How to check in on depression without making it worse

Rebecca Wirfs-Brock wrote in response to Notes from the Crucible #6:

Lately, I’ve been reaching out to   couple of people who I know are in very tough situations, just giving them a lifeline…commenting on what they are up to. Checking in… And that is something I ask for your opinion on: is it better to check in or not? I think so…but would appreciate hearing your thoughts.
I got her permission to share the question and my response, because I think it’s an important question, and my answer might not be what you expect.

First off, though, a disclaimer: I can only speak for myself.

I hesitate to say flat-out that you shouldn’t check in with me when I’m depressed. But checking in isn’t the unalloyed good that it might seem like at first.

The thing is, anytime someone checks in with me when I’m feeling down, it adds a little bit more weight. I feel responsible for summoning the emotional strength to respond. To either respond positively, so they feel better, or to respond honestly and take on the added (perceived) burden of bringing them down. A lot of times the “How are you? Do you want to talk? How can I help? You know, when I get depressed, I like to…” chatter can be exhausting to deal with.

I think my advice is similar to the advice for visiting someone who has just experienced a great tragedy. You don’t go in and say “what can I do? Just tell me if you need anything!”. That kind of extra thought is the last thing that they need right now.  If you go in at all, you bustle in with some bags of groceries and you say “I’m going to make you dinner.”

The equivalent for checking in on depression, for me, is that I don’t want you to ask me how I’m doing, or try to comfort me in ways that make me feel obliged to show some response. What I want is to hear about you. Specifically, I want to hear about you kicking ass in some aspect of your life. I want to hear about your enthusiasms, and your triumphs.

Rather than asking about me, I’d rather have someone say “Hey. You sounded like you could use a distraction. Check out this chicken coop I built over the weekend. I got like a thousand splinters in the process. No need to reply.”

It’s not that I want to hear about how great your life is. I just want to see you fighting and thriving. It takes the focus off of me, and it stands a chance of inspiring me.

Again, this is just me.

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One Comment

  1. That makes a lot of sense.

    A couple of years ago, I was severely depressed. I thought about taking a late-night stroll down a train line with headphones on. Several times. What stopped me was thinking about how it’d hurt the people I love, and impact on the poor people who’d have to clean up the mess.

    If somebody had asked me what I needed, I wouldn’t have been able to put it into words. But looking back, I think distraction was it. I really wanted to have fun, and my life was so far from fun at the time.

    Thanks Avdi!

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