This wasn’t a subject I’d particularly planned to address here, but it’s been pretty relevant to my life over the last ten years, and is prone to keep coming back again and again so I figured it’s part of my journey. It’s also a major theme in the news right now, so it seems like a good time.
For anyone who hasn’t suffered from depression, it’s pretty much impossible to understand what it’s like. I am prone to feeling completely down every so often, but I generally recover within a couple of days, and it can’t really be stressed enough that this is not the same thing as suffering from depression.
What I do have experience of however, is living with someone who does suffer from depression, and how it feels trying to support that person. It affects the lives of those around the sufferer, and whilst it’s obviously completely horrendous for that person, it’s not nice for those affected either.
In all honesty, I’m not even sure I know where to start. I can also only offer my personal experience of what it’s like, and I imagine it varies depending on the person and how the illness is affecting them.
I think I can probably separate the different types of suffering I’ve seen into two. Fundamentally, they have the same underlying concept of the person not believing that they have any value in this world, and feeling a complete lack of self-worth, but they manifest themselves differently. Sometimes one type leads to another.
Firstly, there are the ‘down’ or ‘meh’ periods. These don’t involve any particular outbursts, they’re not usually dramatic in the sense that life goes on, but the person shuts himself off from people close to him. He still continues to get up and go to work, and maybe even socialises (i.e. things that distract the sufferer help), but when sitting not doing much, for example in the evenings, the person is quiet, uncommunicative, less affectionate and more prone to snapping and being grumpy, and doesn’t want affection or touching.
I find this very, very hard to deal with. Because there’s usually a lack of communication and affection, to me it feels like I’ve done something wrong, or that the person is annoyed or grumpy at me for some reason. There’s no consideration of how I’m feeling, or how their ‘behaviour’ might be affecting me. Even if I do things like cook dinner, there’s no thanks and it’s easy as the non-suffering supporter to feel resentful and taken for granted. This in turn makes me feel grumpy and annoyed, and it’s extremely hard not to get wound up.
Even though it’s obvious that the person is not okay, continually asking them if they are okay (to which I would inevitably only receive the response ‘I’m fine’) does not help. This just aggravates the person. It’s hard not to push them to talk, but pushing the person at this point will just push them further away. In any case, they often don’t know why they’re feeling the way they are. I do really struggle with this, but I have got to the point where I am just about managing to deal with it. I basically go about things as normal, although keep a bit quieter as usually the person doesn’t want to talk much at all. I show non-physical affection, I sit with him, and I make sure he knows I’m there but without being pushy or in the way.
It’s frustrating not being able to live ‘normally’ during this time – no hugs, no random conversations, no real interaction – but usually I find that if I just provide support without pushing things or discussing feelings, and as long as I don’t get annoyed and snap, within a day or two things improve and he will get back to ‘normal’. These periods tend to be quite short lived for us now, thankfully.
The second manifestation of depression I’ve come across is more of a ‘rock bottom’ type of suffering, and sometimes when the first type is longer-lived, it turns into the second type. This usually results in crying (which never happens otherwise), statements from him about how useless he is, suicidal thoughts and an obvious lack of self-worth. This is sometimes triggered by just feeling depressed for a long time, sometimes it’s provoked by something that makes him consider issues that are difficult for him to deal with, that make him feel insecure and useless. For example, for a person off work who is job hunting but not having any success, thinking about trying to find a job can cause this. For a person working, dealing with something difficult at work that they don’t yet fully understand can trigger this.
Here, it has sometimes been me that ended up triggering it, by asking a question which involved thinking about issues difficult to deal with (for example, for me it was asking about finding a job, after ten months off work). This makes me feel horrendous, like I’m causing the suffering. I’ve had a few scares during the rock bottom periods, but luckily nothing (physically) severe has happened yet.
Usually once the crying phase starts, we actually make some progress. At this point I just sit with him, make sure he knows I’m there for him and love him no matter what, and try to reassure him and calm him down. I don’t push him to talk or ask him anything at this point, just try to get him calm. Once he gets to the point where he’ll let me hug him, and will hug me back, I know he’s at the point where he’s ready to start (slowly) thinking about recovering from the episode.
I have learned over the years that pushing him to talk usually has the opposite of the desired effect, even though talking needs to happen eventually. Sometimes once he’s calm we talk at home (when he’s ready, and only as much as he wants, sometimes just a few prompts from me), but usually if we can, we go out for a little drive. We just toddle along to the countryside, and normally after we’ve been going a few minutes, he feels comfortable enough to talk a little. Usually, with a little prompting, he will tell me what has bothered him (if he knows) and how he feels. All I can normally do is reassure him that we are going to be okay, and that we will deal with everything together. I think the car is a safe place – no distractions from laptops, iPads, the TV, no hiding places, a small, contained space with just the two of us – and being out of the house helps as well.
Once things have returned more or less to ‘normal’, we make sure we do something nice – watch a new DVD, play a game, go out for food – just to help the healing process and feel like we’re looking after ourselves.
It’s hard. There is no escaping that or changing it. In the same way that I imagine supporting someone through a long-term physical illness is hard and can take its toll, so it is supporting someone through a mental illness.
Getting the person to a doctor is key. Often, rock bottom will have to happen before the person will agree to it. I also can’t stress how important it is to find the right doctor – if you see someone and they’re not right, keep trying. We were very lucky with the doctor we found.
There are many options for counselling and medication, and there is no substitute for professional help, but the person will probably still need support from loved ones. It’s important to be there for them, but equally it’s important to look after yourself, otherwise you won’t be able to support them properly.
I can’t tell you how many things I’ve missed, how many events I’ve been to on my own, and how many times I’ve had to explain to my friends why he’s not there. It doesn’t always get easier, but it’s important to make sure I have my friends there to support me. When it all first started, I always made up some excuse, but at some point I cracked, and realised that whilst depression might be his private thing, it affected me so much that it was also my thing. From then on, I confided in my close friends and it made it much easier for me to go to things on my own, as I didn’t need to explain anything to them. It also meant that I had support and people who would look after me if I needed it. Just knowing that they were there was a great support and a huge relief.
Self-care is also so incredibly important for me. Usually now that things are much better, I have plenty of time to do things I want to, but there was a period where I basically put my life on hold. I went to work, but all of my non-work time (including my lunchtimes) were spent with him, making sure he was okay, taking his mind off things where necessary, reassuring him. Looking back, I probably could have done with getting out a bit more during this time and confiding in my friends at this point, rather than several years later.
The thing that I couldn’t do was let on to him how much of an impact this was having on my life. This would just have made him feel worse, and validated his feelings of uselessness and being inconvenient and not good enough. As much as possible, I just tried to put on a brave face and carry on. It was only when I let on to friends later on how bad things had been that I could drop the facade and relax every so often.
I know that however bad I felt, he probably felt a thousand times worse, and I always try to keep this in mind. However, it doesn’t feel like there’s much support out there for people caring for those with depression, and it’s easy to feel alone. Thankfully, things are mostly okay right now. There are lapses, and I try to deal with them, but it doesn’t really get easier – you just start getting more used to it.
It’s not an easy illness to talk about, for those caring for sufferers but especially for sufferers themselves. I am very, very glad that famous people are starting to speak out about it, because it’s making people more aware of mental illnesses, and the more awareness there is, the more help there will be to support people through their tough times. For those who question how rich, famous people can be depressed, all I can say is it’s not just ‘feeling down’, it’s an illness. Just as famous people can be affected by cancer, they can also be affected by depression. It doesn’t discriminate, it affects anyone.
Please note: I am not in any way (yet!) qualified to give advice about any kind of illness and how to treat it (mental or physical), the above is purely my personal experience.