“I would rather have cancer.” This was something my dad once said to me when he was struggling with his mental health. It was met with horror from me. How can you say you would rather have cancer? What an awful thing to come out with. But when someone chooses to end their life rather than continue to suffer with their illness you know that the place they were in really was that bad.
This week I have watched some deeply moving interviews from Linkin Park front man, Chester Bennington, who took his life last week. He talks about his struggles with depression and the darkness that he often experienced in his head.
When my dad expressed that feeling to me, what I should have said is “does it feel that awful?”, but for someone naive to that level of mental illness I felt like nothing could possibly be worse than having cancer. I saw my grandparents die from cancer, and it seemed at the time that there were few things that could be worse. But that’s because you can’t see the invisible torture of mental illness. You can’t see the demons in someone’s head that are bringing them down and pushing them into the darkest of places.
I will always feel guilty about that moment. That lack of understanding. Typically anything good that I said is easier to forget – such is human nature. We hang on to the things that we could have done better, but perhaps that is how we learn to improve ourselves, from our failures and not from our successes.
Listening to Chester Bennington’s interviews reminded me of the things I should have, or shouldn’t have, said. It’s led me to write this blog, because when someone we know or love is struggling with depression, or at a low point in life, there is no ‘how to’ manual to follow.
One – It’s irrelevant whether someone is successful or penniless, because what they are experiencing in their head is all-consuming, and it’s not a choice. It can be like a switch flicking in their head and then they are stuck in that mode. Trapped. For that reason, there is no point in trying to compare someone else’s life to theirs. No purpose in pointing out people who are worse off in the world than them. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change any of the irrational, uncontrollable dark thoughts in someone’s head. It just adds an extra layer of guilt.
Two – Depression isn’t a state that is within the normal range of emotions. It isn’t simply feeling low or unhappy for a short period and it isn’t something that someone can ‘snap out’ of. So “Come on, cheer up.” or “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” isn’t going to help, however well meaning. For someone living with depression every single day is a struggle and it’s not going to go away overnight, in a few days or weeks. It can last months or years and there isn’t necessarily a reason for it. It is so often inexplicable.
Three – It’s good to talk but it’s also good to listen, although it can be exhausting so respite is essential. If you don’t know what to say or do it doesn’t matter. We so often want to fix things so that we can move on and get on with life, but when someone has depression and they are telling you how they feel it’s not because they want or expect you to help them or fix them, it’s because they need to let it out. Otherwise they are alone with their dark thoughts. Just listening and being there and coming back to see them can be more helpful than all the advice in the world.
Four – Depression also effects people physically. It can feel like crawling through treacle. The weight of both mind and body is incomprehensible. It can appear that they are being self-pitying but when their mind is locked in this mode that can’t see past the self it is hard to talk about anything other than that which consumes them. So for someone to dismiss them as self-pitying when they are at their most vulnerable is painful and can lead to someone becoming more introverted and feeling more isolated. Keeping the channels of communication open is vitally important, as hard as that may be.
Five – You should not be going through this alone. Professional support is vital. If you are caring for someone with depression you should also seek support.This is for everyone’s benefit including your loved one. You need to offload too and you shouldn’t feel guilty about this. Depression is no sprint. You could be facing a marathon so you need professional help. Carers UK can offer support.
With thanks to Facebook Group Women with ADHD (UK based) and the administrator, my sister, Laura Heaney.