Relating To People With Depression

Depression is DarkIf you’ve never been really depressed, it’s hard to understand what depression feels like. This is especially true if the person who is struggling with depression is someone who looks like they are on top of the world, that everything is going well, and that nothing could possibly be wrong. Many people who go through depressive periods are highly functional – I’m a good example of this. If you didn’t know me well, you wouldn’t notice. And, if you know me well, you probably think of me as tired, lower energy than normal, or that something seems slightly off. Finally, if you know me really well, you know I’m struggling to get through each day when I’m depressed.

I’m definitely in an “I’m doing better but why am I hauling my butt all over the place, and why again am I doing all of this stuff” mode. I was pondering this (after canceling some travel that I don’t need to do) when I got a powerful note from a blog reader. In it, he talks about how after reading a recent post of mine, he started to understand how to relate better to his brother who is struggling with a deep depression. The email made me smile, and reminded – if only briefly – why I am doing all of this stuff. The email follows.

For the last six months or so, my youngest brother—a very handsome, tall, intelligent, fit, seemingly-perfect person—has been battling depression. As the oldest brother, and as someone who has battled all his life to help my foreign, single mother get by, it’s but incredibly hard to understand and relate to him. In fact, regretfully, I used to criticize him for the way he felt. It wasn’t until last week, when I saw him beg to be admitted into a hospital because he felt unsafe, that I realized how serious this was. I just couldn’t understand, how can someone who appears to be so perfect in many ways, so blessed (especially compared to what we went through as children), be so unhappy and miserable inside?

Sadly, it still took reading 6 words on a blog post from someone whom I look up to most (“came out of depression on Feb. 14”) to finally understand that what’s on the outside is very different than what’s on the inside. He/You can both seem so perfect, but loving someone means knowing their deepest thoughts and feelings, understanding why they feel that way, then being there for them no matter what. I regret letting him get to the point where he didn’t feel safe. I’ve strived all my life to set an example, to be there for my family, but I was stuck in my own arrogance. I let the “knife” cut through everything and get the best of me. But it won’t happen again.

I’m so proud of my brother in every way: we never had a role model to guide us through life, to tell us how important reading and learning is, yet he’s managed a 3.9 GPA at a good school. He loves reading more than anyone I know (maybe even you, Brad..) and wants to be a doctor and writer one day. He just turned 21, but has the mind and soul of someone who’s 40…it’s crazy. Maybe that’s why he has a hard time coping..? Who knows – all I know is I’m going to be by his side always and support him in every way possible. My arrogance, confidence and toughness can go towards working my butt off and making this company successful.

If you read this far (which knowing you, you probably did…I thank you). I thank you for being you, for sharing your life’s journey with people like me. I promise to continue to pass on wisdom and give to others as you have.

  • jerrycolonna

    I think it’s not only difficult for those around the depressive to see their suffering when they are highly-functional–it’s often difficult for the person in the middle of it all to see it as well.
    We can be so programmed to keep going, keep doing what we do, that we don’t pay attention to what’s really happening within us. And, if we’re lucky, we are forced, as Parker Palmer writes, “down to the ground.” If we’re unlucky, we try to soldier through it until we can then no longer bear it.

    This is why I think talking about it is so damn important. I suspect the fear is that, by talking about things, we’ll somehow bring it out in others. In experience, talking about it doesn’t make it happen, it makes it easier to bear.

    • “It makes it easier to bear” is such a key point – both for the person who is depressed and the people closest to him/her. I’ve found that some people can’t deal with it, but most are extremely helpful / supportive – give me my space when needed / get closer when needed when I’m going through a depressive episode.

    • Well said, Jerry. Very true to my experience.

  • Peter Biro

    All I can say is “Amen” – thanks Brad

  • As someone who has been married to a depressive for 17 years I can relate. I still don’t always get him and despite myself often think “just get up off the couch and get on with it already!” (To my credit I don’t *say* that.) Living with a depressive is tough but remembering that they aren’t trying to piss you off can help.

    By the way, Brad, have you ever tried light therapy in the winter? My husband started it a few years ago and the difference it has made for him is absolutely amazing. I would never have believed it if I didn’t see it and experience it personally. But it has completely and utterly changed the tone and tenor of our winters.

    • I haven’t tried light therapy and I’ve never felt that I was particularly sensitive to light or dark since I’ve struggled in the summer time, but several people have suggested it so it’s on my list to try.

  • something’s in the air. this was last night’s dinner conversation between April and myself. a twist to this is blending in the mind of an engineer who has spent their life analyzing and resolving challenges. that’s one thing when it’s a line of code or a piece of metal. it’s quite another when it’s ones’ own mind.

    grateful to have my wife in my life.

    thanks for sharing the letter. timely.

  • I’ll never forget a vacation I took with three friends many years ago. We all seemed so “normal” and acted the part of vacationers having fun together. Many years later, we talked about that vacation and learned that out each of us was in the midst of profound sadness and pain: one friend had broken up with a longtime girlfriend and was severely depressed, one friend had “fallen off the wagon” again in her battle with alcoholism, and my struggle with an eating disorder was it’s peak.

    None of us said anything. Yet, we were all miserable on the inside. I can only imagine what would have happened if one of us had spoken up. If one of us would have had the courage to be honest. Perhaps, we could saved each other of months or YEARS of further pain and darkness.

    I think about that experience often. And, hopefully… just hopefully… it will inspire me to be open about my darkness and remember that when things look oh so “normal” on the outside, there can be people in real, serious pain in our midst.

  • Even when they are obviously depressed and they know it, it can be be difficult to relate. I will think I have the answers to “fix it” but they don’t want answers. They may already know what they need to do…but they don’t do it. It can be maddening for the less-patient.

  • Brad,

    Exposing your inner-most self publicly is, but should not be, many things.
    It is but should not be necessary – so the world can understand
    It is but should not be brave – what fear should we have of bearing all
    It is but should not be novel – openness should be an everyday thing

    But one thing I am not sure on – Is it a strength or a weakness ? I think …
    it is the strength of working on a weakness in the open, where light and oxygen can work their healing. This is something, sportspeople, entrepreneurs, students, partners and parents all need to do in common.

    Rand Fishkin talks of TAGFEE
    Transparent and Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic, Exceptional
    It seems this is TAG EE – I guess 5 out of 6 makes it well worthwhile !

    • Thanks James. I’ve always view my blog as a place to share my thoughts and work things out in public with anyone who cares to engage. And I appreciate everyone who does!

  • Brad this is especially poignant for me because I moved to Boulder on the advice of friends as a step forward in my battle with depression.

    Overall, I’ve been much happier since I got here. (Mostly because I’m around people much more than when I was isolated in the suburbs of L.A.) But I still struggle, and still have an internal stigma that tells me I shouldn’t. I call it “feeling bad about feeling bad.”

    Since I met you last May at Boulder Startup Week I always had the feeling you were a good person up to worthwhile things, but knowing a bit more about your inner life is a huge help. Thanks for the honest posts.

    • Thx – glad Boulder is helping you. It’s been an awesome place for me.

    • AJ, totally relate to the “feeling bad about feeling bad” It is hard to show that side to loved ones, and then because you do, you feel ashamed for not being stronger and more capable (regardless of how much you do). From that feeling one wants to isolate themselves away, so getting out there is courageous. Thanks for sharing yoru thougths here too.

  • Denelle Numis

    so powerful! absolutely love that you shared this. i’m going thru a similar situation with a family member and this post definitely helps my perspective. thanks again for sharing!!!

  • Good heartfelt post Brad. Thanks. My journey in business and personal life has taught me that we work hard to be independent only to realize that in life’s trials and tribulations we depend on each other to get us through it. I don’t believe no one is ever “independent” and it takes a bigger person to ask for help, advice, etc. Going back to your “Be Vulnerable” post about the importance of being brutally honest with those you trust is a good reminder in staying healthy both physically and mentally.

  • Brad et al., thanks for sharing. As a former licensed psychologist and professor in a psychology department (i.e., prior to the pursuit of the even stranger career of founder and CEO of a startup), I was most thankful to run across this post.

    To start off, I live with a mood disorder. Fortunately, mine is classified as ‘mild’, and through its course I have been able – with the support of many others – to have relative success in my schooling, academia, and now this chaotic process of entrepreneurship As such, I identify with much that you and others have shared on this post thus far.

    I agree that it’s very difficult for people who have never suffered from a depressive episode to fully understand the effects it can have on the individual – and then perhaps subsequently on their work environment/team.

    That said, I think it’s vitally important for founders (and other individuals responsible for the managing of projects that involve people – which is to say all projects) to have a better understanding of what could be called “the other, silent team member.”

    Based on general population epidemiological rates, in a team of 10-15 members working together in a given year, it is a probabilistic ‘certainty’ that one (or more) team members will have a depressive episode. And I have found through my talks (and observations of others) on my team, and those throughout the tech incubator with which we’re affiliated, that the world of entrepreneurship (perhaps not enterprisingly) draws a disproportionate percentage of individuals prone to depression (and even sub-clinical mania – look at your sales team)…anxiety is pretty prevalent too–more so in the ranks of programmers, though that’s a whole other story. I have not reviewed the literature to see if any peer-reviewed articles have examined this scientifically, but it seems reasonable – at least based on what I’ve found personally.

    If you’re interested, here is a great intro lecture on depression (i.e., definition, diagnosis, epidemiological rates, and the biopsychosocial causes/treatments) by Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist on faculty at Stanford University. He is a leader in the field of stress-induced mood disorders and may provide a new vantage from which to consider depression.


    • Thx for the video – will watch it.

  • I know I’ve told you this before, but your posts and the posts of a few others, have helped me 1) get a handle on my own battles with myself, and 2) relate more to people who could really use a friend. Thanks!

    • You are welcome – glad they are helpful.

  • Paul Allen

    Thanks Brad. This sort of post helps to erase stigma and can save lives.

  • Brad, reading this post and a more recent post “Digital Sabbath” was the little nudge I needed to finally express my thanks to you for all of your efforts blogging. I guess it is always easier to sit passively by instead of reaching out to share your thanks for the efforts of those around you. I know for a fact I’m a better person for having read this blog and I really enjoy the personal stories you share, especially the ones as of late about relationships and some of the harder aspects of life.

    I’ve seen you have written about yoga in the past, but perhaps this could be a way of unlocking some positive energy in your body if you can get past the thinking of the moves (try the C1 class at a core power near you.) This is a practice I have added recently in my life and it has served me better emotionally than running has. Just a thought.

    Thanks again for all of your efforts.

    • Thx for the suggestion on yoga. I’m going Saturday with Amy to a class. I’ve always found it to be good for me – I’ve just never really gotten into a groove or made it a practice.

  • I think this is an internal feeling that pervades everything we do. Depression clouds our day to day, and yes, we are highly functioning too. I can’t help but wonder why we were born this way – always feeling this way. Thanks for this post, makes me feel less of a freak.