Dear Dolly: depressed friend

Dear Dolly,

This is a question for next time, because I don’t talk to this person anymore. I had a friend who was depressed. I tried to be a good friend, but I think I made some mistakes. For example, I started inviting her over all the time because she would say stuff that made me feel sorry for her, like she’d tell me she was eating crackers for dinner. Or not leaving the house all weekend. So, I’d have her over and feed her several meals through the week. Or I’d invite her along to whatever I was doing on the weekend. I thought I was being helpful, but probably, I was enabling behavior that wasn’t good. Over time, it seemed like she wasn’t enjoying the time we spent together, so I tried spending less time with her. This made things awkward because she was angry and hurt about this. I did not know how to respond to this because I felt it was inappropriate (i.e., why should she be angry — it’s my time: I can spend it how and with whom I want), so we stopped talking.

I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, I just didn’t know how else to deal with it. The last few times I saw her were unpleasant — like I was forcing someone to socialize when they didn’t want to. You know, a lot of moody silence. I also didn’t know how to talk to her about her depression. She’d often message me, sharing depression memes and repeating her bleak outlook on life and the pain she was in. I am sure I said the wrong things in response (variations on “accept it or find a way to change it” or “you should talk to your therapist”). I know that was harsh, but she told me in the past that she did things to make her depression worse because the worse shape she was in, the more attention she got from friends. I didn’t want to be a part of that. The question is, what should I have done differently? 

— Not such a good friend for the depressed

Dear NSaGFftD,

Your first mistake was an early one. You know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell, right? You can’t be the one person fix-everything machine. Especially not if the problems are as serious as clinical depression. Your first mistake was the lack of boundaries. If you want to help someone, you need to help them in a sustainable way. Can you feed a person several times a week for the rest of their lives? Sure. But that’s not helping them. That’s making it easier for them to never figure out how to do better for themselves.

Better would have been to think of her as any other friend — go out to meals with her, invite her along to movies, or to your BBQ. Let her invite you out too! Don’t try to be her personal chef or cruise director. You saw for yourself that didn’t work. She was probably forcing herself to say “yes” to all your invitations even if she knew she wouldn’t enjoy herself because her therapist told her to try being more social. Or because she was afraid you’d stop extending invitations if she kept declining them.

You’re right in your analysis that how you talked to her about her depression wasn’t helpful. You shouldn’t give advice on how to deal with depression: you don’t have any solutions because you don’t know what it feels like in someone else’s head. A better approach would have been say that you care about her, and you’re sorry she’s in pain. Given what she revealed about her own patterns, you could add that you don’t want to see her get any worse, so you aren’t going to give her attention when she talks about depression. Emphasize that you care, and you want to see her get better, but you don’t think that talking to you about it will help. After that, if she brings it up again, reiterate that you care, but you can’t discuss that topic with her in a healthy way. If it continues, don’t respond to that line of conversation.

It’s not easy to find the balance between showing that you care about someone and trying to fix everything for them. You can’t do the latter without them becoming dependent on you. You have to set expectations and boundaries you feel can be maintained. Remember, people who are depressed and/or lonely are vulnerable and can come to rely on you for more than you feel comfortable with — so don’t set that expectation! Try to treat them as you would any other friend, but just be more understanding if they don’t feel like seeing you — make sure they know you’ll still be around when they’re feeling (somewhat) social again. Better luck next time!