It is an extremely common phrase to hear when people are either trying to help people with depression or people are struggling with depression:
You are not alone
I think that the idea of being alone is terrifying for most everyone. I think this is why marriage, especially second marriage, is so popular. This is why we stand behind political candidates and root for certain college football teams. This is why we wear the flags of our ethnic heritages, and sometimes talk about it as if we’ve ever even been there. This is why we join religious groups and non-religious groups alike. The fear of being alone is probably at the core of all of these things. We are stronger as a group or a family. We can accomplish more. People in my group understand a part of me, or even the whole of me. I am not alone either in the physical or emotional sense.
I am not the only person experiencing this.
It appears that the camaraderie offered by people sharing their depression story with you can make your depression better. Knowing people are there for you even if they have never experienced it before can make it easier. Just not being alone is in itself powerful.
But I’m here to tell you that is all bullshit.
For one, it doesn’t change anything for me. I am not afraid of being alone. I am not afraid of being the only person who ever suffered from depression. The fact that other people have gone through what I have gone through does not make me feel any differently about it. And I don’t understand why it should.
Secondly, I have never seen it work. In high school, when this all started for me, there was a small group of people who knew that I had experienced depression. And, oddly, it wasn’t just my regular friends. So about a half dozen times I was either asked to or I availed myself to help out in a situation where someone had mentioned depression or suicide (and once I noted a suicidal tone in someone’s away message on AOL instant messenger and I drove over to her house and we had a chat). I didn’t really know what I was doing so I always opened up with some version of ‘you are not alone, I have been there too’. And it never mattered.
I shouldn’t say that completely. I think it mattered in the sense that they were more comfortable to talk to me about it. That makes sense, especially since people who have never experienced depression love to offer terrible advice about it. In that regard I guess things like ‘you are not alone’ are better than ‘buck up’ or ‘go for a run’ or some other nonsense.
Anyway, during my hospitalizations I noticed a ton of ‘you are not alone’ spreading during groups. If you want to know one amazing thing about group therapy, it is that no one ever feels better at the end of it. It isn’t like a normal therapy session where you at times can come to a resolution or discovery. In group it is always about sharing some terribly personal horror story to a bunch of strangers and everyone stares off into space except for the one person who feels the need to help everyone else in the program. The social worker running it might give you some advice you could read out of any 12 step book and they move on to the next person’s horror story while you are left to wonder why you needed to expose yourself that way. The number one response you will get from another patient in group is some ill-conceived variation of ‘you are not alone’, often times accompanied by a much too long of a story that is only barely related.
From what I have witnessed, depression generally comes from two stressors. First, I don’t have the things I need in life to be happy. This can be (and in my experience usually is) things like: I can’t afford a car. I can’t afford a TV. I am being evicted. I can’t pay my child support. I can’t afford to do things for my kids. You get it. It is almost always regarding money but almost never about it directly. Sometimes it is not as basic: I can’t find a job I can excel at. I can’t afford to have another kid. I can’t afford to fix my car.
That stuff is probably 90% of what is talked about in group therapy.
Second, I am a failure as a person. And even this is often tied to the stuff above. I didn’t finish school. I lost my license. I can’t stop drinking or doing drugs. I can’t hold down a job. My family hates me or doesn’t understand me. Just any way that you might feel your life does not line up with your perception of what success is.
And I think those two things are probably at the root of all depression. It is certainly the cause of ALL of my depression. It is practically the only thing I think about when I am depressed. I don’t think about being alone. Sometimes I don’t even necessarily feel sad. But, even right this moment I feel like I am a failure, that I was given a great opportunity but lost. I feel as if I struck out to strand the go ahead run on third.
My depression gets bad when I forget that it is still only the second inning and I’ll get up at least twice more. Not because I am alone, or disconnected, or whatever. That might be the case for some people, but, to me, that seems like yet another useless piece of garbage people say when they don’t know what to say.