Often, a tacit belief that depressed people “shouldn’t” be as depressed as they are also leads family members to minimize the problem, especially as the person starts to get better—as you say your son has begun to do. The sentiment might be: It’s been almost a year since the breakup, he’s in grad school now, why is he still feeling like this? Why is he complaining about last Christmas? We’ve offered so much support. When is this going to end?
I want you to consider that your son isn’t “self-absorbed”—he’s in pain. And what he’s telling you is that he felt his brothers were ignoring his pain, and nothing is lonelier than being utterly alone in one’s pain. If your son had cancer, maybe he’d feel angry if everyone at the dinner table ignored the fact that he was bald and couldn’t eat and had lost 50 pounds—but maybe, too, these feelings would be more understandable to you. Likewise, ask yourself, if he had cancer, would you feel resentful of how hard you’ve worked to help him out? Would you compare him unfavorably with his brothers, as you have here by pointing out in your letter that his brothers are thriving in their relationships and careers in a way he’s not? (Would you write, “His brothers, who have never had cancer a day of their lives …”?)
If you can begin to notice the ways you and your other sons may misunderstand mental-health issues, you’ll find it easier to interact with your son. For starters, there’s a difference between walking on eggshells and listening to what he’s experiencing. Communicating to him, either verbally or nonverbally, that his feelings are irrational or overblown will prevent him from being honest with you about what he’s going through, and that’s a dangerous situation, because you want a person in pain to reach out, not to isolate even more.
So what can you say? Try any of these: I’m interested in how you feel. Tell me more about what bothered you last Christmas so that this year things go better. I’m sorry you’re having a bad day—that sucks. I’m glad you got some restful sleep last night. (Progress that seems small to you will seem big to someone with depression.) Here’s what I can do for you (for instance: help you research psychiatrists or therapists; drive you to your appointments so that you go consistently; have you over for dinner if you want some company; FaceTime with you if you need to talk; help you pay your therapy bills; check in to make sure you get out of bed on the weekends). Here’s what I can’t do (whatever feels like too much for you emotionally, financially, or logistically), but I can help you problem-solve so that you get those needs met. I know you’re having a difficult time right now, but you still have to be kind when you talk with me. I’m here for you. I know it’s really hard sometimes. I love you.
All of this sends a very different message from I can’t believe how self-absorbed you are or You don’t appreciate the help we’ve given you or You’re being overly sensitive about what happened at Christmas last year—yet it accomplishes something very important. It sets boundaries for what you can realistically do so that you aren’t neglecting your own care or sense of how you’d like to be treated, and it communicates unequivocally that while depression can feel like a burden, your son himself is not a burden—and that you take him and your love for him seriously.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.