I will walk with you through the woods.


January is a month that hoards memories for me. I can hardly look at the word “January” scrawled thick across the banner of a new calendar and not remember all that happened in this month three years ago. It’s all still with me.

I remember the plane rides back and forth between Atlanta and Connecticut. I remember the multiple doctors, all with their differing opinions about treatment moving forward. I remember the hotel rooms, sitting on the phone for hours with friends because I didn’t want to be alone. I remember the drowsiness of sleeping pills and the feel of the carpet against my cheek as I got down on the floor once again and begged God for a shred of hope, one small poke of light through the thick fog of depression.

Depression is never an easy topic to write about but I know it’s necessary. Today, as I was reading in Isaiah, I noticed the words: I have been anointed to bring good news to the poor, heal the heartbroken, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners of darkness. 

There are prisoners of darkness. This is an accurate description of how depression feels. Sometimes you feel like you are in this small, stone box. You’re stuck at the bottom of it. There’s no light pouring through the cracks. You can’t find a window or a door and you’re gasping for breath, pounding on the sides of that box in the hopes that someone would just hear you and let you go free. You’re stuck. It’s scary.

I get emails all the time from people asking me to write about how, just how, to walk with someone through the woods. Through the pain of depression. Through a dark valley of an unseen illness that steals sleep and daily ambition.

I’m writing now but with great hesitancy. Mental illness is such a tender topic and it’s important to just come out and say it: there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Each individual is different. Each experience with mental illness is unique. I don’t possess all the answers. Not even close. I am simply one person who deals with depression and it would be wise to gather the stories of others to make this narrative more complete. So here’s the little prayer I said beneath my breath as I wrote this: God, help me to be wise when writing about such a tough topic. Give me grace in the areas where I get it wrong. Highlight & amplify the places where I speak your truth the loudest. 

I’d so appreciate your grace on this topic too!

You are not a lifeboat. The signs of depression may be pretty straightforward. However, figuring out how to respond to those signs is a different beast. You love this person. You naturally want to make it better for the one who is stuck in a thick fog. The first thing to remember: your presence is appreciated and essential but you can’t heal a person of their illness. That’s not your role.

Don’t get frustrated by this. You have many other roles you can take on. You can make the tea. You can let them crumble into your arms and hold them why they cry. You can listen. You can learn.

More importantly, depression is a heavy thing. It can feel burdensome. Depression, itself, is the burden. The person who is suffering is just the host of the burden. Burdens, however, are not meant to be shouldered alone. Be mindful of your limits. Don’t try to hold this all on your shoulders. It is possible to be crushed under the weight of trying to show up for someone you love. 

Be mindful of your limits. Don’t try to hold this all on your shoulders. It is possible to be crushed under the weight of trying to show up for someone you love. 

Stay surrounded by a support system if you can. Be plugged in and be in communication with the other friends or family members who are walking alongside this person. Sometimes it takes a small village and hey, sometimes you may need to pull over on the side of the road and take a pit stop. That’s okay. I say this because it’s easy to start a journey with people but it’s harder to finish it. Take care of your health. Lean hard into your people as someone with depression leans into you. Exercise boundaries. Be aware of how you’re feeling as you offer another support.

 

Be a truth-teller. Much of depression is like hearing a soundtrack of lies blasting loudly in the background of everything you try to do yet being helpless to find the knob that turns the volume down. We need people to reach in and say, “Hey, I see you. I know the things you are believing right now but here’s some truth to sustain you.”

Remind that person of who they are. Remind them that they are not an illness or a failure. Depression is not a weakness. Remind the person you love that they are a fighter and that they, too, will come out of the woods. 

It might be tempting to say, “Snap out of it. Get yourself together and just move forward.” You have to remember that the person battling this mental illness wants to believe the same things as you. They’ve tried to snap out of it. They are likely trying as hard as they possibly can so coercion to “get over it” won’t work. Be kind and graceful.

Sometimes it won’t seem to make any sense. And that’s okay, too. Depression is a hard thing to understand and the best thing you can say sometimes is, “Hey, we both don’t fully get this but what is more important is getting through this.”

 

You’re okay. These are my two favorite words in the English language. I use them constantly to remind others of how strong and brave they are. This is a big one: help is sometimes necessary and there doesn’t need to be a glowing orb of stigma around getting it. Doctors exist for a reason. Medicine exists with a purpose. Not everyone needs medicine but it’s okay if the door gets flung open.

It’s one of the most powerful things in the world to remind a person who is fighting through the dark: you’re okay. You’re okay and if you need me to, I will go to the doctor’s office with you. I will hold your hand. I will help you pick up the medicine and take that first pill.

Again, treatment is not a one-size-fits-all thing. I reached a point in my own journey where medicine was the only option to recovery and I still remember the friend who dropped me off at the doctor’s office. I remember her bringing me back to her place, tucking me in on the couch, and going to Target to pick up that first prescription for me.

It’s tempting to want to think you are crazy for having to take pills to make your brain better but that’s the last thing you are. You are not crazy. You are not a lost cause. I had to remind myself that each small pill was a step towards recovery. It didn’t mean I would take the pills forever. It simply meant that, in this moment, there was a little extra assistance and that was perfectly okay.

Another thing you might have to say: you’re okay. And it’s okay if you need to go somewhere like a hospital. It’s okay if you need more help.

It was two weeks into my medicine that my community and I made the decision to go to the emergency room. I wouldn’t have gone if people hadn’t surrounded me and said, “It’s perfectly okay to go where there is help. Don’t be afraid. Don’t believe the lie that you are broken beyond repair.”

“It’s perfectly okay to go where there is help. Don’t be afraid. Don’t believe the lie that you are broken beyond repair.”

Thoughts of suicide are a reality for some of those battling mental illness. It is imperative that we ask the hard questions and we follow-up with help options: Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you thinking about hurting other people? These are not silly questions and they need to be asked sometimes even if it feels uncomfortable.

 

Little victories. I owe so much of my recovery to a small band of women who surrounded me and refused to let me be alone. There were days where I just wanted to be left alone. They would invite me over. They would call and ask me to join them for errands. This is huge. Really huge. It would be easy enough to sit with a person experiencing depression and let them talk all day about their worries and fears. This won’t always be helpful though. Instead, plan something active. Propose going for a walk or doing a yoga class together. Ask them to join you on a trip to Target. These activities help a person get out of their own head and enter into the world. The depression will likely scream, “No! Just stay home. Just stay alone!” but it’s okay to be a little insistent. Even if you don’t feel it, your presence is a breath of fresh air to someone who is worn down by the prison in their brain.

There were days where all I wanted to do was run myself in circles around lies I couldn’t piece together. I wanted answers but that’s the thing about depression: it wants you to obsess over things you cannot change and it wants you to be helpless to move forward.

I wanted answers but that’s the thing about depression: it wants you to obsess over things you cannot change and it wants you to be helpless to move forward.

One of my girlfriends, Chrisy, stopped me in the middle of obsessing one morning. She said, “Okay, we are not going to wallow in this anymore. I want you to get up and I want you to do something.” She instructed me to go to Target and buy a pack of thank-you notes. She told me to write a thank-you note to any person who’d been with me in this dark pit. She asked me to write down every tiny thing I did from now until the end of the day, in monotonous fashion: Went to Target. Wrote thank-you notes. Took a shower. Met with Heather. 

Little victories are one of the best things you can point a person towards when they are in a pit. Little victories, stacking upon one another, help a person climb out of themselves and see the world once again. Depression is an illness that wants you to focus inward but action steps propel you forward. This is also a great chance to encourage self-care. It’s easy to neglect things like bathing, working out, or eating right when you are depressed. Just the thought of a shower can seem so overwhelming but breaking the self-care into baby steps, little victories to be met, helps a person feel empowered and capable of trying again the next day.

Help the person in your life count the little victories, no matter how small. Write them down or track them in a phone. Rejoice with them. Celebrate the smallness. Grab their hand and assure them, “Little victory upon little victory, I will walk with you through the woods.”

 

I would love to read your words and thoughts on this topic in the comment section below. The comments section is often a bright light for others, all on its own. I invite you to contribute- your words are appreciated in this space. 

20 thoughts on “I will walk with you through the woods.

  1. This is so good Hannah. So practical and so needed. Helpful for people both in the depths of depression and those who surround them. Your words are encouraging to me, especially as a counselor, but also just as a human. Sometimes the most powerful thing someone needs is community. People who show up no matter what.

  2. Having walked through my own woods, I can attest to the fact that small victories are absolutely everything. In the middle of the mind rush and overwhelmingly toxic thought cycle, being able to focus on one thing and do that one thing often led me out of my mind and into the light again. I had a professor tell me to let it be enough. Let the shower, or the meal, or the walk down the street be enough. And that’s always my advice to people now when they’re beating themselves up about their depression-based lack of motivation and inability to get anything done – pick one thing and let it be enough. Thanks for this.

  3. Hannah, Beautiful, beautiful words. I, too, have traveled through this Valley of the Shadow. It took me forever to surrender to medicine. What a difference it makes! cel

    >

  4. Hannah, thank you for you’re vulnerablity in sharing!
    January sucks for me too. It brings back memories of losing my dad and that season of grief.
    Counting victories was something I clung to especially in the first couple months. I was broken and vulnerable but counting victories like “remembered to brush my teeth” “getting from my bed to the couch by myself “ “I ate” helped me to know I wasn’t totally helpless and that it was only temporary.

  5. This is phenomenal. There’s something so important about understanding you simply can’t make it better for someone. My best friend in college and I both struggled with depression and, because of my personality, tried to do everything in my power to make sure she was happy and feeling better. But, that ultimately broke me and ruined our friendship. So just for anyone trying to help a friend, don’t beat yourself up for not become able to be there for them always.

  6. I’ve had so many people reaching out to me trying to find ways to help me through my depression. I get messages saying, “how can I help you?” Or “what do you need?” And my response is always the same, “I don’t know.” This helped give some insight that I think may help some of them. Thank you.

    1. Don’t be afraid to actually answer the question if it’s that you need someone to sit with you or you need someone to check in at the end of the day. Baby steps.

    2. Also, if there’s ever a small answer, feel free to give it. Going to get coffee together, buying groceries with you, or having someone cook lasagna for you won’t take away your depression, but small things like that can be salve on a bruised heart. They can remind you that you’re not alone and that there are people who care about you and make time to address your physical and emotional needs. That kind of thing gave me strength to make it through the day sometimes.

  7. I’ve known depression, though nothing as serious as this. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It provides important insights and helps the ‘supporters’ and ‘helpers’ too.

  8. Such good words. I struggle with hearing, “You’re ok” in the midst of depression. I am definitely NOT ok. Instead, what I have found I need is, “You’re going to be ok.” In the moment, I do not believe it. It is part of my spiral–believing I will never be ok, so what is the point? Having other people believe that for me and say it out loud has been one of my greatest needs. My counselor will say, “You might not like how you feel in the midst of it, but you are going to be ok.” Truth and truth. And I whole-heartedly agree with counting the little victories. There is so much I can’t control (and hate that I can’t control) when in the woods. What I can control is doing the little things. I call them “the good things.” What good thing can I do today? Taking a shower might be the best good thing I can do. The little victories won’t solve the problem in itself, but they chip away. They are how I get to fight. Keep speaking about mental illness! We need each other’s words.

    1. This is a great point! Thanks for saying that. I like saying “you’re okay” when I am in person with someone who is struggling. It’s comforting to me to have someone say that, as if to say: “Hey, I’m here. Help is here. You’re okay. You’ll be okay.”

      Love your thoughts!

  9. “Little victories. I owe so much of my recovery to a small band of women who surrounded me and refused to let me be alone. There were days where I just wanted to be left alone. They would invite me over. They would call and ask me to join them for errands. This is huge. Really huge. ”

    I wish I could put this in BOLD. As another person with depression who has been actively suicidal, I definitely agree with this. … Actually, looking back, I just remembered how almost all of the people around me at the time suddenly started avoiding me, like they thought they could catch suicidal thoughts like a cold. I kind of wish I hadn’t remembered that, but now that it’s here, I’ll have to process it as well as I can, validate my worth, and move forward. Again.

    Please don’t be like them, if you’re standing next to a breaking person. It’s very good for you to set boundaries to protect yourself, and maybe even to go into counseling yourself if the burden on you is too heavy. (People close to suicidal people do get hurt, and it’s ok for you to acknowledge and address that hurt. It’s also ok for you to talk to someone whois professionally trained to do what you’re doing. Good counselors will understand the path you’re walking better than you might think, and they can help you make it through as well.)

  10. Reblogged this on a wild storm and commented:
    Fighting a mental battle is not easy. The same goes to being the one to accompany someone fighting the same thing.

    Being someone who has gone through both sides, I really, really encourage each and everyone of you to read this.

  11. Hi Hannah,
    It’s interesting how I got to reading this post today. It started with the most recent MLL request email. For some reason, after I looked at the names for the month of March, I wanted to remind myself about the MLL movement since I hadn’t been as active and so I went to the website. When I got there and began browsing through, I wanted to know who the person behind this incredible movement was and so I went to your “about” page and there you were. That led me down the path of your website, social media, etc. and as I continued to look into your incredible work, I found this particular blog post and here I am.

    I have read many MANY articles on this topic. Many of the articles have been great and others I questioned; however, this piece that you wrote is the most powerful piece of writing on the subject of depression I have read thus far- HANDS DOWN!

    There are so many things about this piece that I appreciate, but to keep this comment from not turning into its own blog post I will share one-

    I loved that it came from your heart. I can sense it in your writing. So many people feel they have to explain the science and the theory and all things academia about depression, otherwise, you are not qualified to talk about it. For you it was about sharing your personal experience, sharing ideas that may work, and being open that you are still trying to figure it out. That really spoke to me.

    You said a lot of things that I’ve had in my mind and heart as it relates to depression as someone who has been in the darkness but was always afraid to share. A lot of your ideas absolutely work because they have worked for me, so anyone that questions the validity of your insight/ideas/suggestions just doesn’t get it because I will tell you, it served me in a powerful way.

    God was absolute with you in writing this piece and I’m so thankful you wrote this and shared it! Very well done. I have bookmarked the article because I will be referencing your work to the people that I support.

    Peace, Love & Blessings
    -Jason

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s