When you live with depression and anxiety it seems everyone has an idea.
In the years since I first started experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I’ve received more advice, attempted more home remedies and read more inspirational quotes and books than I care to remember. And for the most part they’ve all been provided by well-meaning and caring people, whose concern is for my happiness.
I’m sure you can imagine my distress when each new idea or concept failed to provide the miraculous cure promised. Or, how I agonized over not being smart enough to get over it. Or, how I believed myself to be so pathetic to have not coped with, well errr…., life.
So, at the risk of offending many well-meaning and caring people, I’ve compiled a list of things well-meaning people should never say to a person struggling with emotional health symptoms and why.
They are not a top “insert number here” list and have no particular rank in a predetermined order of significance. They are simply representative of my experience, the experiences of others I know and the experiences of others I don’t know but have read about in my research.
This week: “There are people much worse of than you.”
Everyone who struggles with depression and anxiety is fully aware of the sad and life altering events that occur in other people’s lives. The fact that others believe those problems rank higher on a scale formed out of their own experiences, has the potential to suggest we are not entitled to, nor deserve the support we need. Potentially, what they’ve said is, they care more about those other people and their struggles than they do about you and your trifling “first world problem”, and so should you!
The effect of statements like this will, generally speaking, have us wallowing in our already amplified guilt as we berate ourselves for “not coping” like others do. We’re depressed, and as a consequence we will naturally seek to affirm a self-belief that we are useless with examples just like this one. We must be useless, because we should be able to cope with life. After all, there are all those other people coping with all those other (much worse than yours) problems.
Interestingly, the human body has been designed to operate and respond to pressures in a predetermined manner. It’s the flood of chemicals at the appropriate time that stimulates a response to our circumstances. And, there’s no better example than Nellie, our 7-year-old Cocker Spaniel!
Mr Wonderful and I bought Nellie at about the same time we became empty nesters! It didn’t take long for her to manipulate her way into sleeping on our bed, watching TV from the antique club lounge and generally reigning over all household activities. Neither did it take long for her to earn the reputation of “six million dollar” dog as she lurched from one medical problem to the next.
She’s had bladder stones removed not surprisingly from her bladder, foreign objects removed from her stomach and intestines after helping herself to the rubbish bins and sticks removed from her jaw after becoming wedged whilst she gnawed happily on tree litter in the back yard.
She’s been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder known as GME (Granulomatous Meningoencephalomyelitis) a disease of the brain and spinal chord, had a nasty but benign tumor excised from her neck and just recently, after helping herself to a kilogram of chocolates (thought to be safely out of her reach), required a 3 day stay in hospital on a ‘nil by mouth’ diet and fluid drip!
But what does this have to do with depression and anxiety?
Nellie’s recent dietary adventure with the bowl of foil wrapped chocolates created a reaction in her body that she could not control. No matter how many times we told her; it could be a lot worse than this, we could not convince her pancreas to stop producing digestive enzymes.
We even stroked her sympathetically. We encouraged her to just get on with life. We even told her, that she’s brought this on herself. But, no matter what we said, her pancreas continued to react to the amount of chocolate she’d eaten.
You know, I’ve known other dogs to eat much more chocolate than Nellie and not have a problem. But there was Nellie, throwing up mercilessly in her little dog bed in the corner. So we kept telling her to think about all those other dogs who didn’t have a lovely comfy bed to throw up in. But no, she just continued to lay there vomiting on herself.
After showing Nellie pictures of other dogs living in miserable conditions (we wondered if she hadn’t understood the language we used) and still not managing to stop her from vomiting, it didn’t take too long for us to realize that Nellie needed a trip to the dog doctor! So after placing her in the car, while all the time telling her that I had better things to do than run her around, we made it to the clinic where I told Dr Mike she’d done this to herself.
I said to Dr Mike in not too flattering terms, “I’ve tried everything to help her get over it, but all she does is lay there and throw up! I’ve counted the number of wrappers she’s pooped out, cleaned up her vomit and even cooked her special meals. No other dog in the world would get treated that well, but she’s still sick!”
Dr Mike was sympathetic. After all, he knows what it’s like to look after sick dogs. So after telling me that it wouldn’t matter how many times I encouraged Nellie to think about the dogs that were much worse off than herself (primarily because Nellie is a dog) I could not stop her pancreas from producing the chemicals required to digest what she’d eaten.
What’s more, he said Nellie’s pancreas may never be able to resume normal pancreatic enzyme production. And no matter how many times we tell her or ourselves that there are dogs much worse off than she, her pancreas will continue to flood her body with unhealthy levels of digestive enzymes! She now has a clinical condition known as Pancreatitis and will require a lifetime of dietary and lifestyle changes!!
The fact that other dogs have eaten more chocolate than Nellie without making themselves sick, doesn’t mean Nellie isn’t as smart as other dogs or that she’s just focusing on being sick. It means that all dogs have different biological features. There are dogs that have eaten less chocolate than Nellie and died!
All people are different too. Just because a shared experience will affect two people differently doesn’t mean that one is wrong and the other right. A person suffering from depression has, in many cases, a biological chemical imbalance. It will not matter how much better off they are than the rest of the world, they will not be capable of sustaining what others might think is a reasonable amount of “happiness”. And, because by nature we seek to verify our “state of health”, (if we think we have the flu we will take our temperature, expect a cough or sneezing to develop etc.) we will look for evidence that confirms we are as useless, incapable or hopeless as we feel.
If you’re human (or perhaps a Cocker Spaniel), you’ve no doubt had experiences that worked out badly and left you and/or others bewildered and disorientated. These are the experiences that depression seeks out above all others in order to keep us safe from doing something else that might go wrong, again.
Telling someone who is depressed to think of all those other people suffering through all those dreadful things, is like telling a diabetic to think of all those other people with much worse illnesses, in order to be cured. Or telling a Cocker Spaniel that other dogs live in much worse conditions, in order to stop her pancreas from over producing digestive enzymes.
The truth is, that while depression (and other emotional illnesses) may have a trigger (like eating too much chocolate!), it’s our neurology and biochemistry that will determine how the illness manifests, not our experiences or thinking.
From Charles Schultz: Jogging is very beneficial. It’s good for your legs and your feet. It’s also very good for the ground. It makes it feel needed.
Deb Shugg is an awarded business woman, wife & mother, author and a sufferer of depression and anxiety. To contact Deb click here.
If you need help to deal with your symptoms see your doctor. If you need to talk to someone NOW call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
(Abuse of another person is NEVER okay. If you are being abused or, if you are an abuser please seek help.)