07 Feb 3 Things I learned About Loving Someone With Depression
Knowing depression from the inside-out doesn’t make it any easier to be there for someone who is depressed. If anything, it makes it far worse. I imagine my loved one in the hole that I somehow found my way out of and my heart breaks.
I remember depression’s weight made it hard to get out of bed on even the most beautiful Saturday afternoons in July. The sun became an obnoxious reminder of what I should be doing and a sharp contrast to my inner state. I wanted to forget about the possibility of the day and everyone out there seizing it. I still remember how it hijacked my mind and my heart, and how it felt in my body.
Someone I love has been depressed for a while now. I am not sure if I even noticed it creeping in or the early signs it was taking residence somewhere inside of her. I wanted to believe it was just a bad day—a bad week, a bad year—I didn’t want to believe it was more than something shakeable.
Since noticing I’ve thought endlessly about what to do. Questioning whether or not I am doing or saying the “right” thing (hint: there is no right thing). I have no idea what I am doing. This is only what I’ve learned. In a way, maybe this is me trying to sit with it all. To accept that I miss my loved one and who she could be right now if it weren’t for depression.
There is nothing for me to “fix”
I know offering someone who has depression advice is a bad idea. They don’t need to hear it. They don’t want to hear about how therapy worked for you or how meditation changed your life. They certainly don’t want to hear how exercise releases endorphins. Sometimes advice comes out of me even with the little voice in my head screaming at me to shut my damn mouth.
Why? It’s hard to do nothing. There is an art to doing nothing. Maybe this is part of the art of holding space for someone. To be able to sit with someone and their pain and not need to change it or soothe it. Heather Plett wrote a book called The Art of Holding Space where she explains what it means to hold space for someone else:
“It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control.”
There are no magic words or quick fixes and there is certainly not a single, right way to love someone who is depressed. What I struggle with whether or not I am enabling it? Am I? What about “tough love”? Well, to that, I remember what it felt like to be depressed. That quickly shuts me up. I have to remind myself constantly to shut up.
It’s okay to be sad, too
One of the hardest parts of loving someone with depression is watching them shut the world out. One day I realized that it had been a long time since I’d seen her experience joy. Selfishly, I missed experiencing joy together. I thought of the imaginative and creative soul who wasn’t afraid of exploring the world in her own way. I wondered if she was still there and if she would ever come back.
Sitting across from the person you love and missing them is a strange and cruel experience. At some point, I realized it was hurting me, too. For a long time, I didn’t let myself feel sad. It felt self-indulgent to be sad because she was sad. The sadness is hers, not mine, I shouldn’t make this about me. I remember my mom’s words, “the world doesn’t revolve around Casey.” Children are egotistical, though, they can’t help it. I can help it.
Finally allowing myself to grieve and miss my loved one felt necessary. Maybe not doing so allowed me to deny the extent of their depression. Of course, I hope—I know—they will find joy again and I don’t plan on going anywhere. It’s just that holding on to who they used to be while they are in the depths of their suffering wasn’t fair to either of us. Their departure is hopefully only temporary but it doesn’t mean it is any less painful.
Don’t take it personally
My mom was depressed, I remember what that felt like. I was also a child, though. I felt it as pangs of rejection or the sadness of missing her. I didn’t realize it was depression at the time and even if I did, I probably thought that love was enough to bring her back to me.
The most painful part of loving my mom when she was depressed was feeling like she didn’t like me. That she didn’t accept me. Walking on eggshells, vacant stares, the feeling she was always cold and far away. I was too young to understand that it wasn’t her who was pushing me away, it was her depression.
As an adult I can understand that it is not me. I can accept that if someone pushes me away it might be because they are too depressed to let me in and that there is nothing I did wrong. I love these words of Stephen Fry, which remind me that being there for someone we love when they are depressed is a divine act of love:
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
I know she loves me. She might not be able to show up every day but there are moments where I see it and I feel it. I have decided that for me that is enough. If we can’t be there for them through the darkness, Stephen Fry reminds us that we can be there for them when they come through the other side.
The logical part of my brain says that not everyone beats it. It has nothing to do with strength or will. That is the scariest part for me: imagining that my loved one never recovers. That they continue down the dark and lonely tunnel further away from the person they were and further away from the life they were once eager for. When I imagine them as they were—laughing, radiating, living with abandon—I have hope desperately they will get back there again soon.
I also find it comforting to think that when they do get through this, they will be different. Not in a bad way, like in the same way I look back on my pain. It may have been awful at the time, but I see how it was all necessary. In the words of Haruki Murakami in his book Kafka on the Shore:
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
I still have no idea how to weather the storm with someone who is depressed. I imagine myself holding up an umbrella for them on a day it is so windy that the umbrella keeps blowing inside out. Or, maybe I’m just standing with them in the storm. It doesn’t make the storm any less pleasant but like most things in life, there is a comfort in knowing you aren’t alone. I also know with confidence she would do the same for me. She would stumble and fumble but she would keep showing up, too.