Is someone you love stuck in a funk, or suffering from a more serious and dangerous emotional pain? If they were, would you know?
Hi. I have crippling depression. It may not be obvious, but if you observe carefully, you may notice that something seems off.
I’m not a therapist — I can barely keep a cactus alive — but I know some of the common tricks that people like me use to mask our emotions. Depression flattens the personality, and depressed folks tend to have a lot in common. If you notice these behaviors in someone you care for, it may be time to check in and see if something is wrong.
They drop out of the conversation
I signed out of Facebook five years ago and never came back.
When I vanished from Facebook, I lost touch with dozens of friends, acquaintances, and people I met once at a bar in 2008. A lot of my closer friends and relatives lost track of my activities. A lot of them didn’t know I got married three years ago, or that I almost died in 2014 and stopped drinking so I wouldn’t. They still don’t, because I’ve made no effort to reach out to them. Most of them probably just stopped thinking about me.
Long before I quit, I had begun to view my friendships as a meaningless collection of trading cards. Looking at other people’s highlight reels made me feel worse about my own unedited raw feed and how dark it had gotten.
This wasn’t an indictment of my friends, or friendship, or Facebook. It was my own frustration with myself. I knew I was headed for a breakdown, and I preferred to have it alone.
If someone close to you cancels accounts, or stop responding to your texts and emails, it may be a sign that they’re in anguish. When I shuffled off Facebook, a few people reached out to me through more traditional channels. Those people mean more to me than even the cutest emoji.
They get attached to inanimate objects
One day at work, when I was angry and depressed, I bought a sandwich and a bag of Greek tzatziki chips. I wolfed down the sandwich and threw away the bag it came in. An hour later, I realized I had thrown away my chips by accident. And I wept for those chips, which went to the landfill without accomplishing their one mission, to be eaten. Those chips suffered for nothing.
Of course, those chips didn’t suffer at all. But they never threatened or hurt me, the way that humans sometimes do. And I felt so cut off from the rest of my species that I invested all my sympathy in a bag full of starch, salt, and chemicals.
Getting attached to a disposable object is sad, but it’s safe.
When someone takes on light hoarding tendencies, it’s a glaring sign that they are failing to connect with people and are clinging to the things they feel are within their control. Appreciate the depth of feeling that is still there, beneath the frustration and sadness. Say something kind, with that appreciation in mind.
They sigh and roll their eyes
My dad was a quiet, dry person who often behaved as if irritated, pissed off, and too hip for the room. He put up with my endless questions while signaling that his patience was wearing thin, exhaling and rolling his eyes toward the sky.
I do this now. I do it when my resources are taxed to their limit and I don’t feel up to the day-to-day challenges of life and human interaction. Part of me hopes some supernatural force or coincidence will take mercy on me and rescue me from all this.
When I sigh and roll my eyes, I’m not thinking about how I could improve my lot or connect with others. I’m not confronting my problems or dealing with them productively. I’m giving up. I’m hoping this will all go away.
If your loved one acts aloof, superior, or over it all, they may be lonesome and in pain. Don’t take an eye-roll as an insult. If the eye-roller is someone for whom you care, be patient, take their ‘tude in stride, and ask “why” to see if it cracks the ice.
They seem to be sick all the time
In my drinking days, I assumed I was almost always tired because I was almost always hungover. Imagine my disappointment when I stopped drinking and still felt sick all the time.
When I’m in a deep bout of depression, I feel groggy and tired. I have no appetite, or I always seem to be dehydrated. I don’t want to do anything but sleep, or lie in bed and read articles. My head hurts. My lungs are sore. My symptoms don’t correlate with any particular illness. It’s a general malaise that never seems to go away.
If someone cancel a few appointments because of some mysterious illness that never seems to let up, asking a few pointed questions may be the caring thing to do. Ask why they haven’t been to the doctor. When they go to the doctor and discover that they are okay, let them know that, if they want to get a check up from the neck up, they have your support.
How you want to phrase these questions depends on the nature of your relationship. (You might not want to be as blunt as my friends and I are with each other. We’re jerks.)
Spot the high-functioning depressive
Most of my giveaway gestures and behaviors are hardly unique to me. I share them here in hopes that, if you notice them in people you care about, you will know something is up and possibly step in.
When you do, don’t expect gratitude, at least not right away. Depression is rage turned against the self. It takes complex forms and includes elaborate defense self-preservation mechanisms. If you start asking questions about it, some of that rage may come your way. It’s not about you, so don’t take it personally.
If you approach a depressed person with compassion and generosity, you are a hero, whether that person likes it or not. Sometimes a chip in the ice is all it takes for a heart to begin to thaw.
Just because we’re shutting out the world doesn’t mean we’ll be okay alone. It usually means the opposite. If you can sense when to reach out to quiet people when they can’t ask for help, you can provide a minor miracle.