She’s sharing her heart over the phone. Near the end, she says “I remember reading one of your stories years ago, and it helped me.” I’m immediately nervous, and my anxiety level shoots up. What the heck was this story? I’m a much different person now. Do I even agree with it still? Or was it a jumbled collection of feelings that sounded good at the moment? A mishmash of thought-stopping cliches and flowery self-help?
We tend to put certain people on a pedestal once we like a few things they wrote. We stop discerning, stop picking apart their words, stop testing their theories and repeat everything they say like it’s the holy grail. There’s a quote that I want to frame and hang on my wall. “I’m sorry for the bad advice. In my defense, at the time I was a moron.” It perfectly encapsulates my emotions around people taking my old stories and running with them.
So much of the advice I gave friends as a teenager makes me wince now. Heck, I’ve outgrown the advice I gave just a year ago. One small price of pain in constantly challenging your worldview and perspective is that you’ll eventually want to call your younger self a moron, but there’s beauty in realizing that advice is rarely evergreen. Lessons that gave us comfort years ago now sound hokey. You’ll reread a favorite book from childhood and start spotting all the subtly troublesome bits. What worked for you in the past may not work for you now, and that’s okay. Truly.
Clinging to old ideals and old values as a misguided way of staying true to your roots is problematic. There’s no pride in sticking with something that’s clearly not working anymore because “I’ve always done it this way.” That’s how you get schools that ban books and an overblown military and people who still think Friends is the greatest sitcom in the world. (Yeah, I said it.) Sometimes, the roots aren’t worth holding onto.
Whenever I share about my depression, I’m always amazed at how many strangers who’ve never given me the time of day are suddenly experts in my pain who can diagnose me through a keyboard. How many friends suddenly have a Ph. D. in the herbal teas I should drink, the yoga poses I should practice, the meditation tips I should try. Friends will hand out every stale, tired tip under the sun from eating more kale to watching this TED Talk that changed their life.
You don’t know what to say so you give them the bad advice you’ve accumulated over the years. You say it worked for your cousin. Or your teacher. Or your friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. I get it. When your friend is blubbering or breathing erratically or has become strangely too calm on the surface, you feel a little overwhelmed. Helpless. You think you have to say something, but there are a few pieces of advice that do way more harm than good. These five phrases should be led out to pasture. Trust me. We’ve outgrown them.
You Are Loved (AKA You’ll Be Fine)
For many of us, this might seem more appropriate to say than any of the other items on this list, and that’s why it’s first.You might be thinking this can’t be true. How could telling someone they’re loved be a bad thing? You might argue this is a nice thing to say to everyone. I’d argue it doesn’t actually say anything to anyone. I’ll explain.
In our western society’s warped notions of love, I love you has become a phrase we reserve for certain people. Parents to children, boyfriends to girlfriends, spouse to spouse. It’s also the phrase most of us have been chasing after for the majority of our lives. We want to be safe, seen, and loved. We want to be chosen despite and because of our flaws. It’s part of why we treat first dates like job interviews and don’t show the messy pieces unless we haven’t been taught to keep them covered.
When a person tells me ‘you are loved’, my immediate thought is ‘but not by you.’ Am I wrong? Am I misinterpreting your passive phrasing? Did you tell me you love me as in ‘I, as a human, actively love you, another human’? Or did you give me a quasi-feel-good cliche that I’m loved by, I don’t know, the universe? By some mystical being somewhere in the world? I don’t need to hear ‘you are loved’. I need to hear ‘I love you’.
It could always be worse. (AKA you don’t have it that bad.)
Have you ever noticed that nobody mentions the counterpart to this phrase? I know it could be worse, but I also know it could be better. Depression may drop a big veil over my life at the moment, but I can still vaguely see the outlines of my good days. Can still sense that there have been times I haven’t wanted to sleep my life away.
When you say this, you’re not asking us to empathize with the least-advantaged person with the worst life in the world. You’re trying to make us feel better by reminding us of all the reasons we shouldn’t be depressed, but mental illness isn’t a logical cause-and-effect situation. You’re asking us to suck it up because there’s no reason to be depressed, and you’re missing the fucking point even as it smacks you in the face.
We didn’t fight for the chance of being depressed or anxious. No-one is waiting in line to provide a detailed application and interview for the position of “person with mental illness.” Nobody earns this because it’s not something to earn. Nobody has a good enough reason to deserve their brain turning on them. Nobody wants to get it.
Depression/Anxiety/Mental Illness is a choice (AKA this is your fault.)
Holy crap, I wish I hadn’t heard this as much as I have. Depression is a choice. Depression is a sin. Depression is you not taking control of your emotions. Depression is a matter of effort. Depression is a measure of worth. There’s different flavors, but they all taste of bullshit.
At times, I have wondered what I could have accomplished if my brain wasn’t broken. Any creativity or added empathy or insights I’ve reaped, I’d trade it all in a heartbeat for a functioning brain. That’s the thing, though. Our brain may be telling us lies, but we can’t remember what the truth looked like let alone grasp it. We’re already telling ourselves that we’re not worth anything. We’re not valued. We can’t hack it. Don’t add to the chorus of lies. Our brains are broken, but we’re not.
Irrelevant Drawn-Out Story about You #overcoming (AKA I know how you feel because of this trivial thing)
Don’t. Just don’t. No inspirational cliches. No stories of how you overcame not having boobs in the 9th grade. No boring monologues that I have to pretend to be interested in. Don’t assume that an overdose of cheerfulness will penetrate the thick shell around my ears when I’m in an episode. Normally, I’d love to listen to whatever you have to say, but right now, I’m trying to relax my heart rate and your perkiness is not helping.
Two questions I’ve asked students and friends when I know they have panic attacks are: Words or silence? Touch or No Touch? Do you need someone/something to distract you with words or do you need someone to just be present? Do you need the pressure of a hug or would that exacerbate things? Asking this before they have an episode lets me know what to start with. I’ve read Junie B. Jones books to grown-ass adults before because it helped. I’ve sat in the silence and stared at the ceiling with others because it helped. Some, like me, really need hugs and silence. Others want all the words but don’t want anything touching them. Learn what they need and give it to them.
Sending You Thoughts and Prayers (AKA here’s this crystal/religious lecture/#goodvibes)
Ask any of my friends if I get angry, and they’ll look at you like you’ve grown a third eye. That’s a story for a different day, but if you want to get under my skin, just say this when I’m calling you from a curled up ball in my bed. When I get depressed, I don’t need bible verses, long lectures, healing crystals, or invisible words sent either in your mind or to the sky. I respect your right to believe what you want, but don’t ever use a person’s mental illness as a selling point for your religion.
Order a pizza or cheeseburger or milkshake to my front porch and come hang in my front yard. Share a random conversation about what your dumb cat/dog/toddler did that day. Send a meme that lets laughter drown out my restless thoughts for twenty seconds.
Let me know you’re here, and you’re staying. Let me know you won’t run from the messiness. You can keep the advice.
The best thing to send me?