When Your Best Friend Becomes A Stranger

It’s estimated that 322 million people in the world suffer from depression, in one form or another.  Let’s just read that again, 322 MILLION people!  Yet depression, in any, or all of its forms, is also one of the least understood medical conditions.

If those statistics are to be believed, and they do come from the World Health Organisation, then surely most of us know at least one person, if not more, who suffers from depression.  It could be a partner, family member, or even a friend or work colleague.

I guess that having a partner, or family member with depression, means that they are part of your everyday life, and the family relationship means you can’t, or won’t just walk away when the black cloud of depression descends.  You are kind of duty-bound to stick around.  Especially if it’s your partner or spouse.  After all, you took the vow, in sickness and in health and all that, if married.

So what if it’s your best mate who suffers from bouts of depression, to really test your friendship?  What do you do?  How do you help?  Or would you just feel completely helpless and unable to do anything?

Well, yes I did feel helpless, when my best friend, of some 35 years, recently suffered a long bout of debilitating depression.  So bad that I thought he would never ever smile again.

I first met my mate in 1984, we were work colleagues.  Back in the day, he was ambitious, eager, committed, professional and there was no doubt he would become an expert in his field.

We would spend our lunch breaks together, putting the world to rights, discovering common interests and matched thinking about many issues.

To be clear, I’m a she and he’s a he.  And yes of course flirtation and innuendo fuelled our friendly banter, but he was and still is, only ever going to be my best friend.  Lines have never been blurred on that score.

My first experience of how the ‘black dog’ (as Churchill described it) of depression, affected my friend, quite bizarrely, happened while I was away on holiday, in Cornwall.  I was in a fairly new relationship, but there is an unspoken rule that nobody comes between a girl and her best mate, no matter what gender they may happen to be.

So my new man had to put up and shut up when I was alerted to my best friend’s declining mental state.  A routine phone call to say ‘we’ve arrived’, was like talking to a complete stranger.  There was none of our usual friendly chat about the journey, the weather, or the accommodation, that previously would have naturally flowed.  His replies to my questions were monosyllabic, closed answers, his voice was almost dead.

I spent much of my 7-day break in Cornwall, in a very smelly red phone box, trying desperately to help my friend emerge from his depression but nothing worked.  A pattern of his depression started from this point.

 

Fast forward to my most recent experience.  Same man, same depression.  Only this time, with the advanced technology of FaceTime, with this, not only was I able to hear the effect this illness had on him, I was able to see it in his face too.

In early April 2021, I went to help my friend rearrange his office.  He ordered a new filing cabinet and over the course of the first week of that month, we had great fun rolling this heavy-duty furniture across his drive and then heaving it into his office. There was much laughter, banter and general tomfoolery.  At the end of that week, with the job done, we hugged and kissed goodbye, and made plans to meet up very soon for drinks and food.

However, nothing could have prepared me for my next conversation with him, conducted over FaceTime, some 10 days later.  There was a stranger staring back at me.

It all happened so fast.  One minute my friend was laughing, outgoing, chatty, confident and happy.  A few days later, he was in the clutches of one of the worst bouts of depression he’s ever had.  It came from nowhere.  Latterly, we have gone over and over, everything leading up to it, there was no trigger, no reason, no issues, just nothing.

It affected everything about him.  His dress sense for one thing.  My normally fashion-conscious, smart friend, wore the same grey jumper day after day.  His hair became lank and long, and whilst he did shower every day, his pallor became as grey as his jumper and his colour matched his mood.

Every daily phone call I made to him was stilted, awkward and quite a challenge.  It’s hard work trying to cheer someone up who doesn’t want to be cheered up.  Visually his facial features almost fell to the floor, and as we attempted to have a conversation he would pace up and down.

During this time, (and it lasted a good 6 months), of course, he went nowhere, saw nobody, and so the normal lines of conversation weren’t there.  A perfectly normal opening line such as ‘what have you been up to…’ only had one answer.  Nothing!

People stopped phoning him, work dried up, mainly because he wasn’t being his usual proactive self, and the conversations he did have with other people, were as equally difficult as those he had with me, so work associates stopped ringing, opportunities dried up and his bank balance started dwindling.

From my own point of view, I felt helpless.  Unless we are professionally trained, none of us would know what to do faced with this tricky situation.  Is it best to adopt a tough love strategy, being cruel to be kind, or is it empathy, sympathy and endless amounts of patience that are needed?  Just how does a friend successfully help their mate, see the light at the end of the darkest of long dark tunnels?

I chose to go down the encouragement route.  One step at a time.  One small achievement at a time.

My friend, at some points, couldn’t even answer the simplest of decision-making questions, such as, would you like cheese or ham in your sandwich?

Previously, I should point out that his decision-making questions involved millions of pounds, which on a good day, took seconds to reach a satisfactory conclusion.  But whilst depressed, the cheese or ham choice was just overwhelming.

One of the most difficult aspects of the situation was persuading him to see a doctor.  From past experience, I knew that a tiny little white tablet called Citalopram would help kickstart his recovery.  But his resistance to resort to drugs was frustrating and led to bad feelings on both sides.  Voices would be raised and the potential for an all-out shutdown of communication was never far away.

I drip-fed my encouragement on a daily basis. I suggested he walked his dog at the same time as I walked to mine, and we would talk as we walked, albeit 30 miles apart, over the phone.  My own ‘go-to’ rescue remedy is always plenty of fresh air, light exercise and a good healthy diet and I encouraged him to try and enjoy those things too.  However, he clearly wasn’t eating properly which was contributing to zapping his energy.  I took him vitamin supplements, whereas others might have taken him grapes.  I pushed for a daily update on what food he had eaten.  I secretly arranged for our mutual friends to drop in on him, or phone, very persistently!

Depression is misunderstood in the way that it stops every creative process, you can imagine.  Perversely, a depressed person may not have trouble sleeping, they actually just want to sleep, the sleep of the dead, because whilst asleep, they are not having troubling thoughts, and whilst they are asleep, they are not ‘feeling’ depressed.  It is often the only thing that brings relief.  So it was my plan to distract him, with visitors, phone calls and generally be on his case.

Eventually, after 6 long months, the cloud gradually started clearing.  It was one step at a time.

An impromptu decision, by him, to visit the barbers, take work suits to the cleaners en route, and get the car washed into the bargain.  

Then he made a few catch-up phone calls with associates, with a new brightness in his voice.  Gradually, business picked up, he was invited out for lunch, contacts and friendships were renewed and he was back in the game.

Today, you’d never know that from April to October 2021, my best friend was like a stranger to me, but thankfully, now that stranger is back to being my best friend.

 

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