When The Helper Hurts
By Tim Clark
A word of warning that this article discusses depression and suicide. Please use discretion before reading.
I’ve been depressed for at least a couple of months.
It’s nowhere near the full-blown, paralysing depression I’ve known before but a milder version that leaves me functional but irritable, relentlessly negative and self-loathing.
I’ve been stressed and I’m all-too-aware that stress triggers these inexplicable feelings.
Like many of us, I’ve been swamped with clients since lockdown ended, which is mostly great because this is what I’ve been working towards since deciding to go it alone as a massage therapist and counsellor. And there are times when I feel like I’m in a flow; that the balance is right.
But what I’ve been noticing more generally is a disconnection – an invisible barrier between me and others; between me and my own feelings. There’s a feeling of ‘stuckness’ or of being ‘frozen’; a sense of needing to cry but not being able to; of needing to say things that I just can’t. I find myself craving a holiday or an escape, fantasising about sitting in the middle of a field somewhere or on a beach or by a lake.
And there are times I think about being nowhere at all.
My depression has been in my body too: heaviness, stiffness in the joints, fatigue and (surprise, surprise) low back pain. I’m certain there’s a seasonal element to my depression. I await it every year when the cold sets in.
It’s depression all right. I know it by now. I’ve known it for twenty-something years.
My depression is an ongoing sadness, the cause of which is at least partly outside my awareness.
I know where a lot of my depression comes from because I’ve explored it with professionals. There are wounds from my formative years that are hard to heal.
Many of you reading this will be struggling with old wounds too or maybe you know people who are struggling with theirs.
Mine are not particularly remarkable wounds. They’re pretty normal, really. But they are wounds nonetheless and their influence lingers outside my consciousness. They might never fully heal.
Imagine you sustained a compound fracture when you were a kid and didn’t think to get it treated until you were an adult. It’s inconceivable, either because you probably wouldn’t have survived that long, or simply because it would never happen. Yet it’s extremely common for our emotional wounds to go unacknowledged and untreated for years, even when we are children.
The hard truth is that it’s up to us to take charge and get the necessary help. We have to practise ‘wound maintenance’.
It might be helpful if I explain what that means to me.
1. Recognise it.
As human beings, we are highly skilled at defending against having to deal with our wounds. Modern life offers us all manner of distractions from our deeply felt pain. These distractions often get us through the day, which is great. But of course they don’t address the source of the pain.
We need to tune in to what’s going on. We do this by noticing ourselves or taking on board what other people notice about us.
For me, it was helpful (albeit challenging) for my partner to point out that I had become incapable of being positive about anything. Then I noticed myself doing it: negative this, negative that. Things were annoying me that ordinarily I would have brushed off.
This kick-started the cycle of self-criticism that often manifests in depression: I’m a horrible, negative person. I make other people’s lives a misery, especially my nearest and dearest.
As someone who works in helping professions (massage and counselling), this self-criticism spiralled even further into accusations of hypocrisy: Why do I expect to be able to help other people when I’m still so messed up? Why should anyone take me seriously when I can’t even help myself?
It’s not easy to step out of the cycle and observe it but it’s essential if we’re going to be able to change. I could because I was so familiar with this cycle but it can be much harder if you’re experiencing depression for the first time.
2. Name it.
Writing the opening sentence of this post was a bit of a turning point for me. I finally named what had been unnamed for some time.
It can be really hard to see things clearly enough that we can name them but doing so gives us back some power. The stealthy, masked ninja in the shadows suddenly has an identity, and therefore is knowable, understandable and manageable.
3. Manage it.
How you deal with the wound, once you’ve seen and named it, is going to depend on lots of things.
If you’re used to managing your wounds, you’ll already know what helps. It’s a matter of mustering the will to do those things, which can be tough.
For me, I admit to my loved ones that I’ve been depressed. They’re used to this and have seen me come through depression before. Telling them helps me feel understood, heard and connected. Knowing they get what’s going on with me gives me strength and a sense of a support network around me. (This may be what gives me the confidence to be able to share here – along with knowing how kind and supportive the readers of this blog have been in the past.)
The benefits of sharing will depend very much on how others respond. It can be hard for people close to us to see our wounds objectively, especially if they played a part in inflicting them or just don’t know how to help.
When confronted with the news that you’re feeling depressed, the first question they have will often be ‘Why?’, so it may be helpful to explain up-front that depression, by its nature, is at least partly inexplicable. Not everyone gets that and, if they do, they don’t always remember it.
Whether or not we decide to share our experience with our loved ones, we should definitely share it with a professional. If it’s our first experience of depression, or if our management strategies have stopped working, we need to get to a GP. Ideally, someone who takes a bit of time to get a sense of what’s really going on for us before making recommendations about medication or further professional help.
This help might come in the form of a patient counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist, with whom we can safely approach the things that have felt unapproachable and come to a better understanding of ourselves. (There isn’t space here for me to get into the pros and cons of different types of professionals, of medications or of Mental Health Treatment Plans, except to say that there are pros and cons.)
I’ve had numerous helpers over the years. The one I credit with getting me through my darkest period was the one who, perhaps counterintuitively, did the least to try to ‘fix’ me and instead gave me the space to explore whatever it was that came up, as ready to be surprised by it as I was.
I didn’t always like him for it, and often left sessions feeling stirred up and more confused than when I arrived. It was hard, confronting and painful work that took years – as you’d expect when trying to treat a long-neglected compound fracture. But I reap the benefits of that work every day now, nearly twenty years later. And it underpins my faith in the value of psychotherapy (and, to an extent, massage therapy) to help people to manage their wounds by offering authentic care and connection.
4. Manage yourself.
As good massage therapists, we know that good treatment involves not only managing ‘the problem’ but helping our clients help themselves.
I love the idea of applying, for example, Moseley and Butler’s ideas about chronic pain management to emotional ‘wound management’: we need to manage the context in which our pain occurs. The perspective through which we view our pain will determine its impact, so let’s manage the things that determine that perspective.
Very often we know what we should be doing to manage ourselves through a depression but actually doing those things can be a different story. We know we should be eating well but that vanilla slice in front of us feels like self-care today. We know we should be exercising but staying in bed just feels so right. We know we should probably take a day off but cancelling appointments feels like failure.
The trick is not to let those ‘shoulds’ feed into the cycle of self-criticism. Take a long-term view. Having the vanilla slice does not mean you’re incapable of genuine self-care. Staying in bed doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means it’s the best you can manage today. And maybe it’s the best you can manage tomorrow too. And maybe there’s something simple you can start with today. Maybe giving yourself five minutes in the sun is manageable or a short walk or (my personal favourite) getting a massage.
If you are truly managing your wounds (see Step 3 above), a day will come when you can do the harder things differently. In fact, you will want to do them differently. Because those negative things you’ve been feeling about yourself will have softened, so it will feel more natural to be genuinely caring to yourself. You’ll understand where your wounds come from and can put responsibility for them in the rightful places.
5. Expect imperfection.
Even if we do all the so-called right things in managing our depression, it can come back unannounced at any time, which can be really frustrating. It feels like a backwards step.
Often, as is the case with physical wounds, adaptations need to be made. Bones, muscles, nerves, hearts, minds and souls can’t necessarily go back to the way they were.
The act of living is tough. No one gets a free pass. So, we take from our challenges what we can. My experience with depression unquestionably informs the way I work with people. When people come to me feeling depressed, empathy is quite effortless.
There are whole books about the ‘gifts of depression’. (I know because a helper once tried to get me to read one after our first session. It was too soon.)
I know I’ve drawn a lot of strength from this experience and shown myself the strength I’m capable of.
More importantly, I’ve learned how rewarding it can be to let people into my pain. To share it and not feel like a whinger. To be accepted unconditionally. And to show a bit of that acceptance to myself.
Now that’s a gift.
About the Author
Tim Clark is a Melbourne based counsellor, psychotherapist and massage therapist who, if not for an unfortunate name clash, would have been an internationally renowned ukulele player called Tiny Tim.
If anything in Tim’s article has raised issues for you or you know someone who may be struggling with depression, help is available. Please check the resources here: