling is not necessarily choosing to be inactive in his/her life, waiting around for things to get better. Depression can be a very serious struggle, and although your sibling may not seem to be changing to your standards, you may not even understand that s/he is trying very hard because of course s/he WANTS not to be depressed. I think that doing some reading on Major Depressive Disorder would be very helpful to you.
posted by so_gracefully at 7:17 PM on April 2, 2009


Even though your sibling is in treatment, that treatment might not be enough. If the complaints of "I'm sad" are just general comments, then, without being a doctor, I'd have to guess that Sibling's meds/therapy aren't fully effective. It might be that your sibling needs an increase in meds or a cocktail of sorts (perhaps see if the doctor would prescribe Abilify* to supplement whatever anti-depressant is being used). If Sibling is just focusing on all the negatives in his/her life, then the therapy isn't helping and a change in therapists might help.

As for how to deal with Sibling... yeah, please don't just say: "Snap out of it". If the complaints are specifically about the same negative things in Sibling's life, then telling Sibling that you've heard the complaints before and don't want to hear them again might work; such a message might be what Sibling needs to start spurring him/her forward (under the theory that listening to endless complaints is akin to enabling an alcoholic).

Good luck. Depression is hard for both the sick person and for their family and friends.

(* Not intended as an endorsement of that drug; I only know about it through the advertisements on TV.)
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 7:29 PM on April 2, 2009


Honestly, you're the one kind of coming off as the complaining, stubborn sibling here. Would you tell your sibling just to GET BETTER if they had cancer or diabetes, or tell them JUST WALK ON IT if they had a broken leg? Would you get exasperated with them if they told you they couldn't?

Clinical depression is not just just a bad mood or the enjoyment of complaining; it is an illness with physiological causes. What's more, your sibling is doing something about it: they're getting treatment. You can help support them in that process by working hard to develop a little more patience and compassion -- this can be demonstrated, for example, by listening more than talking -- and offering positive touch, such as holding their hand, hugging, or putting an arm around them. You can also suggest taking part in healthy or constructive activities together, such as exercising, going for a walk, seeing a movie, etc.

Keep in mind: by NOT taking depression seriously as a medical condition and by essentially telling your sibling to snap out of it, you are actually belittling their experience -- which runs the risk of reinforcing the feelings of worthlessness, isolation, and loneliness that come with the disease.

Here's some more info about depression, as well as some tips about how friends and family can support someone who's depressed. And I would suggest that you humbly consider how fortunate you are that you've never suffered through this disease.
posted by scody at 7:36 PM on April 2, 2009 [21 favorites]


The big thing about depression is that a lot of people don't understand it, and many people who have it don't fully understand it. It's great that your sibling is getting help. Help with depression can often keep people alive and functioning. You don't necessarily need to be part of your sibling's solution mechanism for dealing with their depression, but it sounds like you could maybe stand to educate yourself about how depression actually feels or how completely impossible it makes simple (for most people) activities like getting out of bed.

That said, the road away from depression is complicated and the most horrible thing about depression is that being depressed makes it specifically difficult to get better. You miss appointments, run out of medication, sleep all day and get fired from your job, etc. And then all these things make you more depressed. It's a horrible viscious cycle.

So, without knowing your sibling there are a few things that may be happening

- they are getting a handle on the fact that they are depressed and putting words to how they've spent a lot of time feeling. In this case "I'm sad" is a better response than "life sucks and everyone is against me" in that it pinpoints the problem, the depression, better than the other
- they may be feeling that treatment isn't working or isn't working well and this may be an expression of that
- they may think that when you asked how they were that you actually wanted to know in which case "I'm sad" is an honest statement of truth.

Depression takes time, sometimes a long time, to work out and often it's a lot of hard work. Your sibling appears to be doing things that many depressives are unable to do and that's a great step in the right direction. I know that you may feel frustrated, wanting to fix them and make them feel better and that it's hard to watch someone you love be so unhappy, but you may need to retool your expectations about them and find other ways to deal with your reactions to the "I'm sad" statements that are likely going to be a part of whatever healing/management process they're going through.

For many people depression can NOT be fixed at all, it can only be managed. That is a tough row to hoe for the person experiencing it, but it's also tough for loved one and family members who would like to help that person feel better. Having honest discussions about what it getting in their way is a decent thing to do (how has it been being back at work, that sort of thing) but expecting that this will one day go away or not be part of your sibling's life may not be something that will happen, and that's an eventuality you must prepare for as well if you'd like to continue being able to relate to them as a full human being.
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 PM on April 2, 2009 [8 favorites]


I've struggled with depression since I was a kid. Usually if I tell someone that I'm sad or depressed, that means I just want someone to talk to. I'm not looking for them to solve my problems and I'm not wallowing in self pity. Maybe you should have a little more compassion and understanding for your siblings illness like others upthread have mentioned. It's a hard thing to even fathom if you've never been there yourself; and if you haven't, then consider yourself lucky.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:02 PM on April 2, 2009


It's good that your sibling feels like they can talk to you, that's pretty important. I've only very recently gotten help for my depression (which sounds much more mild than your sibling's) and it's been such a relief to be able to talk to my mother about it...I still don't think my father knows I'm on anti-depressants. Depression IS an illness, and there are chemical and environmental factors. But it feels, deep down, like a weakness. And that makes it hard to tell people and get help.

When I'm depressed I almost feel like I'm trapped behind a wall or something. There are things I want to do, and I know they aren't difficult, but I can't make myself do them. This may be where your sibling is coming from. And in that situation it can be frustrating to be given advice to 'do something about it' because you really aren't wallowing because you want to, it's just that even those things seem incredibly hard to you at the moment...which in turn can feel pretty humiliating.

But I don't want to sound like I'm dogpiling on you. You may not be able to just say 'do something,' but you shouldn't be afraid to suggest things and give advice either. Just keep in mind that it's a long haul of baby steps. Just the facts that your sibling feels like they can talk to you about their depression and that they're asking for your advice (which I believe is implied?) are great things. Just keep doing your best to support any positive developments, and stay involved in their life.

Like LOLAttorney said, it's not easy on the families and friends of the depressed either. I know it's frustrating it is on my end sometimes, and I can imagine it's even more so looking in from the outside. I know there are some books that deal with helping people with depression...you might want to check your local bookstore.
posted by Caravantea at 8:09 PM on April 2, 2009


Sometimes, people don't want their "problems" (meaning the stuff they might complain about) to be fixed. Sometimes people just want someone to listen, without judgement, and just be there. It'll help the depressed person feel better. It may be rough on you, I fully understand that, but all you need to do is listen and support. You don't have to suggest, or fix.
posted by kellyblah at 8:46 PM on April 2, 2009


My mother last year (I'm thirty) took a NAMI course for family members of persons with mental illness. It has changed our relationship, for the better. You might consider this.

Depression, as others have said, is very different from what people outside think it to be. It is very unfortunate. The person might say "I'm sad" or "I'm depressed", which for a normally-functioning person might indicate that her dog died, that she's stressed at work, that she's in a breakup, etc. Clinical depression is different -- clinical anxiety is also different from our common-usage "anxiety" (I've been asked "well, what were you anxious about in that time in your life?") It is unfortunate that we use the same word. It is as if we used the word "sniffles" to refer to the sensation of walking outside on a snowy morning, the common cold, and cystic fibrosis. Asking a CF sufferer "well, have you considered earmuffs?" is pretty much as ludicrous as asking someone -- actually, redacted. I don't want to pile on either. You're going above and beyond by caring. Try taking a course or reading a book.

One final note, and I suspect other people with serious depression will be able to relate. When I am in a hole, I cannot think of anything that could make me feel better, because I cannot think of a time in my life when I felt better, I don't believe that I've ever actually enjoyed anything, and I don't see any possibility but that I will be in this condition forever. I don't have full access to my memories -- memories of pleasant time are just missing, or at least have had buckets of black paint splashed on them. And I do have access to seemingly every negative thing that ever happened, even stuff I thought I had forgotten long ago. Depression hacks meta-levels and hacks perception and memory, and this is one of the reasons it is so insidious.

So, as one more thing to say, try something like "Would you do me a favor and go on a walk with me?" Don't say "Have you tried doing something you enjoy? You like sorting postage stamps, right?" The person, with good reason, will tell you that, no, she has never enjoyed philately, and can't see how that would help.
posted by quarantine at 9:05 PM on April 2, 2009 [23 favorites]


Your sibling is reaching out to you for attention ("I'm sad", "you don't care") So, what about being helpful and getting the sibling out of the house more? Get the sibling out of the habit of isolating himself, as so many depressed people tend to do? Like quarantine said, you have to phrase it right - as something you'd like, something nice they can do for you, rather than what's good for them. Go out to a movie (make it a comedy), browse a bookstore, take a walk to the convenience store, grab a coffee, go shop for something you need... just say you'd like the company.

You don't even need to bring the subject of the sibling's depression up while you're spending time with them, sometimes it helps just to forget about it for a while. If the sibling brings it up, just let him/her talk and be positive (accepting of the emotions, but don't let them get away with self-deprecating talk).
posted by lizbunny at 9:25 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


For starters, read this comment.

Don't tell a depressed person to "cheer up." We've already thought of that one.
posted by liketitanic at 9:33 PM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Anon, people suffering depression don't have a choice about their illness. They aren't wallowing- they are suffering an illness. It can be frustrating for people around them, especially loved ones because you so much want them to be their old selves.
posted by mattoxic at 9:49 PM on April 2, 2009


It's very hard to deal with someone who suffers from depression, especially when you're someone like me, who just doesn't understand it (though I am doing my best to understand it). My sister suffers from serious depression, and while my immediate attitude it telling her to get over it, I find that talking to friends who may be on anti-depressants may help. I tend to see my friends a bit differently than my family; I think we all take our family for granted and are somehow more inclined to take our friends more seriously and be more understanding than with family. My sister and I grew up in the same house, the same disadvantages, and while I am currently (finally) at a phase in my life when i seem to be thriving, she is floundering a bit.

So some of the above advice for encouragement and understanding and attention doesn't work in all situations. Any problem of mine I wisk to discuss with my sister, "pales" in comparison to hers. Distraction doesn't even work, because any topic we discuss, it becomes my good job vs her bad one, my good car vs her bad one, my nice clothes that she can't fit it. You can't succeed in front of them because that only makes them feel worse. I feel like I have to try to point out all my failings to her just to make her understand that everyone goes through bad stuff, and we all find the strength to get past it.

I know you're at the point where you can't bear to listen anymore, because honestly, it bugs the hell out of you that every idea, every oppurtunity that you suggest is shot down. The best idea that I have been able to come up with so far is to just get past that portion of the conversation as quickly as possible. Change the subject. And then rant to your friends about your sibling and how annoying they are. It's hard to be supportive when talking with a sibling aggravates and maybe even upsets you. Becuase we do want our siblings to be happy and successful. So sometimes, you have to take care of yourself.

(For the record, I know I sound a bit harsh, but when you've been around it for so long, it can really jade you a bit)
posted by CPAGirl at 10:08 PM on April 2, 2009


I understand how frustrating it can be to support someone who is clinically depressed, and even I, as someone who suffers from depression, can become frustrated when others who are also combating depression are stuck in a bad cycle. Here's the thing though, you want your sibling to "DO SOMETHING" about it, and s/he is! S/he's going to therapy, s/he's taking medication, and s/he is turning to family as an additional support system. Those three things are HUGE, especially for someone in the throes of a major depressive cycle. It can be a slow and incremental process, and it might seem like nothing is changing, but then all of a sudden you are 3, 6, 12 months out and the depressed person is in a much different place, and that is a wonderful thing.

If you have reached your limit with a circular conversation you've been having repeatedly, that's okay. Take a break. You don't have to chat every day and you are allowed to change the subject. If you haven't done so already, you also might want to consider telling your sibling that while you don't entirely understand depression, you are proud of them for getting treatment and are glad that they feel they can come to you. You could also acknowledge that you sometimes become frustrated because you don't know how to fix this or what to say to help, but that you realize that's no one's fault & is endemic to depression. There is the possibility that depression or not, your sibling would be a complainer and resistant to improving things, but the fact the s/he is in treatment suggests otherwise.

It's hard to explain depression to people, but this might help: you know how you feel when you are really, really sick or sleep deprived? You are miserable and pretty much that's all there is. The physical overshadows everything and you know you felt so normal just a couple of days ago but you can't even remember what that felt like. You want to do nothing, but get better and escape feeling so crappy. You take medicine, you lie low, you complain about how crappy you feel, and have no idea when you will be better. Sometimes it passes quickly, sometimes you are horribly ill for a week. Even if you do everything right, you just have to ride it out until your body defeats your infection. Ultimately, you are not in control, even if you are taking steps to make it better, and that can be as frustrating as the feeling sick. Some people suffer in silence, but most people say things like "I am so sick. I feel so awful," even though that changes nothing and the person you're saying that to can't do much about it but be supportive. No one is being a jerk in this scenario. Someone is just sick and this is what comes with that.

There's a lot of good information in this thread. I hope it's helpful. Good luck to you and your sibling!
posted by katemcd at 11:49 PM on April 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


Speaking as someone who's been in (and sadly often still is) in your sibling's position: depression isn't a choice. Really. If things have been improving for your sibling, they are doing something - and having better luck at it than many people. You can't just "DO SOMETHING" to make depression disappear completely: you can make those changes - start dating someone new after a divorce, get a new job to avoid the crazy boss, sell the junky car - and you will still feel like a miserable, worthless piece of shit. Everything you do is pointless. Even the very basic things that help other people don't make a difference. And yes, in an intellectual way, you know that this is the depression talking: you know that this feeling of emptiness, worthlessness, boundless unhappiness is not at all rational. But for feelings this intense, there's no real way to get enough distance to treat them as irrational.

And, of course, to top it off, as a depressed person, you know very well - you are probably irrationally sure, even - that you're pissing off your family, alienating your friends. And that you deserve it. They expect you to be able to manage basic social interactions, hold down a steady job, make it to medical appointments, etc., and you can't even do that reliably. What kind of a miserable excuse for a human being are you? Who could possibly want to spend time with you? Sure, you go to therapy, you take your meds, you work through your CBT exercises, and you're mostly able to make it to work, but most days, you still really wish that you didn't exist.

These attitudes aren't easy for family and friends to deal with, to say the least. Honestly, the only way that you can deal with this right now is to try to get some distance. Take care of yourself. Try to make sure that time spent with your sibling has some structure: watch a movie, watch some sport of your choice on TV, talk about a book you've read, etc. You're not in a position to be your sibling's only source of emotional support, so try to make sure that you're connecting with them on non-emotional levels. Try not to get into discussions about problems in your sibling's life unless they're asking for some specific sort of help. Don't try to fix their problems. You'll get frustrated at their inability to act and they'll feel miserable for pointlessly imposing on you with their never-ending depression issues. Try to be sympathetic but non-committal: move on and try to focus on something more constructive, on some sort of concrete experience. You can offer more emotional support later, when you're feeling less burned out.

While you're at it, I agree that you ought to try to read up on depression and perhaps even talk to a therapist to get a better understanding of what your sibling is going through. Although it won't necessarily make dealing with your sibling less frustrating, you might be able to get some ideas for strategies that might help both you and them. While it's also possible your sibling might need to consider a different therapist/psychiatrist eventually as their condition and needs change, your description suggests that with the help of their current treatment, their condition has really improved, and that (at this point at least) it's not yet necessary.
posted by ubersturm at 11:55 PM on April 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


The first thing you can do is look at yourself and find a way to understand that you cant fix this. There is no actiuon or sequence of actions you can do to resolve what is happening to the family member. All you can do is educate yourself (and just yourself, don't quote chapter and verse at them) and let them know that you love them and you are there to talk or to help out whenever they want it. Let them know regularly but make the offer soft, dont push them.

It is going to be a hard time for them, it is going to be a hard time for you too. So find someone you can talk to away from the relationship, someone you can vent to so you don't get too wound up inside.

Good luck to you.
posted by mogcat at 12:21 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just to offer an alternative perspective (though I do agree with above posters that your attitude comes across as something akin to 'Cheer Up'), depression affects all kinds of people, it is possible for your sibling to be an annoying, whiny loser who also happens to suffer from depression. The laziness and complaining may not be a symptom of their depression, that could just be the kind of person they are, we have no way of knowing that , did your sibling complain this often before the depression?

If you take the depression out of the equation, telling someone to 'just do something about it', is still rarely helpful. If they are telling you about a problem that is making them sad it is usually for 1 of 2 reasons, either they just want to vent and get a little sympathy or they want you to help them solve the problem. I would advise, next time your sibling complains about something that is making her sad, that you first begin by being there for her and giving sympathy etc then put the feelers out for suggesting ways in which you can help them solve the problem (if they felt they could do it on their own, they would do it) if you sense negativity just go back to being a sympathetic ear, sometimes people just don't want help and advice.
posted by missmagenta at 1:01 AM on April 3, 2009


While I understand that people get sad, especially when they fixate or focus on certain events (like a divorce, for instance) or their current circumstances (crappy boss, junky car, etc), I have always been of the opinion that if you don't like something, DO SOMETHING about it, don't just wallow in it.
Here's the thing - there is the kind of sadness you describe, which is in response to circumstances and which may well resolve when the circumstances abate. Depression is different (though it may arise out of situations such as those you describe) and is a physiological illness, and therefore does not necessarily respond to changes in circumstances.

You need to find some way of understanding this, in order to help your sibling. It is very difficult to do - I've seen my relationship nearly crumble under the weight of my depression (thankfully mine was directly linked to a drug which I no longer take, so I'm fine now), and am currently trying to keep in contact with a depressed friend who is in the hospital. But you must try. Good luck.
posted by altolinguistic at 1:18 AM on April 3, 2009


As someone who was or maybe still is depressed.. I can tell you what I'd really want is for someone to be cool fun and happy, doesn't shove it in my face, and simply is an example while somehow remaining visible.

The problem with depressed people is good people stay away from them. Which leaves a lot of negative people. Or, the good people remain but are affected which brings drama or unnatural responses. Best thing for a depressed person is to have a good person in their life who's simply there. Depressed people are like really scared cats. No matter what you do, they'll hiss and run into the closet. If you go 'kiittyyy, kitttyy.. damn, why does she always hiss?? F***k!! Just don't be scared, geez.. stupid cat'.. well the cat will freak out and never come out.

But if you just realize that it's the cat and not you, and go about your business.. and not become affected by the cat, but continue being there.. it could be weeks, months.. but at some point the cat will come out when you least expect it. You'll be watching tv and one night out of the blue she'll come up to you and let you pet her.. and you'll say.. whoa?? you finally came out! Awww..

That's the same with a depressed person. Just go about your business, be happy yourself, be an example, don't be patronizing, don't try too hard. Depressed people are tough.. believe me I know, I'm one of them ;)
posted by 0217174 at 1:41 AM on April 3, 2009 [7 favorites]


Living with a Black Dog: His Name Is Depression
posted by ursus_comiter at 2:08 AM on April 3, 2009


There's really nothing much you can do to make a depressed person suddenly cheer up. There are no words that you can say that will help. It would be excellent if there were. Pretty much all you can do, if you want to be helpful, is do the mundane things for them like wash the dishes or their clothes when you're over and not say a fucking word about it, and be gentle with them. Hopefully, it won't last forever.
posted by h00py at 4:19 AM on April 3, 2009


Don't tell a depressed person to "cheer up." We've already thought of that one.

There's really nothing much you can do to make a depressed person suddenly cheer up

Just to back up the poster who can't respond, s/he never used this quote or implied that his/her sibling should magically get over their depression. S/he was just expressing frustration with the fact that the sibling is unable to make seemingly obvious, straightforward tangible changes in their life. Fixing the problem of a junky car (the OP's example) is different than asking someone to 'cheer up', as lots of posters here have implied.

Of course, that's the problem with depression. The easy, ordinary actions that people take to fix simple problems become overwhelming and impossible. It can be tempting to think "listen, I know you're depressed, but that's no excuse not to get your car's oil changed", but that's backwards. The fact that getting the car's oil changed is such a herculean task to overcome is the very essence of the problem.

Like others have mentioned, your sibling could very well just need a non-judgmental ear to listen to their issues, without any need for taking action and getting concrete results.
posted by Adam_S at 5:50 AM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here's something positive you can do for you and your sibling...go out someplace and get them to walk with you. Exercise is extremely helpful for those with depression. Borrow a dog and hit a park.. go hiking someplace. If your sib wants to talk then just listen, but get them going in the fresh air.
posted by AuntieRuth at 6:09 AM on April 3, 2009


It's possible part of your sibling's therapy is learning to own his or her feelings by expressing them--so rather than just say "everything's fine", he or she is being encouraged by the therapist to tell the truth: "I'm sad. I'm a little angry right now. I'm depressed."

This was a definite step in my therapy, learning how to identify and express what I was actually feeling and sitting with bad feelings and working through them rather than ignoring them and hoping they'd go away eventually. Could you (non-judgmentally) mention this to your sib? Something like, "Hey, I noticed that you say you're sad a lot--are you learning how to express your emotions better? Is there anything I can do to help?"

You sound like a caring person, but I don't think you've ever dealt with chronic depression before personally. The fact that your sibling is functional, in treatment, holding down a job, etc. is all signs of major work and action, even if it's hard to tell from the outside. I've had times in my life where I would wholeheartedly congratulate myself for getting out of bed and putting clothes on. It might not have looked like much to the outside world, but it was a major accomplishment.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:26 AM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


When I was depressed I tried to hide it from the whole world - especially my family. I went through five months of fairly serious depression without anyone knowing, and when they did find out, it wasn't my choice. But as awful as I thought it would be for anyone to know, when they did, it lifted a huge burden off my shoulders. Please, try as hard as you can to be there for your sibling. It sounds like you really care about them and want to do whatever you can. I think the best thing to do is to educate yourself on what the experience of depression is really like, and to view this as an illness - and not just your sibling being their usual annoying self. That is how my older sister tended to view my illness, and it did not help.

Good news is within about six months I was functioning and within a few years I was back to normal and very happy again. While some people struggle with depression their whole lives, many beat it successfully. I believe the majority of people who survive suicide attempts are no longer depressed within five years. So there is the strong possibility of a happy future for your sibling - even if they find it impossible to believe right now.
posted by shaun uh at 6:49 AM on April 3, 2009


Seconding the NAMI course mentioned upthread. It made all the difference in learning to deal with my bipolar mother. If a course is not available in your area, at least contact them and ask if there's someone you can talk to.

Can you actually help her in specific situations? For example, can you offer to clean her car, or have it cleaned? Having a clean environment is really helpful when I'm depressed, but I'm often too overwhelmed to do it myself. It is NOT enabling, any more so than making dinner for someone who's on crutches.
posted by desjardins at 7:00 AM on April 3, 2009


Freud is quoted as saying that his aim was to transform "hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness". Though he may have been half joking, at least, finding a way out of depression can meaning learning to accept sadness as an everyday emotion, something we can learn to live with, choosing the acceptance of emotion over the great weight of depression that crushes everything underneath it. Certainly in my own journey out of depression feeling sadness was a milestone that enabled me to leave it behind eventually. It was an odd experience but sometimes it felt like there was something to mourn in the loss of the black and white certainties of depression. The embrace of everyday unhappiness was an important lesson in learning to experience emotions on an even keel—a lesson that eventually lead to a kind of everyday happiness too.

I can't speak for your siblings experience but you at least consider the possibility that experiencing sadness might just be, in part at least, a way out depression. In any case trying to treat it with a non-judgmental attitude towards what they are feeling is probably the best thing you can do.
posted by tallus at 7:46 AM on April 3, 2009


I, too, struggle with frustration at inaction. When I was a teenager, I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder. I dropped out of school, I left the house incredibly rarely, I was on antidepressants and psychotics, I didn't think I'd ever be able to hold down a job or finish high school or be a normal person. I was a horrible person who hated myself and was utterly incapable of accomplishing anything without fucking it up.

Then I got shipped off to reform school by the school district, where I was suddenly hundred of miles from my family, crammed into a boarding house with twenty other girls, no privacy, forced into school, and forced to function. And you know what? I GOT THE FUCK OVER MYSELF AND DID FINE. There was a lot of crying and self-pity but I ended up a normal high school graduate, and I'm a total extrovert now, and though I don't doubt that I once had an anxiety problem and I don't doubt that it's a serious lifelong problem for other people I doubt any psychiatrist would suggest I have anything resembling SAD today.

Ok, now, I know this doesn't apply to everyone. However, I have the feeling, looking back now, that I was being a total pussy. I wasn't some flawed tragic figure incapable of dealing with humanity and functioning normally. I just needed to learn the coping mechanisms for dealing with failure, slights, crowds, nervousness, anxiety, etc, so I could deal with them in a healthy constructive way. I was letting my belief that was I was unable to do things prevent me from doing them (ex: going to school) when in reality I just needed to buck the fuck up and deal with it like an adult.

I know not everyone's capable of doing what I did, and I know I had a huge amount of help (reform school is like some bizarre hybrid of a mental hospital and summer camp; 20 hours of group, addiction, and individual therapy a week for 6 months ain't nothing to scoff at). However, I know that after doing what I did I have less patience than I should for people who, seemingly, aren't getting the fuck over themselves. You hate your life? CHANGE IT. You "can't" do something? I seriously doubt it. I'm a big proponent of making the life for yourself that you want to live, and have a callous shred of sympathy for people who aren't doing anything for themselves.

Ok, that being said, I know I'm a total asshole, and I've deeply hurt at least one person with this attitude. I just couldn't deal with the constant whine-a-thon anymore. I could offer suggestions until I was blue in the face and nothing ever changed and nothing ever helped and eventually I said "I CAN'T BE YOUR THERAPIST ANYMORE, NOTHING I SAY IS EVER GOING TO HELP, I'VE HEARD THE "I HATE MYSELF AND MY LIFE BOO HOO" SPEECH TEN THOUSAND TIMES. IF YOU WANT SOMEONE TO TALK TO, SEE A REAL THERAPIST, BECAUSE I'M DONE."

Yes, like I said, I'm a total asshole.

Where was my point? Oh yeah. You're not alone, you're not a horrible person, it's pretty normal to be frustrated. I'm at least one person in this thread who doesn't think you're being a jerk, and you're doing a much better job of saying these things to AskMefi than saying them to your Sib's face. I think you can learn from my terrible example. Your sibling is, in fact, taking action, and doing things that I am sure they thought themselves once incapable of. You don't have the choice of cutting them out of your life; they're family. A few things might help, though.

Realize that you have no control or responsibility for their happiness. A lot of the NOTHING I SAY IS HELPING frustration is easier to take when you realize there's absolutely nothing you can do to force them into getting them better. They have to help themselves, and it's slow going. Learn to be patient, because you really can't force it. Not just for their own good; it's just impossible.

If you really can't take the "I'm sad" talk, tell them. Not as jerkishly as I did. I know there's this whole "all you can do is be there for them and listen!" attitude toward supporting loved ones going through hard times, but sometimes you've heard about the same problems overandoverandoverandover and you're getting frustrated by the fact that, hey, if I can help them by just listening, why hasn't listening to them bitch and moan for months on end helped yet? They have a right to feel like they do, but you also have the right to change the subject every once in a while if you feel like hearing the word "sad" one more time is going to make you blow up.

(Again, so I don't become the resident asshole of Ask Mefi, I realize that how I feel is insensitive. I just wanted to let the OP know they're not alone.)
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:01 AM on April 3, 2009


1) Realize that she's not your problem to fix (even if she indicates otherwise)
2) Keep yourself healthy and detached from her "problems"
3) When you're up for it, call her up, send her an email, or best yet, take her out for a walk
4) Bonus help: if you're really feeling generous, and have some energy to spare, it's helped me to have someone work with me on basic life maintenance. Go to the laundromat with her. Help her organize her desk or pay her bills. Help her do the dishes. Even just having someone there can drag me up to the level of performance. When it's just me, every little decision is too complicated. You wouldn't believe what small things get Just.Too.Hard when you're depressed.

But, again, speaking for myself, the best thing is to pop by once in a while, and be a healthy, cheerful person without putting any obligation on her to be the same.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:30 AM on April 3, 2009


To disagree with quite a few here:

Depression is not a license to being down those around you. You are surrounded every day by people suffering from varying degrees of depression, but you aren't aware of it because they don't walk around saying "I'm sad" or "I'm depressed." Depression dictates feelings, but not behavior and certainly not speech.

My experience with my own depression and that of several others is that truly depressed people tend to suffer in silence. Those who knew me when I was depressed and know me now wouldn't see any outward difference, and most have no idea that I used to have a serious problem. If anything, I came across then as a more outgoing, happier person, because -- not being an a-hole -- I didn't want my feelings to affect the people I cared about.

OP's sibling is a drama queen, desperately seeking attention in the most pathetic way possible. My advice, next time this person says "I'm sad," is to simply say, "I'm here for you any time you want to have a real conversation, and you have my absolute support in overcoming your illness. But your whining communicates nothing, and only accomplishes bringing down others. Grow up."
posted by coolguymichael at 12:07 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


OP's sibling is a drama queen, desperately seeking attention in the most pathetic way possible.

Absolutely nothing in the OP's account supports this conclusion. The only thing that the OP has concretely related about the sibling's behavior is that they say "I'm sad" with some frequency. And as others have pointed out, actually being able to articulate one's feelings is a significant PART of therapy for a lot of people. I battled depression for 20 years, and grew up in a household where expressing negative feelings was essentially verboten: we were supposed to be happy, and we were supposed to fake it if we weren't.

Being able to simply say "I'm sad," "I'm worried," "I'm angry" was therefore a radical and life-changing step for me -- which I couldn't even undertake until my late 20s or early 30s! -- that actually put me on the path to getting better. (Of course, that didn't stop some of my family from getting pissed off with me for doing so, either; I was upsetting one of the central apple carts of our family dynamics, which was threatening to them. Well, too bad: they coped.) It was the path of understanding that sadness or anger weren't unbearable -- that I could recognize them, feel them, and then allow them them pass. It was the path of understanding that my being worthwhile and loved was not contingent on wearing The Happy Mask all the time. It was the path of learning actual self-care and self-compassion for the first time in my life, which I hope has opened my heart to being able to be at least a little more compassionate and caring for those around me.

Indeed, saying "I'm sad" is precisely what set me on the path of growing up, as you rather smugly exhort. Because grown-ups acknowledge the full range of human emotion not as a weakness, but as a strength.

Obviously, YMMV.
posted by scody at 12:23 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


coolguymichael, please remember that your experience with depression is not all experiences with depression.

I agree with a lot of what responders here have had to say. They've provided good links, good anecdotes, and some good context for what the OP is asking about. When it comes to depression, just like with everything else, there is a variety of human experience and human needs. It sounds like the OP's sibling is making good progress, but the OP doesn't have a good grasp on just how hard won that progress may be, that things don't change overnight, and it's okay to state that one is dissatisfied with one's life, even when one doesn't have the means (emotional, financial, etc.) to enact change.

I have chronic Major Depressive Disorder. For me, and for the people closest to me, battling my depression will probably be a life long ordeal. One of the hardest things for me to do when the depression is really hitting hard is to GET UP and DO SOMETHING. This is my experience, and I think it's a common one for those who are clinically depressed. But at least if the OP's sibling is able to state their dissatisfaction, they are one step closer to being able to create change around it. Being able to put it out there is a part of the process.

I wish I had better advice for the OP in specific, but I think that the NAMI course and doing some reading on how to support a loved one (and yourself) when they are depressed is the best place to start.
posted by dryad at 1:49 PM on April 3, 2009


My experience with my own depression and that of several others is that truly depressed people tend to suffer in silence.

So, acting depressed indicates that one is not "truly" depressed? I'm glad that you've had the wherewithal to restrain yourself from expressing your depression outwardly. But you're mistaken that people who do act depressed are attention-seeking "a-holes" who don't care about their loved ones. Depression certainly does affect behavior - it distorts one's perception of the world and oneself into grotesque caricatures, and even when you know this, the distortion is so compelling and convincing that sometimes you still forget that it isn't real. And you act accordingly. And it's not like you're blind to it, either. You know exactly what you're doing to the people you love, the effect you're having on them - and it makes you hate yourself all the more. You're the worst person alive, your existence is a burden, and everyone would be happier if you weren't around anymore...

David Foster Wallace wrote a short story called "The Depressed Person" - reprinted here (pdf file). I'm baffled that many found it "hilarious." To me, it was chilling - it depicted exactly how I view myself when I'm depressed - the behavior, the clueless self-absorption, and most of all the bitter, even spiteful way it's described. I read it after I'd learned of DFW's suicide. I believe he was writing about himself.

So, OP, I would keep in mind the possibility that your sibling is not only aware of the the effect he/she is having on you, but is picking up on your exasperation and beating him/herself up over it. But it's not so easy to stop. It's the nature of the disease. I think the best way to deal with a depressed loved one is to remain present, remind them of your love, but set psychological boundaries and personal boundaries so that their behavior does not affect you so strongly and you don't end up doing things you don't want to do out of a sense of obligation or guilt. One of the lies told by depression is that everybody hates you, and when it's obvious that someone's just listening to you or interacting with you out of guilt (and it's probably pretty obvious), it's just more fodder for self-abuse.

But I don't agree with those above who say you're being selfish. Your reaction is totally understandable. Depressed people, especially depressed people you love, are frustrating as all fine fuck. It sounds strange, but maybe the best approach is to not take it so seriously. You can't fix your sibling, so don't try. Just be there in the meantime - a reminder of world outside the black cloud.
posted by granted at 2:00 PM on April 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think he hit a point though.. people who act out depression have already a foot ahead of those who suffer in silence, cause they put it out there that they are depressed.. so the cycle of disclosure/humiliation/redemption has begun..

whereas the person suffering in silence is passively watching with the world unaware that they, too, really want to take part in that cycle...

But they have a secondary condition which is a form of shyness.. shy to disclose the fact that they are depressed.
posted by 0217174 at 2:48 PM on April 3, 2009


If your siblings negativity bothers you step back from it, I have a sibling who is in a similar situation and as a result I have limited my contact with them. I do this because I find they bring me down, but also because I cannot be tolerant and patient for long. You're sibling is trying to get better and that is admirable, so do what is best for them and yourself and take yourself out of the situation if you cannot be positive around them.
posted by lilyflower at 3:31 PM on April 3, 2009


So, acting depressed indicates that one is not "truly" depressed?

No, walking around saying you're depressed in a contra-indicator, because it's relatively uncommon in seriously depressed people. It's true that there's no reason sib can't both depressed and a drama queen, but depressed people tend to have more significant priorities than playing for their family's sympathy. Had OP written that s/he feared the sibling was depressed and wanted advice on how to broach the subject, I'd be more compassionate.

Either way, the solution is the same: Be supportive, but not a doormat (which is how OP seems to be feeling).

coolguymichael, please remember that your experience with depression is not all experiences with depression.

I'm well aware -- merely suggesting a flip side to the group opinion.
posted by coolguymichael at 6:22 PM on April 3, 2009


There's a lot of useful information in this thread.

One of the defining characteristics of depression is irritability. Knowing that it's a symptom of the depression may help you deal with it.

To turn your advice back at you, do something. Recognize that your sibling has taken action, and praise and support them. Since you are a Just Do It kind of person, try saying to sib, "You know I'm here for you, and I'm so happy that you're getting the help you need, but talking about it isn't my strong suit. Any chance I could take you to the newest comedy movie/comedy club/walk/etc? " Depression can be exhausting. Sometimes going to a movie is a nice respite. Just not a depressing movie. Exercise and sunshine are good for depression, so going for a walk is really therapeutic.
posted by theora55 at 8:27 PM on April 4, 2009


Exercise and sunshine are good for depression, so going for a walk is really therapeutic.

Yes, it is, and we know that it is, and still can't do it. To show the extent, I have actually replied, when a person will try to get me to do activities by saying "It will be fun!", "I don't like fun."

That doesn't quite scan, does it? However: it makes perfect sense when you're clinically depressed.

"You know I'm here for you, and I'm so happy that you're getting the help you need, but talking about it isn't my strong suit. Any chance I could take you to the newest comedy movie/comedy club/walk/etc?"

I think this needs a little work -- the "any chance" bit allows an easy "no", and presents the sufferer with something he or she is certain will be absolute torture. But if you have a good relationship, as it sounds like you do, say "I could really use some company at a movie; I don't want to go alone. Would you please come with me?" I know these are fine distinctions and sound like pointless word/mind games, but it really does make a difference. In my experience (with myself and others) depressed people are able and willing to do favors -- maybe it's "My life's gonna suck no matter what, I might as well help this other person feel better." This is why some professionals (sorry, no citations at hand) suggest saying something like "We can talk about this tomorrow, or find you someone to talk to tomorrow, but I need you to do me a favor and not hurt yourself before then."

YMMV, of course. But I think it's good advice nonetheless.
posted by quarantine at 7:25 PM on April 5, 2009


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