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Fighting Back Against Depression: How to be a Friend

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Six months ago I was a basket case. I have gone through bouts of depression since my late teens when I learned more about my mental illness. Today, I’m less worried about going public with my issue, or series of issues, as they present themselves. Today, it is even more critical for me to speak out against depression, against suffering alone, and towards hope and wholeness that can come from getting help.

I spoke to a high school friend today who was “not doing well at all.” He said he was in one of the darkest places he could remember and was facing wave after wave of debilitating anxiety. He had good days and he had bad days. Today, the day I called (out of the blue) was a bad day.

I listened patiently to his complaints and issues. I empathized with his pain, and shared a few of my own recent dark experiences, to give us some common ground. Then I asked him the most important question you can ask anyone dealing with depression.

“What are you doing for yourself?”

That’s when his argumentative side came out. He told me about last year and going to the emergency room three nights in a row. “That’s how bad it got,” he pleaded.

I waited. I listened some more. Then I persisted.

“What happened last year sounds really hard. I can’t imagine the fear and pain you were in,” I said. “But I want to know what you are going to do from here, from now. What are you going to do next to help yourself?”

We wrestled some more with stories, drug prescriptions gone bad, and more events that sounded terrible. I listened. He needed to talk some of this out. He needed to be heard. He was feeling bad, depressed, and anxious, and wanted to know why I called again.

Then I asked him if he wanted my advice. (In recovery we learn early on that advice is not given unless asked for. And often, this is because it’s bad advice, and the giver has no real understanding of the situation.)

With a bit more talking around the depression and the current hard times, he said, “Okay, I’m ready to listen.”

“Here’s what I did.

“I knew that I was prone to isolation when I got depressed so I needed a strategy against that. I started going to Al-Anon meetings at least once a day. I kept my exercise program going and walked every day, no matter how I was feeling. And after a couple of months, I took a job at a gourmet grocery store as a cashier making $12.50 an hour. I did everything I could think of to keep myself from remaining in isolation.

“Isolation is death. Isolation is a dead end. Humans are not meant to live in isolation. But depression makes you believe that being alone is better than being with others. Depression asks you to climb into bed in the middle of the day and not take phone calls or texts from anyone. Depression fakes you into thinking the cocoon you are creating with the covers over your head is a safe one. Depression lies. It is a dangerous one, this isolation behavior we seem to crave.

“Do everything you can to break your own isolation.”

And here’s the hard part. There is no one who can do it for you. There is no drug that is going to pop you out of it. There is only the hard work of suiting up and getting on with it. For me, this meant getting dressed, showered, and shaved, and to a meeting every day. I didn’t need to speak. I didn’t need to do anything but show up. And that’s what I did.

And guess what? Two magical things happened when I just showed up.

  1. I broke isolation by being in a room with other people
  2. I got over my worries about what an al-anon meeting was about, and did I fit in, did I need it, was it right for me.

When you go to a meeting you immediately break isolation. Over time, as you continue going to meetings you might make friends. You might ask for and get a sponsor to talk you through the 12 steps. But what you will definitely get, 100% of the time, is community. The loss of isolation. It’s hard. You have to keep coming back, keep getting up, and keep stretching to feel better. But that’s the only part of the process you can control, your actions.

So here’s the tough medicine our depressed friends need to hear.

  • Get up and get to a meeting.
  • You are the only one who can help you.
  • Drugs and therapy are not going to cure you, they are not enough.
  • Isolation is death.
  • Keep getting back up, regardless of how you feel.

Easy for me today, here from my happy place, looking back. But I could taste the fear in my friend’s voice. I was angry at his depression. I was also a bit harsh with him about his responsibility.

“There is no one here to save you. There is no one who is going to show up and make things better. It’s you, that has to show up. It’s you that has to take action. Now. Today. Everyday.”

Look online for AA meetings and Al-Anon meetings in your area. Chances are there is one starting a few minutes from now. I know, today, that I have a noon or a 9 pm meeting I can go to every single day of the week. I have a sponsor who has become a friend and a mentor. And I have hundreds of people at those meetings, ready to greet me warmly and with compassion.

This is the truth your friend needs to hear,

“All that has happened to you is the past.

What matters is what you do right now.”

Get up.

Get to a meeting.

Break isolation.


Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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The new book is here: Here Comes the Darkness: Surviving and Thriving After a Mental Illness Diagnosis.

image: sad girl wallpaper, creative commons usage

Further Reading 

Depression Resources

Depression Books

Here are a few of my books on Amazon:

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