Depressed & lonely; obviously the solution is to make myself lonelier!
December 30, 2013 12:53 AM   Subscribe

I had a significant depressive period earlier this year. I'm climbing out if it now, but I'm awkwardly reticent and hung-up about telling anyone about my issues. My closest friends don't know or have been told a generic, "It was just a hard semester for me" story. But I feel so isolated and acutely lonely when I stumble and have a few bad days again, and I'd like to be able to reach out to friends. I don't want to engage in destructive isolation and have this unnecessary martyr complex, and need advice on how to open up and ask for/accept support.

General background: I was intensely socially awkward and anxious up until high school. I kept a lot of friends at a distance for a while—first because I was Not Good at making good friends, then because I was still warming up and figuring out how to achieve and enjoy emotional intimacy, and now I'm better but horribly afraid of over-burdening friends and/or being harshly judged. I know I'm someone who is over-sensitive to perceived criticisms (therapy has helped me in learning to let go and de-invest, but I'm still working on it!), and I need a lot of assurance in relationships (trying to get better at communicating this to others and controlling this need as well).

Current state of the union: I did the CBT/DBT intensive therapy thing and I am quietly confident that Things Will Be All Right. But I still have days where I get acutely sad and lonely, and days where I slip up and my anxiety gets the better of me…on these days I have this horrible fear that I'm regressing, and I enter a state of anxiety/worry/sadness/apathy that takes a while to shake off.

I know that talking to people will help, and the gentle support of friends and so on will let me get out of micro depressive periods much more easily. But I feel I'm creating a distance between myself and others that means I'm reluctant to reach out when it would help. Logically, I know people close to me care and would be willing to listen and talk. But it's hard to emotionally understand that.

Some specific issues of mine I've identified:
  • I've noticed I have a tendency to provide a brief and distant sketch of my issues—maybe as a way of distancing myself from them?—and so it's possible that when I confided to a few friends in this way, they assumed it was an issue I was not comfortable discussing. Which is true, to some extent. But I want so much to feel comfortable and not engage in foolish attempts to be stoic.
  • I'm afraid that talking about my depression will make me seem crazy. Or unreliable. The work I do (I'm an undergrad, I care a lot about what I'm studying and the various organizations I'm involved in) is really important to me, and it is so painful to think that others might see me as not up to scratch. It feels like I have failed and my will is not strong enough to fully recover, although I know recovery (and reworking unhealthy thought patterns) takes time.
  • I always feel like I am overburdening people with my troubles. I feel it is too much of an imposition, and I worry I'll go straight from being distant and uncommunicative to the kind of person who says every day, "I'm so anxious! I'm so sad!" and people will get tired of my continual crises.
  • I'm generally seen as an enthusiastic and cheery and bubbly person, and I feel like I need to maintain that face to others—I think, also, I feel like that's the me that they grew to appreciate and care for, and the depressive me is not.
Incidents which have made me wary: One of my closest friends—when I voluntarily checked into a psychiatric hospital for a week (aka flashpoint moment where I really started dealing with my issues), I told her about it. She was immediately effusive in her support, but then went on a tangent about her romantic woes ("I like this guy but he's hooking up with another chick" kind of stuff). I feel a bit ashamed of this—but it made me feel terribly frustrated, that she was telling me something I felt was a mundane trouble when I was terrified with how a lot of things in my life were going. Have started distancing myself from her since (there are some other incidents where I felt she was too involved in her life issues for me to confide in her). I think she is a good friend and she cares, but I am not really strong enough to ask her to—pay more attention to my issues? Is that expecting too much?

I visited another close friend for a week, almost right after that hospitalization, because the trip had been planned months earlier. I sort of briefly told her what was up (may have done so in a cold way that discouraged further inquiry—see above). I felt enormously alienated during that trip—she was sick and slightly behind on work, but what transpired is that time we had hoped to spend together didn't happen, she spent a lot of time with her boyfriend, I didn't have the energy to socialize with her friends that she'd introduced to me, so I isolated myself alone in a room for most of the trip and felt acutely miserable. I recognize I could have communicated my needs better and she had other stuff to deal with. The whole incident still hurt, and I have also withdrawn from trying to be close to her.

I think both these incidents have made me gun-shy. I think even when I do reach out, if someone's response is not immediately satisfying and "good enough", I retreat and withdraw because I'm afraid. But I can't withdraw from everyone! Essentially—I think I am bringing a ton of weird hangups into this that are holding me back from confiding in friends. I would be grateful for advice on how to fix this.
posted by Sudo to Human Relations (13 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Adjust your level of expectations for most people you're interacting with. Reassure yourself that most people really cannot empathize with the depression you're describing (hooboy but I can...) Withdraw selectively and invest your emotionally energy as strategically as possible.

Continue to seek the company of those who have the capacity to hold the level of emotion you're struggling with. Maybe even find a venue to start your own peer support group targetting people with this specific mental health challenge.

Sadly, most people who have not suffered their way through depression can really do more damage than good by behaving so oblivious to what you're communicating at face value. Feeling genuinely unacknowledged is a HUGE reinforcer for the negative feelings, IME. So don't beat on yourself for not communicating yourself better because someone who lacks the experience-based reference will pretty much never be able to understand what you're trying to express, let alone offer the basic caring as you truly need it. Have a verbal strategy for assessing your prospective supports' ability to offer the support you genuinely need; as soon as your internal alarms are saying "this person is not helping", honor that by gracefully bowing out.

In my own battles with depression, I have learned to accept what level of support people are able to offer (and manage my disappointment more accordingly), assert myself when I need to withdraw from people who's ignorance of my need for basic acknowledge amplifies my depression symptoms, and seek what I need from peer support group-type sources. If you can find or cultivate a good group, it will dramatically help. A huge part of the pain is that your pain is continuing to be ignored by people who you logically understand to care about you.

FWIW I only have one friend who genuinely responds well when I'm experiencing depressive symptoms around her; she simply showers me with acknowledgement of whatever I feel I need in that moment -- which has at times simply been to isolate in a warm cozy bed. Then she reassures me how far I've come, puts no pressure on me whatsoever to accommodate her needs instead of my own, and basically verbally + behaviorally circumvents the depressive spiral before it can really launch itself... true friendship gold. It's not rocket science, for some people anyway, but boy the mileage varies.
posted by human ecologist at 1:29 AM on December 30, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I have no training in this, but having gone through years of depression myself, I can relate a bit. You seem to be a courteous and self-aware person with an honest approach to getting better. I can't imagine a better attitude.

What caught my attention was the part about feeling like you are crazy or unreliable for talking about depression. A lot of people go through depression and loneliness, and it doesn't make you crazy. Though it's not always comfortable to talk about these intimate things, it's good that you are doing it. There are people that are going to be receptive to it, and those who are not, and you probably have a good idea by now who those people are.

It doesn't hurt to ask someone if they have a few minutes to talk and listen before you start. In my experience, most people don't mind talking and listening, and most really want to help, but they may not want to be surprised by such a conversation. This can be as simple as sending someone a txt or an email earlier in the day for an evening conversation. Follow-up with them a little later on. If they don't respond consider it a no, but I think anyone who you can consider a friend will agree and will make plans.

It took me a long time to get comfortable talking to people about this stuff: I was grappling with a lot of feelings of guilt that I believed I deserved to feel, so I understand that it takes courage to ask permission to talk to people. In the end, I felt much better having done it because I hadn't caught anyone by surprise. and the quality of the conversation of someone who is glad to set aside some time to talk is going to be top-notch.

I wish you the best.
posted by hellslinger at 1:38 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think the first step might be admitting you have a problem, like, to yourself. Speaking from personal experience, this technique actually helps me get out of my head, and opens me up to all kinds of support and solutions if I employ it on a daily basis. I need people. I need things to do. I need to step out of my comfort zone. I like to point out other peoples' problems and not my own. The call is coming from inside the house.

You haven't addressed the causes and conditions for your need for lots of assurance from relationships. Maybe this isn't the best forum to do so, but I would step on the gas in terms of exploring it, because therein you might find real relief. Seeking assurance is one thing. Covering up a deeply-rooted lack of self-love by placing unreasonable demands on the world is another. Keeping score on friends is bad. I think where things get tricky for a lot of people is trying to find a middle ground, somewhere between underreporting feelings and just unloading on someone. This can create resentment, confusion and inaction.

I think it's important to point out, again from personal experience, that a lot of people are losing their shit. Depression somehow tells you different. I'm a far cry from a psychiatrist but this description of depressive realism really called me out on my shit. I would stick with therapy, maybe check out a 12-step program (like CoDA?), because maybe hearing other people talk about similar problems would be a big help. Being vulnerable sucks, but building a wall between yourself and everyone else, as you know, sucks a lot worse.

Just remember you're not alone, and the idea that you have to rough this out yourself is an incredibly powerful and debilitating illusion. I think humans have an incredible threshold for suffering, some even reach the point of dismissing the idea of being happy, to their own detriment. It's totally possible to put this phase behind you if you persist on getting help. The answers will find you. And at the end of the day, the answer might be changing one thing or idea about the world that is really really simple but super-close to your heart, and that one change will have a profound effect on your life. Have some patience, and it will serve you. You're going to be okay.
posted by phaedon at 1:48 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all, definitely stick with therapy. It's not always easy or immediately rewarding, but it does help.

Secondly, you are unfortunately right that some people will judge you or look at you differently. I call those people "assholes." Good news is, you don't have to tell every single person everything. I see you had not-great experiences with a couple of folks, but is there one really good friend or family member you can trust to be a good listener? If so, start there. The unfortunate fact is, it's going to be hit-or-miss with how people respond. But, you don't need to get a great response from every single person- you just need to find one confidant you can open up to.

One thing my therapist used to tell me to do was to assign percentage values to things. When I would be all catastrophic and say, "something bad is definitely going to happen," she would call me out and say, "What's the percentage chance?" It appealed to the realist in me- if someone tells me, "Don't worry definitely nothing bad will ever happen again" I tune them out, b/c that's clearly bullshit. But she got me to admit there was at least a chance, and often a good chance, of things going right. So yeah, there's a chance any certain friend might be in a bad mood or just bad at dealing with this kind of shit and just not be into listening. But is there a 100% chance every single friend and family member doesn't want to hear it or will react negatively? I doubt it.

Hope that helps. I know it's not easy and there's a limited amount words can do in situations like this.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:12 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

What you're saying sounds very familiar to me. I often feel when I'm depressed that nobody understands, and worry that talking to my friends will just invite disaster. I can have similar bad reactions when my friends aren't as supportive as I'd like, even when they're not doing anything wrong per se. It's a bit of an expectations issue, I guess.

My strategy for getting around it is to intentionally lower my expectations, and I do that by talking first to people I don't care about quite so much. I'll choose acquaintances who seem potentially receptive; or friends I was once close to, but now less so; or friends who live far away. When I talk to these people, it's obvious from the outset that I can't expect a perfect response.

If they do seem helpful, that's great of course! But if their reaction isn't the best, it's easy to understand why, and I don't feel like the most important people in my life don't care about me. I can still tell myself "Ok, I was able to talk to someone and handle their reaction!" That makes it easier to talk to another person later on.
posted by vasi at 5:00 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can ask for support from your friends, but in 99.9% of cases, they'll have NO CLUE what to do.

I will also tell you that no one wants to sit around and listen to your very real concerns about depression and anxiety. It makes people uncomfortable. Your friends aren't your therapist. No matter how much they love you and how much they want to help you, most people aren't wired to be a source of solace and comfort to someone who is deeply, deeply into a depression.

While disclosing to someone that you were in a hospital for depression is HUGE, it is also a LOT for a friend to take in. Trust me, you win the "who's more fucked up" award there. When you discuss your illness with people, in order for them to commiserate with you, they may tell you something that disturbs them. If we are comparing woes, yours may be larger than theirs. This doesn't make them bad people. This makes them freaked out with a side order of 'quick, how do I change the subject?"

When you go away to visit people, it won't always be about you. While you may have the expectation that your friends will be available to you 24/7, they may just see it as 'hey, my friend is in town." In the future, each party needs to be able to say either, "I'm really not in a happy place right now, can we reschedule the trip until I'm feeling better?" Or, "I've got the flu, and I'm totally behind on my thesis, I'm not going to have a lot of time to devote to entertaining you. If you want to hang out, that's cool, but perhaps you might want to reschedule." Faults on both sides there.

Friends aren't an endless support system, they just can't be. if you want someone to cheer you up, or keep you company, it's reasonable to ask for that. "Chloe, I'm having a depressive episode, I need to get out of the house or else I'll be wearing Kleenex boxes on my feet. I know you're busy, can we meet at the supermarket for a bit? I'll treat you to an Icee." Or, "Joe, are you up for a low-key evening of pizza and movies?"

If it makes you feel better, your friends would be just as awkward with you if you had disclosed that you were hospitalized for a physical illness, like cancer or colitis.

I agree, you need to recalibrate your expectations regarding what help friends can be when you are depressed. I fear you are asking for too much, especially if you are all college aged.

Please don't give up on your friends. They're doing the best they can, and in your illness you are expecting too much, and magnifying their failures to you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:29 AM on December 30, 2013 [12 favorites]

For what it's worth, it sounds to me like your first friend was trying to show support by sharing one of her issues in return for you sharing one of yours. Maybe she wanted to demonstrate that you hadn't scared her off, but did it in a way that didn't work so well for you? I think generally friends want to be supportive but don't always know the right thing to do, and so it's important to communicate. Not be 100% desperate or anything, but say, Hey, can we talk about something that's bothering me? or: You know, I don't really feel like going out with a whole group of people tonight, maybe we can stay in and watch a movie?
posted by mlle valentine at 6:00 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Group therapy could be a real help here. See what your university's health services has available. I did a semester of it--free of charge--back in grad school, which was really helpful at the time. I had just showed up and was 500 miles away from anyone I knew, so it provided a really valuable transition resource as I made friends and established relationships where I was.

Indeed, that's part of what therapy is about. Therapists are people you pay to listen to your problems, right now, without bringing any of their own personal issues into play. That's not how friendships work, or any non-professional relationship for that matter. Friendships involve give and take, and the real support and encouragement tends to happen over time, frequently when you're not looking for it. It may not even be on point! There's something inherently beneficial about having positive social interactions with people, regardless of the subject matter.*

So I'd suggest this: sometimes you feel like you absolutely have to talk about your problems with someone. That you won't be able to function unless you do. If that really is the case, call your therapist. Get one, if you don't have one. But when you're feeling that way, ask yourself whether your feelings reflect reality. You may feel like you can't do anything until you get stuff off your chest, but that isn't always true. And it may be that getting your mind off of things, that starting to think about and care about other people, could be just the thing. If your own problems seem overwhelming, maybe you just need to give them a break and focus on something other than yourself. Gain some perspective. Interact with someone else about seeming trivialities. Listen to their problems. Maybe share some of your own, if the opportunity presents itself, but treat them like a friend, not someone who exists to listen to you on demand. That's what you pay your therapist for.

In short: sometimes you really do need to talk something through with someone. But sometimes you just need to give your brain something else to think about while the angry/angsty/whatever hormones metabolize. And in my experience, the latter is the case more often than the former. Not always, by any means, and it certainly doesn't feel that way in the moment. But emotions clouding one's perspective is the basic problem with depression, no?

Once you've got a sufficiently strong relationship with someone, you can get to a point where you can just call someone up and say "You. Me. Drinks. Now." and have that be okay. I've got one or two really close friends who will take that call, and for whom I'd reciprocate. But most of the time we just hang out. Maybe we'll talk about our problems, maybe we won't, but I've consistently found that the shared social interaction helps me with my problems, even if we don't talk about them.

Also remember that you're a college student, as are most of your friends in all likelihood. As a former college student, I can tell you this with certainty: you have no idea what you're doing in terms of forming and maintaining adult relationships, and neither do your friends. At that age everyone is still figuring out who they were, let alone who they are and who they're going to be. Both you and your friends will figure out what it means to have meaningful, supportive adult friendships as you experiment with them. But you have to keep at it, and there will be false steps, mistakes, and hurt feelings. That's just life. The upside is that working through those things with your friends will not only bring you closer together, but make you more responsible and mature friendship partners.

Stick with it. It's worth it.

*Ever wonder how our grandparents and their grandparents survived while never seeming to really talk about anything really personal? Yet most of them seemed fairly well-adjusted, all things considered? I've a theory that having strong, vibrant, long-standing social relationships can serve as a processing and stress outlet for those sort of issues. Having friends is a positive good, even if you don't share everything.
posted by valkyryn at 7:12 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you should also take a look at this (very popular) TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability, which discusses shame, fear, vulnerability why it's so important to take the risk of sharing what you think others might judge you for.

When I went through a rough patch, watching this talk was a little like going to a good church or something — it gave me a lot of strength to be honest, open and vulnerable with my friends about the situation. Vulnerability is, in fact strength. Vulnerability is the key to love. If you keep these things in mind, it's much easier to be brave when reaching out.

Good luck with it all.
posted by amoeba at 7:15 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: First—I feel for you; especially the part of me that deeply and painfully remembers how I was as severely depressed, but also heigh-achieving, undergrad who simply could not figure out how to articulate my mental state to close friends. And secondly—one anecdote from those days that really helped me take the first steps toward having healthier friend relations, and one piece of advice from my life right now (which took me all the way until now to realize).

When I was at my worst, in undergrad, I had a falling out with my dearest friend at the time who absolutely could not handle any mention of depression from me. I was like you when talking about it—super stoic, describing things that had happened, but only in dim or vague outline, and not soliciting advice on how to move forward—and she took that to mean her friendship was a) not good enough to keep me from feeling terribly to begin with (i.e. I had not realized how much I was loved or cared for), and b) not good enough in the moment because I wasn't telling her how she could help, so it seemed to her like she didn't even exist as someone who could be helpful. I of course felt completely rebuffed by her, because her response to feeling rebuffed herself was to tell me she didn't want to hear it—but later on, she came back and told me directly what was bothering her. She said, "Look, I love you and I care about you, but you don't seem to believe this is true. If you don't believe I am someone who can be there for you, and you don't tell me what I can do to help, how am I supposed to be there for you?"

Of course, part of being cripplingly depressed, for me at least, was having so much anxiety about what it might mean to reach out that I was severely misperceiving how my careful reveals about my situation would seem to the people who loved me. It seemed to them like I was gently telling them that I'd been in a terrible space that I hadn't trusted them to help me with sooner and that I still didn't trust them to help me with. I was so stoic about it that they felt outside of my life and incapable, and so our conversations devolved into superfluous exchanges because, like you, I got gun-shy about their seemingly flippant responses and disappeared into myself even further. Until my friend gave me that opposing point of view, I was in danger of losing some of the very best people in my life.

As for the advice from me as I am now (that is to say, someone who now has such a well-developed social network that it does exactly what you assume it might do—helps me get through those moments when the bell jar seems about to descend again)—you need to think very carefully and objectively about the things you have told people about yourself. Try to imagine them written out, all in sequence: here are all the things I have told Person A, in these words, and in this tone of voice. Then you need to determine how many of those things were purely descriptions of events or circumstances ("I was hospitalized," "I've been depressed") and how many were actual expressions of need ("When I am depressed, I really need a friend who tells me I am loved," "When I talk about the time I spent in hospital, it takes a lot of courage, and I need to feel like the person I'm talking to understands how vulnerable these small confessions make me"). Then you need to take all the things that were pure description and push them aside, and not hold your friend accountable for reacting to them in a way you would deem adequate. You can't hold your friend accountable in this way because of what RuthlessBunny describes. They aren't you, and they aren't going to know what those events contained for you, or how you need them to react. They are going to do the best they can, and very often it is not going to seem like the right thing, or enough.

If you have directly and seriously articulated your needs, however, and your friend is either actively or passively unable to address or meet them (and your needs are reasonable—i.e. not "I need someone who will buy me a house in the woods and have hot apple cider sent to me daily" or "I need someone who will spend 24/7 at my bedside for as long as it takes"), then you can reconsider the friendship, or move toward people who are better listeners, and more attentive.

I suspect you know there are not a lot of things you have said that fall under column number two (direct expressions of need). I am still learning how to say to someone, "Hi, I am struggling with this specific thing, and I've realized it would really help if you did _______." (It is also important, I hasten to add, that you not do this in any way that can sound or feel accusatory—it should be an overture, as much as possible. A thing you are telling someone else about yourself because you want to be understood, not because they are misunderstanding.) But learning how to say this, even to a few people, is gold. You can choose your people carefully (work up to larger expressions of need from smaller ones), and you do have to venture a lot of trust in their direction, but I bet, in the end, you will find yourself surrounded by much more love and support than you've yet imagined.

Best of luck!
posted by trainsurfing at 10:31 AM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Beyond those one or two people who are "friendship gold" as human ecologist put it, the ones with the capacity to deeply listen and validate you wherever you are at, (and you may not happen to have friends like that right now), you probably have to reduce your expectations and meet them more than halfway. You may not be able to engage them in problem solving ("I feel XYZ and don't know what to do"), but they can still be part of your team if you can figure out what would help, then communicate that to them.

"I have to get out of the house. Could I just come over and watch TV with you or whatever? I'm not going to be good company, so please don't be offended if I'm not much for conversation." Or "yeah, I've been having a pretty hard time of it lately. Even small household tasks seem so overwhelming. Say, I don't suppose you'd want to make a date to go to the laundromat together? I could sure use some help getting motivated. But please don't make fun of how much laundry I have! I'm embarrassed about how practically everything I own is dirty." Giving energetic, chipper people ways that they can help you helps channel their desire to help you feel better. Otherwise, they might try to cheer you up verbally, or otherwise feel like they're struggling with how to help and ultimately failing.

...on preview, what trainsurfing said is what I'm trying to say except ten times more sophisticated. if you can actually articulate how they can emotionally support you (as opposed to supporting you by doing laundry together), all the better.
posted by salvia at 11:57 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I really appreciate everyone's feedback. This is something that's been worrying me and occupying a lot of my mind, and it's really nice to get advice from people who are more removed and maybe better able to observe things I can't.

I think what a few people mentioned about how many friends aren't equipped to dealing with this or talking about it—probably true. It's obviously not easy for me to understand that and still not feel a little betrayed, but I will try. There are definitely situations where I don't think I give enough of an opener or enough indication of what kind of support I want (which is usually just "tell me it's okay to be sad and hug me").

A lot of people mentioned this is what a therapist was for—concrete and constant support when necessary. I do have a therapist but I actually have some very similar problems with her (not opening up). So it is my hope that if I can get around to a better mindset about opening up and being vulnerable, it will also make the therapy thing a bit easier.

Again, thanks so much, I have a lot to think about and try now.
posted by Sudo at 8:03 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

it is my hope that if I can get around to a better mindset about opening up and being vulnerable, it will also make the therapy thing a bit easier.

Sounds like that's the first thing to work on in therapy then.
posted by valkyryn at 1:57 AM on December 31, 2013

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