If “I believe you” are the three most powerful words you can say to someone with an invisible illness. Four of the hardest or most painful words to absorb — whether they are said directly or communicated indirectly through insensitive behavior — are “I don’t believe you.” And yet, people who live with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders hear them over and over and over again from family members and friends.
“How do you keep from getting resentful?” a reader asked me the other day.
I wish I had four simple instructions to make friends and family comprehend the kind of handicaps that don’t come with a parking spot, or at least, be empathetic toward those that are plagued by them. However, some confusion and ache is inevitable because some people are simply incapable of understanding. Here are a few things that help me to remain a kind, well-adjusted member of society in the face of ignorance.
1. Hang with people who do get it.
I can only tolerate the “just smile and be happy” folks if I am supported by people who really do get it. I have to fill up my tank before going into situations that will be generous with offensive comments. Since my profession consists of disclosing my inner demons and insecurities online, I hear from lots of people who struggle in the way I do. Their comments and insights — plus the warm fuzzies I get on Group Beyond Blue, my online support group — shield me from the arrows of the often-well-meaning-but-nonetheless-hurtful comments from the clueless ones. You absolutely need two or three people in your life who understand what you mean when you say your amygdala (fear center) is throwing a toga party in your brain and you need some help breaking it up.
2. Get a translator.
My husband should have been a diplomat because he excels at translating things … like my symptoms to people who care about me but have no understanding of mood disorders. Although he has never suffered from clinical depression, he gets it. Twenty years of living with my volatile moods have provided quite an education. I don’t know if he uses a different lingo — like a native tongue for people who have never wanted to die — or if it’s just because he is a layman (someone who isn’t on Prozac), but people tend to understand my condition better when he explains it.
3. Try to educate.
You can try. Just try. If you have a concise article or powerful essay that conveys the essence of your struggles, you should share it. The worst thing that can happen is that they will look at you as though they’ve just read a pamphlet in Mandarin Chinese. If they were oblivious before this gesture, you haven’t lost anything. But only share it if you can shed all expectations that they’ll see the light. No expectations, no suffering. I say this because I was convinced that writing a book about the nonsense going down inside my head would surely edify certain family members and friends on the basics of depression. Nope!
4. Don’t take anything personally.
Related to my point about no expectations is this reminder not to take anything personally. It’s the second agreement of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. Ruiz writes: “Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.”
5. Prepare some comebacks.
It’s helpful to have a few phrases ready to throw out, such as, “Thanks for your stupid, idiotic, condescending suggestion, jerk.” I mean, “Thanks for the suggestion.” Or “Interesting …” Or just, “Thanks.” Toni Bernhard, author of “How to Be Sick,” calls this “wise speech” or “sparse speech.” After being told to “just drink coffee” by a doctor to get rid of her chronic fatigue syndrome — and hundreds of other insensitive comments — she knew she’d better come up with some canned material to use in response.
6. Blow bubbles.
Blowing bubbles is a visualization I use to help me picture people’s mean comments up in the air floating … away from me … not able to hurt me. I also visualize myself as a solid water wall, and the unsolicited feedback and stinging remarks as streams of water coming over me, yet not changing who I am. Visualizations like this can be extremely helpful when you are stranded next to a Scientologist who believes that if you think you are happy, you will be happy.
7. Cut them some slack.
Mood disorders are as easy for me to understand as kindergarten math, but that’s because my education started before I was out of diapers. Depression is like a culture that is difficult to understand if you haven’t lived in the country or spoken the language. When I lived with a French family the summer between my junior and senior year in high school, I was in culture shock almost the whole time. Women sunbathing without tops, dogs eating off the table, naps in the middle of the afternoon. I found that some things, like humor, just didn’t translate. So I must go easy on those who don’t get it. Maybe they are stuck, like I was, on the dogs or the bathing suits.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.