Why I Can’t Ask My People for Help When I’m Depressed: Also, a Historically Murky Story About a Saber Tooth Tiger

I wrote Monday about hitting the Depression Wall again. About what it’s like when I don’t see it coming. About how I’ve learned to cope. About steps I take. About the reality that I don’t ask my people — my closest friends and family — for help. And about texting the 24/7 Crisis Text Hotline (741741), along with screenshots so you, too, can see what it’s like to contact a crisis assistance network, what happens, and demystify the process.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I don’t ask my people for help. About whether I have legitimate reasons or if it’s just a standard mental illness brain malfunction (hint: I have reasons.) About whether I regret it (spoiler: I don’t.) About whether there’s a way to change it (I mean, probably? But I don’t plan to.) And about whether or not that’s OK (I’m going with yes.)

Now, I’m going to throw a little caveat in here that this post is only about me and you shouldn’t extrapolate my conclusions for other humans who experience depression — not unless they tell you this applies to them, too, or not unless you ask them if any of this feels familiar and true. In fact, I’m going to say three very specific things I’d like you to hear before we go further:

1. I am not implying that asking your people for help when you’re depressed — particularly if they’re caring, compassionate people capable of providing real assistance — is a bad idea. Or insinuating you’re somehow doing depression wrong if you a) are able to reach out, and b) do reach out. Neither of those are true, obviously. I’d even go so far as to say it’s better to reach out to your humans. … Actually, now that I think about it, I did say that in Step #2 of my 5 Steps to Managing Depression, and I stand by it, even though I don’t ask my people for help myself.

2. I also am not implying that those of you who are mentally healthy shouldn’t be checking on your friends who struggle with mental illness. That’s also not true. Feel free to check in. More about that below.

3. It’s important to note that, while I don’t ask my (caring, compassionate, capable) people for help, I DO NOTIFY THEM when things are going to shit. I’m not talking about keeping depression a secret here or somehow trying to handle it magically alone. Secret-keeping when there’s the possibility that you could be harming yourself or another being is always a bad idea; ALWAYS. Don’t do that. And going it alone in a depressive state is also horribly misguided. When I talk about asking for help from my people, I am talking about involving them beyond the “notification.” I’m not keeping secrets. And I am getting help elsewhere. 

With that said, I do want to share my real life experience, in case it’s helpful to either the Person with Depression — to put words to an event that often feels impossible to describe — or to the Friend of a Person with Depression — to invite you inside so you can better understand why a thing that seems so very simple, like saying “help” to the people you most trust in all the world, becomes an impenetrable barrier you can’t cross.

If you like, you can turn to the last piece I wrote, which describes the physical sensations of depression. The jitters. The buzzy brain. The dark pit beyond my stomach. The clammy feel of my skin. The clenched jaw. The brittle bones. The shortness of breath. The depressive mood and, sometimes, no feelings at all. I may be helpful to understand what depression feels like. That’s important because all that joy and sunshine is caused, physiologically speaking, by the fight or flight responses in our brain. Or, technically, by the fight, flight, feed, fear, freeze, and (my personal favorite) fornicate responses in our brain. The 6 F’s are also known as Lizard Brain because these are our most primitive and basic responses — our survival instincts — which, in a dangerous world, keep us and our species alive. The physical symptoms are clues about what is happening. The Lizard Brain response informs what happens next.

OK, look; we don’t want to trust our Lizard Brains all the time. I mean, clearly. That’s why meditative practices like mindfulness can be so helpful to people who struggle with anxiety, stress, and impulse control; we learn, essentially, to calm the Lizard Brain the fuck down. To soothe it. To remind it that Logic and Facts get to have a say — a louder one, please — than DANGER, WILL ROBINSON. And that’s why, even though I think flying through the air in a tiny tin can held up by magic and fairy dust (aka, modern aviation) is an act of the purest stupidity, I keep getting on planes. My Lizard Brain isn’t wrong, per se — NOT flying seems like it would keep me safer than hanging out 30,000 feet in the air with nothing between me and the ground except a thin metal carcass and a bunch of vacation luggage — but my Lizard Brain is also not capable of accepting reasonable risk in trade for quality of life. Sometimes, we have to shut Lizard Brain down to live a life worth waking up for, you know?

HOWEVER… however… however, friends, Lizard Brain moves very much into the driver’s seat during a depressive episode. And, I would contend, IT SHOULD be driving. See, when you’re depressed — like, actively, clinically, Major Depressive Disorder depressed, as opposed to a brief sad/depressed mood which is entirely different — your Lizard Brain is sending EVERY POSSIBLE DANGER ALERT to your body. And do you know why? BECAUSE YOU ARE IN DANGER.

Lizard Brain is a little bit like Chicken Little. It runs around constantly with its arms flailing, yelling THE SKY IS FALLING which is basically the same as WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. The trick is to determine when to snuggle up to Lizard Brain, get it a warm cup of tea, practice your mindfulness techniques, and remind it that a conflict with your kid’s teacher is not the same as going toe-to-toe with a saber tooth tiger like the primitive core of your brain would have you believe — INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT! OMG! EVERYONE PANIC! — vs. when to salute Lizard Brain as your leader, yell, “SIR! YES, SIR!” and gather all your offensive and defensive weapons, as assigned by L.B., because that saber tooth tiger has already entered your camp.

Major Depressive Disorder? That’s Go Time, friends. That’s salute, acknowledge, follow orders, and go to war time. “YES, LIZARD BRAIN, SIR.”

And here’s the part where asking for help from friends and family gets really tricky to navigate:

I am busy fighting a saber tooth tiger. I am taking hits. I am doing everything I can on the front lines to beat back the beast before it swallows me whole. All of my energy and time and brain power are focused on this. I have barely — barely — enough breath, literally since I am physically gasping for air, to say, “I’m not OK right now,” or “I’m unwell,” which are my two go-to statements for family and friends. I definitely do not have enough breath or energy or brain power to say, “please help me” because I know what comes next from people who love me, who are of sound mind, and who respond like reasonable humans would respond to one of their own in crisis. They will do several things:

1. They will ask how I’m doing.
2. They will ask how they can help.
3. They will ask if I need help around the house with chores or children or anything at all.
4. They will ask if they should call a doctor and help me make an appointment.
5. They will ask if I have a counselor, and, if not, if they can help me find one. 
6. They will ask how I’m feeling.
7. They will call me on the phone.
8. They will text me.
9. They will email me.
10. They will offer to hang out.
11. They will ask if I want to come over. 
12. They will remind me they love me and they’re here for me and they will drop everything for me as soon as I say the word.

And on and on, into infinity. 

Please understand; I am not complaining about ANY of this. All of this is exactly what a positive, involved community should do. I don’t want them to avoid doing any of these things. I don’t want them to second guess their response. In fact, I think they should teach classes on how to be AWESOME HUMANS who know how to show up for each other in times of crisis. 

But here’s the crux of the situation:

I AM BATTLING A SABER TOOTH TIGER.

Please visualize with me. 

There’s a prehistoric woman in a remote village at the base of barren mountains. She does well at subsistence living — she gathers in the summer, she prepares for the winter, she preserves the meat the hunters bring in. She loves her family. She nurtures her children. She tries to be self-aware and mindful and not spend too much time on Facebook. (It’s an alternative pre-history, OK?) It’s the beginning of fall, after the gathering is done and the native plants are starting to rest and the animals are going into hibernation, so it’s the perfect time for the rest of the village to head out of town on their annual Hunter/Gatherer Equality Awareness Retreat. And the saber tooth tiger — who’s hungry — arrives without warning to pillage the village which will, naturally, involve killing the woman because she’s made out of meat. 

So, fine. Whatever. The murdery tiger is back. The woman is bummed — she sighs and shakes her head — but she’s also fought it before. She knows where the weapons are. She’s added to her armory every time she’s battled it. Her health and life stats are high, which is good, because she needs deep reserves to face what’s ahead. She starts working her way through the plan, fully focused, never turning her back on the threat. 

The villagers return. They’re happy and chatty. They really loved the keynote speaker this year and her topic, Brains and Brawn: How to Hunt and Gather Equality in the Post-Neanderthal World. Sure, a few villagers failed to grasp the complex concept that, by embracing brains, she was not putting down or minimizing brawn, but mostly they were happy and chatty, and they didn’t notice the woman fighting the tiger.

Honestly, noticing the tiger wasn’t their job and it wasn’t their fault they couldn’t see it. The tiger, because it’s an asshole, makes itself invisible to everyone except the woman. And, as much as some villagers pressure other villagers to check in on everyone all the time, lest they miss the arrival of the tiger and its attack on the woman or someone new (“check on your strong friends”), it’s unrealistic, don’t you think, to put that kind of burden on the villagers? And for the villagers to blame themselves somehow for not seeing what’s invisible? The woman thinks so. She’s pretty sure, since she’s the one who can see it, she needs to take some responsibility to note its arrival. That’s why she gives them a quick heads up. A notification. “Yo. Saber tooth tiger is back. Over and out.” And then she goes back to fighting.

The woman has taken some flack — mostly from herself and imagined from others — for not asking for help to battle the tiger. Which makes sense, I suppose, since it is a tiger and it is deadly and she’s only one sac of flesh, after all. But the logistics of asking the villagers for help are nearly impossible to navigate. The villagers care about the woman. She’s one of their favorites. So they jump in straight away when she yells, “HELP.”

”GOTCHA, LADY,” they say. “Now, where’s the tiger? What does it look like? What’s it doing now? Which weapons should I use? Where do I get those, again? Do you remember which shelf of the armory has the maces? What’s the current status of the battle? Who’s winning? Have you considered calling in a weapons expert? You have? GREAT. What’s her phone number? When are you available to meet with her? Maybe you should also consider some other weapons. Do you want me to get you a list? You can circle which ones interest you? How about I bring you a casserole and fold your laundry since you’re busy tiger-fighting? Does Tuesday night work? I’ll be there sometime between 6 and 7 and we can have tea and chat then and create a new battle plan with heavy stock paper and my best, archival quality scrapbook pens. What’s the tiger doing now? … How about now?… How about now?”

And you can see that all those questions are kind. You can see that the villagers want nothing more than to HELP. You can see that they LOVE the woman and do not want her to go it alone. Not at all. But also, THE WOMAN IS FIGHTING A TIGER. She does not have the time, ability, energy or brain power to comprehend the words they’re throwing at her, much less process them, make choices and decisions, and respond. The woman is ENGAGED IN ACTIVE BATTLE. She is swinging the sword to distract the beast and trying to gut it with her dagger when she’s inside its guard. She can’t be the battle commander, too. She can’t see the whole field. She can’t pause to strategize. She’s trying to stop the immediate swipe of claws and avoid being impaled on its jaws. 

It’s not that the woman doesn’t want to give the villagers instruction or updates or even a play-by-plays. It’s not that the woman doesn’t want to reassure them that it’s all going to be OK and to handle their feelings about her battle and sit with them and chat. It’s that the woman very literally can’t. She can’t turn her back on the monster. Not for one second. She’s fully consumed by the work at hand. 

Depression is hard, friends. It’s no joke. It’s no fun. It’s serious. It’s an asshole. It’s invisible, and, frankly, the outward appearance of the inward fight is embarrassing because it looks an awful lot like being wide-eyed, short-tempered, lazy, non-communicative, lethargic, unhygienic, and lacking follow-through. But battles were never pretty. 

And you DO HELP, villagers. I need you to know that just because I don’t — or can’t — ask for help doesn’t mean your presence is irrelevant. The fact that you’re there HELPS. The fact that I can say “I’m unwell” and “The fight is on” is meaningful and important. The fact that I know I never have to be alone matters. But I also hope my people understand why I don’t follow up with requests for help. It’s because I can’t help you help me. I’m already doing everything within my power.

And not asking YOU for help doesn’t mean I’m not garnering assistance from elsewhere. That’s why I texted the crisis hotline (741741) this week. I hoped I’d find someone already geared up for battle who had the magical powers necessary to see the beast — and he was ready when I called. That’s why I saw my doctor. That’s why I have appointments with a behavioral psychologist. That’s why I’m doing my Least Favorite Thing and changing my meds. Because I’m asking for help. Just not from my closest people. And I hope it’s for good, healthy reasons.

Help doesn’t always look like we want it to look. Hey, if I had things my way, my people would be able to help. I’d have the capacity to answer questions and guide my treatment. I’d be able to respond to texts with something other than ♥️ and 👍🏼. I’d be wise and sage and kind instead of a mute puddle of aching, shaking muscles in the middle of my bed. I’d be able to listen to a question without feeling total and complete panic. But we don’t always get to pick our reality. And this is mine.

I’m on the mend, friends. I’ll get there eventually. With med changes, it’s hard to say when because we never know exactly what will work, how effective it will be, and whether we can tolerate the side effects or have to try something else. I had a really great run on my last medication. I’ll be grateful for that. And I remain determined to drive the tiger back out of the village as quickly as possible.

More soon on hopefully more cheerful topics. 

Until then, I’m waving in the dark, as always, believing dawn will come,

 

 

 

P.S. There’s technically no such thing as a saber tooth tiger. It’s a saber tooth cat. But that doesn’t have at ALL the kind of punch I was going for. Other than that tiny detail, the rest of the story was historically accurate.

P.P.S. I didn’t realize until today that I posted my texts with the crisis line out of order. 🙄 Bless my sweet heart and wonky brain. I’ve fixed them now, so if you had troubling viewing them, you can take another look

P.P.P.S. I cut 3 oranges into wedges last night and put them on a plate for dinner. My kid asked me why I made dinner so fancy. He wasn’t kidding. So I just want you to know I’m well enough to be making fancy dinner. #Winning #HowToMom #WheresMyTrophy

P.P.P.P.S. Nyx the Magical Puppy has been keeping me company while I write. 

P.P.P.P.P.S. Did you know I run a small number of retreats each year? I do! One of my very, very favorite things to do is hang out with members of our incredible, worldwide community and offer rest and respite from our regular lives. I would LOVE to have you join me. (And who WOULDN’T want to hang out with me after these posts about depression? 😂 Amirite??)

Click here for general retreat information. We’re 85% full for November 2019. If you’re thinking about attending this fall and have any questions at all — like, “OH NO! There aren’t many spots left and I want to be in a bed/room where I’ll feel comfortable!” — please contact our registrar, Maggie Peterson, at Petersonm1@spu.edu. I’d love to see you there. The Oregon Coast is one of my happy places. 

Or, if you want to head straight to the registration pages, you can register via my farm website, CAIRNS FARM:

 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
19 comments
  1. I LOVE this! It explains so clearly what I’ve never been able to get across to my loved ones, particularly my husband. So guess what he’s reading tonight? HA 🙂

    Thank you, Beth, for sharing, and for making so clear something I’ve been trying to share forever! Hang in there!

    Here’s hoping your med change goes quickly and smoothly,
    Sasha

  2. You made me laugh, which is no small thing. Thanks for this.

  3. This is such a clear explanation. Thank you.
    I will credit you if I ever use it to explain things to others.
    Hug and wave, xxx

    1. And I forgot: what a beautiful smile!! Also: Nyx (in Dutch “niks” means nothing…) seems a perfect ally in the fight against the “fatal smile”.

  4. I needed this tonight. And your previous post. It’s helping me recognize some things in myself. Thank you.

  5. I have a wonderful, amazing, strong woman who battles this – I am only recently asking for permission to share my part of her story, but since it’s her story I am asking anyway. However – I must thank you, right now, right this minute. Because you helped me see why she can’t ask for help. Why she simply has to battle, and why it’s so amazing she finds the strength to say “hey, it’s not great right now!” and has told us (during non-battle times) how to support the base camp. Your visual of the woman battling the invisible-yet-horribly-fierce tiger helps me so much – and when you help me, you help her too.

  6. As someone who loves someone who battles depression, I have to try REALLY HARD to remember to NOT ask questions when they are struggling. I have to just DO, and trust they will let me know if I’m doing the wrong thing. But, “Do you think we should call a doctor, or take you to emergency, or should we wait until tomorrow?” is not a question a person in that place has energy to answer. Nor is “Would you rather I make dinner and bring it to you, or just let you sleep?” Thank you for articulating the mighty fight going on behind the glazed eyes and hunched shoulders and why asking questions just adds to the burden.

    1. Bless you for this comment, Wendy. I know it must be so, SO impossible to deal with us, especially when we’re non responsive. I so appreciate your effort to understand. And your ability to allow your Person to take responsibility for themself. I truly believe I’d tell Greg the second I needed to go to emergency — the same way I have when a migraine has been totally out of control. There’s a panicky need that rises to the surface then. But it must just feel awful to wonder if we really would tell. Sending you so much love, friend. ❤️

  7. Yay you! EXCELLENT explanation of why it’s hard to ask for help. You have a gift with words lady. Glad you’re up to another post so quickly, you are so awesome!

  8. Your analogy is sheer perfection! Because anyone who’s ever been depressed/chronically ill/grief-stricken/heart-broken/Plain Ol’ Human has felt exactly that sentiment of “Thanks for the offers of help, as there are a million things to be done, but I’m too busy to walk you through what needs doing right now!”

    The “sabre” is scientifically known as “smilodon fatalis.” Which, to me, always suggests the Smile Of Death — you know, the one that hitches up your lips but never makes it to your eyes, and clearly denotes that you wish the person upon whom the smile is bestowed would just f*ck right off and die.

    While is pretty much how I respond to anyone asking if I need help, when I’m battling my own invisible sabre: I give them a tight-lipped smile that signifies “Please go away and let me die here in peace.”

    I have yet to find any way to convey all of this in the moment. But I have decided my cry for help from now on will consist of me yelling “SABRE TOOOOOTH!!!” And anyone who doesn’t get it will be off the Christmas card list. 😉

    1. “The “sabre” is scientifically known as “smilodon fatalis.” Which, to me, always suggests the Smile Of Death — you know, the one that hitches up your lips but never makes it to your eyes, and clearly denotes that you wish the person upon whom the smile is bestowed would just f*ck right off and die.”

      ^^^Oh my word, YES. Exactly this, Andrea!^^^ Ha!

  9. I am blown away by your talent for life, people, family, and words. I hope your med change brings relief soon!

  10. Oooh that’s good imagery. I’m using it the next time someone asks me why my child can’t just ask for help; I know it’s well-meaning and coming from a place of love but danggit I know my kid can’t ask, I didn’t know how to properly explain it, but there’s a reason we’re getting other warriors into the fight, they’re not just acting out … and neither was I before I managed to get my head out far enough to get my own warriors dashing into the fray (one of them managed to find the most perfect weapon and it’s keeping the brain chemical whatsit at the right levels so yayness). Really, really love this.

    1. Your kid is very, VERY lucky to have a mama so in tune. Well done! And I’m very glad to add to the words to help explain. Love and light to you, Rebecca. ❤️

  11. You are such an encouragement to me. You put into words exactly how it feels, I love your analogy of an invisible tiger. Is it ok if I use it when educating people about mental illness?

    1. Of course. If my story can help anyone, it feels EXTRA worth the fight, you know? Love to you, Cheryl.

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