What depression feels like when it doesn’t happen to you

Depression, anxiety, self-medication — these are things I know well. The conditions are not mine, but they are ever-present in my life. Whether you’re a child, a partner, a sibling, a parent, or a friend of someone struggling to cope with a mental illness, your life can be as upside down as theirs. At times, I’d argue it can feel worse.

When someone close to you is suffering, you feel it twice. The first time is through empathy. This is sometimes preceded by confusion, research, and diagnosis, if you were involved in that process. Your heart breaks for the person you love because you don’t want them to suffer. You try to be there, check in, dip your toes into the darkness as much as you can, or as much as they’ll allow. You read books, share links to helpful articles. You try to keep the household a calm space. You have a good talk, you help them pick up their prescriptions, you Google side-effects. You’re relieved you have an answer. You grab their hand, ready to take on this disease together.

It hasn’t really hit you yet, I promise.

The second time you feel it is the last time you’ll feel it, and here’s the thing you’re not supposed to say and certainly no one wants to hear. It lasts forever. Some days you feel it like an itch or a paper cut, and other days it’s more like the weight of a truck pinned firmly against your chest. A weight that lays you on the cold bathroom tile at four in the morning because it’s the only time you can cry and scream into a towel without upsetting anyone.

That’s what no one tells you when you’re playing the supportive role. The doctor never turns to you and says, “Buckle up, because this is going to be extraordinarily hard for you too.”

What is that weight exactly? It creeps up on you from a manageable place. You decide it’s not that big of a deal that they regularly fall asleep at 8pm. You tell yourself they don’t mean the awful things they say to you in fits of anger because they always apologize later. You make excuses for them when they break plans and promises. After all, they’re the ones struggling. You say to yourself, this is the least you can do. This isn’t about you.

But it is about you. It has to be, or you’re not helping anyone. And those manageable issues can turn into an ugly manipulation if not kept in check.

Novice mental illness patient plus novice support system can equal a legitimate nightmare. Neither party knows what they’re doing. The patient cautiously tries to find a combination of treatments that work through trial and error. Sometimes they get frustrated and see how much they can get away with, because it can be easier to self-medicate and give into depression than to fight it. The supporter fumbles to navigate setting much-needed boundaries because this new world is full of different rules they don’t yet understand. And oh, the guilt you encounter when sticking to those boundaries.

It’s a puzzle with no corner pieces to guide you. It’s a high-stakes, no harness tightrope walk you think you’ll never complete. And you’re so alone. Unlike other medical conditions, mental illness isn’t an issue many people feel comfortable rallying around (yet). Resources, especially for those without solid benefits? Limited. Shame, hurt, and fear? Unlimited.

Sometimes, in instances of self-medication, you uncover lies. You bear witness to hard falls from sobriety. The once solid parts of your relationship begin to deteriorate and are made worse by the smaller daily blows that can easily knock the wind out of you without a moment’s notice. There’s gaslighting. When things don’t add up, you’re told that you’re crazy for putting the pieces together. And what’s worse, you start to believe it.

(Pro tip: where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. Never under any circumstances lose the telephone line from your gut to your brain. The heart will try to snip the cord. You can’t allow it.)

If you get to that place, the disease becomes all-consuming. You are frozen in place, stung by pain and worry with no clear direction home. In the worst of times, I felt like I was free falling every day from the point I left them in the morning until I returned from the work day and they were home, if they came home. It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was one less uncertainty I had to endure after checking the car mileage, card transactions, and the house for evidence of lies.

Whether you’re bound to this person by marriage, familial ties, or friendship, it’s a desperate place to be. And it doesn’t matter which aspect of the situation is upsetting you the most. You will hit a breaking point, and it will collapse you. But after it collapses you, it can liberate you.

It took me years to get here. I’m fairly certain I did everything wrong along the way. I sometimes made things harder than they should have been. I was selfish when I didn’t have to be. I felt bad for myself for a long time, and I carried a sick anger for much longer. The situation broke me, but then I made a choice.

Through therapy, I learned I couldn’t control another human’s behaviour. It’s a simple notion — a fact, really. But when you’re in the thick fog, it’s the furthest fact from your sightlines. I could only control me. I had to find a way to let go. I knew I couldn’t do it alone, so I enrolled in fitness classes, online courses, and made commitments I couldn’t break that would force me to focus my attention — and sometimes my body itself — away from problems at home.

All those healthy interactions, though uncomfortable at first, began to feel good in their distracting glory. In pouring myself into positive activities, I found a way to remember who I am, what I enjoy, and what I can do. I could be happy — a thought that hadn’t occurred to me in months.

Then, a wonderful, confusing thing happened. The more I made myself happy, the less patience I had for the things that didn’t. Conversations and behaviours I didn’t agree with at home were immediately, and politely, shut down. I couldn’t be shook because I stopped taking responsibility for anything that wasn’t of my direct doing. I stopped being a punching bag the minute I started hitting a real one. I found sure footing in my boundaries, the guilt subsided, and I liked the person looking back at me in the mirror. (This sounds so breezy, I assure you this process wasn’t.)

I loved them, but was unwilling to continue fighting if they were going to sit on the sidelines. I meant it. And several times, I exercised that truth. I remember walking myself home from a party after being lied to. Old me would have stayed, choking back tears, because I was too afraid of what would happen to them if I left. New me stood my ground, walked out the door, and cried big, full beads that froze to my face the whole way home. I couldn’t tell if they were tears of sadness or pride, probably both. If they didn’t get home that night, it wouldn’t have been my fault. And I slept alone that night, but I slept soundly.

Day after day, I did more of the same. I slowly noticed them coming home when they said they’d be there. They began answering their phone and replying to texts within reasonable timeframes. They asked if I’d join them on a walk and held my hand. They rolled over one morning and hugged me without prompting and it felt as though I was weightless. They had returned to me slowly in these microscopic but massive strides.

They still falter, but it finally feels like we’re a team. It’s not always easy, but it’s a lot less hard today than it was last week, and the week before that — for them, and for me. We go full days now without feeling any darkness in the room. Each day without shadows is a victory we celebrate.

Once I saw it could still be what I hoped it would, I made the choice to stay. I’m so glad now that I hung on, though looking back I’m unsure how I made it through to the other side. I’m proud of him, proud of me, proud of us.

I sometimes still have my doubts. Nothing is for certain — least of all in life with mental illness.

But if they are willing to wake up every day to find their way out of a forest with no trails, then I am willing to build a compass and a flashlight. And when we find each other amongst the trees, the sky always opens up and the stars light our way home.