What would I want my congregation to know? Part II

Posted on February 6, 2007

If there’s a book called The Care and Feeding of Your Depressed Friend, this should be a chapter. The following are taken directly from my experience. Unfortunately.

What not to say to someone who is depressed or bipolar:

  1. Snap out of it / get over it
    Believe me, if I could, I would. In a heartbeat. Or less.
  2. You’re too sensitive
    Maybe, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m struggling with an emotional disorder.
  3. Everyone gets depressed
    Everyone can have situational depressions; far fewer have chemical depressions when nothing is wrong in their lives.
  4. What’s wrong? What do you have to be depressed about?
    Nothing, and that’s the point. I endure terribly low depressions even when life is quite good.
  5. Stop whining. Nobody likes to be around someone who is sad/cries/complains all the time
    Which is exactly why I don’t want to tell my friends or ask for support. And then it’s even harder to get better.
  6. Lighten up / you need to toughen up
    Thicker skin will not change how I feel inside.
  7. Get over yourself already / Why is it always about you? / You’re just trying to get attention
    There are far less painful ways to get attention, if that’s what I wanted. I withdraw and isolate because I don’t want attention. And it’s about me because this is what’s going on with me. This is my reality. Comments like this also contribute to my not wanting to ask for support.
  8. This again? Didn’t we go through this a month/year/whenever ago? / I’m not your therapist
    That’s the problem with episodic, cycling depression, the problem with bipolar: it always comes back, no matter what I do. I can find tools to cope, control the worst of it with medication, but it will always be there. Many people are happy to help–once. But for those of us with cycling depression or bipolar once usually isn’t enough. I know that I may need extra support as often as 2-4 times a year. And when people ask, this again? it further reduces my willingness to ask for the support I need.
  9. It’s not Jewish to be depressed / It’s a mitzvah to be happy
    Believe me, if I could, I would. I’d much rather be happy. But being happy is not one of the 613 mitzvot, and calling on G-d for help from the depths of despair seems to me to be exceptionally Jewish. Besides, where or when–ever–in our history were Jews always happy?
  10. You owe it to your family/husband/children to ignore this; they need you more than you need to be depressed / You could feel better if you only tried hard enough
    Again, it’s not a choice. It’s not something I can ignore or put behind me. It’s not something I can control any more than someone can ignore their asthma or diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome. It is my reality and I have to work within it. And sometimes that means I have to take care of myself before I can take care of my family.
  11. I know what you mean / I’ve been depressed, too
    I don’t know how to take this. Lots of people have had situational depression, feeling down because of a trauma, unemployment, death, financial problems, divorce, infertility, terminal diagnosis, war, etc. Far fewer really know what it’s like to have a chemical imbalance: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder. How do I know you really know what I mean? Until I do, I’m more likely to see this as patroizing, even if it’s entirely well-intentioned.
  12. This too, shall pass
    Yes, that’s true. And I remind myself that in a few days or weeks or months, provided I don’t harm myself, it will eventually get better. But eventually doesn’t help me now. And now is when I need help.
  13. What can I do to help? ** See comments, please. I will be writing more about this.
    This may be the most-asked question and the hardest to answer. If I’m already in a depression, I won’t know what you can do. I simply can’t think. It’s better to find a time when I’m stable and create a written plan for the next depression: this is what you can do, this is how you can help, this is what I need. Maybe it’s child care for a few hours or going to the grocery store for me or making some telephone calls or helping me to clean my kitchen or maybe it’s just sitting with me while I bawl my eyes out.

    I know people who have done training in bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. One of the things they learned is not to ask, what can I do to help? because quite often the sick person doesn’t know.
    Instead, offer something you know you can do: run errands, babysit, cook a meal (beware of kashrut issues), help clean, visit, make phone calls, enlist other support, walk the dog, check out books from the library. Think about things you would want help with when you’re sick.

    Finally, please be understanding. I may be too embarrassed for you to see my house after a week or more of depression where I can’t clean. I may not want to impose. When you offer to do something, I often see it as a trade, even if you don’t. You’ll do this for me and then when you need something, you’ll call in the favor. Of course, I would do everything I can for my friends, if I’m able. But I can’t guarantee when I’ll be able, and I dislike feeling that I owe someone something. So I may say no because I want to avoid the debt. If you offer, and if you mean it, make sure you offer with no strings attached.

  14. I know your plate is full, but can you help us with this / We could really use your help / I helped you when you were depressed, now it’s your turn
    When I’m depressed, I can’t. I simply can not. And guilt trips will breed resentment. Besides, I self-guilt myself better than anyone else can. When I’m hypomanic, I will absolutely help, but at a cost, because I tend to overcommit when I’m hypomanic. And my emotional cycles work such that at the height of my hypomania, something insignificant will happen and trigger a crash. Within literally minutes, I can go from laughing extrovert to sobbing negative self-worth. I do my best to hide it. If I’m in public, I find a restroom and ride out the initial crash there. If you know I have a lot going on, please consider not asking me to do something more. Or ask me to do it when I’m in a better emotional state.


  1. Unknown

    I should write more just about that question (what can I do to help?), since it’s nearly always asked with the best of intentions, and I don’t want to discourage that.

    100%. It has a lot to do with the other posts, and other comments people have made, about helping: Some people do nothing because they think it’s better than trying to help and doing the wrong thing. They simply don’t know what to do. Perhaps even coming up with small things would help everyone: Them to help, and the person receiving the help can see that they in fact DO care – which would be a big step.

  2. Remson Wood

    Another brilliant piece that I simply had to link to my blog, http://www.fromlalaland.com It truly is a useful guide to offer ourloved ones.

  3. Rivka

    Ezzie: You’re right, 13 is hard. It’s actually why I chose it to be #13. Judaism likes the number 13, even though we say we like 12.

    I should write more just about that question (what can I do to help?), since it’s nearly always asked with the best of intentions, and I don’t want to discourage that.

    My only point in the context of this list about “what can I do to help?” is that I can’t give an answer that would help you to help me.

    Today a friend asked me without a break between questions: “Are you okay? Can I give you a hug? Or maybe you don’t want a hug? It’s okay if you don’t. Do you want to be alone? I can leave. But you look so sad. Can I give you a hug? Do you want that? Or maybe I should just go? Whatever you want. Just tell me.”

    All I could say was, I don’t know what I want.

  4. Unknown

    Wow, I thought you were just giving examples. I can’t believe people actually SAY most of these.

    But I think you’re right about it not being malicious – I’m sure I’ve said a few of them (3,4 for sure) to people, but I doubt they suffer from depression. Of course, if they do, then they would have heard it very differently. You’re right about society making it that way to some extent – people just don’t get it.

    For 13, I think the next question a person would ask is “so then what can I do?” During the “good” times, it might be even harder for the person to understand or see what you go through. (Perhaps you could write a post on just how people can help in general?)

  5. Rivka

    Yes, unfortunately, I’ve heard most of these multiple times. I don’t think people meant anything malicious. I think they just didn’t understand.

    In America anyway, people throw the word depression around like it’s a minor downer. I was so depressed my favorite TV show wasn’t on last night. My favorite sports team lost and I was depressed all weekend. That sort of thing. So when I say I’m climing out of a three-week-long severe depression, they just don’t get it.

    Believe it or not, 1-6 are the ones I hear most often.

  6. Ayelet

    People actually said this to you? The only ones I can think up excuses for are the last three. The rest is just cruel and heartless.

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