“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.” – Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story
In honor of National Mental Health month, this week on The Date Report we are taking on a more serious side of navigating romantic relationships: What to do when your significant other is struggling with mental illness. In this case, depression.
Firstly, when facing a partner with possible depression, the initial understanding you need to come to is the difference between someone having a flat period of their life or someone experiencing clinical depression. Sadness, like a winter cold, passes with time. But depression, like cancer, is a serious disease: it doesn’t pass unless treated.
If you feel your partner is struggling with the disease, you need to do something about it. As the closest person in their life, you will be the first to see, and navigate, significant changes in their behavior. Be aware of the warning signs – listen closely. Are they frequently persisting in negative speech, expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness? Observe their behavior. Have they become lazy? Have they given up activities they used to love? Look for changes in irritability. Are they angry all the time? Are they sleeping and eating properly? Never underestimate a change in your loved-ones nature. If you conclude it is depression: break the ice gently but firmly and get a diagnosis, together.
Someone once described coping with depression to me as feeling like you are stuck in a black hole, and no matter what you do, you can’t find your way out. All you want is to see through the haze, but you really need other people in your life to help you. Those that are struggling or have struggled with that black hole will concur that it never really goes away, and everyone still goes through those days every now and again. If someone you love is stuck there, the secret is making sure they understand that they are safe in their sadness, and that they are not alone. It’s ok for them to be suffering, because you are there. And you care.
Here are some ways to support a partner struggling with depression.
Let them know how loved they are
Sometimes when your loved one is battling with the black hole, they will take it out on you, or they will lock themselves away and put up an emotional wall so high you feel like you are constantly trying to climb it. You shouldn’t expect yourself to climb that wall, you don’t need to fight back, and you don’t need to hover. Use your words. Let them know how loved they are. They may or may not reciprocate, but deep down they will feel your love.
Let them feel your support at their worst
Remember you are the easiest person for them to take out their angst on. Whenever they try and push you away (and they will) keep in mind that the reason they are doing so is because deep down they know you will still be there. When they are nasty, and they lash out, always continue to show support. Remind them of your support at their worst – with words, with actions, with thought.
Let them have their space
Don’t hover. Sometimes they will lock themselves away when all they really need is you there, other times they really do need space. It’s your job to interpret which they are feeling: Initiate some sort of physical contact (anything from snuggling their neck to holding onto their shoulders) ask them whether space is what they really need, and learn from their answer.
Let them know you understand what they need
There is a difference between understanding how someone struggling with depression feels, and understanding what they need. The latter is the route you should always take. Find things that bring them joy in low times and keep a mental list, like going for a walk on the beach or watching their favorite movie while spooning on the couch with you. Try and think of things that will bring them joy that you can do together, so you are also a part of that quick-feeling-fix.
Let them know are there, whenever
Even if they are going through one of their shittiest days and they are lashing out at you or they are so sad you just don’t know what to do – let them know you are there for whatever it may be that they need from you. It is all about communication: “I can see that you’re having a really difficult day today and I just want you to know that I’m here for you in whatever capacity you may need me.” Just knowing you are there for them and can see they are struggling will make them feel a little better.
Let them know you are in on the action plan
On one of their good days, sit down and create an action plan on how you are both going to deal with the black hole together. Open up a dialogue about how they want to navigate those terrible days, and how they want to manage trying to get better with time.
According to Ruby Fremon for The Huffington Post, “As the spouse of someone with depression, it’s easy to unconsciously become an enabler by giving into their behavior or letting them slump around the house for days on end because it’s harder to confront them. Don’t let that happen! Co-create an action plan to inspire them to get through those days so they can shift into a happier state of mind.”
Be sure to keep in mind that even though your partner may be the one battling with depression, it can affect you too. Non-profit mental health organization Help Guide suggests that you should not be your partners therapist: “Set boundaries. Of course you want to help, but you can only do so much. Your own health will suffer if you let your life be controlled by your loved one’s depression. You can’t be a caretaker round the clock without paying a psychological price. To avoid burnout and resentment, set clear limits on what you are willing and able to do. You are not your loved one’s therapist, so don’t take on that responsibility.”
At the end of the day, you need to take care of yourself, also. As hard as it can be to hear, understand that you can’t cure your partner’s depression, you can only love and support them. Like any other disease, depression is an unwelcome illness, and it can effect you just as much as your partner. Remember to find your own support outside of your relationship, and stay positive for the one you love while respecting your own needs.