I find it hard some days to know how to encourage people who are tired and have been thinking about their drinking or drug use or other harmful behaviors for a long time, or have had ups and downs, or even have been doing well, but have been hit hard with adversity and are just not seeing the results of their efforts, or maybe even the point.
It is such a terrible feeling, not to be able to see the way forward. It can be accompanied by all kinds of other feelings of anxiety and depression, with an emphasis on hopeless and helpless. It feels that the only thing we care about at all is our substance or behavior of choice at that point. To lose ourselves. Escape. Oblivion. It’s such a terrible place to be. I totally get that. I remember it.
Empathy vs. Compassion
My empathy is deep, yet I know I don’t always present that way. I try not to get lost in my feelings of empathy, because then I can’t see or communicate options for action. I do try to get people to see that it is not the end of the world, and to encourage them to see at least a tiny bit of light.
I try not to dwell on the negative too long with people, mostly for their sake, but also for my own sense of self-preservation from frustrations and sadnesses that are beyond my ability to solve. I think that on the other end, that can sometimes feel like I don’t care or I don’t have sympathy and can be frustrating for the other person.
I feel sometimes that this is annoying, and that I’m not always paying deference to their pain, but for me, when I believed I had to fully explore and experience my pain, it turned into a self-feeding miasma of depression. I personally have found I had to fight that. It’s not healthy for me. It’s so easy for me to feed my doubts and apathy and fears and hesitations.
I was reading recently the difference between empathy and compassion, and I think that’s what I am aiming for -- coming out on the compassion side. If I empathize so much as to take on the actual pain of the other person, I’m not really doing either of us a service. It doesn’t actually lessen their burden, and it causes me anguish too.
I do however, also, feel tremendous compassion, and that is something I can express. I think it’s better for me, as well as the other person, to try to inject a ray of hope or a suggestion that might click. If not, I can rest in knowing I tried to express some kindness. I can feel like I put something out there, best I could. And one never knows what may click later.
Personal Experience with Depression
I’ve had multiple experiences with depression and coping with it over the years, although I would characterize my own as generally mild to moderate. Mostly coping with drugs and drinking, I suppose. The thing is, that because I didn’t feel my perception and my pain were acknowledged when I tried to express it, it made me want to show how bad it was, which inadvertently cast it bigger than it may have started out.
I think as I sank into my grief and pain and feelings of being lonely and different and apart from the flow of life, I drifted into depression as well. It became familiar. It gave me a reason for being unhappy. And in some ways, I made excuses. I pampered my sadness and despair and I pondered it all through the morose agonized lens of beer and teenage angst and hormones and a desperate desire to be liked and accepted by my peers, and I carried much of that with me into my adult relationships. Although we do seem to gain confidence in various ways as we grow as we go along.
I believed that I had to give full voice and range to my depression and distress and that my emotions deserved full surrender. That the darkness was the real me. I believed emotions ruled me. That they should, and that repressing them like my parents did led to being uptight crazy people. But I fought so hard to express and feel my emotions, that I lost my grip on them, and I didn’t really have anyone to guide me well through that.
My heart truly aches for those who are suffering from depression. My own experiences were relatively mild, comparatively, but still so debilitating.
Looking back, I wish I had been able to construct a more rational base of thinking way, way earlier. Not so that I could repress or “manage’ my emotions so much, but so that I could have learned that emotion doesn’t have to be terrifying and an uncontrollable “force of nature.” That it’s possible to look at and explore some of my emotions without allowing them to overwhelm and destroy me. That, actually, looking at them renders them more manageable in and of itself.
For me, alcohol, drugs and sex all played into that, the drinking myself into oblivion and going deeper and deeper into the pain and anger. And then those feelings and their expression are so skewed when impaired. What an explosive maelstrom. It took me a long time to sort some of that out, long after my head had cleared.
Realistic Beliefs and Thinking
I found that many of my personal beliefs were based on years of faulty thinking and old associations that didn’t work in my life anymore, but I didn’t want to give them up. I didn’t really know that I could! Just like I didn’t know that my emotions did not have to fully control my ability to function in life day to day.
This is the most important thing I learned from my entire journey with addiction. I found it first with David Burns in Feeling Good, which is a mass market bestseller on CBT for depression, and later in REBT -- Ellis’s branch of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). I learned to apply it first to addiction, and then to everything else in my life, and I can’t credit it enough for 1) allowing me to change and 2) helping me frame life in a way that made sense to me.
Hoping to be Helpful
It’s hard to know how to be helpful to someone who is depressed and despairing. Also, and importantly, I am NOT a therapist or a doctor. I often think about how I try to carve out how I can best be helpful within my own personal and professional limitations and constraints. I hope fundamentally, not to cause harm.
Life is really tough sometimes. It can feel hard to go on. I always want to be clear that this is the ONLY option to me. Going on. And when people are having trouble with seeing that, I want to get them to medical and professional help as quickly as possible.
I believe that we have to do everything in our power not to give up because that’s giving up on life itself, and that goes against everything I believe. Also, we are still in charge to such a large degree, even if everything is going completely wrong, and it FEELS like everything in the world is out of our control.
I think it’s fine to acknowledge and explore what we’re feeling, but not helpful at all to fall into those feelings infinitely.
For my clients -- and I guess for friends and family, too, I try to strike a balance. I want people to know that I hear and that I feel for them. But I don’t want to play into victim thinking or even to dwell too long on negative life situations, because I think my strength and my role is to promote forward motion as much as possible in most cases.
I believe in being encouraging, that there are always far more options than we think there are, and things can get better. Things do not always look like what we want or expect, and sometimes life is bad and tragic. But I believe happiness exists in all the small moments, and everyone has access to those.
I haven’t found quite the right balance for all of this personally, or the right ways to express it to others -- those who are struggling, in particular. Again, trying to be mindful about doing no harm.
Getting Professional Help
Addiction sets up a loop where depression may very well become part of that recurring loop of the aftermath of self-destructive behavior, and the two can be self-reinforcing.
Some people find they were NOT really depressed once they got out from the cycle of addiction. Others may find that this is an underlying condition that could use some attention, and that with proper treatment (therapy or medication or in combination), that the “need” to seek relief in harmful behaviors reduces as well.
If you suspect you may be depressed, with symptoms like: lethargy, feeling down, sad, change in appetite, etc., for no direct reason for more than two weeks, please consider getting some additional help. If you are right in the middle of detoxing or in early sobriety, you might give it just a little bit longer. It is pretty common to experience some depression somewhere along the way in there in the first couple of months, even.
And don’t ever hesitate to call a hotline. They can be really wonderful -- true lifelines. Here’s the national suicide prevention helpline: