When Someone You Love Has Depression

When Someone You Love Has Depression.

Depression builds walls around people and between people. When someone you love has been dragged inside those walls, there can be a distance between you both that feels relentless. You miss them, but they’re right there beside you, except that they’re kind of not. Not in the way you both want to be anyway.

The symptoms of depression exist on a spectrum. All of them are normal human experiences, but in depression they’re intensified. Not everyone who has depression will have a formal diagnosis, so knowing what to watch out for can help to make sense of the changes you might notice.

Depression looks like a withdrawal. It feels that way too. It’s a withdrawal from everything that is enriching and life-giving. Depression sucks the life out of life. That’s how it feels. When depression bites, everything becomes hard. Life starts to hurt. Those who are bitten stop looking forward to things. They stop engaging and they stop enjoying things, even the things they used to love. They can feel hard to reach, and sometimes they can be angry or appear as though they don’t care. That isn’t because they want to withdraw from you or push you away, they don’t, although it can feel that way. 

Here are some ways to fight for them, beside them and for the times the fight has to be theirs, behind them:

  1. Depression is never a choice.

    If people with depression could be happy, they would be. Depression leaves people feeling as though they’ve been scooped out with a spoon. It’s a hijacking of everything that feels good. The hopelessness, emptiness and loneliness is relentless. If they knew how to be any other way, they would be. 

  2. It’s okay to feel frustrated or angry.

    The helplessness of loving someone with depression can be frustrating, exhausting and lonely. It’s okay to feel angry at times, or as though you want to throw your hands in the air and walk away. You’re human and when you love someone with depression, there will be times that you’ll be in the arena too, fighting the battle. Remember that you’re fighting a common enemy and it’s depression, not the person beside you. Try to see through the symptoms to the person you know, because they’re in there.

  3. Depression is a withdrawal, but not from you.

    When you love someone with depression it can feel as though you’ve lost them for a while. The person you’ve always known and loved is still there, but they’ve withdrawn into themselves, away from the pain and hopelessness of it all, not away from you. It just feels like the safest place to be, but it doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have you right there with them if they knew how to do that.

  4. You’re grieving too.

    Depression steals people. If the depression has been around for long enough, you might feel a sense of grief. If you need to get angry, sad, or fall to your knees some days, that’s okay. You’re fighting a battle too. It’s okay to pull back to recharge now and then. Be kind to yourself and do something that replenishes you. Reach out to someone, but don’t lean on the person with depression. People with depression already see themselves as a burden, and anything that inflames that might cause them to withdraw even more.

  5. When nothing is as powerful as something.

    People with depression won’t always have the words and will feel the burden of being with you when they don’t know what to say or do. Let them know that you love that version of them too – the one that has nothing to say, or plenty to say but no will to say it. Let them know that you’re there for them even if they don’t want to talk. Silence with someone can be lovely when you’re depleted. ‘You don’t have to be anyone different to who you are. You don’t need to change or pretend or put on a happy face. I love you and I’m here for you.’

  6. People with depression are strong.

    People with depression are some of the strongest people I’ve met. They have to be. The pain and hopelessness of depression is immense and to keep existing day after day under the weight of that takes an almighty fight, fuelled by almighty strength and courage. 

  7. What they’re doing makes sense.

    We all have needs we can’t give up. They’re the big ones and they’re an inescapable part of being human – love, validation, respect, visibility, safety, influence, connection, appreciation, purpose. You know the ones. When one of these needs isn’t met, the temptation can be to push it down – to ‘depress’ it – to where it’s out of awareness and can’t cause trouble. But of course, any symptom whether physical or emotional will always cause trouble when it’s ignored. It takes the strength of a warrior to keep pushing things down, and getting on with life. Eventually, when people have been strong for too long the armour will crack. Depression hurts, but it makes sense. It’s a creative, adaptive withdrawal from a world that feels painful to be in.

  8. Being positive probably won’t work.

    Reframing things positively is generally done with loving intent, but most likely it just won’t work. The messages that are sent with love will likely be received as ‘nobody understands’. For someone who is being caned by depression, there is no positive. Research has found that people who are already unhappy don’t want to be talked into the glossy view of life, they just want understanding. The view of reality is shaped by a lifetime of experience and sometimes, the way people see the world is exactly the way the world is for them. Trying to push against this can work against what you’re trying to do and intensify the loneliness and desperation of it all. Reframing things in a positive way is important, but it can’t be forced.

  9. So if positive is out, what then?

    You don’t have to fix anything or change anything. If there was a way to do that, they would have done it themselves by now. Instead, acknowledge their pain, ‘I know this is really hard for you,’ and validate what they’re going through ‘I know you’re hurting. That’s understandable given what you’re going through’, or ‘I know you’re fighting a tough battle right now.’ Be the one who can be with them without having to change them. This will probably explode your own feelings of helplessness, but reworking things towards a positive angle will ease your helplessness, not theirs. That helplessness you’re feeling is the bit you’re doing together. So is the pain and the confusion of that. That’s what makes your love unconditional and your support something extraordinary.

  10. Try not to let the negative talk go on and on and on and on and …

    It’s really important to hear people from where they are, but if the discussion of a negative thought goes on and on and on and starts to feel circular, it’s not good for anyone. It’s called rumination and it can make it harder to move through depression. Talk about it with them for sure, but try to persuade the conversation in a different direction after a while if you can.

  11. If you’re struggling for words, let those be the words.

    There’s no need to gloss it up. The truth is that it’s hard to know what to say because there’s nothing that can take away the pain. Don’t worry about saying the ‘right’ thing, there is no right thing. Instead say the ‘real’ thing with love and an open heart. Share what you’re feeling, because chances are that they’re feeling it too. Common ground will shrink the distance between you. You might not be depressed, but chances are you’ll be feeling a lot of the things they’re feeling – sadness, confusion, frustration, helplessness, and the greatest wish that you knew how to make it better. ‘I wish that you weren’t in so much pain and I wish I knew how to soften things for you, but I don’t know how to do that. What I will do is be here for you for as long as it takes.’

  12. Ask them what you do that doesn’t help. And listen.

    Depression can be different for everyone. You can’t be expected to know how to respond. Ask what they need from you and whether there’s something they need you to do differently. Be open to the response and don’t take it personally.

  13. Don’t ask them what they’re depressed about.

    When people are sad they generally have an idea of why. Depression doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes people will be aware of what has triggered their depression, but sometimes it won’t be obvious. On paper, people with depression can look as though they have everything to be happy about – they can even believe that themselves – but depression doesn’t play by any rules.

  1. Try to initiate the things they used to love, that depression has stolen.

    At a time when people need connection the most, depression forces distance. Do everything you can not to let it. Connection and positive feelings strengthen the brain against depression, and exercise can cause the same changes in the brain as antidepressants. The problem is that the very nature of depression will hold people back from doing any of these. Don’t wait for them to feel like doing things. They won’t. Their depression won’t let them. Depression is there to nurture withdrawal, remember. It does this by stealing motivation, and creating exhaustion. Be tender, gentle and loving and reintroduce them to life, connection, and positive feelings. You’re likely to get resistance, and a lot of it. Know that this isn’t personal and do what you can do anyway.

  2. Another reason to initiate.

    Thoughts, feelings and behaviours are intimately connected. They tend to follow each other, so someone with depression will think depressed thoughts (‘Nothing makes a difference’; ‘I’m useless’), feel depressed feelings (pain, hopelessness, exhaustion) and this will drive depressed behaviour (withdrawal and a depressed mood). A change in one will eventually lead to the other but the change is unlikely come from the person with depression. Out of the three, thoughts and feelings are the toughest to change. They’re tenacious. This is why things like, ‘get over it’ or ‘it’s not that bad’ or ‘just try to be a bit positive, hey?’ won’t work. The best way is through their behavior, but you’ll have to be stronger than their depression. Initiate walks, dinners, holidays – anything that has the potential to create positive feelings. Take their hand and lead them there gently.

  3. They are not broken.

    There is nothing abnormal about the symptoms of depression. They’re a very normal part of human experience, but with an intensity that’s relentless. We’ve all felt sad, disconnected, the need to withdraw, hopeless, helpless, exhausted, and as though the fun has faded for a while These are all common experiences, even if only fleetingly at times and from the kinder end of the spectrum. What makes these very human experiences lead to a diagnosis of depression is a question of degree. People with depression experience the same we all experience, but at a different intensity, duration, or cluster of symptoms. 

Depression rarely takes hold of just one person. When depression settles into someone, helplessness, fear and sadness bleed through the walls it builds around that person and into the lives of those who love them. It’s exhausting for everyone. There is always a way through depression but it takes an almighty fight. You won’t always have it in you to fight alongside them and you won’t always know what to do but that’s okay – you don’t have to do any of that to fight for them. Few things are as powerful as human connection and anything you can do to nurture that will help to put back what depression strips away.

322 Comments

Jacque

Thank you so so much. This was so helpful. It has made me feel more confident in my relationship with my boyfriend who is struggling with depression. It’s us against the depression.

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Chantelle

youre not alone. I have been going through the samething with my fiance of 8 years. You have done the hard part which is to walk away and give him space now its just time. Please wait until he gets back rational thinking until this time he wont be able to cope with what a relationship encompasses in general whether its with u or someone else (nothing personal to u) and u will suffer too as u will want to help him but unfortunately this is something that he can only help himself get out of. Maybe ask him what he needs u to do to help but be prepared if one of those things is space from u, dont take it personal it will just allow him time to get back to normal self again and to process hurt or guilt or any negative emotion that he is feeling. Stay strong and continue to show understanding. Remember what will be will be

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Lisa

This is an amazing article. This was exactly what I needed to read. It helps me understand him and also myself. Thank you!!!!

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Rebecca G

Thanks for explaining that depression isn’t a choice since people would choose to be happy if they could. One of my close friends recently told me she’s looking for a psychotherapy service since she’s been struggling with depression for about six months now. I’m glad I read your article so I can better understand what she’s going through and support her however I can during this hard time.

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Sabrina N

I have a friend who was abused by his mother and kicked out of his house when he was 17. He struggles with depression and anxiety, and I don’t know what to do. He pushes me and others away so as not to hurt us because he believes that’s all he can do.

Can someone please tell me what to do or what not to do?

Right now….anything would help.

Reply
Ankur S

Help him in every way you can. Have a heart to heart talk. Trust me, if he pushes you away doesn’t mean he doesn’t need help. People who suffer from depression are unable to login express anything properly and that includes the need for love and help. They are too scared to trust others and can often push away people because of the pain that they carry inside themselves. I too suffer from depression and being in a relationship too has not been able to get me out of it. It’s taken a hold of me and even though it might take a while, I don’t plan on giving up. The same is with your friend. Don’t give up on him and push him to fight as hard as he can. Talking helps. If he is unwilling to talk don’t give up from ur side. Ofcourse you have a life as well and your own plans for your day to day life but even a minute of talking or a help or even a bit of care might help him break the shell he is in and help him reach out to the people that matter to him. Best wishes. And I pray and hope your friend gets better.

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John

Loving someone with any metal illness is like taking the most emotional rollercoaster possible. In my case i’m lucky, i knew my girlfriend had severe issues before we got involved but it doesn’t stop me feeling that i’ve been put through the wringer more often than not. When her mindset is in it’s calm spot i couldn’t be happier, but when the paranoia and self doubt creeps in i take the brunt of it all. one moment we’re talking kids, house and walks on the beach with puppies, next moment were split up…it can be hell !
All i can say to anyone in a serious relationship of any kind with someone suffering mental issues is don’t take it personally, it’s not something they want to do. It’s not something they have a choice about, don’t stop caring and don’t stop believing in yourself. They may get better through treatment or medications, but they also may not. I’ts not something you can wave a magic wand at make go away, And finally….don’t ignore the support you need, get help for yourself before you fall don exhausted. My thoughts and love go to everyone, you’re not alone.

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Reply
Ciara

Thank you for this. This is what I needed to hear today. My boyfriend broke up with me because he’s depressed and anxious. I know he loves me but all this stuff is eating him up alive

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Natasha

I have the same problem .My BF is depressed from already 3 months .He did split up with me a few times then I bring him back but we don’t meet each other anymore ,he never answer the phone we only texing .He told me he loves me ,same time he spend time somewhere on drugs all the time .He is really in a bad way and I don’t know what to do

Reply
Shirley

I’ve just been diagnosed with nodules on my lungs my boyfriend was depressed before and now he seems worse doesn’t want any intimacy with me making me feel very unloved

Reply
Michelle

Me and my girlfriend just took a break after 1 year+ dating. She said she is scared of me, she told me she felt happy and loved when we both spend time together but she can’t see past the fears for me (showing me her depressed side.). She also doesn’t know if she still loves me. She said sometimes she felt like she miss me and love me so much but the other time it’s zero and I told her that you don’t always have to love me, it’s normal to have normal days sometimes (I’ve asked around and my friends say it’s normal.) this is why she wanted the break.

She still texts me but I try not to to not influence her judgement on whether she loves me or not. The day it happened she suddenly changed to a different person and so cold to me. I cried at her doorstep, it hurts me so much. I wasn’t eating properly for few days. Now after reading this article, I understand her better and know that I can’t take it personally. Thank you so much.

I also took a break to be more patient and understand her situation. She asks me to wait for her and I treat is as if we already broke up so I won’t get so hurt when she gave me a bad news (maybe she doesn’t love me anymore). I even asked her to just break up with me bcs I realised I was hurting her with her being scared of me and it drives me insane. I never wanted to hurt her.

Is it normal for her to feel this way?

What should I do to help her?

Reply

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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