Depression doesn’t just affect you, although it can be difficult to see this when you are consumed by the beast of darkness. Its slimy tentacles will wrap themselves around every area of your life and if you aren’t careful, squeeze the living daylights out of it.
It can be hard to keep yourself together during these times, never mind the rest of your life. If you are in a relationship, your partner will often bear the brunt of the effects of your illness. It can pay to have a few strategies up your sleeve to make sure that your relationship will survive this testing time.
I was lucky with my partner that we had been together for over a year (and known each other as friends for 3 years before that) when I became seriously depressed as a result of my Dad’s death. So he already knew me pretty well and had seen a lot of the positive sides of my personality. He knew I’d had problems in the past but for the start of our relationship at least, we were able to get off on a solid footing.
I’m pointing this out because I’ve had other relationships that started when I was already depressed and they either never got off the ground or were doomed to failure because I wasn’t well enough to hold them down. Depression clouds everything and the type of boyfriends I picked whilst consumed by the quagmire were let’s say, less than exemplary. If they were suffering from depression as well, then the hideous starting dynamic meant that we both ended up with twice as many problems as we’d begun with.
It’s given me a lot of valuable insights into how relationships work. They are difficult at the best of times, but throw mental illness into the equation and it can all get pretty messy quite quickly.
My current partner does not have personal experience of depression, so when I succumbed to the monster, he didn’t know how to handle it. Overnight I had changed from someone who was independent, motivated and capable to a needy, clingy mess.
We both had to learn how to handle me in this state and how to get our relationship through one of the worst times of my life.
If you are the one who is depressed, it is important to challenge all those negative voices in your head saying your partner is going to leave you. Despite having no evidence whatsoever to back this up, I held onto this belief with a vice-like grip. Depression is evil; it can help to see it as a separate entity and give it a hard time when it shows up. From past experiences I’ve learned that nothing will get rid of a boyfriend faster that constantly asking them to promise they will never leave. So I fought against these thoughts. You have to give your partner credit for being able to see beyond depression and believe them if they say they love you. If you think that you are going to drive them away with your depression, you probably will.
Communication is also vital, even though the impulse of depression is to withdraw. Talk to your partner about how you are feeling, even if every fibre of your being believes they won’t want to hear it. If you can’t explain what you are feeling, tell them that. Be honest if you feel dreadful. Share and involve them in your experience. My partner was honest with me and told me he didn’t know what to do or say when I felt bad. I told him he didn’t have to do or say anything, that listening was enough. Over time, we worked out ways to bridge the gap. I learned how to explain what I needed and he felt less pressure to be measurably helpful.
It’s also important not to have unrealistic expectations of your partner and expect them to save or rescue you from depression. If you are lucky to be with someone kind and helpful, resist the temptation to make them totally responsible for your well-being. I’ve found that when one person is depressed, it alters the dynamic of the relationship dramatically into that of carer and patient. I’ve been both the depressed one and the carer through various relationships and it’s very hard to get back on an equal footing. It’s great if your partner wants to help, but you have to take responsibility for yourself too. Get professional help, look into medication, support groups and self-help and above all, try and keep your life as intact as possible. See friends, talk to them about how you feel and develop coping strategies for getting yourself through it. The more you withdraw from life and your commitments, the more of a burden your partner has to shoulder.
It can be helpful to apply these strategies to all relationships, not just the one you have with your partner. I’ve always found it helpful to spread myself around amongst my partner, friends and family to make sure that no-one feels over-burdened by me. Although you don’t want to be hard on yourself, it is realistic to accept that depression is a pain in the backside and it is difficult to support someone through it. Again, communication is important. If it’s hard to get out and meet people, explain that. Keep in contact by text, email or phone instead. If people don’t know how to help, reassure them that just being there is enough because it often is.
Finally, the most important thing to consider when keeping your relationships intact is to remember that life still goes on for other people when you are depressed. You have to ask how they are, show an interest and act like you care, even if you don’t. Of course you need support, understanding and flexibility, but relationships beyond your family are not unconditional and they won’t survive if you disappear into your own doom. It can often provide a welcome break from your own head to listen and consider someone else’s life for a while.
The chances are that depression will pass eventually and you don’t want to emerge from it to find your life full of deafening silence and tumbleweed. I’ve found that these damage limitation strategies can go a long way in helping to rebuild your life afterwards.