Only Being Honest?

“If you can’t be kind, be quiet” Timber Hawkeye

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I wonder at what point it became socially acceptable to be rude or judgemental under the guise of “just being honest”?

I belong to several mums’ groups on Facebook and as a result I often see questions from various mums in my newsfeed. One in particular caught my eye last week, prompting me to reply.

Anna* posted a question in relation to a forthcoming holiday which I immediately felt compelled to reply to because had Anna proceeded with her idea, her child’s safety would have been in question.

I suggested a few alternatives and told her what we did on holiday to get around this issue whilst pointing out why I thought her idea was too risky to entertain. She replied with thanks and immediately said that she felt embarrassed about her post and would not, under any circumstances, be following through on her original plan.

One would hope that would be the end of it, but sadly this was not the case. Immediately dozens of women began throwing in their opinions, with very few of them employing any tact whatsoever. Again, Anna replied. This time re-iterating that she felt awful for her post. That she would never deliberately do anything to put her child at risk and felt mortified that so many people now thought she was a dreadful mother. Anna asked them to please stop commenting.

Still, they didn’t stop. Some felt the need to comment a second time, to re-iterate how shocked they are that she would post such an idea. Wasn’t her child her world? What would cause any mother to think this way?

It was at this point that I felt the need to pipe-up again. I was horrified at the way Anna was being treated. Granted, there was no doubt that her idea was out of the question and could’ve put her child in danger. But she had clearly stated her regret at ever raising the topic, she was sorry and was very upset.

I told the group that I felt the tone of their messages was becoming increasingly hostile. That their words were attacking Anna unnecessarily and I believed that support groups should be just that, a place for support. Honesty should be served with a helping of tact, in my opinion.

To this I received replies defending the aggression used. One woman said “If you share a post on here, you should expect an honest answer. We’re all shocked at Anna and she should expect a response like this. We’re only being honest.”

Only Being Honest?

How have we arrived in a time where we can attack people and wear them down like this, with our justification being that we’re “Only being honest”. What about tact? And compassion? What about concern for our fellow mothers?

I was frankly horrified by the words unfolding on the screen before me. All I could think of was a time in which I was unable to cope with any criticism whatsoever. If the same thing had happened to me during that very low point in my life, I can’t even imagine what would’ve happened to me. I think I would’ve ended up hospitalised and I’m not exaggerating. It was all I could do to keep my own negative voices at bay, without strangers in so-called Facebook “support groups” bullying me.

Because, without question, this was bullying. Anna repeatedly asked them to stop before eventually removing herself from the group altogether. These are all mothers of young children, who quite frankly should have known better. From an outside perspective it seemed almost a pack mentality, with one, possibly vulnerable target.

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I sent a private message of support to Anna, who explained how “utterly cyber bullied” she felt. She realised she’d made public what should have been a fleeting thought, quickly dismissed. There was no question that it was a bad idea but she did not deserve such treatment.

As a mother of two small children who keeps up to date with news and current affairs I’ve been shocked and saddened by the recent spate of teen-suicides linked to cyber-bullying. The world is such a different place to the one in which I grew up and I worry a great deal about a future where bullies could target my children even in the comfort of their own bedrooms. Some children will be resilient enough to bounce back and will have parents they can turn to with their problems. Others will not.

In my view, the first step towards supporting our children through potential difficult times ahead is to ensure that they can talk to us, openly and about anything. Let them never feel that they have no-one to turn to.

In order to achieve this, we need to be approachable and to lead by example. This goes for our online as well as offline lives. We need to treat others with the kindness that we all deserve. There is a real person on the other side of the screen, with real feelings. However much we may disagree we must respect one another; take a few metaphorical steps in somebody else’s shoes and ask ourselves if we’d like to be on the receiving end of our own words.

I’m pretty sure some of the women involved will be reading this post. I hope they digest it and take it as it’s intended. Not as an attack on them but as an opportunity to stop and think about words and the pain they can cause.

Like I said at the start of this post: if you can’t be kind, be quiet.

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*I changed Anna’s name to protect her identity. I have also deliberately not included details on her original question.

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Dear You

The Recovery Letters is a blog which publishes letters addressed to those suffering with depression, written by people who are recovering. They kindly approached me to write one for them. I hope you like it.
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Dear You

Did you know that there are flowers which bloom only in the darkness? Even on the blackest night, Moonflowers blossom, their beauty shining through.

Depression can make you forget everything you know and rob you of rational thought. It sucks the colour out of life and makes you feel like the world is spinning without you, like you’re absent. Like you don’t belong in any conversation. Like it wouldn’t matter if you weren’t present in the room, the town, the world.

The strength of depression lies in its ability to negate positivity. No matter how sincere the compliments others may pay you, you can’t believe them. You can’t accept that you’re worthy of love, acceptance or even happiness.

But you are. You really, really are. You can’t see it at the moment, because you’ve got a rain cloud over you. There’s a deluge of icy rain blurring your vision and a fog in your mind, obscuring your thoughts. But underneath it, the truth is you’re still there. You’re here and you matter. You’re kind, beautiful, loved. You’re important to so many people and you deserve to get better.

I know you don’t believe me. I wouldn’t have believed these words either. I’d have discounted them, ruled out any positive words. Put myself down.

I spent long, dark, anxious nights awake. My mind raced and I felt like the only person awake in the world. As if the night would never end. Panicking and palpitating and crying.

But little did I know then, that even during darkness, flowers still bloom. And one day, without you even realising, you start to notice them again. It starts with a strange feeling one morning. You think of something you’ve got planned for later on that day, and an odd feeling comes over you. It takes a while to recognise it at first. Is is anxiety? No. It’s called positivity. You’re looking forward to things again. Fancy that.

You might look up at the blue sky, and really see it. Once clear sky seemed to mock you, going about it’s business despite your pain. But suddenly you’ll really see the sky again, appreciate it, allow it to bring you a sliver or joy.

One day soon you’ll notice a beautiful flower, or laugh at a joke, or sing along to something. Little by little, you WILL get better. Because you, as much as anyone, deserve happiness. You are worthy of love, of kindness and of compassion.

In the depths of the darkness it seems like you’ll never recover. But you simply must believe that you deserve better than this. Because you do. You are more than your depression and it does not define you. It is a chapter in your life, yes. Perhaps a big and significant one. But it’s not the final chapter.

Help is out there, so please, please, find someone who will listen to you. Who will sit with you in the dark place until you’re ready and capable of leaving it behind you. If it’s medication you need, take it. Seek out therapy, support, exercise…. Whatever you need. If you don’t know what you need, please find someone to guide you.

Falling apart gives you the opportunity to put yourself back together, like a phoenix from the ashes. You may never be quite the same, but that’s okay. Even in the dark you’ve been quietly blooming and learning. You just haven’t been able to see it in yourself. Soon you will.

Be kind to yourself, dear friend. It truly can and will get better. I promise. You’re not alone.

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You can find many more letters here.

The Right Questions

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For some time now I’ve been planning a post centred around supporting loved ones with Post Natal Depression. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that PND has played a big part in the lives of my family, close friends and me for the past two years. It’s something I’ve only spoken publicly about in the past few months and I find it easier to write than to speak about.

I now know what I need when I am at a low ebb. In my case it is usually help with the children and the opportunity for quiet reflection. To lick my wounds in private and to build up the strength to face the world again. Also anti-depressants and therapy featured heavily in my treatment, but for the purposes of this post I’m looking at what friends and family can do to help.

In researching this article I asked some of my readers and friends to share their experiences of depression with me and to tell me what they felt they needed in terms of support at their worst. What really struck me was how similar yet entirely different their replies are.

“I never really asked for practical help. If anyone had offered I would have put a front on that everything was fine and I was fine, even though I was beyond desperate.”

“I used to want to do everything as no one else did it the same as me or not to my high standards.”

“I would have loved someone to help with kids stuff like dinner times and even nursery runs as I really didn’t want to see or speak to other mums.”

“I felt better if someone took the kids and I got the cleaning done. It made me feel as if I had achieved something.”

“I’d have loved for people to have stopped by and offered to run the hoover around, or dropped a casserole off, but I couldn’t ask for those things for fear that people would think I wasn’t coping.”

“When people phoned I’d have liked them to ask after me and not just my new baby. I might not have been able to say anything, but it would have been nice to be asked.”

“What I wanted more than anything was company. Not to be alone with the babies. I didn’t actually want people to take them off my hands – but to come round and help me look after them, and help me to feel normal.”

“I just wanted to be left alone. I felt like there was never a moment for myself but I felt I couldn’t ask for help as I couldn’t bear the thought of people thinking (or knowing) that I wasn’t coping.”

“The worst thing for me was the feelings of isolation. I always needed to be around people whether it was friends, family or even strangers at a toddler group. I hated being at home alone.

I could fill pages and pages with quotes like these. Some women desperately need company and conversely others just want time alone. Some are silently crying out for help in the home and others can’t bear the thought of letting anyone else near the hoover. Some abhor the idea of unsolicited advice whilst others just want someone to take over and make everything okay.

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I have read and re-read this messages over and over, trying to digest them and to think of a way to coherently sum them up in to a neat article to solve everything. I hoped to narrow the stories down in to four easy-to-follow bullet points. These were my first three:
1) Listen with compassion and without judgement
2) Encourage professional help
3) Offer practical help.

I then got to point number four. Ask the right questions.

This, in my view, is absolutely the most crucial, key factor in supporting someone with depression. Without asking the right questions, nothing else matters. My previous three points are, well, pointless really.
Nothing else will work. You could run the risk of scaring the sufferer away or interfering, despite meaning well. If we don’t ask the right questions, we can’t possibly offer the right support.

In my previous life, before children, I spent thirteen years working in advertising. One of the first pieces of advice I was given was to ask open questions. They invite the other person to open up more and keep the conversation flowing.

Rather than this type of dead-end conversation….
You: Are you okay?
Them: “Yes thanks.”

It could be an idea to try something like this…
You: “So, is having a newborn what you thought it would be?”
or ” What is your favourite or least favourite thing so far about being a mummy? What has surprised you?” or “Is your partner enjoying being a new parent? What could they do differently to help more?”

You can see that questions like this encourage open dialogue. They offer the sufferer an opportunity to open up, if she is ready to.

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PND is so closely tied to a woman’s sense of worth as a mother.
Even the most well-meaning of comments can be twisted around in her mind to mean something else altogether. Mentioning that she is coping well, for example, can reinforce the fact that no-one understands what she is really going through. Offering to clean the house will probably leave her believing that you think her house is filthy and that she is a terrible mother. Offering to help with the children and bath time will cause horrible guilt and she will probably feel like a burden. Or, at least, this is how I felt in those situations. And the messages I’ve received show me I’m not alone in this.

This is why it is so, so hard to support someone who suffers with PND.

It is human nature to want to save people who are suffering with illness. We want to rush in and rescue, to take the pain away and to make it all better.
It is my style to offer practical advice or solutions to people in need. I’ll often turn up with a lasagne or offer to take kids to school or to clean the kitchen. It makes me feel like a better person to try to help others. In fact, I was told (rather bluntly, as it happens) by my therapist that this is, in fact a symptom of my own need to ask for help, but that’s another story.

My point being: sometimes these actions make us feel better, but not the intended recipient of our good deeds.

She might just want to sit in silence. She may want company. She may relish the idea of losing herself in the housework or baking whilst someone else watches the kids. Perhaps she wants to talk. But unless you ask the right questions, it’s simply impossible to tell.

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As the partner or close friend of someone with depression you will in all likelihood feel a combination of helplessness, anger, guilt, frustration and sadness. But it’s important to remember that depression is not personal. The fact that your loved one is not responding to your attempts to help them is no reflection on you. If you think about it, if G-d forbid you were supporting someone through cancer, you wouldn’t expect to be able to cure them by yourself. Depression is a shared responsibility, but not your sole responsibility. Professional help is out there and as the partner of someone with depression, it’s so important to seek out and to take the support that is available.

An old friend of mine, C, has supported his wife through post-natal and clinical depression for sixteen years. He gave me this advice:
” A depressed person ALWAYS sees one MASSIVE problem, but in reality problems are compound and are generally lots of little problems that if fixed (or managed) in turn, make the (not) massive problem simply crumble away.”

Please don’t ever imply that a depressed person can “pull themself together“. In my experience there is no statement more isolating or that further demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is going on. Depression is caused by a number of factors, with the main culprit being a chemical imbalance in the brain. There is nothing a depressed person would love more than the ability to “get a grip”. It’s just not that simple.

More than anything, my research has shown me that depressed people want to be listened to. Really, properly, listened to when they are ready to talk. Not with a view to offering solutions, not thinking about what to say next, just listening. My friend Sarah once sat with me whilst I sobbed. I spoke my darkest thoughts out loud and she just listened. She didn’t offer advice or try to fix me and I’ll be forever grateful for that. Sometimes shining light on darkness goes a long way towards chasing the shadows away.

I’m going to leave you with a passage from an incredible blog post by Andrew Lawes. You can find it in its entirety here, and follow him on Twitter @laweslaweslawes.

Try to imagine that depression is like being in a dark tunnel. The person with depression can’t see a thing, because everything is surrounded by darkness. Every sound is amplified, every fear is magnified. All they want to do is get out of the tunnel, but they can’t see where to go, they don’t know what to do. Your natural reaction is to lead them out of this dark tunnel, back to the light.

This is the WRONG approach.

You may think it makes sense, but for the person with depression, nothing makes sense. That’s the nature of the illness. They can’t be led out of the tunnel, because the fear is too great, the darkness is too dark. Trying to drag them out of this tunnel is more likely to make them curl up and hide than do any good.

What you need to do is be there for them. If they talk, just listen. Don’t talk, don’t give them opinions. Just really listen. Sit with them, let them talk. However upsetting or shocking what they say is, don’t give advice, just listen. When they finish, hug them, tell them you love them, and that however long it takes, you will be there until they find the strength to get better. You will never be able to lead someone out of the dark tunnel, all you can do is stay in the tunnel with them until they feel strong enough to lead themselves out.”


I’d just like to say a huge thank you to the women who shared their stories to make this post possible. I am so grateful for your bravery in sharing your darkest thoughts with a complete stranger.

I’d also like to clarify that I am not a medical professional. I have a list of support organisations here, if you’d like to talk to someone. Please do use it if you need to.