Earlier this year I wrote a post about my son’s journey with depression – “Mom, Can We Talk?” He’d been suffering for a while-alone and in silence-with depression. One night he finally found the words to tell us. Since that night, so much has happened–it’s amazing what can happen when you find the courage and the words to open up to those who love you.
We spoke out because we thought that talking openly about our experience might help someone else who was struggling and because there is still a stigma surrounding mental health issues. That stigma makes it hard for people to ask for help, leaving them suffering alone and in silence. We want to do our part to remove any need for hushed whispers or secrecy when talking about depression and anxiety. We want people to know they are not alone; we want to get them talking so they no longer have to suffer in silence.
If you’d told me during the midst of it that my son would come of the darkness, I would have wanted to believe you but would have found it difficult. I was too busy worrying, crying and trying to cope and be supportive. My son was doing the hard work and we were trying to do the right things to support him. He sought treatment and over time things improved greatly. He went to college and has been thriving.
When I went to visit him this spring it occurred to me that we had not talked in-depth about his depression in a while. We check in with him and knew he was doing well but on the flight to see him I realized we hadn’t spoken in detail about it. Since I didn’t recognize the first time when he was struggling, maybe I wouldn’t know if he was struggling again, especially since he lives far from home.
So when I arrived and we sat down together I asked him if we could talk. He was very open when I asked if he thought he still had depression. I think somewhere inside of me I wanted him to say “no” and that all of that was in the past but I knew realistically that it doesn’t work that way.
Depression doesn’t typically go away unless it was strictly situational. He said that he will likely always have depression but that now he knows how to live with it. He gets bored or sad but he doesn’t spiral down because he has coping mechanisms–he gets outside, exercises, meditates, or does one of the other things he’s learned help him move forward. He’s stayed on his medication because he fortunately had no side effects and it seems to put a floor on any dark feelings that come up. He added that if he was struggling he’d let us know–from what we all went through together he said he knows he can talk to us.
He was so open and honest, not sugar-coating things or saying what I might want to hear, so I knew he was in a good place. Since my first post was published, I’ve had people reach out to me looking for something, anything that might help them help their child. I get it–I longed for that too. Here are some of the things we tried.
10 Things That Helped My Son When He Was Depressed
Therapy– for our son, my husband and me. I know it’s expensive and can take time to find the right person but this was absolutely the best thing we did. If your child was injured or seriously ill and needed immediate medical attention you would find the best experts and figure out a way to pay for it. This is no different. It can take time and several tries to find an expert who is the right fit but this is an absolute critical first step. We all need someone we can talk to honestly and openly without shame or judgment – seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness. It’s a safe place where each of us could discuss our deepest and sometimes darkest feelings and learn to work through those and how to talk to each other in a supportive way.
Medication–only an expert physician can determine if medication would be helpful – this should at least be one avenue to explore. We went into this knowing that trial and error is part of it, and you have to be patient and honest about its effectiveness. Again, you wouldn’t hesitate if a trusted doctor recommended medication – whether temporarily or ongoing – for a medical issue you or your child was experiencing. Sometimes medication helps enough so that you can figure out coping skills and other ways to work through the depression. It can put a floor on the sadness or help you “feel” again – either way it could be what is needed to get to a better place.
Talking-If only we could read their thoughts (and take their pain) it would be so much easier. Starting the conversation was just the beginning – then we had to learn how to help him, how to communicate and how to support him. We all had to find the words because until then, we hadn’t needed them. And we made sure his brother knew so he could be supportive as well. Our son felt confused because in his mind he “should be happy” – he had a bright, beautiful future ahead and a loving, supportive family. Once we started talking, he was able to express this feeling and we had some amazingly frank discussions about depression.
Meditation–I found that the app Insight Timer helped me find peace and quiet and escape to a calm place in my mind. My son found meditation and mindfulness helped him as well – it stilled his mind. Quieting your mind – even for a few minutes a day–has amazing healing benefits. No need to sit for hours trying to find inner peace, just take some time to slow everything down and just breathe. Guided meditations work best for me so – having someone talking while I’m relaxing helped quiet my thoughts. Other people find they meditate best while walking their dog or being out in nature – find what works for you but at least give it a try.
Memes about depression –We couldn’t just keep asking – “How are you today–are you ok?” It doesn’t work like that and most people who feel directly confronted are not able to answer truthfully. So I looked online for images/memes about depression. One said – “If you could read my mind, you’d be in tears.” Another said –“Saying ‘I’m tired’ when you’re actually sad.” And one of my favorites–“Sometimes, you just can’t tell anybody how you really feel. Not because you don’t know your purpose, not because you don’t trust them, but because you can’t find the right words to make them understand.”
I’d print them, cut them out and then take them to my son’s room. I’d place them in front of him and gently ask –“Does it feel like this?” He’d answer and it would start us talking. Sometimes I would just leave uplifting messages/memes for him–hoping it would speak to him or help in some way.
Finding shared inspiration– We needed many ways to stay connected as we worked through this together so we would share inspirational pieces we found. For example-Shane Koyczan “Instructions for a Bad Day” (on Shane’s website and You Tube)-my son and I watched the video together shortly after he asked for help. It is really beautiful and uplifting–we found Shane’s writings very thought-provoking and inspiring. I’d find things and share them with him then he’d find things for me. We’d email or text them to each other, a nice way to stay connected.
Music-I listened to the music he was listening to–Linkin Park was a favorite at the time – their lyrics described how he felt. We had to find multiple ways to communicate–and listening to his music helped me “get inside his head.” Music is an expression of our thoughts and feelings so listening to what he was listening to gave me great insight I otherwise wouldn’t have had. “I Can See Clearly Now The Rain is Gone” (Hothouse Flowers version) became a favorite when things were better.
Websites and communities– The Mighty (themighty.com) is one but there are many. If you look you’ll find some that resonate with you.
Forgiving myself–as parents we sometimes look for someone to blame–and we usually blame ourselves. This one was tough for me because I blamed myself for not knowing and also wonder if the genetics in my family or my husband’s could be to blame. It was painful to think that I could have in some way caused or contributed to my son’s suffering. I had to get over this because it wasn’t helping anyone–especially me.
Becoming okay with living in the unknown–I like to know there is a happy ending on the horizon but this wasn’t a book that I could skip to the end. I had to live in the unknown and be okay with that. I can’t say that I got comfortable with it but I did learn to be ok with it. Sometimes all we can do is let them know we are here for them and that they are loved and supported unconditionally–that in and of itself is a healing gift to give and to receive.
One more note–honestly, knowing if he was “ok” was hard because it wasn’t like there was a drastic change – I hadn’t known there was something wrong in the first place so how was I going to know when he was ok? It was gradual but soon he was saying things like “I feel again.” “It doesn’t seem so dark anymore.”
He wasn’t saying “I’m tired” much anymore. He definitely seemed lighter and more relaxed as he got ready to leave for college. Seeing his Dear World photo was the real indication that he was ok – seeing him and knowing that he was sharing his story –though I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath, I felt like I could finally exhale. We are so grateful to all who have shared it and reached out!
I hope this helps your family–please know that you not alone. There is hope and abundant love and support – you just have to take that first step and ask for help. And if you’re the one being asked to help, lean in and listen carefully. Be deliberate in your response and let your loved one know that you’ve “got them” and you will be there with them on this journey no matter what.
My son was very honest when he told me “I wouldn’t wish depression on my worst enemy, but looking back I now consider it a gift. It’s made me really look at myself and what’s important to me. It’s made me face things head on, talk openly and learn to help myself.” And I know that our bond is stronger for having been through the dark times together.
We hope this message reaches those who need to hear it and that by talking about mental health and sharing we can help others and together we can bring each other out of the darkness.
Depression: Supporting a Family Member or Friend (Mayo Clinic)
Tracy Hargen is a Southern girl born and bred but did a stint in NY and NJ after meeting her Yankee husband. Having known each other for a mere 6 months, she and her husband eloped and it seems to have worked out: they have been married 28 years and counting. Since their two sons recently flew the coop, they are empty nesters. Working in corporate America from a home office for the last 30 years, Tracy finds juggling work and home both exhilarating and exhausting. You can find her on Twitter @t_hargen. Her work can also be found on LoveWhatMatters.com.