Thursday, July 29, 2010

Snap out of it. Thursday, July 29, 2010.

“No matter how you're sad and blue, there's always someone who has it worse than you.” – “Keep'n it real,” Shaggy

“There’s always someone who has it worse than you.” That’s something a lot of people who suffer from depression hear, from loving and well-meaning (or sometimes irritated!) friends and family. Let me step forward and say, on behalf of all who suffer from clinical depression: It’s not helpful.

Don’t get me wrong. If someone is a little blue, feeling sorry for himself, or not looking at the big picture, such an admonition might be exactly what’s needed. But people with clinical depression already feel guilty and worthless for feeling guilty and worthless.

Believe it or not, we’re already aware that millions of people are blind and deaf, that the number of homeless is growing by the day, and that children are starving in Africa. These newsflashes don’t cheer us up. On the contrary, if we’re in an emotional low, they simply make the world seem even more hopeless. Why should we be happy when so many are suffering?

That’s because true depression is not the same as a case of “the blues.” It’s an illness. No one tells someone with breast cancer, “Cheer up! At least it’s not in your cervix!” or someone in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis, “I betcha you could walk – if you really wanted to!” But for some reason, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell someone who is depressed to “Be happy! Things could be so much worse!” Hello. That’s just what we’re afraid of.

One of the ways such advice can miss the mark is that my “bad” is not necessarily your “bad,” and we can’t compare “bad.” Try telling a woman mourning her lack of fertility, “Kids are loud and messy anyway,” at the same time as you tell an overwhelmed mother, “At least you have kids.” My financial worries can’t be “compared” to your loneliness; it’s apples and oranges. Which is worse: having your home burn down, or blown to bits in a tornado? Should the fire victim be relieved he’s not a victim of the winds, and vice versa?

You see, when you tell me my problems aren’t so bad because others’ problems are worse, you’re telling me my pain isn’t real. And needing to prove the depth of my pain to you only makes me feel worse.

Don’t get me wrong. You might be 100% accurate that there is a better way to view my situation. You might have an idea that may help me. You might be able to help me reframe my outlook so it’s not so bleak. But FIRST – please – acknowledge that my suffering is real. Validation, in and of itself, is a powerful antidepressant. When my feelings have been validated, I’ll be much more open to suggestions and advice.

None of this is to suggest, in ANY way, that people with depression can’t or shouldn’t care about the less fortunate. In fact, lending a helping hand to someone in a bad situation is also a powerful antidepressant.

I serve on the board of an organization that raises funds for medical clinics in Africa. I’ve spent countless hours, and a great deal of effort, assisting the group, and when we raised a tidy sum of money at a benefit recently, I felt happy about it. I am thrilled when I receive a letter from the little girl I sponsor through Child Fund. And I feel gratified when I am able to help someone Facebook who is feeling suicidal.

But I do these things because they’re the right thing to do, not because I see the suffering of these other people to be “real” when mine is not. Feeling good as a result of helping someone in need is simply a nice side effect. Don’t shame me by trying to make me feel terrible about my feelings. Empower me by acknowledging my experience – and then let me choose to empower others by helping them.

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