Friends on Call—Part 2

Aren't friends grand?

“Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.” – by Maya Angelou

As people with depression, it can be hard to reach out and ask for help. All that negative self-talk and low self-esteem stand in our way like the new wall down on the Texas-Mexico border and make it nearly impossible to ask for help, not to mention the complete absence of energy and inability to focus. It feels so vulnerable to reveal to others that we are struggling with a mood disorder. Won’t people think less of us if we tell them what’s going on?

The Stigma of Depression

There is no doubt that there is still a stigma associated with having a mood disorder, even something as commonplace as depression. Approximately 9.5% of American adults, or nearly 21 million people, have some form of depression Think about it: this rate is roughly equal to the current national unemployment rate. Major depression alone is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. among people aged 15-44. Can we say, “Billions of dollars in lost productivity, missed taxes, and disability benefits paid”? And yet, Congress is passing all kinds of laws to address the issue of unemployment, all the while completely ignoring the pandemic of depression in this country. (In contrast, as of the end of last year, there were fewer than 116,000 cases of swine flu, and you know all the resources and P.R. that were mobilized on behalf of that disease. Hmmm, 21 million vs. 116,000 …. Not to minimize the severity and trauma of influenza for the folks who had it and their families, especially those who lost their lives, but isn’t it time our nation mobilized on behalf of depression?)

Sorry. Got off on my soapbox. We’ll talk more about the costs associated with depression another time. Meanwhile, kudos to CBS for their positive efforts to raise awareness about depression as a treatable illness through their CBS Cares public service announcements

I have had many experiences with the stigma of depression, all of which served to ignite a great deal of shame and worsen the depression. The most dramatic instance concerned the boss I had at the time I was diagnosed with major depression and dysthymia. When the depression got so bad that I had to go on medical leave, he did a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde number where he went from being a hey-aren’t-we-good-buddies kind of boss to not even looking me in the eye, refusing to shake my hand, etc. I might as well have had leprosy. It was all I could do not to wish my own fate on him. (Voodoo doll, anyone?)

Be Vulnerable to Be Strong

It took a great deal for me to admit to the world through this blog that I have depression and to share my struggles and triumphs surrounding it. What I came to recognize, however, is that doing so makes me stronger and keeps me well. In my vulnerability, paradoxically, lies my strength. As the Enigma song “Return to Innocence” croons, “Don’t be afraid to be weak / Don’t be too proud to be strong / … That will be the return to yourself.” Refusing to feel ashamed about an illness that is as physiological as diabetes and heart disease—and that is much less preventable—helps me to recover faster.

I believe this paradox to be true for all people with depression. It is only when we accept our illness and reach out for the help we need that we can begin to get well. This is why your support team is so important. Because the stigma of depression is real, however, I want to share some suggestions on how to build and work with your team. You want to be discerning at the same time you are reaching out.

Building Your Support Team

  • Go slowly as you begin to build your team. Relationships can’t be rushed.
  • Start with the Level 4 and Level 3 folks, the ones you’ve known the longest and with whom you are the most comfortable. (See the previous blog post on the different levels of support.) When you’ve got those people in place, go on to Levels 2 and 1.
  • If they don’t already know, explain to them that you have depression. You might invite them to go out for coffee or lunch, take a walk, or sit on a bench at the mall and talk to them.
  • Educate them. Share with them any information you may have about depression, the diagnos(es) you have received, and the treatment you are currently receiving. Share with them CPR4D’s “Unofficial But Really Real Diagnostic Quiz” and ask them to help you take it, or show them your results.
  • Explain that although depression has been debilitating for you, you are determined not to let it run your life and will do everything you possibly can to get well. Add that your primary goal is connecting with others and living your life as productively as possible.
  • Direct them to this blog. They can follow it along with you.
  • Explain clearly what you need from them. Tell them the kinds of support you need: Listening? Feedback and advice? Help getting up on time to go to work? Help with the kids? The house? Errands? Paying bills and managing finances? Exercise buddy? Shared activities? (Even going to the movies together can be supportive.) Give them options and let them pick the tasks and roles they’d be most comfortable assisting you with.
  • Explain that you have several supporters and that they will not be the only ones helping you.
  • Explain that you see the relationships as reciprocal, and that you, in turn, wish to provide support to them in whatever ways they need that are mutually agreeable.
  • Say that you recognize that they may not always be available, and that you would appreciate them letting you know that clearly, without prevarication. That way, you can contact someone else on your team instead.
  • Arrange frequency of contact. I suggest a minimum of 3-4 times a week for the Level 4 folks, 2-3 times a week for the Level 3 folks, and less often for the Levels 2 and 1 people.
  • Exchange contact info and the best times to call. Add this info to your chart as soon as you get home and post the chart on your fridge or bathroom mirror, with a copy in your purse or wallet. Posting your support team chart where you can see it frequently every day will remind you that you are not alone and that you do have the support you need to get well and live a better, healthier life.
  • Add all your support team members’ phone numbers to your cell phone’s phonebook, with your Level 4’s on speed dial.
  • Stay in touch! Ask your team members to contact you if they have not heard from you in specified period of time, say, a week.
  • Thank them periodically for supporting you. Show appreciation as best you can. If you can host a potluck, have them over. If that’s too stressful, then take them out for coffee and a chat. A simple “I appreciate you” email can do wonders to uplift their spirits, too.

Building your support network is an ongoing exercise in discernment, trust, communication, and reciprocity—in short, relationships. I don’t know about you, but I know that I need lots of practice in this area! Making the decision to intentionally build a support team, commit to maintaining it and using it, and provide reciprocal support to the members of your team is an exercise in conscious relationships that few people undertake, even those who do not have depression. It takes courage and can be extremely rewarding in ways you may not be able to see right now.

Next time: “The Dailies.” Finally!

(c) 2010 by Patricia R. Henschen


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