Loving someone with depression

Originally published in Daily Life, December 21 2012

Depression, to use an official medical term, is arse.

While other recognised health conditions have the good grace to do flare up, do their illness-related business and then go away, depression lingers around sapping energy and ruining everything it touches. It’s pervasive and it’s nasty, a relentless time thief that drains the colour out of everything good. Beyondblue estimate 20 percent of Australians suffer from depression at some point in their lives, which means that almost everyone I don’t know personally must be getting along fine.

Almost everyone I know has had treatment for depression at one time or another, and I’m no exception. I’m a pretty relentlessly busy fellow partially because I like doing stuff, but principally because I know that the abyss isn’t ever that far away and there have been times where the pressure of external responsibilities is the only thing forcing me to get out of bed.

A person in bed, yesterday.

A person in bed, yesterday.

During those times I am, typically, not a barrel of laughs. Depression is hard. However: it’s also hard on the people who care about me most. And it took me an inexcusably long time to realise this.

Loving someone with depression is a lot of work. They’re suffering and obviously you want to help them out of the hole. Depression is generally linked with low self-esteem and hence some severely depressed people have limited motivation to help themselves, since they don’t think they’re worth it.

And, obviously, we want to help the people we care about.

And that’s part of the problem: the act of giving people that attention and love can just as easily motivate someone to wallow exactly because it gets them so much wonderful attention and love.

Worse still: person with low self-esteem is given love and support by partner; person feels unworthy of said love because of aforementioned low self-esteem; person then throws said love and support back in partner’s face, thereby confirming unworthiness, because what sort of person would be so unkind? An unworthy one is what. And boom: the circular argument is complete.

And make no mistake, there’s a sneaking contempt in there of the form “I clearly suck, so if you love me you’re some sort of idiot and therefore not worthy of my respect.” This is one way that people use their depression against their partner – and it’s an insidious trick, because the victim feels guilty for accusing the abuser of their abuse.

Thus depression creates victims that are not themselves depressed, and it’s as much a challenge for the person suffering to moderate their own behaviour – to seek help, to actively fight their condition – as it is for those trying to support to know when they need to get out for their own sanity and happiness.

Now, let me be clear: this isn’t about blaming people with depression. Depression is a nightmare: the pit, the darkness, the black dog. What it’s definitely not, however, is some sort of mystical Get Out Of Jail Free card for cruel behaviour.

“Sorry, I’m really depressed at the moment,” might be adequate for not attending an acquaintance’s picnic; it’s definitely doesn’t cut it for reducing your partner to tears as you meticulously explain why every suggestion they’re making as to how you might feel better is completely stupid. It’s an explanation, perhaps, but it’s sure as hell not an excuse.

And while depression isn’t specifically a gender issue, depression within a straight relationship so easily can be: the cliché of the tortured artist and the accommodating muse provides a potent model for women who are already socialised to be carers to continually prop up their oh-so-suffering man at the expense of their own happiness.

To take an excitingly astronomical sidetrack here: stars that are between a certain size range end their life in an enormous, destructive explosion called a supernova. However, there’s a very specific type called a type 1A supernova that astronomers are very fond of as they are all identical in brightness (and therefore great for working out distances between galaxies).

In such a case there are two stars orbiting one another, neither large enough to become a supernova by itself. However, they’re so close that the larger one actually pulls mass from the surface of the smaller until it finally ticks over the size threshold for a supernova (about 1.38 times as big as the Sun, fact fans) and promptly explodes, destroying both stars and everything else nearby.

A relationship with a depressive can be just like this, with one partner dragging love and energy from the other until finally the whole relationship explodes messily, taking out everyone involved.

It took me a long, long time to realise that my moods were neither the fault nor the responsibility of the people who cared about me. And lovely people were unnecessarily hurt.

So: if you’re a sufferer, take a moment to ask yourself, “Am I using the love and support of the people I’m relying upon to help get me through this difficult time, or am taking some sort of weird pleasure in having all of my beliefs about how much I suck reaffirmed by my sucky behaviour?”

And if you love someone with depression, take a moment to ask if they genuinely appreciate your support, or just enjoy dragging you into the pit.