I have talked about depression a lot of times. I have talked about how it is to battle it day in and day out. The feelings one can’t explain and share (Julia Michaels puts it down accurately in “Anxiety”) . About how family and friends should help their loved ones dealing with it.
Today, I am not talking about any of that. I am going to talk about what it means to be the family, friend or a partner of someone who is fighting depression. As difficult it is for the one suffering with it, it is that much harder for the ones watching them go through it. You will feel helpless, like nothing you could say or do would ever be right. It’s like watching someone sink, and all you can do is beg them to take your hand.
I would also like to say before I begin is that what’s written here is drawn from my and a few others’ experience. This is not necessarily how everyone would or should behave. This is specially not applicable, if the person in question has a high tendency to harm themselves or others, or for any other reason needs to be institutionalized.
It’s not that you can’t help them. Of course you can and you should. But, where do you draw the line? Can you draw the line? I have been on both sides of this. I am battling depression for almost 5 years now and I have people I know dealing with it. It doesn’t feel great that I have more and more people around me fighting it, but the thought that people are acknowledging it and seeking help gives me solace. And the fact that I can help them in some way if they let me.
The drawback in this situation is, that you are always personally invested in this person’s well being. This is a family member, friend or someone you care about. So, obviously you want them to do well. We forget that we aren’t professionals. We can’t stay detached and try and help them. We don’t have the training or understanding to do that.
It’s not an ego fulfilling job that one would like to take up. It’s exhausting, draining and very very difficult. Most times you have no idea what you are doing and, if you are doing the right thing. Being the support system doesn’t just give you the opportunity to help someone out but it also makes you the one taking in a lot of negativity and most times the blame for everything going wrong. It’s demotivating and largely unappreciated.
So, you are going to be in it only if you are actually emotionally invested in that person. You would probably put aside your plans, drop everything and sit by their side because they need help. And what can be more important than that? You would probably come back from it, devoid of any happiness yourself. All the joy sucked out of you. You start getting more and more involved in their issues and most times putting them ahead of yourself. And then their good and bad days start reflecting on yours.
People with depression, during their bad days might seem very self involved. All they can see and feel is their pain. And they can’t help it. Remember, they are in pain. Most times they are grateful for the support they receive but it doesn’t necessarily leave a lasting impression on them. You become more like a safety blanket in their time of need which is then discarded when the sun starts shining down on them. This does feel very hurtful and you feel used. We have to remember that we feel this connection to them and this affection which drives us to want to help them out, but they do not and need not necessarily reciprocate those feelings.
We would like to think that people who don’t know what they are feeling and why they are feeling that way, cannot be held responsible for this kind of behaviour. But, that isn’t true. Yes, most times the reactions and behaviour don’t make sense and they don’t do it on purpose. But later, they are aware of what they did ( I am well aware of all the times I was unfair to the people who really cared about me.) Being depressed isn’t a free pass to misbehave and ill treat people.
A very good friend of mine, helped someone through years. Financially, emotionally, all of it. He didn’t have to. This person was not even their friend. He was helping him out because of us. Helped them with rent, food, shelter and even bus fare. Eventually they came into a better phase of life and when this good Samaritan asked them for a very small but extremely important favour, they just walked away. I wish I could share exactly what happened to make it clear what was wrong, but doing that would expose who these people are and that wouldn’t be appropriate.
Was that ok? Can we blame it on depression and hence their lack of understanding and capability to feel for others? I think not.
During one of my travels I had met a co-traveler and he became, one of those few ones you actually like even after the holiday and stay in touch. The common thread of people fighting depression opened up a free and uninhibited conversation about it. Also, the fact that we were strangers made it that much easier.
We were speaking a while ago and the topic of helping someone with depression came up. We both have people like that in our lives. It’s but natural to be more empathetic and sensitive to the pain someone is going through when you know how exactly it hurts. Or so we thought. We were talking about how we both had somebody very dear to us, battling depression and how that was affecting us.
We have put all our efforts in making this person happy, we make them a part of our friend circles, drag them to each outing and get together and stay on our toes to make sure they have a good time. We forget to be ourselves and relax because we are trying too hard to make sure our friend (refers to any loved one you are helping, using friend for ease of explanation) is comfortable. Now, when you spend so much time and effort into one person, you automatically and subconsciously expect something in return. Most of times, a little respect, acknowledgement and empathy is all you would want.
I once offered someone fitness sessions. We know that exercising helps depression and self confidence, which in turn helps depression again. I wasn’t going to get anything out of it. I did talk about a token payment, cause well, anything free is never appreciated. But, I would have never ever really asked or taken it. As a fitness trainer and a mom, my lifestyle and schedule is very different. I go to bed at 8:30 p.m. and wake up at 4:00 a.m. Now, training this person would mean I would have to let go of my sleep time and also the precious minutes I spend with my son during bedtime. They work late, which meant the session would start late. They were obviously aware of it, and at this point I didn’t even think of it. I immensely respect someone who in turn respects their work and responsibilities. And, what’s a few hours sleep compared to your friend’s well being?! I was going to get nothing out of it, maybe except for the satisfaction that I was doing good for someone I care.
Finally, when we came to it, they wanted to do an early session on a regular basis because well, they didn’t want to get late for their weekly date nights and their weekend social scenes. Great that they were having such a wonderful time at these outings, but…..Observations?
a. Workout/fitness was nowhere a priority for them. This was not a one off request. This was about every week. They were putting their social life above their health. Anybody in the fitness space will tell you to drop it and walk away. It’s an absolute waste of your time.
b. More relevant to this post: They didn’t give two hoots about what I was trying to do. They didn’t care to shift it to an early time knowing well that I was disrupting my family time, my sleep, my day to help them out. They clearly didn’t even actually care about their work that much. They wanted me to come late when it suited them and early when it was clashing with their social life. So all in all, my help and support wasn’t valued at all. I was taken for granted. Just something which is always around. Pick it up when you need it, trash it when you don’t.
One would say, if you are helping someone, why expect something in return? But, that isn’t right. You can and should expect atleast respect. Everyone deserves respect and kindness. And, when you don’t it’s time to step back.
To be able to cope with the frustrating and painful job of helping a loved one with depression. These are the things you can keep in mind
Only they can bring the change: Avoid falling into the role of ‘fixer’ and ‘savior’. No matter how much you love someone, it cannot save them. Myself and a few others who were quite worried about a loved one, were trying so hard to find a way to reach out to them and help them. I can safely say that it was the single most important thing in all our lives at that period. Nothing we could do or say seemed to be helping. On the contrary, we got yelled at and held responsible for their condition. Only much later we realized that during that same period they had found a new coping mechanism. It’s irrelevant what we thought of it, cause it just seemed like an escape. An escape which was almost self destructive. In a situation like this, you have to remember that the acknowledgement, need and action for a change has to come from within them. A change which would help them live a better quality of life in the long term. All you can do is give them the support and resources.
I have spent years on a lot of wrong choices and people. Nothing could make me see what was good for me. I didn’t even listen to my therapist, who I was paying to help me out! I finally saw it when I chose to make my life better than to continue looking for temporary happiness or escape from what I was feeling. It’s a very difficult place to be in, but I rather face sometime dealing difficult situations than spend rest of the life escaping my own mind. So, be there for them while they realize the need for the change and help them make it a smooth transition.
Focus on self: When you discover a loved one is ill, it’s often hard to focus your attention on anything else. But it’s important to take care of your own needs. Try to eat healthy meals, get some exercise and get enough sleep. Making time to do things you enjoy will help you keep your stress levels in check. You’ll be better able to support your loved one if you take steps to maintain your own physical and mental health.
Seek Support: There was a time when I was at my therapist not because of my problems, but because how exhausted I felt being involved with helping someone else with mental illness. Her priority being my well being, used to constantly ask me to stop helping this person out. She could see how much it was damaging me (clearly there were some very compelling reasons for her to ask me to stop from helping another person with mental illness, reasons that aren’t going to be shared here). It’s very important for people who are the family, friend or a loved one to have their own support system going. To be able to support them better, you need to be in a positive state of mind, and for that you would too need external support. So, don’t shy away from that.
Take a breather: Like I mentioned earlier, in the spirit of trying to make their life more pleasant, we end up dragging them to all our gatherings, introducing to our friends, making sure they become part of our friend circle and everyone likes them. Most times this leads to your social life structured to make them happy and comfortable. Going places you don’t want to, doing things you aren’t interested in. There is nothing wrong in doing that, but it would be prudent to keep that in moderation. Make sure to have a set of friends who aren’t connected to them. Activities you enjoy doing for yourself. At the same time, this doesn’t mean you disappear on them when you need a break. Remember, if they trust you enough to reach out to you when they need support, you have to keep it up. It’s very hard to share and open up to someone about it and if they are let down, it’ll be very difficult for them to be able to trust again. So, you are still always available for them when they need you, but to be able to help them and be in the mind space, you need to be focusing on your mental well being too. So, make sure you spend time on yourself.
Be patient: This is not going to be a “to do list” that you can tick and your loved one magically transforms into the happy person they once were. It is a very long process. It would take years if not less and even after that, it’s a life long ordeal, where you and them are constantly working on keeping the darkness at bay. So be patient and loving. Showing them that you in it for the long haul. That you are the one who is going to be there for the difficult days and you aren’t going to give up.
Start dialogues: and not debates. It’s very easy to give in to the helplessness and the frustration you feel and start a screaming match. It won’t help anyone. Don’t try and argue or force your point of view on them. Remember, they aren’t living your life, they aren’t you. What works for you, needn’t necessarily work for them. Have open discussions if and when they are ready. Suggest rather than dictate. If it’s a family member, have a sit down with the rest of the family. Let everyone understand what is going on. It is going to be a mighty task to get everyone on board, specially when mental health is still not taken seriously. Have an understanding, that those who cannot deal with it the right way will stay away from any arguments and discussions regarding the same. Have a few ground rules of what should be and shouldn’t be done to avoid the triggers which might upset your loved one. Have one or two members who can and will, spend more time and constantly reach out to them.
Ask: instead of guessing. Don’t assume what could be troubling them. Or that they don’t want to talk to you. Or any such thoughts. Just ask. That way you know what you should be doing and what they want.
Begin with letting them know that you are ready to help them. That you genuinely are ready to put in the effort needed. Spend time to understand what they are going through, the best way you can. Read up, talk to other people who might have gone through the same situation, discuss with other family and friends who are aware of it. Be patient, loving and supportive, but don’t put your life on hold for them. Remember, the change can come only from within them. This is your mantra. You have to remember this.
If you feel at any point, that you are getting affected from all that is going on, or that you aren’t getting any respect or kindness, step back. How far a step that would be or whether it would be temporary or permanent depends on your relationship, their dependency on you and the situation. But, if you feel that you are getting damaged in this process, you have to step back.