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Carolyn Hax: Depressed friend cuts off communication

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I’m truly trying to understand, as someone who’s never been severely depressed. Is it acceptable in the case of severe depression to just not call friends for months at a time? Does the severely depressed person owe his/her friend an apology? I know that a hallmark of severe depression is an inability to handle or do anything.

But if I’m the friend and, out of nowhere, my friend just stopped communicating with me, after my checking in a few times to make sure everything is OK and, presumably, getting no response, I’d be really angry and hurt, too.

– Apology?

But would you forgive knowing this friend would have done anything to feel up to calling?

That’s another hallmark of depression – that its symptoms are seen as choices. When you understand that you are not the victim of your friend, but instead collateral damage in the war depression has waged on your friend, then the issue of owing an apology seems moot.

This is not to say depression is never having to say you’re sorry. Depressed people can do wrong in the usual ways that usual people do – but feeling unable to interact with anyone isn’t one of them.

“Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh http://hyperboleandahalfbook.blogspot.com is illuminating on this, and wickedly funny.

Re: Depression:

Is there anything I can do for a friend who is in a similar situation? She has been silent and unreachable for over a year now. I have tried every line of communication possible – emails, letters, homemade cards, care packages, calling her mom even -- nothing has gotten a response. I’m so worried for her and I don’t want to give up! Should I leave her alone?

– Friend

Keep up some periodic, arm’s length contact, but also make it easy easy easy for the person to receive your overtures. By that I mean, say in your messages, “No need to call/write back – I just wanted to say hello.” If you see a little something that reminds you of her, go ahead and send it to her, but enclose a note: “I saw this and thought of you – no need to write back.”

For someone in the bottom of the pit of despair, a voicemail or text or gift can feel like an obligation to respond, so removing that obligation upfront lets the pure caring come through. Hope your friend is OK.

Re: Depression:

We apologize for all sorts of things that are not directly our fault – if I puke, I apologize to my husband because he still has to deal with ick, whether the flu did it or I did it on purpose. Even if I couldn’t have avoided causing someone I care about pain or extra work, I like to apologize -- I think it’s gracious.

– Anonymous

Of course – such apologies aren’t owed, but remind you both that you’re both looking out for each other.

It’s when such mutual care is not a given that extra steps are necessary.

On one side, the extra step is to apologize for the other’s pain, even if causing it wasn’t intentional. On the other side, the extra step is not holding out for an apology from someone who went through the emotional equivalent of being hit by a bus.