Depression is a filthy thief. It can rob you of everything that makes you, you: your sense of humour, your humility, your ability to connect with other human beings. It can make you virtually unrecognisable to the people who love you. It can replace all your loveliness with a miserable, aching numbness that makes normal human interaction difficult, if not impossible.
That’s the first thing you should know, if you’re trying to love someone who has depression. When the person you love is struck down by the illness, they will not be the person you think you fell in love with because they will not be themselves. It’s that simple, and that complicated. They might be short with you, or abrupt, or cold, or angry. They might be distant or cruel, in a way they’ve never been before. They might be more timid, shy or quiet than you've ever seen them. They might simply need extra care and love, and for you to be gentle with them.
They will come back to you, in time and with the right treatment. But for a time (possibly a long time), do not expect necessarily to deal with the sweet nature or rationality of your beloved; the real them may have vanished for a time – to return upon the balancing out of the chemicals in their brain. You will need to be extraordinarily patient. It will be hard. It will be sad. It might make you angry. But if you love your depressive, you do what you can to help them find themselves again.
Clinical psychologist Abigael San has a few practical clues for handling this potentially very difficult situation. “The most important thing is to be able to look after yourself so you can provide support to the other person,” she says. “Make sure you don’t get dragged into the depression because you cannot help from there. Do not feel like you have to stay home all the time with your partner; it is better for both of you if you stay strong so make sure you’re doing nourishing activities for yourself.” It’s the old oxygen mask thing: you have to put yours on first before you can help anyone else with theirs. It’s not selfish to look after your own emotional and mental wellbeing while your beloved is unwell; it’s pragmatic and it’s essential. Spending time with friends, being out in nature, perhaps even seeing a therapist are all things that may help you maintain some semblance of normalcy in your life. That means that when they’re ready, your loved one can join you in your old life, rather than knowing they sucked you into the melancholic vortex of theirs.
How do you protect yourself, when misery can be contagious? Refer and escort your beloved to a trained professional, for a start. “You can talk a bit about things in the relationship, but it might get too heavy for the non-depressed partner to absorb it all and difficult for them to stand back from it, so that’s when you need to encourage them to get professional help," says Abigael. "They should see their GP and a therapist or psychologist. After a few sessions, a therapist might invite you, the partner, to join the session to provide another perspective on what’s going on. They’ll try to find out what role each person usually takes at home, if you live together and see how things have changed since the person has been depressed. Then you can work together to gradually re-introduce some of the things that make life normal. If the person is really low, it can be too hard to get their neutral thinking going so you’ve got to begin with activities – they could start out by making the bed or walking the dog. Light things that are not too demanding.”
Even this could be difficult. Depression can make you lethargic, despondent and mortally exhausted. It can make tying your laces seem like a gargantuan effort. So be patient and try to understand that getting out of bed every day feels almost impossible when you’re depressed. Functioning seems like a distant dream, and so does emotional stability. Everybody reacts to depression in their own way, but it’s possible your loved one will have difficulty identifying with love. Depressives often say that they feel as though they don’t, or rather can’t, love anyone anymore. They can’t work out how to love themselves, so how could they possibly love anyone else? Depression can take that away from you, you see, that very basic and beautiful capacity to feel love. It can make you feel worthless, alone and destitute. It can make you feel as though you don’t deserve to be loved and like perhaps you will never feel that sweet love feeling ever again. Of course none of that is true, but depression likes to lie to its victims. All of this will affect your relationship, so please, try not to take it personally. It’s the depression you’re dealing with here.
“It’s fairly common for people with depression to shut down in their relationship, particularly if the partner is keen to know what’s going on. They might get impatient and frustrated. It’s very difficult for them to get in touch with any positive feelings at all, they are quite significantly affected in that way and they can feel detached and find it very hard to relate,” says Abigael. “That’s why it’s so important as the partner you should be looking after yourself, because you will not get your needs met. You need to know that and prepare for that. Try as much as possible not to make the other person feel the full weight of the impact this is having on you. Once they’ve been working on the issue and they’ve started therapy, it could be the right time to bring up how it has affected you. When life becomes reinforcing and activity levels increase, they might have the capacity to think about their impact on people.”
It will probably feel unnatural to keep your own distress private; you’re used to sharing your feelings with this person and it’ll feel weird to keep anything from them. It will be particularly difficult to tone down your own feelings if your beloved is unusually cold or distant or abrupt. This is why it might help to see a therapist yourself. Supporting a loved depressive is a very delicate, difficult task and you need to be as kind to yourself as possible. Try to be superhumanly patient, educate yourself about depression so you might glimpse what the person you love is going through, and above all else try not to take their behaviour personally. As I said, depression is a filthy, lying, festering thief. It can and will rob your beloved of everything you love about them, for a time. With treatment, you can and will get them back.