Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Depression, Guilt, and Giving Advice

This post... well, obviously involves depression. But it also is about the huge Internet response to Robin Williams' death, and that response became pretty triggering for me. If it was for you as well, you might want to avoid this post. Just wanted to toss that out there.

Two? Three? weeks later, I am finally mentally prepared to discuss -- at least a little bit -- the Matt Walsh depression blog, along with the idea in general of giving advice to people with depression.

When it first surfaced, I couldn't read the whole thing. Eventually (on a pretty good day) I managed to make it through, and I knew I had to respond. Except it turned out responding was way worse than reading it. I tried twice to write something about it. Both times, I had to stop halfway through in tears and was far from functional the rest of the day. It was... well, pretty triggering.

I had to unfollow people who reposted it on Facebook because nope nope nope, I couldn't deal with that. But then it launched into other people offering their own takes on what depressed people should and shouldn't do, and so I just stopped looking at Facebook, hoping the trend would die down soon and it would become a safer place for me again.

It did, and it has, and I've breathed and thought and now I just want to make one simple point for people to keep in mind when dealing with depression.

Walsh says in his post that he has dealt with depression. A lot of people have claimed that's a lie. I am not a fan of dismissing people's personal experiences, and I certainly don't know him in real life, so I don't really have any reason to think he is lying. Plenty of people struggle with depression that you wouldn't suspect. What I can emphatically say, though, is that his depression must have been drastically different from mine.

Mine comes with a built-in layer of All The Guilt.

Judges - First Appellate Division - May 1923 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Law Society of Upper Canada Archives, Flickr | PD | via Wylio
For me, this is actually usually the first symptom of an upcoming depressive period and the last to leave. I begin to believe that everything I'm doing, I'm doing wrong. I'm dealing with my depression wrong. I'm talking to my friends wrong. I'm writing this blog wrong. And then that guilt converts into crippling anxiety -- if I move or breathe or think or speak I'll do something wrong -- and then I get paralyzed. I spend all day unable to do anything and then feeling guilty about the fact that I can't make myself do anything and that makes me feel even worse and makes me feel even more anxious and then I am even more paralyzed and I can only hope that going to sleep will restart my brain a little bit and leave me feeling better in the morning.

And while obviously not all depression is the same, I've talked to enough people whose depression includes extreme guilt that I'm pretty sure it's not just me, and it's worth taking into consideration the fact that if you're talking to someone who is depressed, there's a decent chance that they're feeling extremely guilty. For everything.

Let me add another thought to that: Depression guilt is not rational.

Crying girl on bench from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 uıɐɾ ʞ ʇɐɯɐs, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio
You can't always logic your way out of it and be like, "That's silly, obviously this isn't my fault." Criticism of any kind turns itself into truly nasty negative self-talk. There have absolutely been times when I got a minor revision request on an article I sent into Textbroker and depression guilt completely took over and all I could think was that I was a failure as a writer, a failure as a person, and that I was never going to be able to do anything. Ever again.

This is in no way just "not being able to take criticism" or an immature response from an oversized ego or "taking things too personally". I try very hard to learn from my mistakes and do things better the next time. I truly value criticism. But depression guilt is very skilled at latching onto anything negative anyone has ever said about anything I was connected to and somehow turning that into self-hatred and guilt and fear.

So. With this in mind.

Walsh wrote a follow-up post to his blog in which one of his main points to his critics was along the lines of, "You're twisting my words! People shouldn't be upset about things I never said!" And while I agree criticism should be accurate, he's missing the much bigger picture: He wrote, at least in part, to a depressed demographic, and depression twists your words, too.

I have never been suicidal, and Walsh made a big deal of saying that he was talking about suicide in his post, not depression... but depression guilt made everything Walsh said apply to me too.

Statements like "The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope" became "If I can't find beauty in something now, it's because I'm refusing to."

Statements like "The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives" became "If you don't hurry up and get rid of your depression fast, you're hurting your family because you may not be dead but if you cared about anyone you'd clearly be doing more to fix yourself."

Statements like "In suicide you obliterate yourself and shackle your loved ones with guilt and grief" became "Every bad decision I make because of depression is going to hurt everyone I love forever."

Are these rational conclusions? Not particularly. But that's what depression does.

For what it's worth, I do agree with Walsh's main point that suicide shouldn't be glorified. It's a tragic tragic thing. But you can't give people hope by giving them guilt. It doesn't work that way. Some people are motivated through harsh criticism, through showing the awfulness of what they do and think. But with depression, all of that can sound awfully similar to the nasty self-loathing thoughts running through your mind 24/7 anyway, and it's not always possible to distinguish between the two.

SILENCE from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Anders Printz, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
"Does this mean I shouldn't say what I think, that I have to sugarcoat every single thing I say when I say anything because oh no, I might make someone with depression feel bad?"

Well, I am a fan of gracious speech in general -- we need more of it -- but, no, I don't think you can't be direct or say anything negative. I'm not a fan of silencing people. But it does mean that if you are writing specifically to people with depression, you shouldn't be surprised when your words get filtered through the lens of depression.

His follow-up post addressing objections included this line:
We live in a culture where rational discussion has become nearly impossible[.]
And my instant thought was, "Does he not realize he is discussing a mental illness?!"

Sure, there are plenty of people out there who think irrationally without any excuse, and yes, this is a sensitive subject where even people without active, current depression may respond without fully reading... but excuses like this also blame people like me, who are fighting against irrational self-hatred, irrational self-loathing, irrational guilt and fear and anxiety and apathy every single day for weeks on end.

He either 1) didn't know that depression makes things seem worse than they are, or 2) didn't actually think anyone with depression was going to read this blog. He wrote that blog to and about people with real depression, and then he got offended when people with depression (among others) responded to the accusing tone of his blog rather than the actual words.

This frustration that "oh my gosh, people get emotional about depression, what's up with that?" indicates to me once again that whatever experience Walsh has had with depression, it was nothing like mine is today. Maybe his depression really didn't have an ounce of guilt in it. Or maybe he felt like he could just logic-and-joy his way out of the guilt. If that's the case, well, that's nice for him, but I'm pretty sure that's not how it works for most of us.

So what does this mean for me?

All right. All that being said, this is the main thought I want to pass on.

Help! from Flickr via Wylio
© 2007 Richard Gillin, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio
A lot of people offer advice for people with depression, and I truly believe they want to help. I've heard everything from "Pray more" to "Go outside more" to "Spend time with your friends" to "Get therapy." And while these things can be very helpful, none of them are an instant fix to a one-size-fits-all problem. Trust me, most people with depression have heard plenty of these solutions, and they may have even tried them, only to feel utterly defeated when they don't work.

In my own writings about depression, I try to be very careful not to say "This will make things better!" Because sometimes it doesn't. And I don't want someone to read my blogs about dealing with depression and feel worse about it. I always try to frame it in terms of "Sometimes this is helpful for me" and encourage people to share their own stories because mine are in no way definitive.

I think sometimes people get frustrated when they see depression (not frustrated at depressed people, frustrated by the disease itself) because it feels like it should be something that just a little more self-control can fix, like controlling your temper or just doing things you're scared of. That can lead to very dogmatic statements meant to be encouraging, with those people having no idea that they're instilling even more guilt into the people they're trying to help.

If you find something you think might help a friend with depression, here's my brief take on it: you can totally reach out to them and show that you care -- it might be very encouraging -- but make sure they know they're not obligated to try it and it's not obligated to work. If you're not sure, you can even ask them first: "Is it OK if I shared a thought with you, or would that not be helpful?" Above all, let them know they're loved and valued, even if this is something they deal with for a long time.

I don't feel like I'm doing a very good job pulling these thoughts together, but in conclusion, let me say this. I advocate for love and compassion in dealing with people all the time, but just... please be extra compassionate in dealing with a subject like this. This is not a time for tough love.

And I did want to throw out a quick thank you to all my wonderfully kind and compassionate friends -- even those who have never dealt with depression themselves -- who thoughtfully listen and pray and love and care.


  1. This is a really excellent response / analysis.

  2. All I know about Matt Walsh is that his writings antagonize you, and that's enough for me to steer clear of the guy entirely. Ergo, I'm not really qualified to address the first half of this post vis a vis his writing on the subject.

    "...You can't give people hope by giving them guilt. It doesn't work that way."

    THIS. So much THIS. You've written a lot that has resonated with me, but this might be my single favorite thing you've ever written, even over that time when you hypothesized a sentient Flickchart knowing the story of why you didn't see Titanic.

    The excerpts you quoted of Walsh addressing suicide make me as suspicious of his experiences as you are. Because I have been there. I talked about being there with other patients hospitalized for attempting it themselves. To a person, every single one there and everyone I've ever spoken with anywhere, expressed that, yes, they felt guilt about what they had been prepared to do to their loved ones...but that guilt wasn't a deterrent when they made their attempt.

    Suicidal depression tells you that you're mortal and going to die one day anyway. There's no way to spare your loved ones from having to bury you sometime, and at least this way it's on your terms.

    Another thing that has been universal so far in my discussions is that none of us really wanted to be dead nearly as much as we wanted to stop hurting. We'd already tried what we knew to do and had failed. The doors kept closing and it seemed that ending our lives was the only thing left to do. At that point, not only were none of us put off by the notion that people who love us will be upset; we became resentful that they would insist we keep living in pain just to spare them the inconvenience of our already-inevitable death.

    From what you've quoted and responded to here, I think Matt Walsh is as qualified to discuss suicidal depression as I am to discuss golf. Yeah, I've played actual golf twice in my life but mostly I'm just a mini-golf guy who would fail every golf trivia quiz on Sporcle.

    1. I am glad you've been able to respond to this. Since I've never been there, I was really only able to tackle the non-suicidal depression aspect of this, and though I expected it to be applicable to suicidal depression as well, it's good to have that confirmed. Thank you for commenting and sharing.

  3. I think you did a very good job of pulling those thoughts together. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the blog.