I recently read the story about Michael Parkinson providing an update on his ‘close friend’ Billy Connolly’s health on Starts at 60. It got me thinking about the ‘right way’ to help or deal with someone you love or care about when they have a serious illness that you don’t understand or don’t have enough knowledge of. As a ‘sufferer’ of both depression and cancer, this is my perspective.
I suffered my first episode of ‘treatment resistant, severe clinical depression’ in late 1997. It seemed that one day I was dealing with a number of ‘multiple stressors’ and the next day I wasn’t! I knew I wasn’t functioning as ‘normal’ and consulted my GP who prescribed appropriate medication and a referral to a psychologist. Nothing worked though. Depression is a thief. It robs you of everything you knew yourself to be. I couldn’t sleep or cry; I didn’t even have the motivation to shower. I continued to sink deeper into the mire. I didn’t understand my illness and nor did my family or close friends. No one knew how to help me.
What benefitted me most was simple, practical assistance. A friend calling in and bringing a meal; doing my washing; vacuuming; cleaning the bathroom or just simply making a cuppa and having a chat. A friend who didn’t question me, judge me, didn’t mind that I was still in my pyjamas at 3pm and most importantly, treated me like ‘me’ who had an illness.
Similarly, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 (and then again in 2015), no one knew what to say or do. The same response still applied. I was ill; I’d had surgery and radiotherapy; I had no energy and I struggled with day-to-day tasks. I didn’t want to burden others with my fears – I could deal with those, but I just couldn’t manage the practical stuff.
If you have a loved one or a dear friend who is struggling to cope with their illness, my advice would be to just help them out. Turn up, make them a cup of tea or coffee, and do the dishes; run the vacuum cleaner around, or clean the bathroom. Perhaps take the time to learn something about the illness they are dealing with, so if they do want someone to talk to, you might be familiar with what they are talking about.
Fortunately I am ‘cancer free’ now, after almost three years. I haven’t had another episode of depression since 2008 (I fear another episode of depression the most) and right now, at this moment, I’m doing really well, but I may not be if it wasn’t for the help of significant family and friends just ‘being there’ to help me out.