All things considered, I’d rather have the flu

Some days I could almost—almost, I say—envy those people who came down with the flu this winter. And I could almost—almost, I say—offer to exchange troubles with them if that were possible, and if they were willing to make the trade.

With the flu, a person has measurable symptoms such as a fever and a cough. With anxiety and depression, few if any symptoms can be perceived from outside. When one has the fever and cough of the flu, other people are willing to believe what they say about aches and weariness. When one has anxiety and depression, other people are more likely to say, “It’s all in your head,” meaning, “Nothing is really wrong with you.” A few people might think of the flu virus as imaginary and the flu as something that can be conquered by positive thinking. Many more treat anxiety and depression as imaginary and as things that can be conquered by positive thinking.

When someone calls in with the flu, the advice given is usually gentle, kind, and considerate: “Take care of yourself, get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and don’t push yourself—don’t try to come back until you are sure you are better.” With anxiety and depression, the advice is usually less helpful: “Don’t mope; don’t feel sorry for yourself; think about other people and their problems; get active and keep yourself busy and your problems won’t seem so big.” This advice shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what anxiety and depression are doing to a person. It is as if a well-meaning person walked up to a paralyzed man lying on a stretcher and said, “Get up and take a walk—it’ll make you feel better.” Only our Lord Jesus Christ was able to cure paralysis by telling people to get up and walk. The rest of us can only make that victim feel worse by encouraging him to do exactly what he wants to do and cannot do. The person battling anxiety and depression is equally vulnerable. He or she wants to cheer up, wants to be active doing useful things, and wants to feel better. Those are exactly the things he or she cannot do. Encouraging such a response to anxiety and depression is like rubbing salt into a wound.

How can you support a person battling anxiety and depression? Let them know that you care. Be available for them, even if they do not seem to want anything from you. Avoid advice about how to handle their problems, unless you are a qualified counselor or physician. Do not criticize them for taking medication or seeking counseling to help with their problems—don’t criticize, even if you are convinced in your own mind that such medicines and counseling services are a fraud and a rip-off. Above all, avoid blaming them even indirectly for their problems. Don’t tell them that their fears and their sorrows are signs that they do not believe God’s promises. Pray for them, wish them peace and calm, and keep on loving them—even when their struggles and their means of coping with those struggles make them seem unlovable.

The American landscape has become friendlier towards people who have limited mobility. It has become kinder towards people who have limited intelligence. Insults are still spoken, and sometimes people resist the facilities that accommodate people with various challenges. We still have a long way to go toward accepting and helping those with emotional challenges. That journey begins with genuine kindness and compassion. J.

Well-meant lame advice

One of my out-of-town relatives noticed that I am spending Saturdays at the library to avoid Mrs. Dim and the clatter of her lawn maintenance. He writes to tell me, “Really? Advice—Don’t sweat the small stuff and that is definitely small stuff. Relax and enjoy and focus on your awesome family.”

I ask myself: is this a teachable minute for my out-of-town relative, or should I roll my eyes and ignore the well-meant advice? If he knew that I battle depression, would he tell me to cheer up? I didn’t used to understand anxiety and depression even when I was struggling with anxiety and depression. How do I explain these things to a person who probably doesn’t get it?

“Relax.” I’d love to relax. I’m taking two pills every morning that are supposed to help me relax. I’m regularly in therapy learning how to relax. By the way, my therapist considers it a good move to avoid the Saturday noise since that noise triggers panic attacks. Ever had butterflies in the stomach? How about a sparrow or a finch flapping about behind your sternum? Because that is how I feel a lot of the time, and I would really like to relax.

“Enjoy.” Enjoy what? The sound of the lawnmower and blower and trimmer? The beautiful uniform green lawn that they produce? I’d rather enjoy my clover and violets and daisy fleabane, if it’s all the same to you. I do enjoy my awesome family, but that doesn’t erase my frantic energy when hours of loud continuous noise have me wanting to rattle the bars of my cage. (That’s a metaphor, folks—no one has locked me in a cage.)

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Put that bumper sticker on every car in the city and see if it puts the psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors out of business. Anyone who possesses the self-control to label a problem “small stuff” and then be done with it is doing well. Sorry I can’t be one of those people. I have spent a lifetime ignoring emotions, bottling the anger and the anxiety, doing what has to be done and thinking that such self-control makes me a good person. Now that the bottle is open, it’s not easy to replace the lid again.

I do have a wonderful family. The last few months they have been great (most of the time) about understanding what I am facing and helping me through the rough patches. I don’t know where I would be without them. As I try to be a relaxed and happy person, I still remain, most of the time, Spock on the surface and Bail Fawlty underneath.

This is why I blog. I can be Basil Fawlty here without screaming my head off at Mrs. Dim or at my out-of-town relative. Thank you for tolerating my tirade. Back to trying to relax and enjoy.