Sixteen Months of Phone Calls: On Depression, Friendship, and Asking for Help

Tue, Aug 29, 2023

A year and a few months ago, I came to the sudden, obvious, and highly overdue realization that I was depressed.

I’ve written a little bit about this time before. A few tough things had just happened to me right in a row. First, I had applied to grad school but not gotten what felt like the right offer and decided to take another year and reapply. Shortly after deciding to postpone grad school, an upper respiratory infection had sent me into a miserable state of constant migraines. And then I went through a breakup.

A few weeks before that, I would have told you that I was doing fine. I felt remarkably okay with grad school applications not working out the first time around, but they left me in a bizarre, precarious position. I had finally figured out what I wanted my next step to be, and now I had to wait another year to take it.

The migraines made everything so much harder. The dizziness and brain fog were constant. I know how alienating it can be to lie and say you’re okay when you’re in pain, so I tried to be honest with the people in my life about how I was feeling. My friends, roommates, and coworkers knew I had been having constant migraines for a few weeks, treatments weren’t working (including a very tough trip to the ER), and I didn’t know when the migraines would go away. Even so, there came a time when I felt like I had exhausted the number of times it’s socially acceptable to admit to doing poorly, and I started saying the expected, non-introspective, “good!” when people asked how I was. It was immensely lonely.

We make plans for the future, even though none of us has any guarantee that we’ll be able to follow through on those plans. Disability and death are always possibilities. Most of us choose not to think about this. As a chronically ill person, I’ve had to face the uncertainty of my future over and over. I like to think I’ve come to terms with it. But sometimes, when I have to look the possibility of not being able to do the things I wanted to do with my life right in the eyes, it terrifies me. That’s what the migraines brought up for me, a seemingly endless parade of “what if I can’t?” questions.

Five weeks after the migraines started, my girlfriend came over one Saturday afternoon and broke up with me. As the reality of the breakup sunk in, I realized so much of the support and joy in my life in recent months had taken place within that relationship. I was devastated.

The days that followed were really, really hard. I felt incredibly alone. Massive, deep-rooted loneliness was precisely what I was facing; the loneliness of rejection, and the loneliness of being ill in a world that often refuses to see illness. But this post isn’t about the loneliness, it’s about the people who came tenaciously, improbably bursting through that miserable loneliness to sit with me and help me through.

It was a few weeks after the breakup that I had the depression revelation. I was talking with a close friend on the phone, sitting in a field crying and absent-mindedly pulling apart dandelions as I related how I’d been doing. “It sounds like you’re really depressed,” my friend said. Really depressed. Yes, that was exactly it.

I repeated the statement to my therapist a few days later: “I’m really depressed.” She nodded solemnly, a silent affirmation I’d grown accustomed to over our years of working together. “And you’ve been depressed for a long time,” she added. Hold up. I WHAT?! I asked her how long. She estimated that I had been depressed for more than a year. She thought I’d known. I hadn’t known.

It seems obvious now, looking back. I had been through a lot since the beginning of COVID, and I hadn’t noticed that in between the trials, I hadn’t returned to my usual emotional baseline. I had stopped painting. I had stopped writing. I had stopped listening to music for the fear that an unexpected song would bring up some unbearable emotional reaction. I went more than a year without publishing anything here. So much of the joy in my life had taken place in the relationship that had just ended because the color had seeped out of all my other usual sources of joy so gradually I hadn’t noticed.

That I had been depressed for the last year was the single most relieving thing I’d heard since the breakup. This was DEPRESSION?! The world isn’t just an exhausting, dispiriting place we drag ourselves through every day? If life wasn’t supposed to feel this hard (not even as hard as it had felt before the migraines, which was, now that I thought about it, pretty hard), that meant things could get better.

It took a long time for things to get better. Agonizingly long, with false starts and piles of wadded up tissues and vegetables rotting in my refrigerator because I couldn’t muster up the energy to cook. Sunny, warm days when I didn’t leave my apartment. Audiobooks automatically returned to the library on their due date without having been opened. And friends’ names popping up on the screen of my phone as they texted and called over and over even if I didn’t always respond.

Friends, family, and my therapist were all critical in helping me through this last very hard year and a half. I’m writing about my friends here because relying on friends the way I did felt radically different from the way I had previously related to them. I needed my friends in a way I previously hadn’t, and my friends showed up for me.

I didn’t realize how much I resist accepting help from others until this bout of serious depression. I couldn’t do it alone. I had to let people help me. And it made me really uncomfortable.

A few days after the breakup, a friend who lives out of state offered to buy me a meal to have delivered. I said that was so kind but I couldn’t accept it. She said, “Do you want me to buy you lunch, or dinner?” I chose dinner.

This was how it went whenever friends offered me some gesture of kindness. My instinct was always to say, “no.” But I had to say, “yes,” because I needed people. We always need people. But at this time I needed people so desperately I couldn’t pretend I didn’t. I had to say “yes,” to their meals and their phone calls and their offers to come over and help me do whatever awful task I couldn’t face alone, like throwing away all the rotting vegetables in my refrigerator.

Most of my closest friends live in different cities, so much of the “being there for me” took place over the phone. Friends called to check in. Friends called to keep me company while I did hard things. For a while, I had friends calling me in the morning to help me through the hardest part of the day, the getting out of bed part.

They were there for the initial, shocked heartbreak. They were there for the “what if I can’t?” migraine questions. They were there when I called them crying on the way back from my first date after the breakup. They were there when I found a migraine treatment that made me feel so, so much better. They were there for the subsequent flare ups, the bad days, the bad dates, the minor wins and major setbacks. They were there for the week after week, tough and slow reality of getting through an episode of depression.

I fell into a pattern with a handful of friends where we talked much more frequently than we used to. Many of them were people I would fall in and out of touch with over the years, going weeks or months without talking and then resuming our friendship like the time hadn’t happened at all. But in the state I was in, I needed my friends more consistently than that. So we kept up with each other a little closer. We talked more regularly.

They were there for me, absolutely, and they did a lot of listening to me processing my sadness, especially in those early weeks. But I was there for them, too. We talked about whatever was on our minds. It is really wonderful to periodically reconnect with someone you love, but it’s a different, in some ways richer experience to remain connected, to anticipate alongside them, and then find out what happens.

My friends went through some really hard times, too, and I was there. There was a new model, where we heard each other’s voices more often. We said yes where previously we would have said no.

This story is a little nuanced; at the same time as I kept up with a handful of friends more than usual, I also owed another set of people I love a call. Keeping in touch with people who aren’t geographically nearby is something I really struggle with. It can feel like a big effort to catch up with someone, and being depressed didn’t make that easier. Depression made the reflection required to tell someone honestly how I was doing feel like even more of a heavy lift. Even as I write this, I owe people phone calls and emails and texts. But perhaps this experience could lend some clues into how to stay connected to people we care about who are far away. Maybe catching up is overrated. Maybe the best we can offer all the loved ones we don’t see regularly is a snapshot of what is on our minds or in our lives in whatever moments we reconnect with them. Overviews of what’s happened to us since we last spoke are great, too, but maybe they shouldn’t be our go-to.

The Data

I downloaded my cell phone call data from this time and pulled out phone calls with five of my closest friends. I’ll show you the total amount of time I spent talking to them each day starting in early February, shortly before things really fell apart, and ending just a few months ago in early June.

I’m going to try something different and build the final graph in a few different parts.

The axes and dates of a few important events:

Phone calls in the few months leading up to the breakup:

Phone calls through September, including the hardest few months:

And now all the data through until early June 2023:

I’m doing a lot better now. I still deal with migraine symptoms many days, but they’re usually quite manageable. I’ve come to terms with the fact that depression is something I will have to manage, at least at certain points, throughout my life. Now I also know that when I need it, if I ask for it, there will be love and support coming at me from many directions.

Maybe you’ve fallen apart and tried to reach out for help and didn’t have this experience of being cared for and supported. I’ve been there, too. There are a few things I’d like to note. This wasn’t a beautiful time for all the relationships in my life. My really struggling marked a rupture for a few, and the end of one or two. I was also lucky to have many people in my life who have also experienced mental illness. Misunderstanding and stigma can get in the way of the kind of unconditional support we should all have access to. And, I’ll end with a reminder that those kinds of friendships can be built, and that it takes time. You have what it takes and you are deserving of them.

You might be like me; letting people help you in bigger and more vulnerable ways, and potentially even asking directly for that help, might be the next step for you to have stronger and closer connections.

P.S. As usual, here’s a link to see my code.
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