How do I meet a depressed friend?

This was one of the questions I got at the agile conference Agila Sverige. Since my depression has sent me home again I thought maybe I could help someone by answering some of these questions.

There seem to be a lot of caring people out there. People that are troubled by what they see, but they don't know how to help. In the face of a depression we are all alike, bosses and co-workers, friends and family. None of us knows what is ok to ask or say. No-one wants to step on a sick persons toes or make them feel worse.

I can only speak for myself in what makes me feel the best. I cannot claim to know how other depressed people feel and how they want to be met, but for me there are some things you can definitely think about.

A friend in need is a friend indeed

Yes, that is so. I am sick, I am feeling down, a lot of the time I just want to spend my days facing a corner and pretending there is no outside world. This, however, does not mean I don’t want you to call me or send a text. You are always allowed to ask how I'm feeling. I might not be up for an evening out in town, or even have the energy to meet you, or remember to call you back, but I still appreciate that you show that you care and haven’t forgotten me. I still need to know that there are some friends left out there. If you try to contact me and I don’t answer it might be because I'm not in a state of talking right now, but I will still appreciate that you thought of me. And if you send an email I might answer or I might not, but you are welcome to try and contact me anytime.

Can I ask about the depression, can I ask how you are doing?

Yes, of course you can. If you don’t feel up to the whole truth, if you prefer our relationship to be in the more shallow end of the friendship pool or if you simply feel you are not ready to hear what I am feeling, then just ask how I am doing. If you really want to know how it feels to be depressed, how I spend my days, what is the worst part right now, where in the treatment I am, then just ask. I will let you know if you have gone to far and to be honest, no-one has so far.

So what if I simply don’t know at all what to say?

Just talk about the weather or anything else you would talk about with a friend. I am the same me as before, just a bit more sad and a bit more sensitive. If you keep to subjects that are totally harmless for you nothing bad is going to happen. I will not break down and cry over nothing.

Is there anything that makes you feel worse?

Actually, there is. When I see you speaking to others and not to me. My extra sensibility makes me notice it far too much and I feel really sad that I scare you. Maybe you don’t like me at all. When these thoughts attack I need to use a lot of energy not to let them take me over completely. Due to the sensitivity I might be extra sensitive to “evil” jokes, one or two will be fine, but to rub things in makes me just want to cry, and I guess you don’t want that?

But you simply don't seem interested in what I have to say

If we meet in a crowded space, with a lot of people around and lots of noice, my brain needs a lot of breaks. My brain can't really handle all this input and thus I need to take smaller breaks. I zone out for a while to let my brain rest. This is not because you're boring or your subject is boring, this is because my brain can't focus for more than a short period of time. Just going into town makes me exhausted.

What should we do when you come back to work?

I think I had almost a perfect comeback to work. I started off at two hours a day, my co-workers made me feel really welcome and asked what I wanted to do. For me it felt important not to start something I knew I couldn’t finish so I started out being the support person for the tech support, taking only the simplest of tasks. I could take a bit of the load of him and still feel I wasn’t extremely important if I needed a “break” again.

I had no idea if my brain would work and I told them that my priority was to get well first and productivity is a later question, they seemed to accept and understand. One thing I did miss was a clear time when I should arrive on my first day back. I had no idea what had changed, and I also had my pick on when to start my day. A bit of guidance would have helped. Now I arrived in the middle of the daily standup that had apparently changed starting time.

These are however the smallest of things. The most important thing when people come back from a depression is to be there, start off easy and support them. Listen to them and ask what they think they need in order to recover completely? Also be prepared for them not knowing this.

On the other hand I also think it is important for the person coming back to be honest and let the co-workers know the plan for getting back to work and also that the plan might change depending on how the rehabilitation progresses. When I started feeling worse again the first to know was my co-workers. After the phone call to the doctor I told them that she probably would send me home again after having met me and as soon as I knew I was staying home I told them. I believe transparency is really important.

All in all, I think honesty and openness are of the utmost importance; that, and acknowledging that depression is a disease like any other. The stigma it carries must be removed. I refuse to feel ashamed of my depression, no more than I do of a common cold.