There are subjects many people want to avoid. For instance, how often have you heard that it’s a bad idea to talk about religion or politics at family parties — unless you want things to get uncomfortable really quick. There are a host of other things people from which people want to steer clear because it actually will make them uncomfortable. Some of those subjects carry a stigma. The longer we stay silent, the more the stigma is allowed to thrive. I don’t like that.
So … you have depression. I don’t mean that you’re feeling down, that you have “the blues.” We’re not talking about “situational depression” – though that certainly feels deep and profound and painful, and it could well trigger a longer-lasting depressive episode.
The depression you’re feeling right now, this is a longer-lasting depressive episode. It started so long ago that you can’t remember the beginning, and when you look ahead to the horizon, all you can see is horizon. There’s no end in sight.
So … what do you do?
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.” (Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians 5:22)
It’s really hard, isn’t it? Every day. Getting out of bed can feel like moving a mountain. Getting a shower requires even more energy, energy that you simply can’t muster until late in the afternoon some days. You’re crying. You have physical pain – your head, in your arms and legs, stomach trouble. You feel hopeless, useless, unlovable. You feel alone … and lonely.
So … what do you do?
(Jesus said) “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.” (Gospel of Luke 6:35)
When I speak to groups about depression, people often ask my advice about how to battle the illness from within ourselves. When I’m on a radio program or when I receive emails from people who have read something I wrote about depression, I frequently get questions regarding what a person with the illness should do to cope, to feel better.
I’m not a psychiatrist or a doctor of any kind; real blood and sharp needles make me queasy. I’m a good listener, but I’m not a psychotherapist or any other kind of professional listener. I have a journalism degree, which makes me a profession asker and listener. I never took a master’s level class in college in any field, and I never took even one psychology class as a undergrad. My son has a psychology degree. That means nothing when it comes to having answers to those seeking advice and guidance.
All I have is experience – 14 years with depression and anxiety. Make that 14 years and counting. The fact that I still have the illnesses shows I don’t know of any stroke of magic that will make everything disappear.
Yet I don’t want to let people down. So I give advice, perhaps even nuggets of wisdom gleaned from 14 years of paying attention. Get a complete physical every year from your primary care doctor and have the doc check for thyroid problems, vitamin D deficiency and several other things that can cause depression. Meet with a psychiatrist, who will understand medication treatment. Meet regularly with a psychologist, who can help with talk therapy. Exercise. Check your diet, cut back on fast food and diet cola. Make sure you are sleeping adequately. Spend time with a spiritual director.
I could say more. But you can read almost all of what I have to say by checking what the professionals and experts have said and written.
When I speak to groups or talk on the radio or respond to emails, eventually I get to one important piece of advice that people might not hear anywhere else. In many ways, it’s the most important aspect of my personal treatment and coping technique. It’s advice that comes directly from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospels, from the thoughts of whoever authored the Book of Proverbs in the Bible’s Old Testament.
My advice is as common as love: Do something nice for another human being. Be nice to someone. There is great purpose to be realized in an act of kindness. Again, that’s something common enough to cut across all cultures and religions and lifestyles.
“Lord, when I feel that what I’m doing is insignificant and unimportant, help me to remember that everything I do is significant and important in your eyes, because you love me and you put me here, and no one else can do what I am doing in exactly the way I do it.”
Brennan Manning, author and former Catholic priest
“When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”
the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monk
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Leo Buscaglia, motivational speaker known as “Dr. Love”
A couple of years ago, I was talking with a woman who was enduring a particularly difficult depressive episode. It was early in the afternoon. I was searching for an idea that might help turn her day into something that felt valuable. “What are you doing the rest of the afternoon?” I asked. She replied that she was going to bake some cookies so her daughters had a snack when they got home from school.
“Why don’t you make a couple of extra batches?” I said. “Then when you pick your girls up from school, you can give each of their teachers a bunch of cookies, just as a thank-you.”
The next day, she told me she had taken my advice. The teachers were beyond grateful; they were touched at the woman’s thoughtfulness. And, the woman told me, it turned that day from utterly miserable to something better. Not great, but better.
Because she, for one day and in the lives of two teachers, found some purpose. Her kindness had made someone else feel good.
Kindness provides purpose to two human soul — the giver and the receiver.
So try it when your day is difficult, when the depression has you avoiding people, when you feel completely inept at everything and useless – do something nice for someone. If you’re in the drive-through line at a fast-food restaurant, pay for the meal of the car behind you or for several cars behind you. That’s happened to me before, and it made my day. You can buy a card for someone you know struggling in life and write a note of encouragement.
You can clean out the dishwasher, walk the dog, call someone whom you know is lonely, offer to help an elderly person do their grocery shopping.
I know that will take some effort. I know that effort isn’t easy to muster when in the throes of depression. But try. Please. Reach out and embrace the opportunity to give meaning to your life. When you feel your life has meaning, that you have a purpose of any measure, it will give you a reason to wake up in the morning and battle to get out of bed.
Many days, getting out of bed is half the battle for someone with depression. Claim victory in that battle. Be kind.