Last night a friend who’s dealing with long term clinical depression came over to hang out. It’s a rare thing when someone who is deeply depressed can do that, I know it was hard for them and I am grateful for the time with my friend.
For those of you that don’t know my fiance Derrick lives with clinical depression, yesterday he wrote a blog about his depression called “Demon Days“. I invite you to read it. A few years ago I also wrote about demons in a blog post called I Am Not Jesus which may give you some other context about the demons reference. We call the voices that arise in our heads “demons” some people call them the saboteur. We all have them, but depression amplifies them a thousand fold.
My friend is single, and during the discussion there was some reflection on how it is that we, as a couple, navigate my fiance’s depression. More specifically there was a bit of worry, “will someone really love me if I have clinical depression, is that really possible?”
Because Derrick talks so openly about his depression others often find it helpful to talk to him, as I do other partners. I’ve been thinking for a while, about starting a Facebook support group around spouses of people with clinical depression. It’s important to talk about depression, but not just from the people who are experiencing it. There is another side, there are the people who live with the people, who love the people, experiencing it. And just like depression itself, there are healthy ways to navigate our relationship and unhealthy ways.
I have experienced depression, but mine is situational. Only a few times in my life have I been very depressed, it is not the same as clinical or chronic depression. However, those periods of my life have given me enough understanding to not only have sympathy but understand that this is not the same and I can never “completely” understand.
If you are a person who experiences clinical depression or partnered with someone make sure you educate yourself. Set aside the stigma, depression is part of the deal, it’s not going away. Medication helps, there’s nothing wrong with medication, but finding the right one is most important. Also, therapy! Derrick and I have individual therapists and a couples therapist. Remember what you’ve learned about co-dependency, you can’t fix this.
There’s nothing you can do to “make it all better” but there are certainly things that can make it worse or hurt the relationship. I will say too, that I have a partner who is active in managing his depression and it is a different conversation if your partner is not. Our relationship is built on trust that both of us will continue to manage our mental health and that means we sometimes have to say hard things to each other. How do I do that? Here are some thoughts.
Take Care of Yourself. I am a natural caregiver, I can go down into the pit of depression with him if I’m not careful. I often describe living with someone living with depression is like a dark grey cloud over my house. But the thing is, the cloud doesn’t just follow him around, if I have any compassion or empathy with my partner at all, when he’s depressed I am affected too. There are lots of articles out there about caregivers for people with physical illness, the rules apply here too.
I used to focus all of my care-giving on him, after all, he needed it more. Depression is a selfish beast, it wants it all and it will only take from you. If it does give, it gives in half-truths and hurtful projections. Depression demands isolation, that’s how it can control the person best. So as his partner I reach out to others who will listen and understand, whom we trust. I ask them to reach out to him. I cannot do this alone, I have to love him after all (says the demon). Friends want to help, they’re there to help, but sometimes they just don’t know they can until you let them know. I also reach out to friends for myself, and ask them to meet me for a drink, and get me out of my cloud.
You Have Needs Too. So, can someone really love someone with clinical depression and get their needs met? Absolutely. However, it takes a lot of self-confidence and a lot of confidence in the relationship. If you’ve entered your relationship knowing about your partner’s depression or it was undiagnosed (or they simply stopped hiding it) things will change when they have an episode.
I get a lot of my emotional needs met through Derrick. When I was new to the whole living with someone who lived with depression thing I put my needs on the shelf and thought I would wait it out. I thought this was the most helpful thing for both of us. Which is fine if it’s a bad day, is another thing if the episode goes on for a week/month or two or more.
This is where the trust in the relationship comes in. Be confident in yourself. By putting my needs completely aside for long periods of time resentment would build, because Derrick didn’t notice my needs weren’t being met or all the extra responsibility I had taken on and then I would break down too. (Guess what’s not helpful?) Depression sometimes looks like the person is being really selfish, when in reality it’s not selfishness, but there is a real inward focus. The demon demands constant attention and the rest of their energy is spent just trying to function.
So I trust that we have a good relationship, I trust that my needs are important, but I triage. I’ve learned to name my needs and ask for them when I really need him. Usually he can muster up enough energy to listen and love me, after all he wants to do that deep down, even if it’s hard. I also modify my needs. What is it that I really am missing?
The other day I was missing connecting with him, I wanted to talk about how sad he was and how I wanted to help, and how are you really doing? Yet, that wasn’t actually productive for either of us because he couldn’t tell me the thing he really wanted to say and I really wanted to hear: I feel all better. So I started to talk about something completely non-related, for us it might be football, a new Star Wars theory, something funny the kids did, his garden. We talked, smiled, even a laugh. Distraction is a wonderful thing. I got the one on one attention I needed, and he got to get out of his head for a minute. Sometimes it’s just putting on a movie or binging a show we love and snuggling.
Timing is Everything. Do I really need to talk about the complicated intricate issue RIGHT NOW? (If you know me, you’ll know that yes, yes I do…) but do I?
If the depressive episode is lasting a long time or an issue can’t wait, simply mention it. We have a shared journal. Just a composition notebook, that slows down our collective processing. For the one not depressed some things can’t wait, or some things are hurtful. Write them down, tell them how you feel and what happened. They can write back after they’ve had time to process. It just makes things less urgent.
Not all things are written down, sometimes we do talk. The other day we were talking about an issue and it was triggering a demon. I stopped talking and asked if we could talk about it in therapy this week. I could settle my feeling of urgency to have resolution by knowing the time and place it would be resolved and he knew he could think about it at a time that he had the energy to.
Love Through the Pain. This is the most complicated one. Look for triggers. I often know Derrick is depressed before he can recognize it. I know because he’ll respond differently to a “normal” interaction or he’ll get quieter than usual, and sometimes it’s just a look in his eyes. I try not to project my sadness about it onto him (hello, therapist…). I also refuse to believe his demons when they get voiced. The demons create such a complicated web of self-loathing.
I refuse to give them power. I keep loving him as deeply as I would on his best day. I tell him twice as much how much he is loved, how grateful I am for him, and acknowledge even the slightest way he helped. I can do this because I am confident in his love for me and our relationship even if he can’t voice that in that moment. We have spent time talking about how Derrick really feels about me and how I really feel about him we’re both clear and I hold tightly to that truth.
When the demon rears its ugly head I can say to myself and to him, “I know that’s what you think right now but it’s not true.” When he’s not depressed he can unpack if I was helpful or not during the depression, each episode we can learn from each others needs how to love each other better.
This is neurological. If he could “be normal” (yes, I use in quotes, because depression just is part of their life) or “snap out of it” then he would (again, I’m assuming they’re taking care of themselves). They are not doing this on purpose and you certainly didn’t do anything wrong. There are certainly things that can make depression more manageable, like therapy, medication, and exercise. There are things they can do to make it less manageable like alcohol, drugs, and continued isolation. Most of the time something triggers it but it simply is a biological issue. If Derrick isn’t taking care of himself (like drinking too much) I say something. This is also love. At first I would recommend doing this in the context of therapy until you’ve established trust. Remember the demon will rile at the idea of being expelled so sometimes you have to learn to trust each other in a new way while they’re depressed.
And Be Thankful. Love and gratitude gets us through. Each day, depression or not, we talk about the things we are grateful for. I love Derrick. Derrick is both who he is depressed and who he is not depressed. I do not have to love the demons nor be grateful for them, but I do accept that they are part of him. Living in a posture of gratitude has changed my life for the better in every way.
I have demons too, but they look different. They’re a little more manageable and I know it takes time to tame them. I also know they appear at the most inconvenient times. Those who suffer from depression you are not alone. Those who love those who suffer from depression, you are not alone either. Soon I will set up a Facebook support group. Let me know if you want to be part of it.
Edit: the FB group has been started, DM me on FB if you would like to join.