I'm Okay, You're a Wreck.
December 13, 2012 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Coworker/friend/mentor really, really depressed... and with good reason. Can/should I help? How? Wall o' sadness inside.

The background: for a number of years, I've worked closely with a guy I'll call "Calvin". He's been an important mentor to me - he's patiently taught me the majority of the skills I use in this gig. He's also a great guy in general - generous, loyal, smart, funny, etc. While there's never been anything even remotely romantic between us (and we've never socialized outside of work), we're de facto "work spouses" - we've got each other's backs, we go to lunch occasionally, we buy each other holiday gifts.

The problem: Calvin's been seriously depressed for... I don't know. Possibly forever. While he's indicated that it's actual-factual clinical depression (he's not on meds or in therapy now, but has been in the past), there are a number of factors which probably make it worse. He lives alone, sans even a goldfish. He doesn't date (he's bald, short, chubby, not terribly attractive, kinda self-conscious). He doesn't travel. He doesn't have hobbies. His social life is minimal (occasional dinner dates with friends' families). His house is, per his own admission, a disaster area. His life consists of working, then going home and staring at glowing screens. Every. Single. Day.

Basically, he's pushing fifty with a life that just... hasn't come together. And while I know this makes him really, really sad (he's said so, repeatedly), I don't think he sees any way out. Friends and coworkers have prodded him to do various things to improve his life, but he's never really embraced any of their suggestions.

I know that this is Not My Problem. I also know that I can't make someone else change their life for the better. I ALSO know that delving into coworkers' personal issues is unwise at best (although on reflection, I'd consider him more of a friend-friend than a work-friend) However, it kinda breaks my heart to hear Calvin mention how unhappy he is with his life (always in passing - he doesn't whine/overshare), especially because I can't even come up with any consoling words - his life DOES sound crushingly depressing! He once harbored dreams of having a wife and family, but like everything else in his life, it seems like the ship has sailed on THAT one, too.

My question: IS there anything I can do for this guy, and if so, what is it? Just listen and say "there, there"? Encourage him? Leave a brochure for mail-order brides on his desk (kidding, kidding)?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think sometimes people can't see their own way out of a place there in because they either cannot or won't leave that place. He needs to shake things up, but he can't do that for the same reasons he got in it to begin with.

You can encourage him to go out and do things. Maybe take a class (I found a lot of fun and socialization in improv classes) and get out there and meet people. But it's up to him to actually decide to do it.
posted by inturnaround at 12:33 PM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Quite honestly, it sounds like you're doing quite a lot to help him already. You're his friend, you go to lunch with him, you respect and like him. I suspect he doesn't have a lot of folks like that in his life.

If you don't think it'd get weird if you did so, why not invite him to things where you and your friends get together, so maybe he could expand his social circle a little bit? Shy people tend to crave wanting to be invited places (at least this shy guy does!), so that might be a kindness you can extend to him.
posted by xingcat at 12:36 PM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, these folks are frustrating. They've tried nothing and they're all out of ideas.

I'm a fixer. I can cut to the chase and tell you exactly what you need to do to get things back on track. But unless you ask for my help, I'm not going to say anything.

The only thing I can think of is to approach him with a buddy proposition.

"Hey Cal. I've been thinking about my resolutions for the new year and I was thinking that perhaps we can do ours together and then support each other in them. What do you think?"

Then you can guide him to some things that would make an impact on his life.

1. Try internet dating.
2. Hire a maid and an organizer

Stuff like that.

Other than that you can say, "Cal, I think of you as a friend, and it pains me to see you this way. Is there anything I can do to help you?"

That's it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:37 PM on December 13, 2012 [10 favorites]

All I know is that every person who feels totally stuck in life that has ever tried a large fitness challenge has had it pay off in huge ways. Not a wimpy challenge, but more like a Body For Life Challenge. Commit 3-12 months to rebuilding your body from the ground up. Perhaps get him a personal trainer certificate?
posted by tatiana131 at 12:41 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

really depressed... and with good reason

Alternatively, he's in the place he is right now because he's depressed. Not that it doesn't become self-reinforcing, but the brain-side of things is often more powerful than the situation-side, not least because it stops you feeling remotely capable of changing your situation.

If he's clinically depressed, then getting him out of the house won't (by itself) help. The brain bugs are still there.
posted by BungaDunga at 1:06 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you're already being a good friend to him without needing to do more.

If he asks specifically "what can I do, I hate my life," you might suggest some things, like checking out local activity/hobby clubs. If he doesn't ask, leave things as they are.
posted by Currer Belfry at 1:07 PM on December 13, 2012

A lot really depends on what you're willing to invest without the possibility of a response.

I specify "without the possibility of a response" because often when we try to help others change, we're often more invested in their changing than they are, and then resentment can built up because we're doing all this work and they are basically doing nothing and shooting holes in our suggestions. It's very important that he want to do things; you're his friend, not his taskmaster or drill sargent.

That being said, there are some low-investment ways you can help him clarify if he wants to, and support him if he choses changes he wants to make, but I would highly recommend keeping a close eye on your resentment level (however you do that) and ensure you never resent him for what you're chosing to do to try to help; remember it is your choice because you like him, and you can chose to stop if the cost/benefit analysis changes.

1) Suggest he check in with a psychiatrist and a therapist both, and offer to go with him if he's having difficulty motivating himself. I don't know how recent his depression diagnosises were, but there have been some changes in therapies for depression, so he might find something which helps him more. Focusing on finding a psychiatrist and a therapist with whom he can be honest and feels comfortable is important, so some shopping around may be necessary. If they have a depression support group and he wants to go, yahtzee.

2) Suggest the two of you do some sort of physical activity together. The easiest, since you work together, is to make a half hour walking date on your lunch hour (or mid-afternoon, during the 2PM drowsies). I'd recommend this for a few reasons: 1) it's a shared activity, so you're inherently getting something out of it, minimizes resentment; 2) exercise is a proven treatment for depression, but since one of the major symptoms of depression is avolition (the inability to motivate yourself at a pathological level) it is difficult for people with depression to self-motivate; 3) natural light during the day triggers melonin creation which can have a positive effect on mood (maybe, more studies need to be done) and help regulate sleep (another major symptom of depression is sleep instabilities).

3) Suggest the two of you take a class or do an activity in the evening together, something you'll both enjoy. Again, focus is on minimizing your resentment and maximizing both of your enjoyment while expanding both of your social circles. Eventually, it would be great if he took classes and did activities alone, but starting out that's a lot to expect.

4) Suggest some sort of motivational or organizational support person (life coach, etc...). This is a growing field where there is a mix of practical advice, practical help in purchasing and organizing, and a recognition of the frequent psychological states being expressed via home maintenance. Neglect of the home can be a symptom of neglect of the self, and often to achieve lasting change one needs to address both aspects at once. Like with a therapist, finding someone he is comfortable with and who he feels motivated by is important, so some shopping around might be in order. That can be scary, so your support could be offering to meet prospective helpers with him.

Finally, I'd say an important thing to keep in mind is that you neither can nor want to "fix" him. You want to do fun things with him and hopes he'll enjoy them too, which might make him feel better, but you're not the "healthy" person helping the "unhealthy" him. The reason I emphasize this is that people rarely enjoy feeling like their friends' charity case, but we often like doing fun things with people who like us.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:15 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

His house is, per his own admission, a disaster area.

Left field suggestion: Next time he talks about his messy house being a drag, I'd tell him about Unfuck Your Habitat and how awesome it is. Because it's a tumblr, it will meet him right where he is (in front of a glowing screen; there's even an iOS app), and it has a lot of advice for people with depression and other limitations. The magic of it, though, is that something about how it encourages incremental positive change is awesomely transferable to other things you want to accomplish. I don't even have a tumblr account and reading this thing every few days is my secret weapon.
posted by clavicle at 2:31 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think I might know this guy Calvin. :P Anyway, I am in the exact same situation with a friend. His life is sad at best. Not trying to be mean, just being honest. I have tried to support and encourage him for quite some time but to no avail. What I have concluded is that he takes some sort of pleasure in "sitting in his dirty diaper". Continuing with this metaphor, it takes less effort for him to sit in his shit than to change the fucking thing. As you can imagine, a dirty diaper over a period of time results in rashes and blisters and unpleasant shit like that. But again, having a clean diaper requires desire and effort. Two traits that I wish my friend had more of.

I have had clinical depression all my life too. I know from personal experience that my attitude about life (and behavior) didn't change until I was (a) ready for something to shift in my life and (b) willing to do the work required to make the change. Not a moment sooner.

For me, I have had to learn to accept my friend and his situation exactly as it is. I can express my concern and make suggestions that might be helpful, but then I have to let go of him and his problems. My friend will change IF and WHEN he is ready and willing to change.

My apologies for sounding so harsh. It's just that these kind of situations, IME, can really be draining. Take good care of yourself. Good luck. :)
posted by strelitzia at 2:33 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

I may have been someone's Calvin in the past. I really needed a helping hand. If you are getting him a Christmas present, how about a personal trainer/personal organizer/plane ticket to somewhere awesome (not sure your budget). Take up a collection at the office?
posted by 3491again at 5:42 PM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do not take up a collection at the office. Your friend is not a charity. If you want to give him a gift to get him started, that's on you.

I was in Calvin's shoes five years ago (although I am younger and female). I was depressed, overweight, and lonely. I Eeyored around work and lamented at my sad state. Five years later: I'm in a better state mentally, I've lost 30 pounds, and I have a lovely partner. How did I change?

First, I was the one who wanted to change, but I didn't know what to do or how to get started. I was clueless. My best friend at work would listen to my sob story (briefly) and then ask, "what are you going to do about it?" If I said I didn't know or there was nothing I could do, he would call me on my bullshit. Then, we would have a brief brainstorm session about what I could do. He wouldn't coddle me, but he took time to help me plan. When I finally made a plan to go to the exercise room at work and then found out it was closed for renovation, I was ready to give up. Instead of letting me off the hook we brainstormed again he suggested the crappy gym he went to. It was an entirely crappy gym, but going there meant no one would be looking at my fat ass on the treadmill.

To give me motivation to get to the gym we had a running bet. In any week, we both had to go to the gym at least four times. If we both met the goal, or both missed it, we tied. If one of us made it and one missed, then the loser had to buy a coffee for the winner. Beating him and winning coffees was enough motivation to get me to the gym. He didn't make it easy; we had a lot of tied weeks. Eventually I started to see results and didn't need the bet anymore. Importantly, he never did the work for me; he helped me do the work myself. He was supportive, motivating, and genuinely interested in my well-being. He wasn't pitying. It was never too personal.

At some level, even though you want to help him, it feels like you view your friend as a lost cause. If you do really believe he can change, then you can help him. He may never have it all, but he can definitely have some positive change in his life. If you were him and you could pick just one area to make progress in in the next year, what would be the steps you would take for yourself? Can you use that information to help him make an easy plan for himself?

Maybe he isn't ready for change. You can't make him ready. But if he'll take help, you can point him in the right direction and stand behind him as he takes steps for himself.
posted by kneehigh at 9:58 AM on December 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

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