Joe sat in the gloom as twilight fell. Eyes focused on a blank wall, he studied the white paint as it dimmed in growing shadows. He sat for hours in silence, without television, radio, or conversation – hearing nothing but the echo of an empty house, with only the lonely, occasional barks of a neighbor’s neglected dog for company.
Sensing trouble, Meg asks, “What’s wrong?”
He offers a quick glance, and a slight shrug.
“Are you feeling alright?”
His chin lifts in a half-nod – still no words. She flips on a light, moves closer and tries again. “Honey, please tell me what’s going on?”
He can’t, or he won’t. She doesn’t know which. It hurts when he avoids her gaze, and stands to leave the room – his sadness palpable but un-shared.
Sadness can be contagious. It can quickly escalate to other, stronger, more harmful emotions. When repeated questions go unanswered, concern may turn to pain, and then to frustration.
Feelings of rejection, of not being trusted, or of not being enough to make the other person happy, become toxic. Such emotions, churned by helplessness, can become anger. The anger may be about our inability to understand, or to ‘fix it’; or feeling unfairly punished and cut off from the person, and the ‘Problem’ – whatever that is.
We may aim anger at ourselves for not being able to help, and/or at our friend or loved one, who left us this way – feeling sore and confused.
Loved ones sense the anger (even when it’s carefully ‘stuffed’ away). They may feel powerless and guilty about causing our unhappiness, and withdraw even more. This can become a classic vicious circle – complete with attempted ‘mind-reading’, and other types of ‘stinking thinking’.
STOP the cycle.
Let’s put a different spin on it. This is depression. Depression is an illness. It manifests in symptoms.
Symptoms express themselves through social behaviors – so, it’s easy, and normal, to assume such behavior is intentional. But, behaviors may not be deliberate, or even conscious. The depressed person’s choices depend on which symptoms are in play – and how badly they are felt, at any given time.
As believers, we understand the command to love the sinner – even while hating the sin. Guess what … the same principle works in this scenario, but with a big, BIG difference.
Depression is not sin – it’s illness.
Asking ‘why’ is risky. We see this in the account of Jesus healing a man who was born blind – John 9:1-3 NIV:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
The illness is not sin – but instead, can find meaning as God uses it for good. Don’t get me wrong – God does not send pain, sickness and sorrow into our lives just so He can show off.
We live in a fallen world. Such things have become a part of life (contrary to God’s original design). But, God doesn’t waste anything in our lives. He can use our weaknesses to display His strength, on our behalf.
So, be encouraged. Our pain can be used to demonstrate the love, compassion and healing power of our Lord; and we may gain strength and wisdom from the experience.
Joe’s opening scene, doesn’t describe a failure in faith or character. What we see are symptoms of an illness. We need to separate the illness from the person, and remember who the person you care about truly is. Their status may have changed – but they have not. It’s what they are able to do, and to express, that has changed (at least for awhile).
So, what can we do?
Recognize the problem. If your loved one is not talking, and you see these things for more than a couple of weeks, check with your family doctor …
- Daily sadness
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Restless, anxious or irritable behaviors
- Trouble with focus, concentration or remembering
- Excessive weariness and lethargy
- Sleeping or eating too much or too little
- Unexplained aches and pains, or other unexplained difficulties
- Thoughts of death or suicide
When you see things that concern you, and you seek to open a conversation – Try reflection statements.
This strategy requires that you become a mirror – and reflect the concerning behavior that you see. For example: ‘You look really sad, sitting there in the dark’ – or – ‘You look exhausted; like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders’ – or – ‘You seem to be in a lot of pain’.
Notice that there are no additions to a pure reflection statement – no judgment, no suggestions and no demands. You are the mirror – just reflect.
Your observation packs a much bigger message than the simple words. You made some major unspoken points:
- I see you, and I recognize some difficulty.
- I care, and I’d like to understand.
- I’m making no judgment.
- I’m available if you want to talk about it.
Those messages must be sincere. So, before you start:
- Make sure you really want to engage.
- Be sure you have the time to talk, if they want to open up.
- Be sure you are calm enough to live up to the messages you have sent.
- AND finally (this is a big one), be ready and able to accept NO for an answer.
If you delivered a pure and sincere reflection statement – be assured that it got through. Unspoken messages were delivered with the words they were packed in.
Your friend or loved one may, or may not, be ready/able to talk. Accept silence as a ‘No’ answer. When they can, they will come back to you – or they will respond positively in the future.
Before beginning – remind yourself of your true goals for this contact. As this story illustrates — it’s important:
Will came barreling into the communication skills class – steaming with righteous indignation. He breathed fury, frustration, and confusion with every step – loudly proclaiming details of a failed attempt to resolve an issue with his treatment team. After describing the ‘He said – She said’ confrontation, and the disappointing outcome, he asked… “Was I wrong?”
My answer was ‘maybe’ – depending on what he wanted from that conversation. I said… ‘If your goal was to really let that person have it; to know how disgusted you were with them, or how incompetent you think they are – it sounds like you succeeded. But, if your goal was to win sympathy, and support – it didn’t work. Next time, you’ll need to try another way”
We all speak a different language of defense.
_ _ _
Do you remember the ‘Star Trek’ type shields?
Invisible force fields are automatically triggered when we feel attacked. Shields follow Newton’s law: ‘For every action (threat) there is an equal and opposite reaction’.
Think about your goals for important conversations. Consider non-threatening ways you could deliver, or respond to, negative messages. You will earn great rewards.
You are almost ready to begin your ‘talk’. One more thought before you do: Remember the symphony of human communication. We share much more than just the words of our ‘movements’ with each other.
Check your stance, and your proximity. Is your posture relaxed or confrontational? Are you with them – or ‘in their face’?
Check your facial cues: Raised eyebrows, tense muscles, and a pitched voice (all common with Anxiety) can look like Anger. So, your anxious concern and desire to help, could feel like an attack to the person with depression.
If your body cues show acceptance, warmth, and compassion, a healing effect is realized. Even without words you begin to calm interactions, and help to stabilize brain chemistry that regulates mood.
In a crisis – it’s hard to express calm when you’re not feeling it. If your defenses are triggered, or your emotions take a negative turn – breathe… and then practice acting the opposite of those emotions. Visualize … or look into a mirror, and ‘fake it till you make it.’
Do’s and Don’ts for Communication:
- DO remember Q-TIP: Whatever symptom is going on – even when it hurts … Quit Taking It Personally
- DO USE REFLECTION STATEMENTS to initiate contact.
- DO Cover one topic at a time – in small doses.
- DO Describe what you want and why – be specific. Say exactly what you mean –don’t rely on hints or assumptions. Subtle meaning is easily lost.
- DO use ‘I STATEMENTS’ for example: “I’m concerned for you because it seems hard to focus, and this is important” – instead of “…You’re not listening to me.”
Remember that if your message is heard as a judgment – it will trigger a defense.
- DO use frequent statements of empathy, validation and encouragement. For example: “I’m here for you” “I understand.” “It must be hard to go through the motions every day ”; “Depression isn’t your fault – it’s an illness.” “You are important to me.” “It seemed hard for you to get up today – but you did it! Every victory makes you stronger.”
- DO use time outs. If you’re trying, but you can’t communicate calmly – take a break. Walk away – but be sure you lovingly identify your actions (“I’m getting too emotional to do us any good right now” – or – “I need a moment”).
- DO use signals: There may be times (for either, or both of you) when you can’t calmly express even that explanation. Plan for those moments. Decide on a non-verbal signal for this time out – and use whatever works. You could Fly a flag, Move a potted plant, tie a colorful ribbon or scarf on a doorknob or turn on a special lamp … it doesn’t matter what signal you decide on – but make the decision together. When either of you feel you can’t talk because of heavy emotions – USE and honor each other’s signals so that no one feels ‘cold shouldered’ – or sees your action as turning your back on them in rejection, judgment or defeat.
- DON’T minimize the depression. The statement that “Everyone has a bad day now and then” is true – but a “bad” day is not clinical depression. That kind of statement lacks understanding – and can feed fears of rejection.
- DON’T hint that the person is looking for attention or enjoys complaining.
- DON’T say things like … ‘Try Harder’ or ‘Get a grip’, or ‘Cheer up’ …
- DON’T Ask “…Is this a crisis of faith?” Clinical Depression feels like a personal crisis all right – but don’t call faith into question. If you are truly concerned about this possibility – PRAY, and keep your doubts or judgments between yourself and the good Lord.
- DON’T try to “fix” the situation unless asked for specific help.
- DON’T try to talk the person out of their treatment. IF you have concerns, then suggest going with them to their next appointment – or ask them to allow you to talk with their doctor.
- DON’T make it all about how their depression is affecting you or others. This person might be barely hanging on. More guilt will make the burdens heavier and add to the load on your, already strained, communication.
- DON’T bring a hidden agenda to this discussion.
Keep it simple.
Try using reflection statements to let them know you’re available, if they want to talk. This tells them that you care; that you’re not leaving or rejecting them; that you understand and won’t minimize their situation, or ‘blow it up’ to more of an obstacle than it needs to be between you, and that you will not judge. Keep hope alive – for them, for you, and for your relationship.
Never underestimate your power as a positive force in someone’s life. To convey acceptance, understanding and love – is to deliver gifts of incredibly healing strength. You may never know the true positive impact you have had– well, at least, not on this side of heaven.
We’ve covered a lot of information. I need to hear from you – about how we’re doing. Please check next week’s post – and consider my questions. YOU are my guides.
Until next time – Blessings, Love and Laughter to you; and thanks for sharing the adventure !
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