Talking to Save Relationships and Talking to Walls

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I’ve written a pair of posts at Health Central about trying to explain what depression is like to family and close friends. The first one describes opening up in a way that’s helped me dispel the assumptions others been making about why I’ve changed so much. The second looks at what I try to do when, or before, I talk to people who “just don’t get it.”

There’s no magic in getting through to those whose support I most need. When I’ve been deeply depressed, though, I need lists to remind me of the most basic things. Even when I’m well, opening up doesn’t come easily. I get my reminders from James Pennebaker and Carl Rogers (as I’ve written here and here).

Naturally, those closest to me are hurt the most as I withdraw, leave them emotionally, and stop communicating. It becomes personal for them, and they need to understand what’s going on. If I don’t talk, they assume the worst, that I’m breaking off the relationship. The problem is that depression can make it impossible to say much of anything. If I can manage a few words, they’re likely to be more of a groan or irritable dismissal that only makes things worse.

It’s when the immediate episode passes that it’s possible and essential to start talking. Listening to what they’ve been through when I’ve been lost to them is just as important as talking about my own pain and isolation. That’s worked for me, but there are always those who can’t or won’t try to understand depression.

It doesn’t help to face their hostility or contempt, but I’ve often tried to get through to them despite knowing perfectly well what they’re like. If I’m able to hold off before turning to them, I need to ask myself: What do I expect to get in return? Why go to them? Isn’t there anyone else.

Sometimes, I’ve had to take the chance because not saying anything would be just as bad – like a client or employer who can’t help but see that my work is falling off. I’ve learned after a lot of disappointment that I need to evaluate the risk I’m taking.

As I say, these thoughts may be obvious when mind and emotion are working well, but when they’re not I try to remember what would help. All defenses disappear – where are those lists?

I hope you’ll have a look at the Health Central posts and comment on how well you’ve been able to get people to understand. Have you been able to get through to them at all?

14 Responses to “Talking to Save Relationships and Talking to Walls”

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  1. Donna-1 says:

    Yes, my mother’s “confession” shocked the hell out of me because here I thought she was so kind to share her home with me, while all this time she had been afraid I was plotting to kill her in her sleep! Such is the nature of uneducated stigma. I have heard about the Sachs but but haven’t read it. I think I will try to find it online today, though, and order it. And about “high-functioning” I have always retained a semblance of order and functionality at some level and so some therapists (and friends) have remarked: there’s no way you could have schizophrenia — you must have (and there were a variety of “diagnoses”) PTSD, DID, major depression with psychotic overtones, DID. I think it is worse to disguise a diagnosis as less than something or other than something it really is. I guess I am saying I have the “right” to my diagnoses, whatever they may be, and should receive kudos for my courage and uphill battle toward recovery. It hasn’t been easy.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      Kudos indeed! you’re one of my heroes of recovery. That’s what I call people who’ve stayed with it through dozens of treatments and relapses over many years. You’re so right – recovery is never easy, often the uphill part is like the labor of Sisyphus and you wind up on the wrong side of a downward rolling boulder.

      What you’ve said about your mother reminds me of another comment of yours at Health Central. It was a beautiful post about the love and comfort you gave her when she was depressed. You’ve learned to forgive, something I still struggle with.


  2. Donna-1 says:

    Since my schizophrenia and depression are intertwined, I have had the challenge of trying to explain both at one time or another. I have received some shocking responses. My mother just blurted out once that she was afraid I was going to get up in the middle of the night and kill her and my father — that’s the picture she had of schizophrenia. Yet she let me live there with them. When I tried to explain my suicidal feelings, she said, “I don’t know what you expect ME to do about it.” Well, I didn’t expect anything but for her to listen and hear me out. I know she was being defensive because she had no other way of protecting herself. After all, she had to cope with my father’s depression for years without ever naming it publicly. And now she was faced with mine, too. She didn’t deny that I had schizophrenia or depression, she just had no base of understanding, and I was at a loss as to how to provide that.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      Your mother’s comment is horrifying – how did you feel at the time? Your explanation of her reactions is full of understanding, but it must have been pretty hard to hear such things. This reminds me of similar experiences that Elyn Sachs describes. She wrote a great memoir about living with schizophrenia called The Center Cannot Hold. She describes herself as a high functioning schizophrenic – she’s a brilliant legal scholar who’s written a lot about the rights of the mentally ill regarding involuntary commitment and treatment. I did a post once on this site that included videos of an interview with her. Do you know her story?


  3. Amy K says:

    Thank you for your kind words John! I am very excited about the recognition by Psych Central and so happy to have the opportunity to connect with other bloggers like yourself!

    This topic is really important, it is so easy to alienate ourselves from our friends and families when we are suffering. I see it happening in reverse too, as a loved one of mine is experiencing mental health issues and continues to isolate themselves without really knowing that is what is happening.

    It is a vicious cycle, isn’t it? One we can all only benefit from by looking at it more closely and by sharing our thoughts and ideas!

    I would love to invite you to the (#mhsm) Mental Health and Social Media Chat on Twitter if you are ever able, Tuesday nights at 9pm Eastern. Feel free to email me or look me up on Twitter for more information.

    Thank you!

    • John says:

      Hi, Amy –

      I agree that isolation is part of a vicious cycle. Sometimes it’s hard even to notice that you’re turning so sharply away from people, at other times you just can’t face anyone and need to be alone. It always feels so necessary and self-protective but is also so destructive of relationships. Then you’ve hurt them, perhaps lost their support to some extent when you try to return and pick up where you left off, worsening depression – and on it goes.

      I’ll definitely look into your Twitter chat time.


  4. Amy K says:

    Great topic to address and actually reminds me of a post I recently wrote at WEGO Health, “Sharing How it Feels at the Holidays” ( I would love your feedback (as well as the feedback of your readers) on the post if you are willing/able!

    I think it is important to share what we are going through but to get to a point where we are not expecting something in return. We are responsible for our self-care and turning to others who we know do not understand for support can be really devastating. That said, some trusted relationships can still be supportive, especially when they realize that they don’t “get it” but want to be of help. They can help by encouraging social engagement of some sort when we seem to be slipping, for example. It is of great relief to me when I know others (close friends or loved ones) see and recognize that I am struggling and that they care, even if they cannot fix it.

    I tend to use language like “I’m really struggling lately.” or “I’ve been having a difficult time coping” as a way to signal that I feel like depression could be creeping in. Statements like these help me to feel like I can share that times are tough, but I don’t have to put a label on it if I do not want to.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    • John says:

      Hi, Amy –

      I’m glad you came by – and congratulations on the recognition of your blog by Psych Central. You seem to be quite a prolific blogger, with a long series of excellent posts at the WeGoHealth site and your other blog – Una Bella Vita.

      It is interesting we’re both writing about this. I very much agree that we need the support of understanding friends even if they don’t know what depression is like. It’s their love and support that we so need – though severe depression – as often happened to me – can blind us to their help and lead us to turn away from them altogether. They’re still there when we wake up again.

      Thanks for writing and for the link. I’m delighted to start reading your posts.


  5. Jenn says:

    I have friends who do not believe in depression; they say it is primarily a personal issue that can easily be overcome. It seems that it would be better to pretend there is not a problem with these friends, and then continue to seek help from sources that know depression is an actual problem.

    • John says:

      Hi, Jenn –

      That’s probably the best thing to do. I must say, though, that I keep wanting to push such people to take the trouble to learn about depression instead of smugly displaying their ignorance. But you have a much more practical and less frustrating approach(!) There’s no point in adding to our stress if people won’t listen.

      Thanks for commenting.


  6. Margaret says:


    People that have never experienced clinical depression CANNOT understand the intensity of the darkness, hopelessness and sadness that we experience with depressive episodes. Furthermore, they do not understand why suicide is an attractive option when deeply depressed.

    Everyone experiences sadness, “bad days”, and grief, but depression is far worse, as we know.

    Comments from friends after I have shared my difficulties:

    * “I don’t have time to be sad.” [As if I am choosing
    to be sad.]
    * “WHY would you want to kill yourself? That is
    ridiculous. I would never think of suicide.”
    [You might think of it if you were sad and
    hopeless, especially for weeks or months
    at a time.]

    I no longer share my suicidal thoughts with friends. Most don’t get it and for the understanding ones I do not want to burden them. My therapist agrees.

    My family (parents + siblings) have never been a part of my support system. They know nothing of my struggles with depression which began at age 11 and I see no reason to share this info with them now.

    This blog and others about depression have given me much support over the last year since I discovered them.

    Thanks John!

    • John says:

      Hi, Margaret –

      The online community has also been important for me – really a mainstay for the support of many who really do get it. It’s encouraging to hear that you’ve so clearly resolved what works and doesn’t work for you about talking to people who haven’t had the same experience. I keep staggering along in learning what’s most helpful. A lot of my sense of the importance of talking about depression was shaped by therapy with my wife. It was in those sessions and in hard experiences we had together that I learned to let my feelings out, to talk about them. It’s a way of deepening or recreating trust in any relationship. That’s the frame I have in mind, and talking about depression fits into that overall picture.

      Thanks so much for describing your experiences.


  7. Karen says:

    It seems to work best for me just to say I’m not feeling well, or haven’t been feeling well. I rarely feel understood, even when someone really close says they understand. Perhaps my siblings do, but they experienced the same family life as I did and have struggled with the same issues, although in different ways.

    Yet I feel that same urge to explain. With help, I’ve been trying to remember that some people just don’t respond to explanations. That is not what they are looking for. They may pay attention to what we do when we are well — the gestures we make, the quality of our time together — but explanations are just excuses as far as they are concerned.

    I think understanding comes sometimes when they experience a difficult episode of depression themselves. Yet when they are depressed, compassion doesn’t come easily because they are turned inward themselves. And later they don’t remember. I do have some success by asking them to remember how they felt then and drawing a parallel to my experience.

    But you raise a point — what do we want when we ask for understanding? Do we still center on ourselves and what we feel we need? Even with apologizing, aren’t we driven by the need for forgiveness? People come to forgiveness when they are ready, not always when we ask. If it’s compassion, we can’t get that on demand either.

    Even when the conversation takes place, there’s the danger for us to intellectualize. I am the kind of person who needs to form the explanations, to put things into words. Does that create any fundamental emotional change between us and the other, or just engage in a conversation?

    You know from my previous comments that repairing relationships and finding acceptance is a big issue for me right now, and I might be repeating what I’ve said before.

    I think with employers and others we don’t know well, bringing up depression makes them uncomfortable. We might be doing our bit for breaking down stigma but it can do more harm than good. Looking back, I think I did it out of my own need, however.

    One of the best breakthroughs I had was with my mother when she said she really didn’t understand how I felt. It was honest. She had tried. She didn’t deny that I felt something difficult (finally!).

    If we think of someone else’s pain, we have to admit that we can’t feel or understand their experience. You just can’t say you know just what it feels like, because you probably don’t do any more than just project your experience on them, and they don’t feel any better.

    Writing or speaking about it is still a good idea, because the reader or listener has made a choice to be interested in what we say. Placing it before someone else when they don’t ask is a risk. That’s why we need our blogs and discussion boards, or our recovery groups, or therapists.

    • John says:

      Hi, Karen –

      I guess I’ve never expected the sort of deep understanding you only find in people who’ve been through depression. For me it’s been more about saving relationships. When depressed, withdrawn, silent, generally not there, my wife, children, friends, colleagues draw their own conclusions. Too often, they assume my behavior is aimed at them, and, unless I explain what’s going on, I’ll lose them on some level. It’s just as important for me to listen to what they’ve been feeling and assuming as to tell them about my depression. Work is different because I’ve needed to explain poor performance. I spoke to most people about “health issues” that made it impossible for me to do such and such. People you know in work relationships don’t need to know any more than that, and I’ve never had anyone try to probe deeper after hearing me say that.

      Thank you for this comment – it’s so full of insights to think about.


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