Most of the articles about depression that I’ve come across are about the disease as experienced by the patients themselves—what depression is like from their perspective. But what about the people closest to those who suffer from depression? What about all the “caretakers” who have to watch the people they love struggle mightily while figuring out how to move forward with their own lives? I know firsthand how lonely and scary it can be to be in that position. I’ve watched people grapple with depression my entire life, including my current boyfriend, and here’s what I’ve learned:
1. It’s not personal.
What I had to accept when my boyfriend was depressed was that despite how it felt, nothing was being done to me. It was just happening. It wasn’t because I was doing anything wrong or because he was a bad person, and it definitely wasn’t because he didn’t love me. It was so hard not to think, “If he loved me more…” or “If I could make him happier…” but ultimately I came to accept the fact that depression, like any disease, is bigger than even the strongest of relationships.
2. That’s not really your person.
Depression is so insidious precisely because it doesn’t present like most diseases. It lives in the body and the mind—it distorts a person’s personality. It makes them do and say things that they might not ordinarily do or say, and I had to continually remind myself that my boyfriend just wasn’t there anymore. The more I could recognize when the disease was at work, the more patience I could muster.
3. You are no one’s savior.
Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, love does not always conquer all and yours won’t either. It’s only natural to think that if you just love this person enough and try hard enough, that you’ll be able to save them. But depression isn’t just a bad mood or a little sadness; it’s embedded into people’s genetic coding—in the chemicals that inform their sense of pain and pleasure. Saving someone from depression simply isn’t possible, and trying to do so will only leave both of you feeling small. You can show up for them and make sure they know you love them. You can cut them some slack where you might not otherwise. That is all.
4. Take care of yourself.
For a time I got so caught up in “fixing” my boyfriend that I forgot about everything else, including myself. Somewhere along the way I’d decided that nothing could be right in my life until he got better—I couldn’t even figure out how I was feeling until I knew what kind of mood he was in. All that did was add to the pressure and anxiety we were both already feeling.
What I finally came to realize was that I was allowed to be happy even if he wasn’t. In fact, it was necessary for the survival of our relationship. Once I began to step back into my own life, he had the space he needed to get better.
5. Practice patience.
It is a slow and grueling process, and it isn’t always linear. Don’t try to force your person to get better faster than they can—it will only lead to frustration and resentment.
6. Let go.
You have no way of knowing how long it will take or what needs to happen before recovery can begin. Worrying and wondering about it will not make a bit of difference, and it will only take you further from your own life.
7. You’re allowed to have your own feelings about it.
When my boyfriend got sick, I knew everything there was to know about depression—that it wasn’t personal, that he wasn’t choosing it, that it was so much bigger than our relationship. And yet, when it was all happening—when he wasn’t showing up for me and I found myself alone in my relationship—it didn’t matter what I knew. It felt awful.
Just because someone else has a disease doesn’t mean that all of your feelings go away. Just because it isn’t really them spitting those nasty things at you, doesn’t mean those things aren’t said. And you get to feel whatever it is that you feel about it. You get to have your feelings too, even if they don’t line up with what you know about depression. You’re allowed to be hurt and frustrated and bewildered, and you’re allowed to be angry that your needs aren’t getting met.
This is not to say that you get to behave any way you want or that you shouldn’t be patient and kind and compassionate. You should strive for all those things. But when you fall short of them, you should also go easy on yourself—that doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a human being gong through something that is hard and terrifying and real, and the fact is that you won’t always be your best self. You will make mistakes and come up short and say things you wish you hadn’t. That’s OK.
8. You are collateral damage, plain and simple.
Regardless of intentions or the nature of depression, your pain is real and isn’t any less important than anyone else’s. You are also a person standing in the muck of someone’s depression—allow yourself the space to recognize that reality.
While depression can be a lonely, painful journey for everyone involved, know that you are not alone in this struggle. With treatment and a strong support network, people suffering from depression can learn to manage their illness and live a more fulfilling life.
May is Mental Health Month. To learn more about supporting those with depression or other mental illnesses, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.