My Pet Demon, Part Four: Be a Tree, Not a Stump

Not a picture of a healthy relationship.

Wait. What?

That's what I remember thinking the first time I heard The Giving Tree referenced in a church service.

For those who aren't familiar with the classic picture book by Shel Silverstein, here's a quick summary: a tree loves a little boy. The little boy enjoys what he can get from the tree. Things are fine as long as the boy is little (though his primary way of demonstrating his affection for the tree is to carve a heart into its trunk, so already we're off to a questionable start). But as he gets older, the boy demands more from the tree than just its shade. He wants its apples to make money for his adventures, its branches to build himself a house, and when things fall apart, its trunk to build a boat to sail away in. Except for asking for these things from the tree, he neglects it. Finally he returns as a tired, defeated old man. The tree, now just a stump, has nothing left to give. That's fine, says the old man. I just need to sit on something. And the tree was happy.

Wait. What?

The pastor who'd read the story to us--I can't remember if it was used as a children's message or as an illustration for the sermon--went on then to allegorize the message: the tree is Jesus. The little boy who grows up to be a selfish man is us. Jesus just keeps giving and giving and giving, no matter what the cost, to the point of self-negation. That's how we should all live.

And I was still stuck on "Wait. What?"

Treating this slim book as an allegory does it a great disservice, especially when one takes the allegory to its logical limit. It's been interpreted as an allegory for friendship, for parenting (check out this excellent version from the Zits comic strip), and in countless Sunday morning messages to both children and adults, for both Jesus Christ and the life of a faithful Christian. Considering how taking the allegory to its logical conclusion means self-destruction for whoever the tree is taken to represent, that's a lesson that's unhealthy, at best.

Unless, that is, you're using the allegory as a warning.

That's my point of departure today. I've written about the ways in which the demon called depression can get its claws into a person with its vicious cycle of anxiety, loneliness, and self-criticism. In the third part of this series, I brought in the ways in which the demon can suck in the loved ones of a depressed person, inflicting them with psychic wounds of their own. In this final essay, I'm going to suggest an alternate path for those who are companions, whether by blood or choice, of depressed persons. The thesis is simply this: stick with this person you love, but don't turn let yourself become a stump.

In the throes of depression, I looked for three things from friends and partners: strength, compassion, and presence. There were times when I really couldn't find the energy to subsist. No amount of encouragement would have gotten me out of my dark place. I was spiraling down, incapable of seeing any brightness at all in my future.

One such time came in Medford, when I'd just had a meeting with the church's personnel committee that had been critical of my performance as an associate pastor. The critique was valid--I'd been neglecting my duties to concentrate on busy work--but in my already sensitive state, it triggered my victim cycle. I remember picking up my daughter Sarah, who was 2 at the time, from day care, and taking her to a fast food restaurant for dinner. Somehow I'd communicated to my wife Brenda that I was in a bad place. She'd heard something in my voice that frightened her. On her own initiative, she called my counselor and set up an emergency session with him, then drove to McDonald's where she found me with Sarah. "Go see Fred," she told me. "I've got Sarah."

I did. I drove to Fred's office and was in tears before either of us said a word. I sat on his couch and sobbed for several minutes, then finally was able to talk about what I was feeling, and more importantly, why I was feeling it.

There are times when depressed people need someone to simply take the initiative to get them the help they need. This is not the same as being the help. At my lowest points, I've needed the help of a person who is trained and experienced at unpacking a depressive cycle, compassionately but persistently drilling down to the memory that gave birth to the demon, then easing back to the present where logic can finally be broached. That personnel committee was not the unethical, incompetent principal who drove me from my first teaching career, even though it was chaired by a retired school superintendent. They had legitimate concerns I needed to address. But first I had to get the fear out of my system. Brenda could have told me that, but I wouldn't have heard her; worse, I would've lumped her in with the personnel committee as an oppressor. I needed Fred to coach me through my despair before I could attend to my professional failings.

Being strong for a depressed person does not mean stoically giving up your body and soul. Nor does it mean confronting the irrational basis of those feelings. Strength in the face of depression is in acknowledging your own inadequacy to address the needs of someone you love.

A digression: when I went into ministry, I had fantasies of being a counselor to my parishioners, having them come to me in their time of need, listening compassionately, then offering sage advice. That's why I was thrilled to take a course my second year of seminary called "Crisis Counseling"--and disappointed to find that the main focus of the course was knowing how, and to whom, to refer a person in crisis. A parish minister lacks the training, we were told, to do any kind of extended counseling. Rather, our job was to be first responders, spiritual EMTs who could slap a bandaid on a parishioner that would last long enough for him or her to get into the office of a professional therapist.

As disappointed as I was to learn that I ought not be counseling my flock unless and until I earned a degree in psychology, this was a lesson I needed, and I've applied it many times since. My primary task as the companion of a depressed person is knowing when I'm out of my depth and helping my loved one make the decision to see a professional. That's what Brenda did for me that evening in Medford.

Which brings me to compassion. Accompanying a depressed person can be incredibly frustrating. Basic chores and errands aren't done competently or in a timely fashion. Pets and children are neglected. Healthy habits are discarded. There's no enthusiasm for socializing, entertaining, or any of the things you've always loved to do together. Trying to have a conversation about what's wrong can be infuriating: address any of the reasons for the depression, and you'll either be ignored or find yourself dealing with another leak elsewhere in the dam. Ultimately, you just have to accept that it's not about any of the things your loved one says it's about. You're not dealing with a reasonable person. It's tempting to snap, to walk out, go get some air, or taking it farther, to take a break from the relationship, or even to end it.

Being compassionate at such a time can feel like a stretch. You may have a hard time feeling compassion, especially if your partner is lashing out in cruel, unthinking ways. Try to remember that, no matter what the demon may provoke your loved one to say, it's really not about you. Even if something you said or did was the trigger that brought on this demon attack, it's not about you. The person before you is suffering the long term effects of trauma that may have happened long before you met. My own depression was rooted in the itinerant childhood I endured as a Methodist minister's son, moving too often for my introverted self to make and keep friends, which then became a rootless adult lifestyle I have only in the last decade--my 50s--been able to put behind me. It was exacerbated by the combative feelings I had toward bosses, and the victimization that kicked in whenever I was reprimanded for it.

Compassion means understanding that what's going on is deep and wide, that not amount of talking (even until the wee hours of the morning) will get the demon off this person's back. I know. I hear you. I see how much you're hurting. I'm sorry you have to go through this. Words of compassion don't have to react to the negative statements your loved one is making. It's better, in fact, if they don't. Even my best therapists couldn't talk me out of my deepest depressions. The only person who could do that was me, and only after I permitted myself to feel the fear, the grief, the rejection. When a loved one responded to my depression by arguing with me or walking out on me, it just confirmed what I'd been feeling, and drove me deeper.

That brings me to the third thing I always needed from my companion on the depression journey: presence. I need to be clear about what this looks like. It's not 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I'm not talking about the kind of commitment that comes with being under suicide watch in a hospital. That's for the professionals in the hospital. Partners, parents, friends don't have the capacity to make that kind of sacrifice. Your presence in the life of a depressed person has to have boundaries. Sometimes you will have to give up something you really wanted to do: if your child is in crisis and may commit self-harm if left alone, you need to be there. This is true even if you had tickets to Hamilton. With that said, your presence must not be all-consuming. Put all of yourself into being there, and all that will be left is a stump.

Presence needs to be compassionate. Being visibly angry, frustrated, or disappointed will drive your loved one deeper into the abyss. It also needs to be tangible. The thing I needed most in my times of depression was a hand on my back or shoulder as I struggled with feelings I couldn't control or understand. Since my deepest fears were of rejection, I needed to know that revealing my brokenness would not drive a companion away. The most powerful words for me at such times were simply, "I'm here." And while being physically present is far more powerful, those words over the phone still convey the fidelity of your commitment.

Implicit in all of this is a lesson that is the opposite of the Giving Tree: to be the most good to a depressed person, you cannot sacrifice yourself. Yes, you do need to give of your time, and you may have to scrap plans for an evening out or a weekend away; but if you wind up losing yourself, you are, in a way, fulfilling one of the prophecies the demon has been whispering in your loved one's ear: "Everything you touch turns to shit. Just look at what you're doing to your friend. That once beautiful giving tree is turning into a stump."

So continue to do the things that feed your soul. If you need a break, tell your loved one you're going for a walk, taking a run, getting a drink, whatever you need to recharge--and that you'll be back. Knowing there's a future that again has you in it will make the in between time easier to bear. Neglecting your needs will, over time, reduce your own effectiveness as a companion, even as it breeds resentment that may, ultimately, turn into a necessary rejection. Sacrifice too much of yourself, and you're left with no choice but the thing a depressed person fears most: walking away. Setting boundaries is essential to both of you, so do it early and often.

I could write much more on this subject, and I have. The point of this series of essays has been to share one person's perspective on depression and its impact on relationships, concluding with some ideas on how to go on loving a depressed person. Following my advice does not guarantee recovery. You may ultimately have to walk away from a loved one whose demon is too hungry for your soul, as well as your child's or lover's. This is especially true if the person you love refuses to seek professional help--but even then, I believe it's possible to continue to be strong, compassionate, and present. None of these virtues need be contingent on your child admitting himself to an outpatient program. Choose to be a beacon of compassion, remain true to your commitments, and in time, there's a good chance that loved one may ultimately take the steps necessary to tame the demon, and become whole once more.


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