I have recently been to visit a friend of mine, and I met his girlfriend for the first time. They have been together for about two months. They seemed happy. The next day my friend receives tons of messages from his girlfriend full of anger, hate, and he even received two audios in which she was screaming. He bursted into tears. She accused him for not being caring enough, around enough, supportive enough. And he is, trust me. I did not understand what was happening until he told me she has depression. So then I began to tell him what I know about relationships with someone who has depression, because I have been the one with it while being in a relationship. He understood many things. And I would like you to understand them too, to help you go through this situation if you are in one. By no means I wish to substitute the advice of a professional, rather I want to give you the perspective of someone who went through it.
I would like to make clear that this is not about how gentle you need to be with someone with depression. Rather, I want to tell you to be real with them, even if sometimes it sounds harsh. Depressed people tend to not be aware of how much distress they cause in other people, being their pain too deep. It is difficult to deal with this, so my advice is to speak up. If they say something that hurts you and does not feel right, tell them so. Not speaking up equals to let them in ignorance, and this is not going to help them as the situation will not change. Treating them as nothing happened after an outburst will only make things appear as everything is alright, so the depressed person might not understand that in reality they are just pushing other people away.
The second best thing you can do is to understand that it is nothing personal. That is tricky, and it is only natural to feel angry or sad after some harsh words. The truth is that a depressed person feels lonely, so they tend to blame other people to not do enough for them to avoid dealing with themselves, because making changes while depressed is extremely hard. I made an ex parter feel like my happiness depended on them. The result was that they grew extremely anxious and they left me because they could not take such responsibility. I do not blame him, he did the right thing, because from it I realised that happines comes from within oneself, and others can only enhance it.
Another important thing is to not counter attack. When accused, one’s natural reaction is to defend the self and attack the other. While dealing with someone who struggles with depression, it is fundamental to understand that depression comes with guilt. Depressed people feel guilty for being worthless, a burden, useless and all sorts of thoughts that harm their self esteem. An ‘attack’ would only make it worse, validating these feelings. So, instead of saying ‘You are accusing me of something I do not do so that makes you a liar and incapable to see my efforts,’ try to say ‘I am sorry you feel like this. I believe I am doing my best, but if there is something else I can do, please, tell me.’ It is probable that the depressed person would not know what to tell you, because they do not need you to do more, instead, they need to get through that painful situation.
It is important that while dealing with a depressive person you take care of your own mental health. That means that if the situation is letting you down, there is nothing wrong in taking a break. Tell the person you need to recharge, mute them, and take a break. When you feel better you can go back. Tell them that you need some time off to relax. If they feel responsible for it, you can tell them that you are switching off to be more present later on. This also gives the depressive person some time to reflect on their own situation. A friend of mine once decided to get away from me for a while, because I was too much, but she told me that she would come back. She then asked me to not talk about certain topics with her because they made her feel awful. She indeed came back, I changed my behaviour and years later we are still friends. I blamed her to not care enough, but then I realised that she did it because she cared, otherwise she would have just cut me off.
Taking care of your mental health also means to recognise our limits. I want to tell you that there is nothing wrong in deciding not do deal with the person altogether. It is hard to stay and watch someone suffer, and everyone has a breaking point. If you feel like you have reached it, then you need to prioritise yourself. That is the case of a friend of mine who broke it off with his girlfriend because it was simply too much. She would not show any sign of change after years, so he decided to leave. I saw him changing from being miserable to going back to himself. He told me that now if he will go out with another person and they tell him to be affected by depression, he will be direct and say that he cannot do it because he suffered too much in his previous relationship. Another friend of mine cried in front of me telling me that she felt responsible for the other person. I told her that that was her breaking point and she needed to take action and talk to her boyfriend about her feelings. She had been putting them aside because he is the one with the real problem, she told me. This is wrong, because bottling up feelings leads to suffering. So she decided to speak up and tell him that he needs to change or she would leave. They are now working things out.
Finally, I would like to talk about how I am dealing with my current relatioship. I am aware of being affected by depression, and this has always come in the way. But this relationship is working because I am being completely honest and I try to be as self aware as possible. I still have my low points. Once I cried at least once every day while staying at my boyfriend’s. I knew it was horrible for him, but I just could not help it. So I let him be. Altough I wished he would stay up at night to shoote my pain, I let him sleep. I let him take breaks, and I told him to absolutely not feel guilty in doing so. He would just sit beside me while I was crying and read a book or watch a movie while holding my hand. And that is all I needed, really. Seeing him affected by my pain would have only made it worse. Recently I felt low again and I needed attention, and I told him that he does not care. Immediatly after that I apologised and I told him that I felt low, thus needy, but that did not mean that he was not giving me enough attention, it meant that I was going thorugh a rough patch. I only manage to acknoledge the effects that my illness has on others because I went through theraphy, through which I learnt how to live with depression and having relatioships in spite of it while waiting for it to go away.
And now I want to adress those adressed by depression. If you are with someone, or you are struggling with keeping your friendships, always think how you would feel if they would tell you those things that you tell them at your lowest point. You will find out that probably you would feel hurt too. Try to speak up about your feelings. You are not a burden, and the more you talk about how you feel the more the other understands. I did not speak up for years to not bother others. When I finally started to open up I was told by my friends and family that they were relieved because they finally understood some behaviours of mine. Being honest about my condition helped keeping my friends and family close, and helps keep my boyfriend around.
I hope I gave you some help. I know how difficult these situations are, and I believe that finding someone to relate with is quite helpful. Hang in there, it will eventually get better.
Maria Ciocca is an intercultural communication student who wants to work in the charity industry.