My childhood friend Bunny, bless her soul, knows exactly how to do it. When I fell into another clinical depression in 2014 after 12 years off medication—thanks to menopause, chemical imbalance, and the aftermath of a yearlong fight with breast cancer—I turned to my friends. I would call Bunny almost every night, sobbing at the least provocation, wondering why I was still alive.
It took some work with a new psychiatrist, whom I sought after my treatment ended in 2014, to get a grip on this new version of my depression. I say new, because it wasn’t quite the same as the episodes I had some 20-something years ago, when I was first diagnosed.
This time, I was older, had been depressed before, but had just been confronted with my own mortality, which opened up a lot of questions. Chemical imbalance was a bigger problem, thanks to changing hormones and all kinds of stuff that was now in my system.
I did have the benefit of hindsight—I knew there was a solution, and I was glad to meet a doctor who decided once and for all to get to the bottom of my most persistent personal issues, no matter how painful that was at times.
My friends helped lead me to even greater independence, however. After the new, gentler medications had kicked in, and I had stopped keeping Bunny up late at night, she joked, “Hay salamat. Alam mo, you were getting really boring.
I knew she was kidding, but I also knew she was right. Depressives should really work on the roots of their fears and anxieties, or we could be haunted by the same issues forever. Sometimes, there won’t even be a trigger; we just feel unbelievably sad. And the cycle could go on and on; in some sad cases, it could take our lives.
Bunny and a few other friends I relied on for such interminable venting would say comforting words, make me laugh—but mostly just listened. In retrospect, that’s what I also try to do for friends in crisis, so I realized what a monumental pain I must have been. But Bunny and company did me one better by letting me know that they wanted to see me progress.
What does progress mean for a depressive? Especially for an adult, it means actually understanding what’s happening to you, and seeing the patterns that lead to your depression. It’s almost like I’m splitting into two now when an episode happens—in my case, that means either progressively sinking as the hours pass, or one big meltdown, a crying episode triggered by something as minor as a harsh word from a random person. (It’s not logical, you see.)
The difference is, my Rational Self can now figure out what’s happening.
So Rational Self then begins asking Meltdown Self, “What was that all about?” Naturally, MS doesn’t make sense (“I’m so @#$%^&! tired!”), but RS allows MS to vent (without doing anything stupid) until there’s nothing left, and then gives instructions on what to do next. “Okay, breathe,” RS could say. “Let’s wash our face and slowly walk out of the bathroom now.” Of course, MS could still just punch RS in the face and go to town, but with self-awareness, that can happen less and less.
Because of this learned anticipation, I can often predict when I’m likely to become sad, since that’s where every negative emotion leads me. Last New Year’s, for example, I was literally losing sleep in indignation over the “Oro” dog murder (let’s call it what it was, shall we?).
And then, just when I could feel the heavy despair creeping in, I decided to get off social media for a few days and spend more time with my dogs—and I think some serious new year fireworks were averted.
Thus, although I will always need my friends, I no longer desperately claw at them like a drowning person when I’m sad. I ride out my feelings, distract myself with other things, process what’s going on, and trust that the next day will be better. Otherwise, I can ask my doctor what’s going on. I am happy to say I haven’t had to call a friend at 2 a.m. in almost three years.
So what do you need to do when your depressive friend is unloading on you?
1. You must listen, but realize that your friend is not herself. It’s like she’s got the flu or dengue—something is physiologically wrong, her serotonin is being drained, and she’s not feeling well. If she’s been seeing a doctor and is on medication, and these episodes are still frequent, suggest that she may need to try something or someone else.
If she’s not, maybe this would be a good time to bring up professional help. Before she gets better, however, she may still need to talk.
2. You don’t need to come up with a solution, or even a better answer than, “That’s the way it is, eh.” Soldier on, because as per No. 1 above, you have to realize she’s under a haze of hypersensitivity. So…
3. Be very gentle. Draw on all the love and compassion you have for your friend, because she is in genuine pain that’s hard to imagine. Something you say may spell the difference between hope and sustained sadness. You have the power to pull her out of this, if you manage to penetrate that haze, even for a while.
4. Take her somewhere—a (funny) movie, lunch, meeting with other friends. Drag her out to go for a walk. You don’t even have to talk about her state of mind; just be there.
5. That being said, when your friend is better—and please be patient; with the right support and the right doctor, she will be—empower her to manage her own illness.
Some of the lines I remember my friends laying on me: “Don’t be afraid of it.” “Stop riding on the bad feelings.” “Do whatever you need to do to get better” (a refreshing change from people who warned me that medication would fry my brains—as if they weren’t already). “It’s a sickness, so learn to live with it.” “Hinga muna, and ask yourself why.” Yes, when I could handle it: “Over na. Paulit-ulit na ’yan.” And most important, from Bunny again: “Tapos na ’yan, so let it go. Pray for the strength to forgive.”
Because I have really cool friends who could tell when to give me a hug or a kick in the butt, I’ve finally learned that I can manage my illness on my own. If that isn’t real friendship, I don’t know what is.