He 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 without television, radio, or conversation – hearing nothing but the sounds of an empty house, with only the lonely, occasional barks of a neighbor’s neglected dog for company.
Coming home, she senses trouble in the uneasy silence and 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, do that. 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 frustration, fed by imagination – in place of information.
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 blend into 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 then 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 ability to make good choices depends 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.
We find this truth in a similar example – 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 or disability is NOT sin – but instead, can find treasured 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 that He can show off.
We live in a fallen world – where such things have become simply a part of life (contrary to God’s original design). But, God doesn’t waste anything in our lives – and 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 who knows – we might even gain strength and wisdom from the experience.
Our opening scene, at the start of this post, 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 current reality 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?
The answers start with clear recognition of the problem. Since we have already reviewed the ‘official’ definition and descriptions of depression in detail (see Post # 18), we will just hit the highlights in review.
Even if your family member is not talking – if 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’re looking for a way to open a conversation – reflection statements can work.
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. With your reflection you shared 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 initiating things:
- 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, and don’t forget the Q-TIP. When they can, they will come back to you – or they will respond positively to a future reflection statement.
Meeting Your Goals:
Before beginning – remind yourself of your true, long-term goals for your conversation. It’s important – as this story illustrates:
He 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, plus the disappointing outcome, he asked… “Was I wrong?”
The answer was ‘Maybe’ – depending on what he had 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 believe they are – it sounds like you succeeded. But, if your goal was to win sympathy for your cause, and to get them to help you – 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 defensive shields?
Seriously, we all have our shields. Invisible force fields that are automatically triggered when we feel attacked. These things do operate just as Newton’s law does –‘For every action (threat) there is an equal and opposite reaction’.
Think about your goals for important conversations – and consider non-threatening ways you could deliver, and/or respond to, negative messages. Your efforts will pay great reward.
You are almost ready to begin your ‘talk’. One more consideration before you do: Picture the symphony of human communication, as we reviewed it. We share much more than just the words of our ‘movements’ with each other. For example:
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, can feel like an attack to the person going through depression.
BUT – If your body language shows acceptance, warmth, and compassion, then your non-verbal cues deliver a healing effect on the brain. Even without words you begin to calm your interaction, 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.’
Here are a few more tips:
Do’s and Don’ts for Communication:
- DO remember Q-TIP: Whatever symptom is going on – even when it hurts … Quit Taking It P
- 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 –avoid reliance on hints or assumptions. Subtle meaning is easily lost.
- DO use ‘I STATEMENTS’ for example: “I’m concerned because it seems hard for you to focus, and this is important” – NOT – “You’re not listening to me.”
Remember that if your message is heard as a judgment or blaming – it will trigger defensiveness.
- 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 feeling so bad”; “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! You’re fighting back . You are gaining control, and 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 identify your actions with love (“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 – 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 act 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 the same as clinical depression. Trying to encourage with a statement like that one can feel as if depression is being trivialized. It 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 BE A Missionary, asking … “Are you sure this isn’t 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 they ask for specific help.
- DON’T try to talk the person out of their treatment. IF you have concerns about it, then suggest going with them to talk with their doctor – or ask them to allow you to talk with their doctor.
- DON’T make it all about you – and how their depression is affecting you or others. This person might be barely hanging on. More guilt will make the burdens heavier and add defensive feelings to the load on your, already strained, communication.
- DON’T bring a hidden agenda to this discussion.
Keep it simple.
To initiate conversation try using reflection statements. Let them know you’re available, if they want to talk.
By itself, 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 what is contained in that last paragraph – 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 in the past several articles. 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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