I need to explain depression to people with no working understanding of it
January 13, 2012 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Help me explain depression to my well meaning (I think) but clueless friends and family. Looking for an article or a blog that I can direct them to.

I don't self harm, and I'm not out of the woods yet on this episode.

Visited family for Christmas and my mom person spent most of the visit alternating between telling me I'm too pretty and smart to be depressed and telling me she's faced this same decision and she chose not to be depressed.

She asked if I'd considered a residential treatment facility, which was awkward because she's very republican. I told her I've explored the idea and asked how much she thought programs like that cost. Then I cried. Now she's really insulted that I'm not answering her calls. I'm still angry about being told this disease (I've struggled with it since grammar school. I'm 30 now) is my fault. So in addition to being sad and tearful, I'm trying to live by 'if you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing.'

I'm on medication, in therapy.

Her husband has just recieved a major health diagnosis, so all of my health analogies feel mean. Her biological daughter is baffled. My friends, well. They just worry that I'm not calling them back.
posted by tulip-socks to Human Relations (25 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Do they have a sense of humor? Because this Hyperbole and a Half post is a pretty accurate depiction of depression. (I know some people say her description of "coming out of it" is a bit too manic, but the depression bits are dead on, at least for me.)

Also, text messaging is your best friend when you don't feel like picking up the phone. Just a quick "Hey, mom. I'm doing ok! Thinking about you" goes a long way.
posted by functionequalsform at 6:22 AM on January 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

Her husband has just recieved a major health diagnosis, so all of my health analogies feel mean.

Actually, I think this is the perfect excuse TO use a health analogy. You wouldn't be mean-spirited about it, I'm sure; but (I'll say her husband has diabetes just for an example) saying something like, "your husband having diabetes is a sign that something in his pancreas just plain isn't working right. Well -- the brain has chemicals in it too, and they can get out of wack too, and THAT'S what causes depression. Telling me 'you're too pretty to be depressed' would kind of be like me telling your husband 'you're too young to have diabetes' or something like that."

She's learning a lot about her husband's illness right now -- it's in the forefront of her mind. Maybe that's the perfect chance to use her new focus on "bodies - how do they work?" as a way to help her understand that "the brain is part of the body too, you know."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:22 AM on January 13, 2012 [18 favorites]

To the suggestion for Hyperbole and a Half, I'd also point to Depression Comix.
posted by straw at 6:30 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The hyperbole and a half cartoon is the worst for me, because the time compression makes it look very brief (and maybe compared to mine hers was brief) and then she just snaps out of it. Not only is this not the case for me, it's the most damaging thing my family expresses.

That I need to just decide I'm done being depressed and only then will everything improve.

(mom did say that sometimes she thinks a husband and a couple of kids would fix me right up)
posted by tulip-socks at 6:31 AM on January 13, 2012

I got this video link from another AskMefi question: Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky's lecture on depression.

It may at least help her see that you are not just making excuses or feeling sorry for yourself, or whatever it is that she thinks depressed people are doing. Good luck. For some reason, this disorder seems to be very difficult to understand or empathize with, for people who have not experienced it.
posted by thelonius at 6:32 AM on January 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

This post, The Spoon Theory, is about lupus but I think it works well for people who have a really hard time getting inside the head of someone living with something chronic [or even "not really responding to treatment at the moment"]. Limited abilities, an awful lot of strength marshalling, and using up your available energies just doing things like getting out of bed so you don't have time to do "extra" things like talk to annoying people on the phone.

Your mom seems to have some inability to understand that it's not about her and I'm sorry for that for you because that just makes it tougher to do the things you need to do to get healthy. It's not your fault. It's okay to not engage.
posted by jessamyn at 7:03 AM on January 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

I understand that you probably don't want to deal with her directly right now, but it's very important to draw a distinction between being colloquially "depressed", and Clinical Depression with capital letters and chemical imbalances.

Lots of people get the blues and lots of people get sad. Lots of people can stop feeling sad of their own accord. Because of the imprecision of language, they often conflate nthis "feeling sad" with "being Depressed". People who are depressed face a persistent assault on their mental well-being. It's not the kind of thing you just snap out of, because your brain is incapable of grasping the concept that something better exists, that you deserve to feel happy. Your brain is lying to you. So trying to "think" yourself out of the dilemma seems...unproductive, at best.

There's nothing insensitive or mean about drawing medical analogies, because that's what you have: a medical condition. Furthermore, it's a medical condition that she does not have, and does not have to deal with. She wouldn't tell her husband to snap out of it and just eat better because that's what works for her; she wouldn't tell someone with agoraphobia that she's never had any issues with going outside; for her to say that she can "decide to just not be sad, so why can't you?" is no less insensitive.

At the very least, if she can't empathize with you in a way that's productive to you, you need to tell her to stay out of your way.
posted by Phire at 7:05 AM on January 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Chapter 1 of Undoing Depression is my go-to for this. Some sections of that chapter (though not all) are available on preview in Google Books. You might find the rest of the book helpful as well.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:07 AM on January 13, 2012

Note: it doesn't matter if she's faced the same sorts of decisions or situations. She is not you. Her brain is not your brain. Everyone's brains works differently. If they didn't, there would be no alternative interpretation of facts, ever.
posted by Phire at 7:07 AM on January 13, 2012

(mom did say that sometimes she thinks a husband and a couple of kids would fix me right up)

Ugh. Getting married and especially having kids will exacerbate the problem one-hundred times or more. I point this out because if this is your mom's cure, then it shows you the type of person you are dealing with: sorry, but I don't think she is ever going to "get it", so approach her with that in mind.

I used to deal with situation depression, so I just changed things and chose not to be depressed, but I understand there is a difference and I am sensitive to that. You mom, though, does not understand this difference, so, again, she isn't going to ever get it, so approach her with that in mind.
posted by TinWhistle at 7:32 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've just read this and it was very good on what depression feels like, and it's from a major UK political figure, so has some depth and gravitas to it.

Alastair Campbell - The Happy Depressive http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B006OM79MU/ref=docs-os-doi_0

as well as explaining what depression is like and how it affects your life (including communication) it has some good points on how to bring yourself (even temporarily) out of it in order to have a happier life, while acknowledging that it doesn't snap you right out of it.

It's an extended essay and very good.
posted by LyzzyBee at 7:42 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I bet your therapist would have some good suggestions if you ask.
posted by bananafish at 7:44 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd just make this a topic not up for discussion. I wouldn't try to convince them that they're wrong (which they are) because sometimes the energy that goes into trying to get them to shift their world view isn't worth it. Even if you were able to make them see the way the truth and the light you're still going to have them telling you you're doing it all wrong.
posted by squeak at 7:45 AM on January 13, 2012

When I come across people like this (for whom depression = feeling down in the dumps temporarily) I actually stop using the work depression and use "mental illness" as a label instead. My personal experience with depression has been that the people you allow into your life have a huge impact on your illness and your own perception of it. All of the self-loathing, shame and guilt that is part of depression is amplified by having someone who loves you tell you to "snap out of it" or give inspirational pep-talks about how your life isn't that bad and they bounced back from worse. Choose well who you confide in and spend time with. Also, in my experience, parents are the worse people to turn to for help with depression because they may turn their own guilt over "causing" your depression or being bad parents into an attack on you/the validity of your illness.
posted by saucysault at 8:11 AM on January 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't know that articles would help. I have been where you have.

Just tell them you have a chemical imbalance, and if they keep responding the way they have just ask them where they got THEIR MD degree, that it is a medical problem, and that you plan to listen to your DOCTOR regarding your MEDICAL DIAGNOSIS.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:42 AM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

The above suggestions are great, but I will also say this: depression specifically targets your ability to connect with other people and let them connect with you. It makes every effort that someone else makes to help just feel wrong and off and insensitive, and it makes you feel like you can't get through to other people. It is a disease of isolation. It tells you to stop talking to people who are well-meaning but not useful. In addition to helping your family understand what's going on medically, you might also see if there are any places where you can take in their love and genuine desire for you to feel better, and not get caught in the parts where they don't know how to do that very well. I say this not because they deserve some sort of benefit of the doubt (because I have no idea if they do!) but because it might leave you feeling less wounded.
posted by judith at 10:37 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The problem isn't that she doesn't understand mental illness. It's that she doesn't understand mental illness, but is absolutely convinced that she does.

This isn't just a case of accepting new information; first, she has to throw out a lifetime's worth of prejudices and assumptions, admit that she's hurt you, and then learn the truth about mental illness from the ground up.

You know her better than anyone here. Does that sound like something she's likely to do?
posted by Zozo at 10:40 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to nth EmpressCallipygos - this is exactly the way my doctor described it to me when he diagnosed my first bout of depression - "This is an illness; if you came in here with a broken leg we'd treat it and we can treat this just as well". So do you think she might be more receptive to hearing (or seeing) something from a doctor?

In any case, if her husband has been diagnosed with a major health issue or chronic medical condition, your mom might find that his doctors actually raise the issue themselves somewhere down the line - my depression was sparked off by a diabetes diagnosis, for example, and there's something of a recognised link between such diagnoses and clinical depression.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 11:11 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it is what you want, but many people seem to feel that this comic 'gets' it: depressioncomix.tumblr.com
posted by namesarehard at 11:40 AM on January 13, 2012

I really liked Styron's description of depression in Darkness Visible. There are some conclusions I disagree with and he was well off enough to be able to stay in a nice residential facility when he needed to, but the way depression is presented in the book works. He's a fantastic writer. The book was borne out of this article in Vanity Fair. It's from 1989 and understanding has come some way since then (as have medications), but his descriptions still strike home.
posted by Hactar at 12:07 PM on January 13, 2012

Zozo nails it: "This isn't just a case of accepting new information; first, she has to throw out a lifetime's worth of prejudices and assumptions, admit that she's hurt you, and then learn the truth about mental illness from the ground up."

Here's what I had to hear from my mom:

"get out and meet people, get involved in life" ... "you don't have it as bad as you think, there are people who are much worse off than you and have good reason to feel bad" ... "if you'd just stop thinking and talking about negative things all the time, you'd feel better" ... "suck it up, everyone feels down sometimes, but they get over it, you need to get over it too" ... "you aren't depressed, you have no idea what depression really is" ... "think happy thoughts and you'll be happy" ... "I was depressed once, and I got over it" ... and on and on.

My mom is caring, and will do anything for her children. She is not vindictive, cruel, abusive, or would intentionally hurt one of her kids. Her children are her treasure, something she deeply values and guards fiercely. In any other circumstance, she is a rock and a wonderful ally. But she doesn't get mental illness in general, or my depression in particular.

I finally got help (medication and therapy), and all that did besides make me better was reinforce in her mind the rightness of her "help" and advice -- because hey, I did start getting out, meeting people, thinking happy thoughts, etc.

I tried to explain my improvement was because of the medication, and I was quickly told that I shouldn't need a "crutch" or waste my money or risk my body on things that I didn't need.

I've had to hear such talk for years. YEARS. It has been 25 years after the first onset of symptoms, 15 years after my official diagnosis where I finally sought help.

After the Hyperbole and a Half cartoon came out, I posted it to facebook and mentioned that it was a good example of what Depression (with a capital D, mind) was like. My mom saw it, and proceeded to tell me all over again that various things above, and how I wasn't depressed. See, in her mind, she was helping me.

I told her yet again that depression is an illness, a true sickness of body and mind, that requires treatment to get better. And like a terrible virus, it requires constant vigilance and focus on health to keep it at bay. She listened, she offered support, cried with me, and continued to be the loving and helpful mother she has always been.

I say all this because she STILL DOESN'T GET IT. She never will.

My mom loves me, she cares about me, she wants what is best for me, but she will NEVER understand my depression history or how fragile my current mental stability truly is.

There are people -- friends, family, even strangers -- who will get your depression and will be vital to your well-being and recovery, keeping you sane, and helping you through the most trying part of depression.

It's heartbreaking to know my mom will never understand this aspect of me, and she, thinking she is helping, will undermine my recovery when I need her understanding the most. There is nothing I could say, no book or article or other information I could give her that will ever change her mind when it comes to this topic. I have learned to embrace her willful ignorance and avoid all discussion of it with her.

At least I have others (including my brother, who does get it). I just cannot ever discuss my mental illness with my mom.

I hope your situation gets better, but in case it doesn't, know that you aren't the only one. Feel free to memail me if you want support.
posted by southpaw at 1:10 PM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ask her why her husband is still sick if he has a wife and (step-?) kids.
posted by anildash at 1:39 PM on January 13, 2012

I can't (read: won't) comment on what to say to your mother -- my mother USED to do the same to me and one day just snapped out of it and has been nothing but supportive since, none of which hinged on something I'd said or shown to her.

However, I wonder if some of the posts over at Dooce might help? Thing is, people either love or hate Heather (I admittedly vary between both) but her writing on depression, how there's no reason and yet, this feeling is still there, and how that affects EVERYONE, yes I know, has always helped me to guilt myself less about being so sad about seemingly nothing.

I don't know if it would help or even if there's a depression category over there on her mommy-blog, but it might help to explain it to others for you. Or at least convince them that you're not the only who refuses to get out of bed with a smile every day :).

Good luck to you. I hope that the veil lifts soon and all is well...
posted by youandiandaflame at 4:16 PM on January 13, 2012

Response by poster: So. In follow up, I sent a link to the Sapolsky video, along with a suggestion of something that would help me. The response?

Paraphrased: I understand the biology of depression. You are focusing on something incredibly petty and I obviously didn't mean to hurt your feelings when I said you were too pretty to be depressed. If someone obviously means to hurt you, then say something about it. But if they love you, be quiet.

So. It seems like this problem is worse than I thought. I told the two closest to me that we'll stick to the weather because I'm tired of how dismissive and judgemental they are of my problem. They responded that they just wish I'd work as hard on my overdue schoolwork as I do on researching depression.

I didn't have the energy to tell them that I asked for help in getting them to understand what's going on.
posted by tulip-socks at 1:26 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh. I had sent her a link to depressioncomix when it was first posted here. Her response to that was:

That's depressing.

So we didn't talk about it for a month. The Sapolsky lecture was my attempt at trying again the other day. So, I give up. It's not my job to make her understand this. And anyway, I've got bigger shit to deal with.
posted by tulip-socks at 1:29 PM on February 12, 2012

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