Comforting the Depressed - Sometimes 'ok' is not 'ok'

jny published on
5 min, 938 words

Categories: Mental Health

This is part of a series and I would recommend starting from the beginning if you have not done so already. You can find all the posts in the series under the tag "Comforting the Depressed".

A lot of times. It's acceptable to probe, to a point.

The question "How are you?" has become a pleasantry; like a handshake when encountering someone. My canned response, without thinking, is "Fine, thanks, how are you?" And that's ok, I'm not disparaging it; the cashier at Starbucks doesn't really want to know if I've spent the last week in bed depressed or had a panic attack earlier about whether or not to cook french fries.

There's a pseudo-quote that floats around the internet that goes something like "The most common lie in the world is 'I'm fine'".

It's also true for other contexts, even friends and loved ones; usually I assume they are using it as a pleasantry in the same manner if only to avoid the extreme awkwardness that would follow if I answered as though it were not. It's a vulnerability thing; is it safe to be vulnerable, or not? The thought and feeling of "I thought they cared but they don't" is very powerful, and very destructive.

I grow tired of making the disclaimer but I feel I must: this is very much subjective to each individual case. This includes the individuality of both parties, the setting (e.g. at a party vs a one-on-one lunch), and the situation -which the comforter may not always know. As with almost everything in life, the most effective solution is somewhere in between -not being aloof but not pushing too hard. All I can say is that I believe this to be true for a large majority of those who deal with depression. And if they don't, if they're comfortable and confident enough to share openly, that's totally awesome, good on you!

But that's certainly not the case for me. For me, I almost always bump my answer up one or two steps from the truth; "good" means "okay"; "okay" means "not good"; "not good" means "terrible" or even "I'm barely hanging on"; and "fine", well, "fine" is my goto but it can mean almost anything. But it's never good. Another big one is "better", which I use in a relative sense: I may be doing better than I was, but that doesn't mean I'm good. (That's why I like to say "better but not with an uppercase 'B'"). Even when I'm trying to be honest, my brain does the same trick of don't seem like a downer, don't make things awkward, try to sound more positive.

Even trying to push past that, sometimes I'll test the water. "The past few days have been hard, but today has been okay." (See above on 'okay'.) If the response back is "I'm sorry :(" and nothing else, well, that's the end of that topic. Because if you don't want to hear it, I don't want to say it.

What I need whether it be the 2 word answer or testing the water is probing; "How are you really?", "Just 'okay'?", "What's been hard?", and the big grandaddy of them all: "Do you wanna talk about it?" It goes back to #1 of this series: listening. It's me feeling the communication of "I'm here to listen" which, in itself said with sincerity, is a way of saying "I care".

Sometimes I actually don't want to talk about it. Handling this should have two parts: I should have boundaries set enough that I can say "no" when I need to, and the person asking the questions should try their best to see and respect those boundaries, i.e. should know when to back off. Easier said than done, for sure, but I believe repetition will help one learn what the responses actually mean and the depth I actually want to reach with you specifically.

Sometimes I do want to talk but I'm embarrassed or ashamed and therefore hesitant. But giving me that door, that signal of care, it allows that vulnerability I mentioned before. This is where probing comes in. If I am hesitant, it's acceptable to ask further questions, which depend on what my response is. If you get a sense that that's where I'm at, probing is ok. Sometimes my answers can even be phrased in such a way (consciously or unconsciously) that they actually invite more questions. That's a good signal to probe.

A friend commented on a previous post of mine with the phrase "active listening", which is so very applicable here. It shouldn't be trying to extract information, it should be trying to let me say what under the surface I want to say. Asking questions not only makes me feel heard, but it also often makes me realize "shit, I do want to talk about that and I didn't even realize".

"What are the right questions to ask? How persistent should I be? They always seem like they don't want to talk, should I keep trying?" These are all questions that vary person to person or may not even be applicable at all. But I, for one, believe that there's some truth to be had here and the way to find it is engage. In regards to the exact specifics of "how?", well that, as lazy college textbooks everywhere say, "is left as an exercise for the reader".

"I'm Fine Image credit Paul Gibbons