I was fourteen when someone acknowledged my depression for the first time. I had been struggling with feelings of loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness for a few years by then, and their weight was beginning to suffocate me. I often found myself turning to increasingly dangerous methods of coping with the feeling of drowning. I could hardly breathe, but I didn’t think anyone even noticed. Until, suddenly, someone did.
“I wish you’d smile more,” my cousin wrote to me over Facebook, out of the blue. “I haven’t seen you smile in a long time.”
I read the comment over and over again for the next few months. Each time, I felt the same sense of surprise, the same pinch in my heart. Could someone really see me? Did they recognize my pain? Somehow one small comment made me feel less alone.
Years later, I learned a lot of people suspected I was struggling with depression. Friends, family, even acquaintances who hardly knew me at all. When I asked one why they approached me about it, they shrugged. “I figured you’d reach out to talk if you needed to,” they told me. “We didn’t want to push.”
It was such a simple answer. It seemed respectful of my boundaries, even sounded logical when you looked at it in the right light. And yet, somehow, it didn’t make any sense to me at all. It certainly hadn’t when I felt like I was drowning.
The thing many people don’t understand about depression is that it mutes your ability to reach out. Even when I wanted to scream, I didn’t feel like I could speak. When everything hurt so badly I didn’t even feel like I could get out of bed, I still sent my friends texts with smiley faces and exclamation points as I apologized for cancelling plans. “I’d rather kill myself than take this test,” I’d joke without indicating that really, it wasn’t a joke at all. Even when it felt like the perfect time to speak up about what I was going through, I couldn’t find my voice. I let the moment pass and later kicked myself for even thinking of burdening the people around me with my own stupid problems. If I couldn’t carry the weight of my own being, why should someone else? Who would want to deal with me?
Even today, as I’ve entered early adulthood, some of my friends don’t know how to deal with my depression. They know it’s there but carefully pretend they cannot see it. I tried to talk to one about how I couldn’t stop crying for no reason, how a certain sadness had settled into my bones and I couldn’t seem to shake it off. He averted his eyes and said, “Maybe you should talk to someone who’s better at dealing with things like this.” It felt like a slap in the face.
I wasn’t mad, not then, not now. I understand that some people aren’t as equipped to deal with something so heavy. But after that, I was afraid to reach out again. I was afraid of the rejection. I was afraid of saying “I need help” and hearing someone respond, “Sorry, try again,” of running around in circles until I found myself cornered with nowhere left to go.
But I get it. It must be scary standing on the receiving end of someone else’s baggage. It must be scary to see something so delicate before you, so fragile that one wrong move might break it. When one of my friends was told that one of her loved ones had depression, she told me she wasn’t sure what to do. “I want to be there for him, but I’m afraid to bring it up,” she said. “What if I make it worse?”
It’s a legitimate fear, I suppose. What if by helping, we only make things worse? But I think back to all those times I felt like I was drowning, all those times I could see nothing but the bleakness ahead, and remember how badly I had wished someone — anyone — had reached out a hand. How one simple comment on the Internet had felt like not just an acknowledgment, but a lifeline.
If you’re thinking about reaching out to a friend with depression, know this: you aren’t a therapist. You can’t replace medication or psychological intervention. You alone can’t save someone. But sometimes people just need a friend, a support system to help guide them in the right direction. I never expected my friends to fix me, but what I needed was someone who could acknowledge my pain without shutting me out. What I needed was someone who wouldn’t treat my emotions like an unwanted burden. What I needed was someone who could just be there.
If you’re worried one of your friends might be struggling with depression, reach out to them. Tell them that you love them. Ask them if they’re okay. Start a conversation and just listen. Try to understand if they don’t want to open up. Offer to help them find help. You might not be able to be there for them all the time, but even making an effort matters. After all, it has made a world of difference to me.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.