When J.K. Rowling created the Dementors that haunt Harry Potter, she reportedly based them on her experience of depression. In their presence, all the joy, warmth and happiness feels like it’s being sucked out of the air, though the real terror lies in their ‘kiss’, which drags out one’s soul (though maybe she’s trying to ward her kids off dating there).
If you haven’t had depression the Dementors probably washed over you as generically evil creatures, particularly with their hooded cloaks, rotting hands, and general hovering around. But to those in the know, the Dementors are clearly Depression. And they affect every witch, wizard and muggle in a 100 metre radius.
It’s no coincidence that they are a portmanteau of dement and tormentor. If you want to understand what depression feels like, these gravity-challenged entities hit the mark: “If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.” They then “freeze your insides”. And to top it off: “they don’t need walls” to keep their prisoners, their prisoners become “trapped inside their own heads”.
Despite the multitude of campaigns around telling us the signs of depression, it’s often not easy to recognise those signs in yourself and pop down to your GP. People who fall under depression might very well need help to get help. Unfortunately, just like you wouldn’t want to be around a Dementor, it is tough being around their prisoners. While depression can affect people differently, there are a few possible, and not often talked about, by-products which can make it even harder.
Failure to consider other people. Describing people suffering depression as ‘self-absorbed’ seems like a harsh way of describing those already clinically down on themselves. But there’s truth in the sentiment: it’s a self-obsession about how everything about you and in your life points to how horrible and useless you are. This is pretty time consuming. It’s not that you don’t care about others; your inability to show this, or feel complete happiness for them, makes you feel even worse. But if it’s between beating yourself up or thinking about how you affect someone else, the depressed brain will always be sentenced to the former.
Irrationality or hyper-sensitivity. Here’s an example: after a less-than-stellar attempt to park her car, a girl suffering depression goes into a panic, crying over her inability to do the simplest things and the mocking gestures of bystanders (or so she perceived).
She phones her partner and blames him for not driving her, knowing that it isn’t his fault. It was obviously unfair, but she was acting to stop something we can’t see. She was trying to grasp onto something that didn’t point to her being worthless, incapable, a joke. You’ll do whatever, to whoever, to make depression ease up on you.
Change in interests. There’s a good chance you probably won’t remember what you were like before depression; you’ll think you’ve always been this way. But you’ll likely struggle to find enjoyment in things you used to. Seeing other people can be an all too confronting illustration of how far you fall short.
So a lot of complaining, sniping or lame excuses might emerge to prevent this from happening. You’ll be preoccupied with only two types of activities: those that somehow reinforce your depressive thoughts and those that momentarily distract you from them. This could be as serious as substance abuse, or as bewildering as a compulsion to watch TMZ.
Laziness. With your mind in persecution mode, there’s not a lot of energy left for even the simplest of chores. You might to start to believe yourself incapable of doing them. You might even forget that they need doing. Your, and your pet’s, hygiene could be a casualty.
Some recent government-sponsored commercials feature women suffering depression. The formula is much the same: inner hostility + outward concern = appreciative smile + feeling better. Another commercial tracks a depressed young girl, with an uncanny ability to do things backwards, and her mum intervenes and drives her to the doctor, in reverse. These ads hit on an important, and slightly uncomfortable, piece of the puzzle in overcoming depression: the people close to us. After all, anyone’s Patronus Charm can protect those nearby (to keep up the Harry Potter references).
Of course, it’s not the responsibility of others to make sure someone suffering depression gets help. Not every situation will be the same. Not everyone suffering depression will act the same. You’ll have to use your judgement. But there are a few things you can consider when you suspect someone close to you has depression and a few things to perhaps best avoid.
What to steer clear of:
Confusing the illness and the person. The changes might occur gradually, leaving you both feeling like it’s a permanent change – it’s just who they are now. But you need to distinguish between the person and the illness. It’s not easy; you’ll feel like they are dragging you down too. That’s the illness; it affects everyone in the immediate vicinity.
Personal attacks. Feeling frustrated, hurt and upset is understandable and you’ll need to vent. Boxing might help but yelling at them, complaining to them, bitching about them won’t get anyone anywhere. It’ll probably just make things worse and feed the depression. Keep in mind that you wouldn’t complain about someone with Parkinson’s not keeping still.
Running away. After an extended time with someone suffering depression, this could make you feel better. You should consider your own needs and it might be necessary for you. But hopefully, there’s a moment before you reach that point when they’ll reach out for help. And hopefully, you’ll be ready and willing to take it.
What to try:
Practicing patience. For everyone’s sake, the sooner depression is treated the better. However you can’t force someone before they are ready. They might not want to go to a doctor but they’ll want to get better.
Admitting the problem might seem easy, but when you’re in the midst of it getting professional help can seem futile or amount to failure, a confirmation that you are Wrong.
Being tolerant. You could be the one doing most of the chores, the one making all the plans, the one being counsellor to every vaguely negative occurrence during the day. It’s incredibly taxing and you may not be thanked for it. These things might get you both through today, but they won’t improve tomorrow. Endurance is required.
Being prepared to talk. Depression can seem like paranoia, with the world in a Truman Show-scale collaboration to reveal how incompetent/worthless/evil you truly are. You need to consider whether repeated hints might add to this sense of conspiracy or play down the problem. Just being prepared for a difficult talk will mean you can take advantage of the inevitable moments when they reach out and, in their own way, ask for help. It could be uncomfortable, time-consuming, draining, baffling and messy. It might be as simple as saying “I think you have depression and need to get help. But I’m here for you, I’ll support you. Tell me what you’re worried about and we’ll get through it together”. Either way, it will be better in the long run.
Depression is difficult, soul-destroying even. It’s an illness that affects the mind and therefore might lead to people doing some pretty nasty things, to you and to themselves. Hopefully, rather than take it personally, the better prepared can recognise it and treat it as an illness, and the sooner help can be sought. No one wants to become a prisoner of their mind, but with a Dementor standing guard it’s easy to get trapped. Someone might need you to be brave and help them out.
A psychologist who writes under the pen name Ray Duggan for sensible and paranoid reasons, she has watched the Harry Potter movies too many times and had to turn this into something productive – hence her first article for Mamamia. She lives in Adelaide with her brother’s cat, Frankie. Her life is not as sad as it sounds.