A good friend and mentor confided that he is not always sure how to talk to me. Sure, he can talk to me about work, lacrosse, and some general life things, but how can he be sure that he will not offend me somehow? His concern is that he may say something he thinks is funny, but will cause me to react negatively, and potentially put me in a depressive or anxious state. How then, can he square his desire to speak with me with his other desire to not offend me?
Personally, I have a uniquely dry and dark sense of humor. Which makes it remarkably difficult to offend me. Also, I have a great deal of experience battling truly awful thoughts that arise from the darkest corner of my mind. Quite simply, no one can offend my sensibilities because anything that anyone says is always second-rate compared to what my mind can throw at me.
I told my friend that he can say whatever he thinks to me; because I know where he is coming from. He gets latitude that a stranger does not get. I appreciate his concern that he does not want to “trigger” me. A term that I detest, which I will get to in another post. My friend gets to say what he wants to me, because he is my friend. To paraphrase a fictional character, suffering from severe OCD, from the book Xenocide,
This is my affliction, if I lost my leg; I would not be ashamed if my closest friends saw my stump.
Imagine if I lose a leg, and my friend kicks my stump in the middle of a conversation. I would be indignant, and he would no longer be my friend. My friends, family, and coworkers do not know if some off-hand comment will kick my invisible stump. We tiptoe around mental illness because we do not know if what we say will cause more damage. That is the unique dilemma of mental illness compared to physical illness.
I have two rules; they’re flexible, depending on who I’m conversing with, but I find them necessary at this stage of my permanent recovery.
DO NOT tell me that everything is going to be okay.
DO NOT tell me that you understand.
The first rule is accurate. Remember, I am a depressive - I think in painfully realistic terms. No one can predict that life will improve, and it is a platitude that does more for the consoler than the person being consoled.
The second rule should be obvious, but this is because we get our empathy wires crossed with our logic wires. I do not even tell other depressives that I understand how they feel. I can’t. Their experience of depression is so unique to their circumstances, that it is pure hubris to believe that I understand. This is why I write that I know their pain only to the extent that I have experienced mine.
How could I possibly understand how a fifteen-year-old middle school girl experiences depression and anxiety? How can I get into the mind of a sixty-five year old depressive, widower who now lives all alone?
I can imagine their pain only by reflecting on my own, but I will never understand. So I do not say that I do.
If you are worried about how to speak to a family member, to a friend, or to a coworker; then ask. You might get an answer similar to my rules, or you might get a laundry lists of Dos and Don’ts. That depends on the individual, and where they are in their recovery.
Here are some useful links to learn more about how to speak to someone you care about:
For men, especially, I recently ran across this excellent organization: