What Nobody Ever Tells You About How Depression Affects Your Adult Friendships
Laurel* and Catherine* had been close for more than a decade before the fight that ended their friendship. It happened in a Starbucks parking lot, where they'd stopped for a quick coffee during a trip to the mountains. Laurel was furious because Catherine had stood by the bathroom instead of waiting with her while she got their drinks.
To the average person, the reason for the argument might have seemed petty and insignificant. But to Laurel, Catherine's actions constituted nothing less than the deepest betrayal. In part, that was because, after a nearly a decade of feeling fine without antidepressants, the dark feelings Laurel first experienced when she was 13 — anger, anxiety, isolation — had started creeping up on her again. And as her depression worsened, she'd become convinced Catherine secretly hated her.
"When I would call and get her voicemail, depression told me she was screening my calls. When she was too busy with work to make the two-hour drive to visit me, depression said she would rather do anything than be around me," Laurel told Mic. "I completely fell apart [on our trip], throwing words at her like knives and letting out every bit of anger, hurt and resentment that depression had justified in my heart."
The fight at Starbucks set the tone for the rest of the weekend, which was miserable for both Laurel and Catherine. Their friendship hasn't been the same since.
Depression takes its toll on us — but also on our friendships. Since the fight, Laurel has come to understand that her depression was at the root of her problems with Catherine. But neither of them can forget what happened.
"I'm unable to take the words I said back, and she's unable to forget that I let something like depression color my trust in our friendship," Laurel said. "I can't blame her for that, any more than I can forgive myself for seeing the signs of what was really going on — then ignoring them until they'd done so much damage that I'm not sure we will ever recover."
The struggle to repair a friendship damaged by depression is frustratingly common. It's often an added, ongoing challenge for the estimated 14.8 million adults in the United States with major depressive disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Depression diagnoses have become comparatively common among millennials: Approximately 8.7% of people between the ages of 18 and 25 have been diagnosed with some form of the condition.
But even though depression is fairly common, and medication and therapy can be enormously helpful for treating it, its symptoms — feelings of hopelessness, social isolation, restlessness, mood swings and irritability — can affect every aspect of the depressed person's life, from work to relationships to friendships.
"A depressed person's energy may ebb and flow so they aren't able to keep their commitments," Irene S. Levine, a psychologist and author who studies friendship, told Mic. "He or she may convey a sense of hopelessness. Everyone feels blue from time to time, but depression is more persistent, affecting an individual's mood, behavior and functioning. In fact, it can be depressing to be around a friend who is depressed for long periods of time."
For the depressed person, friendship can be a strain — even when they need it the most. The strains depression can place on a relationship are usually obvious to everyone in it — including the depressed person, who often is well aware that they're not fun to be around. Being conscious of your own limitations as a friend can often make someone with depression feel even worse.
"I began to feel like a burden when some of the people close to me weren't always available for me to vent to, but realistically, no one was rejecting my friendship or pushing me away," Ali, a 21-year-old who was diagnosed with depression in college, told Mic. Still, she had sympathy for her friends, who she saw struggling with how to help her: "Sometimes it's just too much to see someone you love in such a dark place."
On a rational level, a depressed person might grasp that their friends simply don't understand what they're going through. But that doesn't change how much it hurts when their relationships are ultimately damaged by the symptoms of depression.
"A roommate once said to me, 'I don't think I want to live with you again, because I'm tired of living with someone who is too depressed to do the dishes,'" Alex*, a Tumblr user, told Mic. "I know it's hard to be friends with me, when I'm too depressed to leave my house ... or when I answer all questions in monosyllables and don't make eye contact. I want to make it easier for my friends but I can't, because I'm trying as desperately hard as I can to make it easier for myself."
It hurts to be the friend who doesn't get it. The pain that comes with depression goes both ways. Mic spoke with several people whose friends have dealt with depression, and many expressed that one of the biggest challenges was feeling like they couldn't be a good friend to them.
"I know I think differently from my friend because I am able to see everything from outside of the 'depression bubble,'" Zasha, whose best friend has depression, told Mic. "I wish I could let her in my mind so she could see how small problems are when you go out of the bubble. Sometimes watching her struggle and not being able to help makes me so sad, and it's like her depression takes over me."
For someone with a depressed friend, it can often be hard not to blame them for getting bogged down in their sadness — even though you know intellectually it's not their fault. According to Candice Vinson, a psychologist who specializes in depression issues, it's critical to accept that while it's not your friend's fault for being depressed, they can still cause you emotional pain — and we're not crappy friends for feeling that way.
"You can understand that [depressed friends] are struggling and you can [simultaneously] be hurt by it," Vinson said. "It's important to remind yourself that this doesn't make you a bad person. Getting mad at yourself for not being able to help perfectly or 'fix' them only makes the situation worse. You can't fix it. You can be there, listen, maintain a no-judgment stance and seek to understand."
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to managing depression and friendship. Cultivating a friendship is complicated enough when depression isn't an issue. When it is, the disorder can be enough to end some relationships for good.
That's a terrifying reality for many people, whether they have depression or not. But according to Vinson, it can often be a blessing in disguise. Dealing with depression can often be an opportunity for people to end toxic or one-sided relationships they should have ended a long time ago.
"Depression can make [people who don't have it] ask themselves, 'Is this worth it? Can I keep caring so much about someone who doesn't seem to care about herself? Where is my limit?'" she said. "People don't want to ask those questions because they feel guilty, and they may fear what it would mean for them if they got in such a tough place. But the answers depend on so many things — the nature of the friendship, the values and priorities of the individual and where they are in their own lives."
When depression does end up forcing a friendship to its limits, it can be exactly what prompts a depressed person to finally get the help they need. For Laurel, her fight with Catherine provided the clarity she needed to move on with her life, even if things still aren't totally OK.
"Getting balanced on a mental health medication is sort of like waking up after a night of heavy drinking: You are immediately flooded with hundreds of cringe-worthy memories, and the guilt and embarrassment take up equal space in your brain," Laurel said. "[But] I'm on medication again now, and it's balanced me out and cleared out my head and lifted the fog."
When the answer is to walk away, it can be devastating for everyone. But Christina, another Tumblr user who reached out, told Mic that losing friends because of depression isn't always the worst thing. The people who are left behind are often the best ones.
"Depression really does take a toll on friendships," Christina said. But it can help by "weeding out people and seeing who sticks around."
*Names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.