Boats Against the Current

Friday morning I woke up to a news alert – my phone vibrated beside my head, and I opened my bleary eye to a headline about Anthony Bourdain. I closed my eyes and for a few moments, pretended I was still asleep, pretended I had not seen the news.

This post isn’t really about Bourdain, much as I loved him. I was a fan of his for so many reasons – his activism and exuberant, loud support of the disenfranchised, the poor, women; his engaged but introspective approach to food and how it intersects with politics; his brashness; his eloquent way with words. He was so many things, but never fake. Just his authentic self, all the time. I maintain that while he was obviously a fantastic chef, and an amazing tv personality, his writing is where he really shone. Since Friday I’ve been alternating between feeling absolutely gutted that he’s gone and absolutely honored that he was with us for as long as he was. This is a man who had a full life, one that should be celebrated. Read everybody’s stories about the guy; you won’t be disappointed. My favorite thing about him was how honest he was. You can see, watching his show, that there were times when he was irritable, tense, blank. He did not hide his depression. But he unflinchingly – sometimes joyfully, sometimes painfully -produced the work, and the work is stellar. It is empathetic, nuanced, artistic. I highly recommend the Libya and Morocco episodes of “Parts Unknown” – they perfectly illustrate both dark and light, and in my opinion, represent Bourdain’s best work, especially when watched back to back.

There were more introspective and relevant pictures I could have chosen but there was no way I wasn’t going to use this one of a ripped, tatted up Bourdain hanging out with Iggy Pop.

But this post is not about Anthony, not really.

It had already started on social media, after the untimely death of Kate Spade a week or so ago, and it hit fever pitch after it was announced that Anthony had passed on – what I can only describe as a barrage of well-meaning tweets and posts about how to deal with your friend who has depression. How to save them from the same fate as Kate or Anthony.

“Check on your strong friend”, they advised.  “They may not reach out, you have to reach out”, “If they don’t accept your help, if they lie, even if they get angry, keep trying.”

It all seems like good advice. But here’s the thing:

After reading a few of those posts, I started to feel bad. See, I’m a “strong friend” at face value. I’m also an empath, and someone who suffers from both anxiety and depression. And I can tell you that sometimes being a “strong” empath means that after helping someone with their own issues, your own often swoop in just as things are looking up and try to kneecap you. I can also tell you that I never feel like I’ve done enough. For anyone.

The problem is that we tend to see our groups of friends as handfuls of “well” people with maybe one or two “unwell” folks in the middle. And when we pop on Twitter to remind everyone to “reach out”, we’re assuming that we’re talking to a bunch of “well” folks who might be a little distracted or apathetic. We’re trying to tend the herd by pointing out, “Hey, look at your unwell friend!”

That’s not realistic. What is closer to reality is that we’re all the unwell friend at some point or another. The person who has no mental health issues at all is actually the rarity. Most of us are just trying our best to deal while helping our loved ones with theirs. We do our best. Sometimes we fail.

When someone goes on Twitter and shares a thread all about how we should do more to reach out, it’s not the oblivious, flaky, selfish friend who sees it and has a change of heart. Those people keep scrolling and always will keep scrolling. The ones who absorb those messages are people like us – people who are already doing what they can, who reach out as often as they are able, people who likely have their own hurts to deal with, but who are trying to juggle their own mental issues with that of their loved ones. These are the people who absorb your messages, who beat themselves up for “not doing enough”, who blame themselves for being selfish, for stepping away when someone else’s mental struggles became a trigger for them, became too much to bear, became dangerous. Even when they’ve given everything they’ve got to help and come up short, they blame themselves, because they didn’t reach farther, harder…

The posts about the “strong friend” are right, but only half-right. Your strong friend may very well be your weak friend from time to time, but they keep wearing that strong hat because you need them. It is important that we give them, and ourselves, permission to step back when necessary and take care of themselves.

When it comes to people who have succumbed to depression:

We need to stop assuming that nobody reached out.

We need to stop assuming that more can be done. Sometimes it can’t, at least not by us.

And when it comes to the rest of us, the “strong friends”, if you will:

It is okay to give ourselves permission to step away when it gets too rough. The old adage “you can’t fill from an empty cup” is true.

In the midst of all this reaching out, don’t forget to reach out for yourself, too.

Here’s what we all need: less stigma about depression and suicide (it’s getting better but there’s still work to do), better understanding of depression as a disease, which means more funding for research, better trained doctors and nurses, better understanding of how to treat patients, and better-equipped care facilities for those suffering; people learning the difference between sharing their struggles for “awareness” and just downright triggering people who are already in pain; working to push our legislators and government to make a world that’s frankly, a little easier to live in than our current one; and finally, a universal knowledge that depression IS a disease and that it’s not something we’ll ever be able to “fix” – we can only do what we can to make it better.

Yes, keep urging those strong friends to reach out, but only if they can. Keep urging people to share their stories, but only if they want to. Keep trying to help your loved ones in need, but never push them. Realize that your idea of strong may be someone else’s falling apart. Never judge a person for stepping away when their own mental health requires them to do so. And before you advise someone else on how to help a loved one with depression, make sure you’re taking your own advice, too. Don’t assume that friend who has always helped you has no need of your support – don’t flake out people, don’t disappear on them. Even if you can’t hold them up, you can thank them for the times they held you up. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Someone on Twitter put it much more succinctly than I have. They said not to assume that this or that was or wasn’t done…sometimes you can exhaust every effort and it is still isn’t enough. Sometimes one tiny act is all it takes to make the difference. We can’t ever know, so all we can really do is be kind.

More of us are in the boat than we seem to realize. We’ll only push through the storm if we’re all rowing. At our own speeds and strengths, taking breaks when we need to rest, but all of us, rowing together. Maybe then, if we’re lucky, we can weather the storm.

Let’s keep rowing.