Loving someone with depression.
Depression is devastating. For someone afflicted with the illness, life becomes a war; each day bringing another epic battle, each hour a struggle just to survive. But the person touched by darkness isn’t the only one who struggles. The people who are often forgotten are the loved ones of a person with depression. No-one tells them how to cope, no-one offers them support, and because of the stigma that surrounds mental differences, they are too scared to ask for help.
The situation leaves you feeling powerless. You search for the right words, but there’s nothing anyone can say. You attempt to create special moments, but there’s nothing anyone can do. You try a gentle approach; you try a firm approach. You give them space; you try to get them to open up. You suggest things that might make a difference. You buy them presents. You say encouraging things; you get frustrated and shout. You try everything you can think of, but it’s all in vain. At least, that was my experience. With hindsight, my mistake was to treat depression as a mood. Depression isn’t a mood; it’s cancer of the soul, and it eats away at the mind until all that remains is fear, anxiety and pain.
Try to envision depression as like being alone in a dark tunnel, bereft of even a hint of light. Every sound is amplified, every fear is magnified. All the person wants to do is get out of the tunnel, but they can’t see where to go, they don’t know what to do. Your natural reaction is to lead them out of this dark tunnel, back to the light, but this is the wrong approach. It may seem the logical thing to do, but for the person with depression, nothing makes sense. That’s the nature of the illness. Nobody can be led out of the tunnel; the fear is too great, the darkness too dark.
For men, in particular, this approach can backfire greatly. Men, by their very nature, are trained not to talk about their issues. We have been told, since the moment we could understand, that ‘men’ don’t ask for help. It has been ingrained upon our very psyche that to show weakness or vulnerability is to go against everything that defines what a ‘man’ is. It doesn’t matter that those stereotypes are hopelessly wrong, and decades out of date. The instinctual reaction for a male is to insist they don’t need help, that they can manage by themselves. Indeed, any pressure on a man to open up, or to accept help, often backfires. Men revert into themselves, put up emotional barriers, and shut down. You can’t force anyone to open up at the best of times, and pressuring a man when he’s at his lowest ebb will create more problems than it solves.
What you need to do is be there for the person. If they talk, just listen. Stay quiet, avoid offering opinions and just really listen. During my depression, it felt like nobody wanted to listen; they just wanted the problem to go away. Everybody seemed to have ideas on how to make that happen but the only need of mine was to verbalise my story. It was finding someone to listen, give me a hug and reassure me that things would be ok that proved impossible. Nobody listened. They talked, and they advised, and they suggested, and they dictated, and they shouted, and they cried, and they tried to help, but they didn’t listen. More than anything else, that’s what you need to do. Sit with your loved one and let them talk. However upsetting or shocking what they say is, just listen. When they finish, hug them, tell them you love them, and that however long it takes, you will be there until they find the strength to get better.
The dark tunnel is relative. What seems pitch black to someone with depression may only seem slightly dull to someone without. Of course there’s a likelihood that, whilst supporting someone with depression, you’ll have some dark days. It’s important to take time for yourself too. Remember, you can get out of the tunnel. Just because you can’t make someone come with you, doesn’t mean you can’t inspire them to leave through your actions. Indeed, it is vital you take time for yourself to do things you enjoy, because the last thing someone who is ill needs is the feeling that they are spoiling a loved ones’ life.
You will never be able to lead someone out of the dark tunnel. All you can do is stay in the tunnel with them until they feel strong enough to lead themselves out. Yes, it’s hard. In many ways, hearing my loved ones tell me about their darkness was worse than living in my own. Yes, it’s often thankless. And yes, at times, you will feel rejected. But don’t give up on them. Support them, love them and be there for them until they find the strength to get better.
Most of all, when they talk, just listen.