Depressed people are isolated people. Loneliness is a self-selecting symptom of the illness. And like their brothers-in-arms, the pessimists, we more accurately assess our total lack of control over life.
It’s called “Depressive Realism” by psychology professors Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson — or to quote the term they coined — “The sadder are wiser.”(1)
Sadder and wiser and not a lot of fun. Even the best of friends do not show up at the door with homemade soup. Fairweather friends find the depressed exasperating, or worse, fodder for gossip.
What if, in addition to medicine, a doctor could prescribe a depression doula? The etymology of doula is “servant.” What if the depressed person had an able-bodied servant to mirror, to work beside? Let us chop the wood, let us carry water.
Someone to stanch the flow of negative self-regard and predictions of doom. A warm body to sit beside on the sofa, to help craft gratitude lists, gently extracting blessings from the depressive’s cloudy head, crafting reasons to persevere — a doula, like all doulas, charged with bringing forth life.
No agenda-driven extroverts need apply ... no Maria Von Trapps strumming guitars and drowning us in saccharine platitudes about happy endings. That’s called “optimism bias,” and is also skewed.(2)
We need pragmatists who know that misery simply needs company — healthy, objective, quiet company. And maybe chicken soup.
How to Interpret the Language of Depression
“I’ve been a little depressed lately,” from someone who doesn’t talk about it is something more.
Depressed people try to keep a “normal” facade, relying on earrings and a bit of lipstick, in whatever their forms — false smiles, forced small talk, nervous, upbeat chatter. They rarely share their depression because they are always a little depressed.
A few years ago, a woman I knew began to stop me after Mass on Sundays. Each week on the church patio, drinking bad coffee with powdered creamer out of styrofoam cups, she told me how depressed she was, how her medicine wasn’t working.
She was French, married to a Frenchman with a twinkle in his eye, and she wore pressed cotton dresses reminiscent of 1950s garden parties. I had been in her home, a tidy little ranch. I mean to say, she had it all together.
I wasn’t quite sure why she shared her deep sadness with me, other than she knew I had hoed the same row. I thought — self-centeredly — that she was just plumbing the depths for common ground, for small talk. A few months into it, she shot herself dead.
I would have been honored to have been her doula.
I was a lonely mother of young children home all day. I would have considered it a privilege to visit her and pick the oranges from her trees, squeeze fresh juice. We could have chopped onions together and fried them and stirred in broth. I could have been present.
She had been asking for help, but despite both of us being deeply intimate with depression, we hadn’t had the language to understand one another.
We need a lexicon for “Help.”
- “I’m not much one for driving now,” means your friend can’t drive.
- “There doesn’t seem to be a place for me in the world,” means she’s thinking of checking out.
- “I’m so tired,” means he can’t get out of bed.
“My medicine isn’t working,” means “I don’t know what to do next.”
As Pope Francis instructs, “In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
Listen for it. Accompany the depressed. There is no secret formula for mercy. Just be there.
The regular practicalities of daily life discourage us from being present — the washing machine delivery, the vet appointment, a deadline at work. Would we not accompany with mercy if we knew the language of despair?
If you hear the muted strains of profound loneliness and desperation, even late at night, even if the house is dark, show up on the doorstep in your apron. There is hope to be birthed in the world.
This piece was originally published at A Word, Please.
Reviewed May 31, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith