Don't Strategize, Empathize: How To Approach Someone About Depression

by Julia Weiss

I don't remember the first time I realized I was depressed, but I remember what happened the first time someone else did.

I was 14 years old. I got called to the principal's office. Me.

I had straight A's, captained my middle school softball team and never put a toe out of line. Yet, here I was, shepherded into the windowed room where my principal held the door open for me.

My heart pounded and my hands shook as I sunk into the hardbacked wooden chair in the office.

Even under torture, I wouldn't have been able to tell you why I was there.

The principal didn't speak right away. He leaned on clasped hands over his desk, his normally-kind face reflecting a strange marriage of disappointment and concern.

I waited, too scared to speak up, until he cleared his throat and looked away. "Julia," he said. "I know what's been going on."

He knew. I could still play dumb, though. "Know what?" I asked, trying to keep my voice from wavering.

He looked at me for a long time. "Show me your arms," he said.

And that was it. I couldn't escape.

I had to pull up the sleeves of my sweater (too warm for spring) and confirm that, yes, my arms were lined with scars. The rumors were true. How he'd heard them, I didn't know, but there was no denying them now.

After that, he did all the "right" thing: He called my parents, who kept me out of school for a few days while they shuttled me to four different psychologists. I couldn't go back until a professional deemed it safe.

I explained to four different women that I could only silence the voices in my head by carving their words into my skin. I promised each of them I would stop, and for a while, because they and my parents and my teachers were watching, I did.

I let them "fix" me. By summer (when I positively could not wear sweaters anymore), the scars had faded.

It didn't last long, though. Less than a year.

The next time the voices came back, I was careful. I stood in the shower with a razor and let them talk me into worthlessness, let them convince me I needed to pay.

I paid secretly, though, covering parts that were easier to hide.

I knew that as long as my arms were clean and as long as I could force a smile onto my face, everyone watching would be happy. "The treatment's working," they'd say. "She's cured."

And yet.

I am 19 now, and I am still waning in and out of these cycles. You won't see it at first glance, but I'm still covered in scars.

It puzzles a lot of people because I have been in therapy, have tried medicine and can calm my nerves with exercise.

On paper, I should be "better." On paper, I should be clean.

I would never devalue therapy or any of the numerous remedies that can and do numb the pain of depression. I would, however, wager that the long-abused strategy of repair for the depressed is faulty.

I've used it. While I have a fuller understanding of my triggers and a longer list of mantras for when I can't get out of bed, I am still depressed. Completely. They couldn't fix me.

Here's the problem, at least as I see it: Say your friend comes to you in a moment of bravery or desperation or loneliness and admits that the past few months have been more than hard; they've been unbearable.

She doesn't want to put labels on anything, but she doesn't think that what she's feeling is normal. She doesn't know what to do and doesn't know where to turn for help.

You probe her a little and find out that she's sad when she wakes up and sad when she goes to bed and sad all the times in-between. She's depressed, you think to yourself. No one would fault you for surmising as such.

So you suggest therapy, or medicine, or spending more time with friends. You are genuinely compassionate and even enterprising enough to hop on Google with her and find a psychologist covered by her insurance.

She thanks you, shyly but still profusely, for helping her. In many ways, you have.

You have been a good friend. You have acted as any good friend would, suggesting options for improvement and, later, emphatically ensuring that she follows up on them. Many of my friends and especially my parents have done the same.

Thank you. I mean that.

We have arrived at the problem, though. Particularly in the later years, when I had already tried therapy and fretted over the side effects of medicine, I didn't want recommendations on what I could do.

I already knew the "right" thing to do. It was old news.

I wanted someone to listen. I wanted someone to empathize. I wanted someone to give me a good, hard look up and down and say, "Julia, I'm so sorry. This must be really difficult for you," without proposing solutions to numb the difficulty.

More than that, I wanted someone to hold me and whisper that it was okay. Not that it would be after I tried a new therapist or switched up the drug cocktail floating around in my brain, but that it was okay now.

That it was okay to feel what I felt.

This sounds confusing, I know. Why wouldn't someone want help after reaching out for it? Why wouldn't someone want to feel better? Why wouldn't they want to climb out of their hole?

Here's why:

Trying to fix us may ultimately do so, but it also reminds us that we're broken

It makes us feel like we are less than you. It makes us ashamed.

In my case, it made me secretive. It made me hide what was hurting because anyone who found out Googled 20 or 30 ways to numb the pain.

They did so with the best of intentions, but they never failed to make me feel like I'd done something wrong. What I felt was wrong; what I struggled with was wrong. I was wrong. I needed to be made right.

That strategy perpetuates its own cycle of negativity. I have come to understand that it prolonged my depression.

I needed help, but I couldn't ask for it or accept it because I didn't want to be a disappointment. I didn't want to be a burden. Though I certainly looked broken and fit the textbook definition, I didn't feel like I did. I didn't want to.

Asking for help and being given a deadline by which I needed to be "fixed" convinced me, maybe permanently, that I should feel it. It convinced me time and time again that there is something wrong with me. Therein lies the flaw of repair.

I am not proposing an alternative, though. Therapy and the other parts of repair are incredibly beneficial to those struggling with mental health problems and have been particularly crucial for me.

I am simply asking for a concurrent treatment.

Empathize, don't strategize.

Telling us we need to be fixed instills in us the belief that we will not be loved until we aren't broken.

We will not be good enough until we have marched ourselves through a labyrinth of psychoanalysis and medication and come out victorious on the other side. This may not be the intention, but I have found it to be the impression.

We need to know we are loved even as we are hurting. We need to know we are not broken because the load that descends once you have proven to us that we are is too difficult to bear.

We need the license not to be okay, even if it's just for a little while. We need you to tell us not only that it will be okay, but also that it is. 

We are still good enough. That feeling is powerful ammunition. With that feeling, we will pursue treatment and we will be happy to accept your suggestions about which paths to walk.

When the pressure to get better is lifted off our shoulders, we will engage more fully with our treatment and admit to things we would hide if we only focused on appearances.

For a while, I wouldn't tell my therapists when I had made a new cut. They were impressed with my progress and were sending good reports to my parents, so I didn't want to disappoint them.

I wish I had known I wouldn't. I wish everyone knew.

It's on us to convince them that they have no reason to be ashamed. They will feel down; they will have bad days and weeks and even years. The prospect of a new day will be daunting. They might not be able to get out of bed.

Instead of pulling them out, lie down with them. Listen. Tell them you love them. Tell them it's okay, and eventually, it will be.

Don't strategize. Empathize.