Depressed people who ask for advice and angrily shoot it all down: Why?
October 11, 2013 9:25 AM   Subscribe

A question for those who have suffered severe depression: Did you have circular conversations where you asked for help and then shot down all suggestions/offers? What did you get out of those conversations? What were you really trying to achieve? What did you really need to hear?

A number of people in my family suffer from severe, crippling depression. Mostly, they sort of know it, but are in denial about how it affects every facet of their life, especially their cognition. They won't get the proper help for it, and this is not a question about "how can I get them to help themselves" -- it's a question about practicalities.

For decades, I've found myself having similar circular conversations with family members. I never have these kinds of conversations with others, only with them. They usually involve me being asked for some kind of concrete information/advice and having all my answers shot down with increasing irritation/anger.

I'll give a fictitious example.

Family member: Do you know where I can get a 14" plumber's wrench?
Me: I've seen them at Home Depot recently.
FM: I hate that place! I refuse to go there.
Me: I don't blame you. I know Amazon definitely has them.
FM: Yeah, 'cause I really have two weeks to wait, and I really want to pay ridiculous shipping charges.
Me: Oh, I could buy it for you. I have Prime, so no shipping fee and we'll get it in two days.
FM: Yeah, but Amazon will have cheap crap. I need something high-quality.
Me: My plumber said he buys tools on Amazon.
FM: Well, maybe your plumber likes cheap crap tools.
Me: Hey, I just realized Mack's Plumbing Supply is only two blocks away! Mack's a great guy. He'll hook you up.
FM: They'll be closed.
Me: Nope! They're open 8-8, seven days a week!
FM: I don't have all the money in the world to throw away on fancy tools!
Me: Oh, Mack's prices are very reasonable.

(etc, ad nauseam. You get the idea. It ends when I'm out of ideas or admit I can't help, and usually by this time the other person is quite irritable/angry. It ends up feeling like a bitter argument, when I went in thinking I was going to help with a simple question.)

I've learned to circumvent most of these discussions by just playing dumb ("14" plumber's wrench? No idea, sorry!"), but I still get sucked in occasionally by the sheer concreteness of the question being asked and the deceptive idea that a straightforward answer will solve the problem.

My question is for those who have been in this crippling state of depression and have had these types of conversations. I've come to understand that these are some kind of meta-conversation, and I'm taking them too literally. In other words, the conversation above is clearly not about a plumber's wrench. But my dumb literal brain can't understand what it IS about, and what would be a satisfactory answer that wouldn't anger or frustrate the asker. What do these conversations mean? How can I make them more satisfying for both of us, so they don't end up with the asker furious and me frustrated and sad because my well-meaning "help" made things worse?

If you've been the asker in conversations like this, why did you start them? What were you trying to achieve? What did you want to hear? What would have helped you?
posted by ROTFL to Health & Fitness (60 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's not some sort of elaborate code, I don't think. Roleplaying for a bit, as I am not depressed anymore, but it's just... say I have wants and needs, but I also have a pervasive belief that everything is terrible and nothing can possibly get better. I may also have some resentment for non-depressed people who act like the world ISN'T a giant pile of garbage, the fools. So it's true- I need a wrench, I know I need a wrench. But I also know that I'm never ever gonna be able to get one like I want, because the world is shitty and we don't get the things we want, not ever. So when I tell you I want a wrench, I am merely expressing a pie-in-the-sky desire which is out of my realistic grasp, and the idea of fulfilling this want is beyond impossible. And your ridiculous insistence that this problem has a solution does nothing but irritate me.

As an example- as a small child I would get super angry and upset and start crying and saying "everybody hates me!" On some level I knew this was not the case, but any attempt to tell me "no, your mom and dad love you" or whatever would only enrage me further, because saying that just served to invalidate my feelings.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:34 AM on October 11, 2013 [33 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not a "yes, but" person, but once you get in this loop, you can shut it down pretty quickly by saying, "I guess I can't help you then."

The problem is that the person you're talking to actually thinks that it's a regular conversation and that his objections are 100% valid. Every one of them.

I think what they want to hear is, "I have one in my back pocket, right here."

Depression makes you feel like EVERYTHING is a honking effort. "But if I go to the store, I'll have to put on pants! BAH! FIE!"

The wrench thing is just item 22 on the list of "why I can't get shit done." If the object is to fix a leaky faucet, then "I'd have to source a 14" plumber's wrench" is just one more fucking thing that needs to be done, and look how HARD it is!

You're looking for logic, when what you're dealing with is chaos. The best thing you can do is bow out quickly.

These folks have a self-fulfilling prophesy that everything is not worth the effort. And in their case, they're right.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:36 AM on October 11, 2013 [24 favorites]

Best answer: Have you seen Lord of the Rings? Remember the conversation between Smeagol and Gollum? It's like that. Depression is a foul liar who crouches on your shoulder and whispers into your ear about how everything is pointless and useless and you are a shameful piece of shit who has only yourself to blame.

More specifically, I think sometimes, we want you to get a taste of how helpless and powerless we feel about everything, all the time. Because that really is what it feels like to be in the middle of a deep depressive episode; everything is stacked against you, you can never win, everything is horrible always. We're trying to communicate, don't you get it? The problem isn't that I don't have a wrench; the problem is that everything sucks and I'm always fucked, forever.

You are very smart, and very empathetic, to realize that this is a meta-conversation. However, I will gently say that "looking for a satisfactory answer for everyone" is not likely to happen; if we were in a place where we could be satisfied with an answer, we would be a lot better off. Probably the best thing you can do in these situations is say "Man, that sounds incredibly frustrating, I wish I had a good answer for you." It won't help, but it won't hurt more.
posted by KathrynT at 9:37 AM on October 11, 2013 [28 favorites]

Best answer: Just for the record, people who are not seriously depressed, or even depressed at all, can act like this. Some people just have lawyer-type personalities that make them argumentative about absolutely everything. It's the way they are, and it makes them feel good to be right.

Having said that, my mother is depressed and acts like this. She wants to be right, and she wants to be in control because she can't control anything else. (To which I throw up my hands and say "well, I've given you every option I can think of, good luck," and repeat ad infinitum.)
posted by sockerpup at 9:38 AM on October 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: What do these conversations mean? How can I make them more satisfying for both of us, so they don't end up with the asker furious and me frustrated and sad because my well-meaning "help" made things worse?

As you say, this isn't about a wrench. This is about someone wanting help but not knowing how to ask for it. Rock Steady had an excellent comment about how depression can be called the "Yeah, but" disease, and it's a good thought to keep in mind as you try to help your family members. There's nothing you can say that will snap someone's own brain out of that "Yeah, but" place, so just redirect it so the conversation isn't about them doing something, e.g., "Why do you need a plumber's wrench, anyway?" or just, "Oh, that reminds me..." *

Every now and then, ask yourself, "What am I trying to get out of this interaction?" If your aim is to make someone else do something they clearly don't want to do, change your aim.

* -- "Oh, that reminds me" is a powerful weapon; you can use it to get out of virtually any conversation, but you do run the risk of someone thinking you're trying to get out of the conversation.
posted by Etrigan at 9:39 AM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Maybe the person is really looking for someone to listen to them bitch and moan a bit rather than a solution?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:41 AM on October 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

One of the things I hated most about my crippling depression was that it robbed me of the ability to think critically about my options and then put a plan into action. In that sense, you're right that the conversation isn't just about the specific thing you're talking about. Trying to get past the step of "I need to do x" would make my brain just crumble. I would reject all the ideas for how to do something, no matter how ordinary and straightforward, because I couldn't wrap my mind around how to do it. Plus, even if I somehow managed to get to the next step, it would just end in failure and despair anyway.
posted by atropos at 9:41 AM on October 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I think this is Why Don't You Yes But, a game described by Eric Berne in Games People Play. I think the person is trying to prove that their problems are unsolvable and gets secondary payoffs by shooting people down.

The antithesis of the game is to either say, "Yes, that's a very difficult problem to solve," or "Yeah, nobody makes it easy, do they?" or to put the onus on them by saying, "Wow, this is a tough one. What do you think you're going to do?"
posted by alphanerd at 9:43 AM on October 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

Best answer: What you're describing is a game called "Ain't It Awful", at least in normal discourse. Not sure if depressed people see it the same way. The object is to get you to agree that they have a problem they can't solve, and there are varying payoffs to that depending on the context.

I haven't been able to find the countermove and I'm short on time, but there are two answers I would try here:

"Hmm, that's a problem. How do we solve that?"

"What answer would satisfy you?"

When I've had conversations like this - including when I was depressed - it was because I had a problem I actually was trying to solve. What I wanted was help to find a solution and reasonable assurance that it would work. What a depressed person would consider "reasonable assurance" is likely to be a lot more than the average person.

I've also been accused of playing "Ain't It Awful" when in fact I was trying to solve a difficult problem - very often the average person doesn't have good solutions to these things off the top of their heads , and people tend to "blame the victim" more in situations where the "victim's" circumstances can't be ameliorated.

The conversation you describe is, on the face of it, nothing like that. But I'd try breaking it down a bit further:

"Okay, so you hate Home Depot, why do you hate Home Depot? Is there somewhere else we could go to get it that doesn't have the hateful characteristics of Home Depot?"
[response: no of course not you unhelpful shithead]
"Okay, so you you hate crowded retail environments, and you don't want to have to wait for shipping. We can use my Amazon Prime account so you'll have to wait at most two days."
[response: no of course not you unhelpful shithead]
"Okay, you don't think there's good quality assurance for anything you could get on Amazon. Would consulting customer reviews or relying on expert opinion help?"
[response: no of course not you unhelpful shithead]
"Okay, so you don't want to go into a crowded retail environment, you don't want to have to wait for shipping, you don't trust Amazon's quality control, the remaining choices are to find another source of fast shipping or go to this non-crowded store nearby which is open right now."
[response: no of course not you unhelpful shithead]
"So what you want is to obtain a high-quality tool without having to go into a crowded retail environment, while being able to assess its quality for yourself, and not having to wait to receive it, and without having to spend a lot of money on it. I am out of ideas here as I've told you all the solutions I usually use, but if you find a better solution let me know! I'm always interested in finding out better ways of doing things."

To be honest, I don't think there is anything more you can do than that. I think there is a right moment for getting through to a depressed person and you just never know when that will be. Occasionally someone says something that just hits you, but they can't control that and neither can you.
posted by tel3path at 9:44 AM on October 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking from experience (I've been in the same place/had the same responses as your family member here), it's really (or at least was, for me) about dwelling in the depression. I didn't realize I did it, but now that I'm working on getting better, looking back I can see it was my attempt to show the other person that I was right, so I wouldn't have to change. Even if the conversation on the surface is about a wrench, it's really about validation. The depressed person wants to wear the other person down until s/he says, "You're right, it's a lost cause, it's hopeless, there's nothing we can do." Still about the wrench on the surface, but the depressed person is hearing "it's hopeless" toward their getting better. Then the depressed person gets to stay in their painful-but-comfortable (since it's so well known and constant and change is scary! and "impossible"!) pool of misery, and hey, now they have company!

The only thing that helped me break out of this cycle, really, was having years and years of this same kind of conversation with my boyfriend, to the point where I realized if I didn't change the cycle, I was going to lose him. There was nothing he could have said to make me feel better. I had to realize the error of my thought processes, the extent of my illness, and really work to get over it.
posted by dearwassily at 9:45 AM on October 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

Oh, and yes, oh some level they probably do want you to say "yeah I have one in my back pocket!" not that they're necessarily fishing for that, but it would be awesome if you did, right? Oh no, of course it wouldn't.

But yeah depression is extremely tiring. It's hard to lift a finger when every limb and extremity feels like lead. It's so hard. It's all so much effort.

Again, not much you can do about that.

I also agree with the person who says they want to draw you in and get you to feel what they're feeling. For your own mental health, you might want to think about withdrawing from these conversations sooner.
posted by tel3path at 9:49 AM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Re: sockerpup's quote about "lawyer-type" personalities: yes, yes, yes, YES. This. I describe a coworker of mine as "the most contrary man alive" - you can reiterate something he HIMSELF just said and he'll reply with, "No, you don't understand, the thing IS...". It is infuriating.

This trait gets magnified by depression, because when you are depressed, 1. Everything is a Sisyphean ordeal, and, 2. This ties in with the feeling that you're being punished, constantly, from all sides, because of your own failures.

Knee-Jerk Contrarian Personality Type + "Life is Staggeringly Difficult, As It Must Be, Because I am Shit" = the type of dialogue you describe.

The only fix is DO NOT TRY TO FIX. "Wow, that's unfortunate." "Sorry to hear that." "... I'm guessing this may not be entirely about the wrench, buddy."
posted by julthumbscrew at 9:49 AM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I know your example is fictitious, but if I may extrapolate a larger pattern from it, it sounds like what FM wants is to a)express their hopelessness in solving a problem and b)hope that maybe you can immediately cure this hopelessness. I know that when my depression is the worst, I can't envision any options that, even if they solved my immediate problem, would take away that pervading sense that the world is full of obstacles I can't navigate because I'm useless.

If this was a real conversation I had with my husband, who is awesome and has learned to deal with me and my monsters for the past two decades, he would go buy me a wrench. It would not make the depression or my coping skills any better, but it would solve the immediate problem of not having what I need, and in not having what I need, feeling like the world was too much to deal with. But that's not a solution, just a temporary fix. Just keep in mind that they're asking you to solve a problem that is not what they're articulating.
posted by bibliowench at 9:53 AM on October 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

I have been depressed. I think that what I wanted to hear in that situation was, to exaggerate, something like, oh, I see, you are correct, I did not realize that your situation was so awful, I guess that there isn't anything anyone can do to help you, it is truly hopeless.

I'm in a better place now so the internal dialogue goes more like this:

"Crap, the dress I wanted to wear to work today is dirty!"
"Okay, so wear this skirt instead."
"I can't wear that skirt! The top that goes with that skirt is dirty too!"
"So wear a different top."
"But it looks really good with that top!"
"Dude. You've got to go to work. It looks fine. Just get dressed."

Then, depending on how the day goes, I'll either realize that the sky did not fall down or that the other top would have been a better idea but again, the sky did not fall so who cares, maybe I should just make an effort to plan ahead more, oh well.

You stay sane by disengaging with the depressed person and stay positive. "I like Mack's and I think their tools are reasonable. We can walk over together and check it out. If this isn't a good time, just let me know when you're free." "But I am super busy all the time!" "Okay, well, if that changes, let me know." "It won't change." "Dude. If it does, let me know."
posted by kat518 at 9:56 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not going to suggest that this is universally helpful, but when I had a friend trapped in depressive logic cycles sometimes hyperbole and humor helped her see that she was being absurd.

So something like this:

Friend: Do you know where I can get a 14" plumber's wrench?
Me: I've seen them at Home Depot recently.
Friend: I hate that place! I refuse to go there.
Me: I don't blame you. I know Amazon definitely has them.
Friend: Yeah, 'cause I really have two weeks to wait, and I really want to pay ridiculous shipping charges.
Me (in over-the-top, exaggerated tone): You're right! There is no acceptable way to obtain a plumber's wrench. Stores will eat your soul. The internet will eat your money. In fact, rather than try to fix your leaky toilet, I think you should stop using plumbing all together. I'm going to go buy you a coffee can for you to shit in, but first I need to call my plumber friend and tell him he's been wasting his life tilting at windmills. No true wrench can ever be obtained by any wretch upon this earth. And even if wrenches from ancient times still wield toilet-fixing powers, you are cursed with the greatest of curses, a curse that will melt any wrench that enters your hand. This task of plumbing repair, once simple in olden times, has become insurmountable in the modern era. Thank you for setting me straight.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:57 AM on October 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

sockerpup and julthumbscrew are right on. This isn't necessarily about depression - it's also a personality trait that occurs in people who are not depressed.

Also, listen carefully to the initial question. Do they actually say, "Do you know where I can find a ..."? Or do they say, "I can't fix my problem because I don't have a ..."? To an action-oriented person, those questions may sound the same, even though the latter isn't necessarily asking for you to solve the problem.
posted by jshort at 10:01 AM on October 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

What I want when these conversations come up is for the other person to automagically know what my real problem is without me saying it out loud and to offer to solve it with no effort needed on my part. Note that the "real problem" isn't necessarily the Deep Emotional one; it may be that the faucet is simply, as I see it at the time, symptomatic of a greater evil (no one is doing basic maintenance, people are too rough with the plumbing, we can't afford tools).

Why do I want this? Because saying the problem out loud opens it up to people trying to fix it by offering me suggestions (too much effort; I'm in a haze of depression; I want everything to go away). And chances are I already know how to go get a wrench, but I'm mired in crazy fear and sadness and grief and exhaustion and numbness and getting a wrench feels literally like being asked to climb Everest, in terms of how much emotional/physical/mental currency I'm being asked to spend. I'm asking the question in the first place because I have an internal habit that's desperately trying to urge me onwards to "normal" behaviour, but it does not have enough impetus to move me through all the motions.

Oh, and croutonsupafreak's response would break that haze to fill me with a surge of rage and spite, so that'll work, if you're just trying to get a rise out of a sick person.
posted by Nyx at 10:07 AM on October 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

It might be helpful to say in a friendly way, "Hey, do you realize you're shooting down every suggestion I make?" I might try saying that once and only once, in the hope that the person might recognize the problem.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:13 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One cause is anxiety, and the need to avoid making things worse. When one is mentally exhausted and in pain, it's preferable to do nothing rather than risk failure and disappointment. Also, just making a decision can be extremely difficult.

Denial is a way to avoid intolerable stress. It makes sense to you that the result will be worth the pains-in-the-ass you go through to get there. But to someone with depression, the anxiety and the anticipation of anxiety need to be soothed NOW. Also, with a lot of things, such as getting treatment, they can't imagine that anything could really help.

Instead of trying to correct their thinking, find ways to decrease your own exasperation. Don't involve yourself in persuasion or reasoning. Don't kid yourself that the family member might take advice. These things will frustrate and irritate you. Just tell them a few places where they can find a wrench. You don't need to respond when they shoot down the options. If you want to do more to help them get rid of the leak, ask if you can help in specific ways. "Do you want me to choose a wrench and buy it?" or, "Let me know if you'd like me to go with you to the store, call a plumber, shut off the supply to that pipe.)" I'm not saying you should make these efforts, but if you're willing to, then offer.
posted by wryly at 10:28 AM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The *actual* problem that the depressed person needs to solve and is having trouble with is being depressed. Getting the wrench or whatever is just some random piddly problem compared to that. Seeing this random piddly problem solved in 5 seconds might just highlight how unsolvable/crushing/ignored the actual problem of the depression is, and that's *frustrating.* I think in these conversations, they're trying to say "but wait, you're not solving/talking about the *real* problem, I don't really give a shit about the wrench."

So I think you have to at least acknowledge that you're not going to be solving the real problem (depression) before you can move on to helping them solve some random other problem. And then I would try to solve that immediate, concrete problem on the spot (with the depressed person's help), because otherwise it's going to get lost in the "but I can't solve my real problem -- depression!" pit and never actually get done.


Depressed Person:My BlahBlah is broken and I don't even have a wrench. Where am I supposed to get a wrench?!

Me: Oh wow, that's terrible about your BlahBlah! That dripping can drive a person nuts.

Depressed Person: Yeah, I hate my life.

Me: Totally unfair, you shouldn't have to deal with this. Hey, can I order a wrench for you? I'm on Amazon right now. I'm ordering a size 14, should I measure the pipe first?
posted by rue72 at 10:28 AM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have depression. If you were my family member, it might help you to know that I am, at least, storing away the ideas you've provided for where to buy a plumber's wrench, should I someday feel up to buying one and tackling my plumbing project without feeling like a total failure for having put off for so long such a simple fucking task that "normal" people can just DO, plus feeling guilty that I've used up part of my hopelessly finite energy to do some plumbing thing when the list of things that are wronger in my life than my plumbing problem is SO UNBEARABLY LONG.

My advice to you would be to quickly spot when a conversation like this is going in that direction, and use it as an opportunity for small talk (which is hard, and helpful, for many depressed people), not as a problem-solving situation. So, for this example, steer from "I think they have them on Amazon, too -- I'll let you know next time I'm going to place an order. Speaking of tools, I saw "This Old House" the other day for the first time in 20 years. It's totally become a granite-countertop-man-cave show! It's so sad to see PBS stooping to that level, you know? Reminds me of watching Bob Ross when we were kids, yadda yadda...."

If you can try to see this kind of question being presented to you as an attempt to simply connect with you, to feel human about mundane tasks, it might at the very least help to minimize your (entirely legitimate) frustration.
posted by argonauta at 10:30 AM on October 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

Nyx is right, the initial questions are like some tiny part of the brain that is still sending out "i'm a normal person" signals. Then the sick brain distorts the responses to its own ends.

While something like croutonsupafreak's response would make me pretty angry, and "hey do you realize you're shooting down every suggestion I make?" would make me defensive... they are also ultimately the only things that ever worked.

It was really, really hard for my best friends to tell me "We're not talking to you right now, you're being a goddamn asshole, depression or no." And it sucked to hear. So much.

But hearing that is actually probably the thing that made me finally, after lost decades, get my shit together mental-health-wise. They would not tolerate my hate spirals, and neither would anyone else. (Seriously, my therapist dumped me and would not refer me to any of her colleagues, she said I was "unhelpable in [my] current mindset." no she was not a very good therapist, at all, but hear me out.)

So I had to stop having the hate-failure spiral thing out loud. This eventually morphed into not having them, really, at all. Maybe it's akin to hitting bottom as an alcoholic, I don't know. But since it had been made abundantly clear to me that nobody, ever, in all the time left to humanity, was even going to THINK about handing me a screwdriver, I eventually dragged my sad meat carcass to the hardware store.

That said, it's a delicate thing, OP. You're the only one who knows whether disengaging from these conversations will be a wake-up call to your relative, or an unbearable humiliation, or something else. But your compassion here, that deserves a kudos :)
posted by like_a_friend at 10:31 AM on October 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

I have a relative who does this (not out of depression but out of sheer cussedness) and what she mostly wants is attention, and she's learned that prolonging discussions by shooting down all ideas is a good way to keep attention on her.

I think people who do this only occasionally do it because they just want some attention and sympathy, to vent a little bit, and it's hard to say "I just want to vent about this." (And we don't always know we want to vent ... we think we want to solve our problem, but it turns out that we actually want to complain about it a little bit first.) But people who do it constantly and habitually, I think it's a negative attention-seeking strategy and, like toddlers throwing tantrums, it works. If you don't get enough positive attention, you'll settle for negative. If you're depressed, negative attention can be pretty reinforcing, because you both get attention AND get reinforcement of your depression-idea that EVERYONE is annoyed by you and tired of you.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:31 AM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I used to do this, and it wasn't just depression-- although I have been treated for depression. It was horrible anxiety. This was during a period where my life felt really out of control. I couldn't tell my significant other how chaotic everything felt, so I talked to him like that instead. Eventually he told me it was driving him crazy and if I remember right, that got me to pretty much stop. I hadn't been completely aware that I was doing it.

Now, when I see other people doing, I wonder what they are anxious about that they are getting involved in these incredibly circular conversations as a way of avoiding talking about what's really going on. I may be projecting, of course; maybe they're not anxious at all. But I feel that there is something about this kind of self-limiting conversation that is comforting.
posted by BibiRose at 10:35 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just accept that they don't like my first answer.
Me: I've seen them at Home Depot recently.
FM: I hate that place! I refuse to go there.
Me: Oh. Well, that's what I would do. Good luck.

Of course, then it turns into a different script, because what they really want is for you to listen to them bitch.

FM: [silence]
FM: Where's the nearest Home Depot?
Me: The one on 6th.
FM: I hate driving on 6th. Too much traffic.
Me: Oh. *shrug*

FM: [silence]
FM: What are their hours?

I guess what I'm saying is, there's nothing you can do. Just give up trying to help before you get frustrated.
posted by ctmf at 10:47 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Cognitive Therapy is awesome for this. Read and do a lot of the exercises for Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:53 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The thing about these conversations is that they are not actually about the thing, and you trying to bring logic to it is not going to help.

Family member: Do you know where I can get a 14" plumber's wrench?
Family member: I'm trying to do one thing. One fucking thing today. My life is shit but I am trying so hard to get one fucking thing done.

Me: I've seen them at Home Depot recently.
You to FM: Eh, there's solutions, go fucking do them. I can't be bothered. I do not acknowledge or even recognize that you are in pain.

FM: I hate that place! I refuse to go there.
FM: The world is shit and you should know that.

Me: I don't blame you. I know Amazon definitely has them.
You to FM: Actually, I do blame you, you worthless piece of shit. Go fucking do this already. I don't want to be talking to you anymore, and I refuse to talk about your beliefs about the world being shit.

FM: Yeah, 'cause I really have two weeks to wait...
FM: For fuck's sake, dude, don't you see I'm drowning? I have today. I have a limited amount of energy and now is the only time I have. Are you going to help me, or keep taunting me with shit I could totally do if I wasn't fucking depressed? The answer is that I am depressed. If you give me a wrench in the next five minutes, I will be able to fix one thing. If not, I have no idea when I will have the energy to do it again. And I will feel worse.
posted by corb at 10:56 AM on October 11, 2013 [24 favorites]

Note, this isn't what I'm saying you are actually thinking or feeling, but that's how it reads when you're depressed and other people insist on talking about other things without acknowledging the depression itself.
posted by corb at 10:57 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing that I think it is helpful to ask yourself as the observer/victim of conversations like this is: did they actually ask me for the solution?

I think there is a phenomenon attached to depression which is very similar to mansplaining. It's the tendency of probably well-meaning loved ones to interject solutions. Somewhere, deep down, the depressed person knows that they need to come up with the solution. They also know that it is going to take them a while to wade through the morass of cognitively distorted feelings and logic that they're dealing with as a result of the condition.

Frequently, when I present a "problem," my partner jumps right into "I present to you X, Y and Z solutions." There are problems with all of these solutions, and more than frequently, I've already identified them and am well aware of what some of the options are. The problem I'm actually encountering is a weighing problem. I can see that no solution is perfect. I can even accept that I will have to settle on a non-perfect solution. But I am unable to distinguish between the relative drawbacks of each plan. Does one require more effort? Is another more expensive? How am I supposed to determine which is better or worse? I don't know.

Depression, for me, is a haze or numbness. It is being so out of touch with how I'm actually feeling that I can't even answer those questions for myself because I can't access the parts of me that would otherwise lead me to a clear and decisive conclusion. I don't lose my abilities of observation. I just lose my abilities to interpret the things I've observed. Very often, when I present a "problem" it isn't the solution I'm having a hard time coming up with, it's how I FEEL about those solutions that I can't decide. So I already know that Home Depot sells wrenches, thanks. I already know that Mack's has what I need, thanks. I already know that we can order anything our heart desires on Amazon, thanks. It's how I feel about all those things that I can't get at.

Here's the good news: you can actually help with that. Work with your loved ones to sort out and order their sub-optimal options. Accept that none of the options is a Best Case Scenario for them. Acknowledge that with them, and help them move on to the next step. "So which is more important right now: quality, speed or price?" It's possible that they can't immediately put their finger on the answer if they're depressed, and that's fine too.

You can also start by countering their questions with another question. "Where can I get a wrench?" Instead of answering with a litany of places they can go, ask them "which places have you already considered?" before you launch into suggestions. It could also give you a good idea of how amenable to suggestions they'll be. If their answer is "Home Depot and Mack's but I can't deal with the traffic and Mack's is too expensive," then your answer might more reasonably be, "Oh well, why don't I go pick it up for you and save you the trip," or "Well, if that's the case, Amazon is an option."

You can also try to preempt complaints by actually identifying the downsides to suggestions before you make them. "Well, you'd have to wait, but I have found that Amazon had high quality tools." Because of the pessimism that comes with depression, the depressed person is going to immediately think of all the reasons that something won't work. If you identify it up front and neutralize it or acknowledge its existence, it alleviates some of the burden that the person feels to always identify all the potential downsides.
posted by jph at 11:02 AM on October 11, 2013 [14 favorites]

Yeah, this is one thing depressed people do, but it isn't necessarily a sign of depression. Contrary or attention-seeking people do it too. However, when I've been depressed I have done it because everything at that time did seem insurmountable. What snapped me out of those moments of being unreasonable was someone telling me "Well, it looks like I can't help you because you're arguing with everything I say." Sometimes people don't necessarily need to be gently redirected, they need to be told what they are doing and how that affects others. It makes no sense, but I would be more frustrated sometimes by someone being helpfully competent than by someone telling me I was being a goddamn pill. I guess I'm the sort of person that occasionally needs a blunt reminder that I am being a pain in the ass to other people to jolt me out of depressive behaviors (at least for the immediate moment). That may not work for everyone.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:07 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I ask a question like this, it's often just the tip of an iceberg-- beneath it are a mountain of negative emotions and self-judgments, which are the thing I REALLY want help with, but well-meaning friends and family usually aren't prepared to deal with those in the way I need. (Heck, even trained psychotherapists struggle to respond to me in the way I need.) I know it's draining for others, so I try not to do it too much with non-therapist people, but I'm so powerfully tempted at times that my only solution is to avoid social contact.

If I ask where I can get a plumber's wrench, my real question might actually be, how on earth do I actually do this without hating myself and feeling stupid, because Amazon has too many choices and how do I even narrow it down, and how do I know if it's a good one without seeing it in person, and what if it's not the one I needed and how will I deal with the hassle of shipping it back to them? And asking for help at the hardware store is really painful and embarrassing because I don't know what I'm talking about, and what if they try to sell me a cheap junky one, or what if they try to sell me the super-expensive Cadillac model that's way more than I need, and how do normal human beings even do all of this stuff without agonizing over it so much and why can't I just be like that, too?

So for me it's really: How do I deal with all the nasty feelings this seemingly-simply transaction stirs up in me, to the extent that I can't bring myself to actually do it? So when you answer the question they ask, and they reject it, it may be because they wanted help with the question they didn't ask.

(Why they didn't ask for what they really wanted is a whole other story, but in my experience well-meaning people tend to make me feel dismissed and alone when I tell them how I feel. The most common replies are some of the most unhelpful: "Oh, there's no reason to feel that way." Or, "Everybody feels confused sometimes." I come away thinking they totally don't understand my experience. What I'd like them to do instead is come join me at my scenic overlook on the rim of the metaphorical canyon that separates us, and have them go, "OH. I didn't see what you were talking about before, but now I do. I get it. I see how it looks from where you're standing. And I see how the well-marked trail I was telling you about isn't visible from here. Let me show you how to find it.")
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 11:17 AM on October 11, 2013 [22 favorites]

I think corb and rue72 have it. To move on to solutions, first you have to listen to or at least acknowledge that things are really hard. Maybe after the second shooting-down, "I know, there's no easy way, is there?"

It might be easy and worry-free for you to go to Home Depot or order something on Amazon, but for them, HD is overwhelming and Amazon has an anxiety-provoking number of options that they may never be able to wade through and make a choice.

Acknowledging that this is hard could lead to a discussion where they get to relieve themselves of a bit of burden. It could also lead to you asking, "so, what do you think you will do?" or "how can i help you get a wrench?"
posted by salvia at 11:30 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For me, this is what would have been behind conversations like the one you describe:

1. Like everyone else is saying, a pervasive sense of the metaphysical, as it were, futility of everything. This started with the most basic things, such as getting out of bed – what's the point? As a (currently) non-depressed person, it makes no sense to me to ask this question, I don't feel the need for a “point”, I get up cause it's the right time, cause I want to have coffee, I don't know, I kind of unquestioningly get up and do a million tiny things a day for no particular existential reason whatsoever, like the meaning/ reason for an action is inherent in the action itself without it having to be somehow sanctified by external purposes. When I was depressed, this would have not made any sense to me, in fact, I just couldn't get how people can just stumble about through endlessly tiring sequences of tasks which were meaningless, since they had no sort of transcendent guarantor to imbue them with meaning.

2. Somewhat paradoxically, given the above, tasks which did have meaning, because, say, I was doing them for someone else, became unbearably pressuring, weights dragging me down, impossible to do for mysterious reasons. Since frequently they were really mundane tasks which I had done thousands of times before, like, I don't know, cooking dinner, my inability to perform would start a horrible vicious circle of self-contempt and self-dispair, which increased my inability etc.

3. On tasks becoming gargantuan. For most people “Go buy a wrench” is one task; for depressed me this would have been “Wrap your head round the fact that you need to figure out & plan how to accomplish this”, “Wrap your head round the fact that you need to go out into the unknown to find a wrench”, “Wrap your head round the fact that this, too, will in all likelihood be like that other time when you needed x and they didn't have exactly the size you needed, plus the shop assistant glared at you and everybody hates you anyway” and then circle back to number one and back and forth before you even get to the actual practicalities of getting dressed, putting on shoes, decide whether to check the mirror to check if you have washed today, be scared cause you know an alien will stare back at you from the mirror, hollow-cheeked and crazy-eyed (not true, btw, all in your head), go out the door, don't forget to lock, then feel like slinking close to the house-walls because you are marked, vaguely but grotesquely, and EVERBODY can see it, the awfulness that is you, you know this even if you didn't look in the mirror, then someone bumps into you (by mistake) and you either know that this is because you don't matter one bit so you completely lose your will to live, or else you've had enough and realise that it's all the other person's fault for being an inconsiderate swine and you get enraged, which brings momentary relief cause finally it's about someone else and you are a bit in control, but really this only serves to transform you bit by bit into an angry-victim kind of depressed person, and … again, why would you ever do anything?

4. Overall, I lost quite a bit of autonomy and became somewhat infantilised, no more self-direction, self-validation, self-motivation, self-regulation, you name it, if someone else wasn't doing it for me (at least giving me a kick-start), it wasn't happening, again, with devastating consequences. Have you ever dithered? Been unsure of yourself? Doubted a decision? Have you ever been to a country where you don't speak the language, yet you have to go through frequent complex verbal transactions and interactions? Imagine that, only magnified a hundred-fold, every minute of the day (sometimes pretty much literally).

At the same time, I was no child, I was an adult with adult needs which were often in contradiction with the needs of my depressed-infantilised needs. (As an added bonus for someone with introverted tendencies – I was frequently incredibly scared & incapable of being alone, at the same time as going up the walls because I actually ALSO needed alone time). What happened in my case is that, at times, and especially when things were pretty acute, I'd be an irritable and nit-picking control-freak in the very few situations in which you CAN have some control, which tends to be with your nearest and dearest. Honestly, this is how I can see depressed people becoming innocently, so to speak, borderline abusive whilst they are depressed, and this happened to me.

5. The insistence on “need it now, not in two days”: there are days, weeks, months when I used to see life as though through a dirty, grey filter, drab and unreal. Due to various circumstances, the one thing, for me, that was soothing during times when the depression was flaring up was getting into a state of flow.

Generally, my ability to get there was severely impaired, but every now and again I could feel it sort of come back, swell inside me, a tiny spark, which in that dark atmosphere was the one fragile link with something I seemed to remember as life. Maybe some piece of music which I suddenly needed to hear, or talking to someone, painting Easter eggs (in November, never having done that ever before), doing something about the house, cooking etc. And it had to happen right then, whilst the spark was still glimmering, or else it would die out and things would be even worse, cause this meant I was a chance-misser, or the universe was against me, and maybe I was never to have another chance to get out of the downward spiral.

From the distance of not being depressed, I'd say that a lot of it comes precisely from feeling like a child again, scared like a child, incapable like a child, with the needs of a child, yet you are an adult, have adult needs, and desperately crave adult autonomy and the kind of recognition thereof and respect given to adults. What helped me most, therefore, is when people gave me support (including the kind of support normally reserved for children, like going to places with them) without being patronising (so, what bibliowench describes, just that naturalness of support and care).

In your imaginary scenario, for example, like other posters suggested, I'd have appreciated empathy with the fact that my situation sounds tough, and maybe an offer to come with me and get the wrench, or browse Amazon with me, or help me with other tasks in preparation of the arrival of the wrench, etc. (this may be a personal preference, but knowing that someone has my back would enable me to tackle problems which seemed insurmountable, and usually I wouldn't even have to resort to the help offered, the fact that the offer was there sufficed).

Besides this, what really helped was when someone would tell me as lovingly and kindly as possible that I had to take their feelings into account, too, that my cutting down each of their attempts to be helpful was making them feel miserable etc. I don't think this works for every depressed person, but for me, being depressed and perpetually in pain made me very self-absorbed, but not unloving, so being told in this “natural” way that I have an impact on others (albeit negative) on the one had brought my care for them to the fore and on the other served to make me feel more connected to something outside of me than I felt as a rule. It's also, I think, very important for the self-care of people who are close to the depressed person, and who suffer from the depression themselves, even if in different ways. Plus: one thing that tormented me when I was depressed (read: another vicious circle) was how awful I was to/ for people around me. With the people who didn't forget to advocate for themselves I felt much more relaxed, because I knew they wouldn't let me be awful to them (see infantilisation/ outsourcing of tasks, including social tasks like care for others).
posted by miorita at 11:33 AM on October 11, 2013 [15 favorites]

This Hyperbole and a Half does one of the best jobs I've seen of describing this from the other side of the experience. Rather than looking for a solution, like where to find a wrench, I think your relatives are just describing that their particular fish are dead. Just empathizing with that may be enough.
posted by goggie at 11:37 AM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, this isn't necessarily irrational. I've sometimes seemingly been this person until someone finally suggested ... the Tool Lending Library. Part of it is that depressed people just experience things as having a different set of costs than non-depressed people do.

E.g., my issue is more around anxiety, and the hypothetical Tool Library would be great because there's only one option and the choice has no cost and therefore no risk. Not everyone experiences choices and decision-making to be so difficult.

So, your depressed person may have real difficulties around crowds, walking through the vast Home Depot, getting out of the house in a timely way to reach stores with limited hours, fear of being judged by specialty plumbing sales clerks, etc. etc. This isn't necessarily a game of rejecting everything, though that may be the end result.
posted by salvia at 11:38 AM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The dialogue you describe is something I've done when I'm either anxious or depressed, or both. Sort of this eternal vacillating and inability to choose, coupled with an overall conviction that I'll make the wrong choice and be fucked. It's overwhelming and there is something almost self-soothing in the endless circularity of inaction.

There are good suggestions here, but I'll just add that something that has helped for me is to hear stories of when other people have felt similarly fucked. So in your example, you could say something like "you know, I felt that way once. I was looking for a shovel, and I spent all this time feeling really worried about getting the right kind of shovel, and I did all this exhausting research and weighed all my options, and when I finally went to the store, I couldn't explain what I wanted to the clerk, and I had to go back to the store 6 times, and when I finally bought something I spent way too much, and when I got home I realized the shovel gave me blisters and it didn't dig the way I thought it would because I'd totally misunderstood the kind of hole I wanted to make, and I lost the receipt down the garbage disposal, and so I just gave up and gave the shovel to my neighbor. And I was really mad at myself for weeks, and I still cringe when I think about it, but that hole eventually did get dug with this spade I found in the shed."

I don't know, sometimes hearing stories from other people about the mistakes they made and the fact that life went on just is really comforting. Having someone offer solutions sometimes makes me feel like they have it all together and are perfect and that just makes me hate myself more.

The only caveat is you don't want to insert those sorts of stories if you then go on to make the conversation all about yourself. Instead, it should be about sharing vulnerability and making that human connection.

I'm not always able to express in the moment that I'm thankful for these sorts of conversations, but they help immeasurably to take the edge off my anxiety and shame.
posted by megancita at 11:49 AM on October 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

What do these conversations mean?

As a lot of commenters have noted, they are about how much everything sucks and how terrible and hopeless life is.

How can I make them more satisfying for both of us, so they don't end up with the asker furious and me frustrated and sad because my well-meaning "help" made things worse?

I don't think you can, within the context of those conversations. I think the suggestion of getting out of those conversations as soon as you realize they're happening is the best thing you can do. "Sorry, I'm out of ideas."

If you've been the asker in conversations like this, why did you start them? What were you trying to achieve? What did you want to hear?

I usually recognize that I'm doing it so I stop because even in my depression I know it's not fair to the other person. But what I really want when I start to go down that rabbit hole is acknowledgment that things suck, and maybe a gentle suggestion that things will get better.

What would have helped you?

Not being depressed, which is outside the scope of the conversation type you described and is not something you can do for someone else. I actually think a response like the one croutonsupafreak offered would shock me out of that particular mind spin and possibly even make me laugh, but I suspect most people would feel different about that than I would.

If you really want to help the person with their depression in a meaningful way, you have to change the conversation into one about their depression. That's dicey at best. If you want to end the frustration of these conversations you have to get out as soon as you can, and develop better sensors so you can detect them earlier.

I see no upside to pussyfooting around and accommodating this kind of negativity. And I say that as a depressed person with a lot of negativity. I am not under the illusion that my depressive state doesn't negatively impact the people close to me, but I think it's my responsibility as a depressed person to minimize the amount of pure bullshit I direct at my loved ones.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:51 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

My cousin has a masterful way of dealing with chronic depressed complainers like this. He just one-ups them - and for every complaint they make he makes a bigger and more all-encompassing complaint.

Family member: Do you know where I can get a 14" plumber's wrench?
My cousin: You can afford a 14" plumber's wrench? I wish I could afford one of those! I guess you're doing better than I thought!

FM: I hate Home Depot! I refuse to go there.
My cousin: You know what's even worse than Home Depot? Mack's! They have literally no stock and they tried to charge me $80 for a washer once! 80 dollars! Can you believe it?

FM: Yeah, 'cause I really have two weeks to wait, and I really want to pay ridiculous shipping charges.
My cousin: Oh my God, you want to know about shipping charges? What is it with restaurants that charge a delivery fee? Sam's wanted me to pay an extra $2 to get their fried rice delivered? What do they think? That I'm made of money?

And on and on. By the time he got to the third "you think you've got troubles?" anyone who is complaining would be laughing, because the absurdity of the conversation was so on the surface.
posted by jasper411 at 11:56 AM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, if the other person is really depressed (and not just chronically grumpy), doing the one-up thing is just going to add to it ("Oh, god, how dare I feel bad when other people are doing poorly" / "Can't this person stop trying to win the Pain Olympics and listen to me?"), as will most of what you could possibly say, because the illness is warping everything that comes in into a beautiful set of self-fulfilling prophecies.

The only thing that can drag a depressed person out of their illness is the person themselves (possibly for a kid, a pet, or a significant other - but they are the only ones who can take the steps). Support helps, but you're probably never going to be someone's come-to-Jesus moment by trying to sarcastically snap them out of it.

Leave them alone. If you are not going to offer support, simply disengage. Listen, and if you can back it up, tell them you'll help them whenever they need help. Or if they're trying to get you to do it all, leave them to it and let them stomp around and do it themselves and wake up out of the fugue.
posted by Nyx at 12:03 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Without reading most of the replies, I think this person genuinely is looking for a way to get a wrench that doesn't seem impossible and overwhelming to them. The problem is there is probably nothing short of you just handing them the wrench that will do that. And even then there may still be things about the wrench that make it seem like it is impossible to work with. But I don't think they are trying to be difficult on purpose, I think they are genuinely suffering and looking for a way to do things that seems like something they could cope with.
posted by cairdeas at 12:42 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also think these conversations happen (maybe at a lighter level) with people who aren't depressed, just having a bad moment.

For me, on a bad day, saying something like "I guess I need a wrench" is likely to be an announcement that a problem has come up, something that I wasn't prepared for, don't know how to deal with, and don't have the bandwidth or energy to master, and I wish it hadn't happened, and it isn't fair and it sucks.

Once I've gotten to a better headspace -- after I've gathered myself, watched a video about it on youtube, and have a plan for how to deal with it -- then I'm happy for you to tell me that a wrench can be gotten at Mack's. But before then, I'd rather you say "oh why do you need it? Oh no, did that stupid bolt on the toilet come loose? Ugh, if it isn't one thing it's another, isn't it? What a pain in the ass."
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:46 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, this may be little hardcore, but I had this exact problem when I was depressed.

I would follow this exact pattern of conversations, and I know my inner wish was to have confirmation that everything was shit, and I was such a shitty person I didn't even deserve a normal life. Or an okay wrench.

I would harass friends an family and the better they treated me the angrier I would get because FOR ONCE JUST ADMIT IT, ADMIT THAT I AM A SHITTY HUMAN BEING AND EVERYTHING THAT REMOTELY INVOLVES ME IS CRAP!

It took me serious introspection and my relationships suffered to the point where friends would give up on me and family would walk on eggshells around me, which of course confirmed my depressed suspicions and it created a vicious circle.

So you see...the depressed brain has multiple strategies to make you feel like you don't deserve to be alive. One of them is to make you behave in ways that your warped thoughts become self fulfilling prophecies. Kind of like when a jealous partner ends up harassing you so much you end up leaving them for someone else. In a horrible way, those people are getting their wish. They were right! (only they weren't, but they don't see it that way)

Depressed people are looking for CONFIRMATION of their false opinions, and the positive things you say may be seen as lies because you just want them to feel better or if it's bad enough they may even be seen as mockery.

Now, If you want to know what to do, then you can simply confront them about this. I know it would have helped me so much if someone had told me this:

FM: "life is shit and I am shit and I can't even buy a hammer in peace!"
You: "Look, you are being ridiculously negative and if you want to get me to admit that you and everything about you is shit then sorry, you won't get that from me, because it's not true. Waiting for two weeks is not a big deal. If you don't have money then buy something you can afford and cope. Stop pushing me away with your negativity because it won't work, so you might as well enjoy my company and walk to the shop with me. We can pick up ice cream on the way."

Then slowly it may dawn on them that they have some control on how things feel, and they can choose to perceive them in a horribly hopeless way or in a positive one.
posted by Tarumba at 1:03 PM on October 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

Hmm. I'd cut it off at the pass here:

Family member: Do you know where I can get a 14" plumber's wrench?
Me: I've seen them at Home Depot recently.
FM: I hate that place! I refuse to go there.

Me: Are you looking for feedback to help you achieve the result of having a new wrench, or you more looking for a sounding board to relate all the things that upset you about buying wrenches?

I think if they picked the latter I might tell them I am happy to listen but that sometimes it is hard for me to be there for them when it feels like they are not willing to be proactive in solving their problems.

If you're using wrenches as a stand in for them asking: "I have depression, how can I fix it?" and you are answering, "Well, just do so and so" then it may be that what they really and truly need is someone to be willing to listen to how it feels for them experientially and offering confirmation of the emotions behind it and how hard it feels, without suggesting a solutions. You can do that without conceding that it's hopeless. I wouldn't probably wouldn't have much tolerance for that wrench business though if they started in about the Amazon shipping times.
posted by mermily at 1:23 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What were you really trying to achieve? What did you really need to hear?

For me, what I really needed to hear was, "It's ok to not get a wrench right now." Shooting down all the suggestions is my clumsy way of saying that any effort at all is too overwhelming at the moment. Continuing to engage in the conversation is me beating myself up for feeling so completely unmotivated. So yeah, suggest a few things. Sometimes a bit of help is enough to get a person over the hurdles. But when it becomes clear that there will be no end to the hurdles, it can be helpful to give the person permission to stop trying to jump for a while.
posted by vytae at 1:38 PM on October 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

Not sure if this will help but...when I get trapped in that kind of loop, even with non-depressed people, I usually ask, "So, do you want to rant or are you actually looking for a solution?"

Because, hey, sometimes it's fun to rant about just how shitty the world is and how there is no place to get good tools cheap because the world sucks, amirite? And people don't always realize that what they really want is a good cathartic rant! But other times, they really do need help finding a place to get a good wrench.

Sometimes, just asking question: "Rant or solution?" will kick people out of their negativity death spiral. But even if it doesn't, if nothing else, it gives you a conversational out so you can stop trying to solve their problem and go do something else without guilt.
posted by skye.dancer at 1:43 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

"I know you aren't doing this consciously, but it's a pretty good example of how a lot of our conversations go. I feel like I'm boxed in to a corner -- there's no acceptable answer. It's cool, I'm not freaking out, but is there some other way we can get to what you need? Or, we can drop it and go get lunch. Your call." (arm around shoulders)
posted by thinkpiece at 1:48 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Guys, these answers are terrifically helpful. And some of them actually made me laugh out loud, which is a nice bonus. And I also want to thank the kind person who offered advice in a MeMail.

I should clarify that I only offer "solutions" when I'm asked, and only when the question has an obvious and concrete answer. I have also gotten much more savvy over the years about "near-questions" like some of you mentioned -- in other words, "Oh, gee, I have this huge task to do and I could totally do it, if ONLY I had a 14" plumber's wrench, 'cause that is the ONE THING standing in my way!" Almost-questions phrased that way will probably only get sympathy. ("Oh, isn't that the biggest pain! I really feel for you. So close, and yet so far! Isn't that always the way...(etc).)

One of the problems with my family members, I think, is that, although I really struggled with depression myself, I somehow got through it and they have just gotten worse and worse. I don't in any way attribute this to me being better or working harder or whatever. It may just be luck. I really don't know. But I think they resent me because things look "easy" to me from their perspective, and I know that they think I look down on them, and no amount of evidence or persuasion will ever persuade them otherwise, because of those pesky cognitive distortions. I had considered, as a couple folks suggested, that possibly these conversations were partly a way of "forcing" me into their world, where even the smallest obstacle looks like an overwhelming disaster, one of dozens that happen every day. ("I'll show ROTFL what it feels like to be thwarted at every turn! Now the rubber band is on the other claw!")

Of course, a general complaint will get general sympathy, not a "solution." But that sympathy doesn't seem to comfort them. Because I've been through dark times and I'm now more at peace -- or maybe just practicing "radical acceptance" -- and I think it offends my suffering family members on some level. Because they can hear that although I sympathize with, say, plumbing problems, I am not getting, on a *visceral* level, exactly what a 9/11-sized disaster this latest setback is. And they are right. I really can no longer understand what it feels like to be completely crushed and devastated by, say, a plumbing leak. It's like labor pains. I remember that they were the most all-consuming, obliterating pain I ever felt, but I can't really summon them up in my sense memory. And I don't want to. But that doesn't mean I don't know how much it hurts, or that I think I'm "better than" a woman who is in labor right now, screaming in agony. But I know that my depressed family cannot understand this, and that's why I need insight on how I can actually help with whatever the actual problem is in these conversations... or, if not help, at least stop making everything worse.

goggie, that Hyperbole and a Half strip you mentioned, with Allie's dead fish metaphor, is brilliant. In my case, it's more like Allie coming to me and "casually" asking, "Do you know of any fish food that can, you know, make fish more lively?" And me saying, "Well, there's Tetra-Min 'Lyv-N-Up' -- that always perks up my goldfish," and Allie becoming more and more enraged because I'm not reading between the lines that HER FISH ARE DEAD, DAMMIT!!! I might realize, again, that this is somehow not about the fish food, but it is very hard to figure out exactly what the problem is because Allie won't tell me.

Corb's comment comes closest to capturing the overall hostile and challenging tone that immediately emerges in these conversations. It feels, sometimes, as if they're designed to spring a trap on me by asking a question that's so reasonable I can't help but take the bait... and then, bam! I can serve as a heat sink for lots and lots of bad, angry feelings! Serves me right for swanning around, never suffering a moment in my life!

Or maybe that's my own cognitive distortions talking. Anyway, the answers so far have given me a lot of insight and a lot of tactics I think could be workable, so much thanks.
posted by ROTFL at 2:01 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's been touched on, but one of the things you do as a depressed person're in this pit of black despair and it's terrible and awful but you've sort of gotten used to the level you're at so while you're beset by skeletal pterodactyls and sleeping on a ledge you've found, you still sort of know your way around. But then the plumbing breaks and you know you need a wrench.

However, going out to get a wrench is emblematic of all these sort of larger things, i.e. nothing ever just works for you because nobody else has to deal with these stupid plumbing problems, and then you're going to have to put on clothes to go and everyone is going to look at you funny, and then you're going to get to this awful store full of suburbanite sheeple that are everything you hate in the world because you're far too disaffected and cool and hurting for them and their stupid pain-free ordinary lives where they can just go to Home Depot without it being a Shackleton-class expedition and then you're going to get there and you're not going to be able to find it and the guy is totally going to condescend to you for being a rube that doesn't know plumbing and who the fuck does he think he is anyway...

So like I said, you're on your ledge and any single jostling from the world will send you over the edge and possibly into an even blacker abyss where you won't have a cozy ledge and there'll be scorpions and beetles and things will have gotten worse and your plumbing still won't even fucking work, you know? And your not accomplishing anything will just validate all those terrible things you think about yourself because look at you, you're such a fucking failure you can't even go to Home Depot and perform the simple task of buying a thing.

That sort of mood/ledge management is actually quite common (or was for me, anyway) so that routinely simple things could be sort of gambling throws of the metaphorical ego dice where most results were terrible, so better to keep things at their sort of baseline terrible where it's just the skeletal pterodactyls not the scorpions and beetles, you know?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:59 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I just marked a bunch of answers "best answer" but I always feel bad when I do that because every answer was helpful, to be honest.

I have reread and pondered. I know my super literal-minded and solution-oriented brain is the problem here. I think the first tactic I will try is immediately expanding and extrapolating on the question presented.

"Do you know where I can buy a 14" plumber's wrench?"
"Uh-oh -- plumbing problems?"

"Do you know of any fish food that can, you know, make fish more lively?"
"Why, Allie? Is something wrong with your fish?"

That seems dishonest, almost -- I'm used to giving straightforward answers, and I don't like to pry into people's business. But I can see what I'm doing is fucking things up and I need to change tactics. And keep changing them, perhaps, until something helps.
posted by ROTFL at 3:02 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think the first tactic I will try is immediately expanding and extrapolating on the question presented.... That seems dishonest, almost -- I'm used to giving straightforward answers, and I don't like to pry into people's business.

You could also think of this as a way of saying "I need more context if I'm going to help you," which also happens to be true.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:54 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might also need to give up the idea that you can, or need to, help them. You seem to have a good grasp on concrete solvable problems vs. existential crises, and so if you feel you're getting pulled into an existential crisis (even one that seems like a solvable problem) and can't help, it's ok to just... not help. The questioner might be angry, or frustrated, or not getting whatever it is they want from you, but it's not your job to read their mind and give them what they want if they're not asking for it comprehensibly.

It's fine to say something like, "I'm not quite sure what you're asking for," or whatever, but it's also ok to just not have a good response sometimes, especially if people are being unclear in what they actually want from you.
posted by jaguar at 5:38 PM on October 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: To address your title question: I got irritated with a friend once over a similar situation - I was the depressed/troubled one and he was the helper.

If you have a hard problem that has been bothering you for some time and someone just bounces over with a fix that seemingly took them seconds to come up with, that makes you feel pretty stupid, right? Like you're a moron for beating your head against the wall for weeks/months/years when it's obvious that X will fix it?

My friend just made me feel worse by offering basic solutions (regardless of effectiveness). Like he thought I wasn't smart enough to have considered them already. "Have you checked to see if your computer is plugged in?" sort of solutions when talking to someone with a degree in computer programming. It feels insulting, sort of "I'm so much smarter than you that I can solve your tough life issues in a snap!" Even if you rationally know that your friend doesn't intend it that way, it stings. Depression makes you feel dumb enough as it is.

I think that's one part of why people get frustrated with "helpers". They are redirecting their considerable inner frustration at not being able to find a solution to the people offering solutions.

If I were to try to play helper to a depressed friend nowadays, I would be less "you should do X, everyone says X works" and more "if it were me, I might try X." If they have an agreeable response I might continue to play helper, but if combative/resistant I would get out of that role ASAP and switch to a sympathetic role - I would want to be on their team, not against them. Everybody's situations are different and people have different priorities and different reactions. Insisting on a solution which seems obvious to yourself is just not the most tactful way to go. Like with your wrench conversation:

Family member: Do you know where I can get a 14" plumber's wrench?
Me: If I needed to buy a wrench, I'd go to Home Depot.
FM: I hate that place! I refuse to go there.
Me: Yeah, the parking lot is a mess, but they have wrenches. Sorry I can't be of more help. [I am now extricated from "helper duty" and can continue the conversation in general terms, like: What do you need the wrench for?, etc.]
posted by griselda at 5:47 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When you are depressed, you think you'd do anything for an easy solution that will get you out of your hole, but you are also terrified of the existence of an easy solution, because then it proves you're so stupid you've been sitting in a hole when everyone else knew how to get out.

If your problem is truly as difficult and huge as it feels, the solution would need to be specialized and complicated to match, right? If the solution is easy, it means your problem wasn't a big deal. And you really need your problem to be a big deal, because it has caused you so much pain - maybe cost you dearly in friends, family, a job, a home. How terrible, to pay that cost when you could have prevented it. In depression think, if the solution exists it means what the depression tells you is true: you are a worthless moron who could have avoided all the trouble and been happy all this time.

Thus, the paradox that leads depressed people to beg for help and angrily reject it.
posted by griselda at 6:10 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I used to do this, and I guess I eventually figured out that the reason I never received an answer I liked was because I wasn't asking the question I really needed to: "can you please make me feel better right now?"
posted by b33j at 6:57 PM on October 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Just popping in to say that anyone suffering from depression would benefit from reading "The Depressed Person" by DFW. It's a difficult read, as it should be, and highlights both that sense of alienation of the depressed and the person dealing with the depressed.
posted by OrangeDrink at 8:21 PM on October 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

When I do this, I am usually either (a) ranting and not really expecting you to find me a solution, i.e. well, if I can't come up with one, why would you?, or (b) I am hoping you give me a solution that isn't one I've already thought of and isn't one I would automatically rule out--a Miracle Answer, if you will. Of course, those never exist and people get irritated with me.

Usually, I know damn well the solution is only A or B, but I hate both of those (or to be fair, I may have actually tried A, B, or both) and somehow hope there's an option C, D, E, F, etc. that someone knows of. Except somehow I keep shooting everything down too, kind of uncontrollably at times.

How would I recommend dealing with me? Ask if I'm just ranting, or say that there's nothing you can do to help me and try to get away from me or change the subject.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:34 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have major depression. Before I found the right meds, every day was like walking into a strong wind with mud up to my knees. The amount of emotional pain that your body feels when you are depressed can be very intense, yet you feel it all day every day for NO FUCKING REASON and it's exhausting.

Try to understand that depressed people are in a constant battle to function. These mind games have NO solution. The best thing you can do if you want to be a friend is try to get them to talk about how they're feeling and if they have a good support system or if they need more.

In the case of the wrench: Once the suggestion is shot down, just stop or make a joke and change the subject to them and how they're doing.
posted by SarahBellum at 8:26 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I just read the story from OrangeDrink. That is, indeed, exactly what it is like.

What might have helped both the depressed person and the dying friend, in that story, could be if the friend had asked the depressed person to do something (a specific thing) for them. Come and visit them and read them a story, something like that.

Of course you don't always have an opening to do that, and you may not in that moment want their help.

But continually asking yourself how you can help them can sometimes amount to joining them in the mindset that they are helpless and beyond help. Saying "would you please do X for me?" changes the subject and momentarily asks them to step out of the Done-Good-To role.
posted by tel3path at 2:24 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Where can I find a plumber's wrench?"
"Hmm. What do you need a plumber's wrench for?"


"Where can I find a plumber's wrench?"
"I dunno. Let's go find one together."

They either need to vent, or they just need your support. Try them both on for size.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:18 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

isn't necessarily asking for you to solve the problem

Sometimes people may just want to vent; "suggestions" to fix the problem isn't what they are looking for.
posted by JujuB at 3:02 PM on October 15, 2013

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