“What can I do?”
That’s a difficult question to answer when you’re depressed. You want to say a magical formula—“do this for me and I’ll feel better”—but there isn’t one. You want to be able to respond positively since you’re grateful for the care that went into that question, but you can’t. You even feel a little guilty that you can’t give a satisfying response.
“What can I do?” is probably the best question my husband can ask me when I’m depressed. It’s unassuming and empathetic. It’s also incredibly frustrating, because sometimes there just isn’t anything he can do. But what else is he supposed to say? I guess I’m glad he asks it, even when I don’t know how to respond.
I was recently asked what depression feels like. I didn’t know how to answer. I told my friend that it it’s a physical feeling, a heaviness—if hopelessness was tactile, that would be it. I didn’t know how else to describe it, except in obscure metaphors that might only make sense to me.
So it’s difficult to answer “what can I do?” when I can’t even articulate what my depression feels like. Usually, I end up answering the question with: “Just pray for me.” Sometimes, that’s the only answer I have.
My sister-in-law arrived on a late Monday night. I went out to the Uber and helped her unload her bags, stunned at how much one has to pack when also toting around a two-year-old.
I was supposed to have picked her up myself, but I begged off at the last minute. Depression mixed with anxiety can be paralyzing, and driving the car 45 minutes one way to the airport was more than my nerves could handle and I knew it. I felt embarrassed about it, embarrassed that I couldn’t even drive my stupid car, so I was grateful when she didn’t ask me about it.
I helped her get settled and we said a quick goodnight. We made plans to make pancakes the next morning. I slipped into bed and then stared at the dark ceiling. My husband was due home in two days, but what was I supposed to do until then? How was I supposed to entertain when all I wanted was to lie in bed with the lights off? When we made plans for the visit, I wasn’t expecting to be having such a dip in my mood.
I wanted to be cheery. I wanted to be welcoming. That’s difficult to do when you have a giant black weight in your head that makes you want to cry all the time. (See? Nothing but an obscure metaphor. It’s hard to explain.)
My sister-in-law is as easy-going as it gets. She never needs to have an agenda and I knew she wouldn’t care if all we did was hang out. She’s easy to please. But I still felt bad that I wouldn’t be able to entertain as much as I wanted, that my friendliness would be hard to fake.
The next morning went okay, better than I expected. My mood was fluctuating in and out, and for a few hours, I was able to hold a conversation. If I could just make it until my change in meds kicked in—three, four more days?—then I wouldn’t have to fake being happy. It’s an incredibly lonely thing to have to pretend things are okay when they aren’t.
But then I felt the familiar wave of darkness (there’s another one) around noon and I inwardly panicked. What was I supposed to do? We were just sitting there after lunch, watching a movie, but that feeling became stronger and stronger until I thought I’d have to get up to go curl up in my closet, alone, just to escape it.
I paused the movie, let a few seconds pass. I didn’t want to have to get up and leave. What would she think of me then?
So I said what I always say, but tentatively, unsure of her response: “Can you pray for me?”
She instantly put her arms around me and let me put my head on her shoulder, embracing me like you might do with a small child or your best friend. She didn’t ask me why. She just started praying aloud, beseeching God with words I couldn’t get myself to say. I know this sounds funny, but I felt a literal warmth spread from her arms to my body, her words falling over me. I don’t know how prayer works, but there is something powerful about someone praying aloud the words you don’t know how to muster. Her words were sincere, her confidence tender, and it felt real.
Then we just sat there. I felt her presence keenly, if that makes any sense. She didn’t have to speak—and she didn’t. We sat with my head on her shoulder, her prayer lingering in the air. It’s as if her words just sort of sat there with us.
When I turned the movie back on, that feeling wasn’t gone, but I no longer wanted to be alone.
It was such a small moment, really. A hug, a simple prayer, someone keeping me company when I really needed it. I keep returning to it, though, turning it over and over in my mind. What made that small moment so special? So meaningful to me?
Asking someone to pray for you may not seem like a big deal. Honestly, it’s usually my last-ditch response to “What can I do?”
If we believe in prayer, it shouldn’t be a last-ditch response. Prayer can be a powerful thing, if we let it. Asking someone to pray for you is a vulnerable thing to do—it’s trusting someone to commune with God on your behalf. When asked sincerely, that vulnerability can be transformative.
And praying for someone? That can be transformative too. Praying for someone takes a unique kind of empathy and it’s a big responsibility we shouldn’t take lightly.
When my sister-in-law prayed for me, she held me in her hands before God. She was my messenger; she was my advocate. She spoke for me when I couldn’t speak for myself.