Each of us is a Dear Abby to the world. We dish out advice and opinions whether asked for or not; me included! Much of this is harmless; some necessary and kind. Then there’s the stuff we dole out without knowing what the hell we’re talking about. Where we should tread carefully, we plod along.
For better or for worse, there’s tremendous power in words. When we are vulnerable – as we are during a depression – the critical or misguided words of others take on the ring of gospel. Some may blame us for our depression in a ploy to get us to snap out of it. In one poll, 54% of Americans said that they thought of depression as a “moral weakness”.
Years ago, when I first told my four law partners that I was diagnosed with depression and would need to take time off, they sat there stunned. After a moment of awkward silence, one partner said, “What in the world do you have to be depressed about? You’ve got a great job, wife, family and friends. What do you need, a vacation?” This is an all too common response. His school of thought would argue that it was a lack of gratefulness that was at the root of my distress. Carried to its logical (or illogical) conclusion, we have control over our depressed state and if we only try harder by thinking positive thoughts, it will all go away.
In the book, Unholy Ghosts: Writers on Depression, author Susanna Kaysen says:
“The Failure of Will theory is popular with people who are not depressed. Get out and take your mind off yourself, they say. You’re too self-absorbed. This is just about the stupidest thing you can say to a depressed person, and it is said every day to depressed people all over this country. And if it isn’t that, it’s, Shut up and take your Prozac. These attitudes are contradictory. Conquer Your Depression and Everything Can Be Fixed by the Miracle of Science presuppose opposite explanations of the problem. One blames character, the other neurotransmitters. They are often thrown at the sufferer in sequence: Get out and do something, and if that doesn’t work, take pills. Sometimes they’re used simultaneously: You won’t take those pills because you don’t WANT to do anything about your depression, i.e. Failure of Will.”
These observations capture some of the angst – and yes, anger – of depressives. When I was struggling with other’s judgments about my depression, I thought, “What do I have to do to be worthy of their mercy?” In retrospect, it wasn’t a question of worthiness, but ignorance. Some people (friends, family and business associates) will never be able to overcome the inertia of their own ignorance. They’re not bad people. It’s just the way life is. And we have to learn to be okay with that. But then there are others. These precious souls – and there don’t have to be lots of them – who have our back. They truly want to understand and help. Mother Teresa was once asked by a hard-boiled reporter what God expects of humanity. I think the reporter expected some stock answer. Mother Teresa, in all her gracious dignity, said that all God really wants from us to be is a “loving presence” to one another. There are those in our lives who want to be that presence to us. Give them the chance to be that light.