How to Love Someone With Depression

One of the hardest things about depression is understanding it. This advice will help.

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Depression is devastating. When someone is suffering from depression, their entire life is blown apart. It can be a massive struggle just to make it through each day. But they aren’t the only ones who struggle. The people who are often forgotten are the loved ones of a person with depression. No-one tells them how to cope. They don’t know what to do. I would like to try and offer some advice to those people.

Knowing somebody you love is struggling with depression leaves you feeling incredibly helpless. You feel if you could say the right thing, or do something special, that maybe you will be able to help them to get better. But you don’t know what to say or what to do.

You try a gentle approach, you try a firm approach. You give them space, you try to get them to open up. You suggest things that can help. You buy them presents. You say encouraging things, you get frustrated and argue. Yet nothing you do seems to make any difference.

From my experience, the big mistake that people often make is that they treat depression as a mood, as if saying or doing the right thing will lift the depression. What you must remember is that depression isn’t a mood – it’s a very debilitating illness.

If somebody had a broken leg, you wouldn’t tell them to go for a run. You would be patient, you would understand that it will take time, patience and rehabilitation. When the leg heals and you can walk again, it still can take weeks for it to regain full strength. It may never be as strong again. Depending on how bad the break was, it may alter how you walk, what exercise you can do, even how you stand. It may never be the same again.

That is EXACTLY what depression is like.

Just because you can’t see an injury doesn’t mean that it isn’t debilitating. I talked in my previous article about how, after my worst bout of depression, it took months before I felt I could do my job properly. Even now, two years on, I’m not the same as I was. I don’t do overtime. I don’t work night shifts. I don’t get left on my own for too long. There are countless other little things as well. This is because my depression completely changed my entire outlook on life, and it changed who I was as a person.

When their loved ones are battling depression, when they are in that darkness, human nature is to try and ‘fix’ them. For a lot of people, this approach won’t work. Whilst there are things you can do, like giving the day a routine, and trying to find activities to keep the persons’ mind active, you are not going to be able to make someone “snap out of it”, it’s just impossible.

♦◊♦

Try to imagine that depression is like being in a dark tunnel. The person with depression can’t see a thing, because everything is surrounded by darkness. Every sound is amplified, every fear is magnified. All they want to do is get out of the tunnel, but they can’t see where to go, they don’t know what to do. Your natural reaction is to lead them out of this dark tunnel, back to the light.

This is the WRONG approach.

You may think it makes sense, but for the person with depression, nothing makes sense. That’s the nature of the illness. They can’t be led out of the tunnel, because the fear is too great, the darkness is too dark. Trying to drag them out of this tunnel is more likely to make them curl up and hide than do any good.

For men, in particular, this approach can backfire greatly. Men, by their very nature, are trained not to talk about their issues. We have been told, since the moment we could understand, that ‘men’ don’t ask for help. It has been ingrained upon our very psyche that to show weakness or vulnerability is to go against everything that defines what a ‘man’ is. It doesn’t matter that those stereotypes are hopelessly wrong, and decades out of date. The instinctual reaction for a male is to insist they don’t need help, that they can manage by themselves. Indeed, any pressure on a man to open up, or to accept help, often backfires. Men revert into themselves, put up emotional barriers, and shut down. You can’t force anyone to open up at the best of times, and pressuring a man when he’s at his lowest ebb will create more problems than it solves.

What you need to do is be there for them. If they talk, just listen. Don’t talk, don’t give them opinions. Just really listen. When I was at my worst, everybody I tried to talk to would give me an opinion on how I could ‘make things better’. The thing was, I wasn’t asking for an opinion. I just wanted to relay how I felt, and for the person to listen, give me a hug and reassure me that however long it took, they would stay in the darkness with me until I found my own way out. Yet no-one listened. They talked, and they advised, and they suggested, and they tried to help, but they didn’t LISTEN. That, more than anything, is what you need to do. Sit with them, let them talk. However upsetting or shocking what they say is, don’t give advice, just listen. When they finish, hug them, tell them you love them, and that however long it takes, you will be there until they find the strength to get better. You will never be able to lead someone out of the dark tunnel, all you can do is stay in the tunnel with them until they feel strong enough to lead themselves out.

Yes, it’s hard. In many ways, hearing my loved ones tell me about their darkness was worse than living in my own. Yes, it’s often thankless. And yes, at times, you will feel rejected. But don’t give up on them. Support them, love them, and be there for them until they find the strength to get better.

And most of all, when they talk, listen.

 

Photo—Chris Barber/Flickr

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About Andrew Lawes

My name is Andrew Lawes, and I am afflicted with a condition definable only as the Lawes Disorder. A disorder so powerful it nearly killed me. I have made many mistakes in my life, I have hurt many people, and the fight for redemption begins now. It'll continue for the rest of my life, and I'm writing about it every step of the way. I hope you choose to support me. Find me online: LawesDisorder.com Facebook.com/LawesDisorder Twitter.com/LawesDisorder

Comments

  1. Tom Matlack says:

    Thanks Andrew. As someone who suffers from depression I really appreciate this piece.

  2. You’re very welcome Tom. I hope it helps you in some way.

  3. What a great article…and such a good reminder to all of us to just try to listen a little better…I think most people can’t see how big the elephant is sitting there in the room…just gotta sit there and hang…can’t just push the elephant away….it’s too big….!

  4. Thank you for sharing this. We have this mentality of war on anything bad, like the war on drugs, cancer, poverty, or countless other things. We cannot force someone who is sick or depressed to get better. Many things can help and sometimes all you can do is wait.

  5. As another sufferer of depression, my depression is my dark little secret in a relationship. I have this fear of being rejected if I open up.

    • If you have a support system (either a psychiatrist, or friends and family) and you think you’ll survive being rejected … then do it. Telling someone the truth about yourself is more freeing than you can imagine.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this. This has put into words what has been so hard for me to express for two years. I started battling depression after a sexual assault and no one understood yet everyone was ready to hand out advice. My family tried to discourage me from taking medication and my husband insisted that I snap out of it because “I had nothing to be depressed about”. I am going to share this with several people and maybe it will give them insite into what I have been going through. I’m on two medications now and am doing 100% better but some days it’s still hard to get out of bed.

  7. Great article Andrew. Both my brother and my partner have depression and I think one of the hardest things a loved one/carer goes through is trying to ignore the desperation that things will never change. It’s exhausting always being patient, sensitive and supportive especially when the same ideals aren’t reciprocated. It is also hard to avoid getting depressed/anxious yourself, particularly when the disease consumes the better half of all your lives for a decade or more. The main difference between caring and loving someone with depression and someone with a broken leg, is that you are usually the crutch in depression. As a family member all you can do is take care of yourself and be there when you are needed.

  8. Nail. Head. Powerful. Thank you. x

  9. I was a single mother of boys and I tried to imbue my sons with the value of communicating, connecting, and expressing their feelings. And that it was alright to cry and talk things out. It’s hard to overcome society’s misguided machoism but I thought it was important to try. One of my sons suffers from depression and I remember telling him that it was a sign of maturity, NOT weakness , to recognize that you need help and to ask for it. I painfully sat with him a long time in his dark tunnel until he finally found a medication that helped him emerge. You are right – just being there for him and letting him know that was so important. He is very open about his story of depression in the hopes it will help others with their own. Thank you Andrew for your courage to make a difference with your own personal experiences and writings.

  10. I just want to thank you all for your kind words, they mean a lot to me. Bron is right, it is exhausting being there for someone who has depression, it’s so hard at times. You think you are getting somewhere, that the person is getting better, and then they regress, and it’s like starting all over again. It is a thankless task sometimes. But take it from me, you ARE helping. It may not seem like it sometimes, but you are. The person with depression appreciates it, even if they aren’t able to show it.

    • Thanks Andrew, if it helps at all, it is always worth it.

    • Thank you for the piece, Andrew. I am married to you, and I am now exhausted. I wish I were stronger at giving the time and space needed, particularly with no real promise of a lasting return on the investment. I can keep loving but it’s hard to keep living with him. I actually found this article by Googling, “how to love someone who is depressed” b/c I just had the nth discussion with my husband about his illness and I feel so hopeless. I’ll try listening more. Thanks too, Bron, for sharing how it feels … I feel that desperation.

  11. I’ve tried many times (and failed) to put this into words. Thank you for finding a way to simplify what most of of need during the dark days – just someone to listen.

  12. My Bf has and I listen, and will love him through is darkness. I don’t know if it will ever end though because he wont get help. He blames doctors, politics, medication and the sky being blue, for everything. I’m out of options.

  13. Luci Shaw in her book God in the Dark said, “The classic misinterpretation of the healthy on the sick is that wellness is a matter of choice and decision.” This is how I felt when I was going through depression – that everyone that didn’t have depression thought that I could “will” myself out of my depression – and that frustrated me so much.

    Here’s part of my story of suffering through and starting to embrace part of my depression (http://timandolive.com/embrace-depression/)

  14. My husband, my father …. heck most of my family have it. To say it’s hard is an understatement at times. The biggest problem is that its an issue that takes years if EVER to recover from. So it defines and often takes over your relationship with the sufferer. So yes whilst I love them dearly, there are times I just want to get in the car and drive away – spending time with people who make me feel good about myself instead of telling me constantly how the world is such a bad place and what a crap day they had.

  15. gabby watts says:

    I understand and appreciate what you’re saying about not underestimating just how big and complex a problem depression is. But, I found this part scary, “You will never be able to lead someone out of the dark tunnel, all you can do is stay in the tunnel with them until they feel strong enough to lead themselves out.” How can we possibly be in the tunnel with this person without becoming depressed ourselves? Surely the answer is not to get depressed right along with them until they can recover (which may never happen, realistically.)

    • Hi Gabby. I can understand what you mean, but the dark tunnel is all relative. What seems pitch black to someone with depression may only seem slightly dull to someone without, if that makes sense? Of course there’s a likelihood that, whilst supporting someone with depression, you’ll have some dark days. It’s important to take time for yourself too. Remember, you can get out of the tunnel. Just because you can’t make someone come with you, doesn’t mean you can’t inspire them to leave through your actions. Indeed, it is vital you take time for yourself to do things you enjoy, because the last thing someone who is ill needs is the feeling that they are spoiling a loved ones’ life.

      It isn’t easy, not by any means. I wish you the best. Feel free to email me if you wish to chat further.

  16. My ex was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after a major incident – it took years for it to set in. Like you say, I incorrectly tried to get him to talk about it, but that caused him to close up. It was going nowhere, and I was made to feel like it was all my problem. The relationship was going nowhere. Eventually I did read some advice that suggested I just be there for him… but because I was trying to skirt around everything and make everything seem “normal,” he resented the fact that I was trying to wait and see if things sorted themselves out. They didn’t.
    You say “if they talk, just listen” – but he didn’t talk at all. The relationship fizzled out, much to my dismay at the time, but it seemed to liberate him, maybe as he may have associated me with the traumatic event (although I wasn’t there, we were still a couple at the time). It wasn’t until a long time later that he realised he did need professional help, but by then he had moved on.

  17. Chris Kapot says:

    As one who has depression, I was about to email this to my wife. Then I reached this last part. Now I’m worried that she is going to expect me to ‘talk’. Mostly what I want when depressed is to be left alone, or if I want her company, I want a cuddle and a presence. But I don’t want to talk about my depression. I have a therapist for that.

    It might have been good not to raise that expectation so much. Sometimes people with depression will not talk, will not want to talk, and might stay that way for days or weeks. It’s nothing personal, and being there when needed is still important, it’s just that talking can be such hard work.

  18. Thank you so much for this article. I currently love someone who is depressed and I did all the wrong things like trying to make him feel better, asking him to talk about his feelings, not really listening to him, giving him advice or telling him what his problem was, etc. The funny thing is I am bipolar and have been through what he’s been through so you’d think I’d have handled things better but since right now I’m in a good place and out of the dark tunnel, I forgot what it was like in there and totally screwed up. Also since I’m a female, I talk things out, especially when I’m feeling manic and he doesn’t want to talk about anything personal when he is in that state. Your article was super helpful, I just wish I had read it a month ago before I screwed things up and scared him back into his shell.

  19. Amazing. I have never been able to explain my needs this well. Even at the age of 21 I as a manic depressive have had far too many experiences with severe debilitating depression (not that there is any appropriate number) And what you say is exactly it-it’s an illness and most importantly that only the sufferer can find their way back, no pep talk will ever help. The problem perhaps not addressed here is how you explain this to friends who in times of health are near, but seem to vanish when you’re not your ‘true’ self. And yes they are real friends but unfortunately most people find the ugly side of mental illness (ie anything besides super efficient, entertaining hypomania/mania) very confronting and themselves employ casual yet purposeful avoidance through lack of knowing what approach to take. In my most recent episode of depression I felt so searingly alone and I distinctly remember wishing over and over than someone would just come and sit with me, squeeze my hand let me cry on their shoulder whilst I blubbered out variations of the phrase ‘what is my life?’..excellent article-would love to read some more on the topic of mental health specifically it’s persisting stigma in modern society.

  20. This was finely written and very powerful advice, thank you for sharing.

  21. I don’t like the broken leg analogy but the dark tunnel one is the first one I have ever heard that made any sense to me. I always avoided the dark tunnel that my wife gets stuck in. It made me sick to my stomach. Tonight I am trying to bring some warmth and a small glowing candle. I’m actually typing this out as I sit next to her in a dark room, the screen of my tablet is like a flickering candle. I don’t know how long I can last in here, but I’m going to try.

  22. It’s just like that. My depression (and mania) went undetected for more than 20 years. Besides a listener, what I craved most was an explanation. Help is much more readily available today than when I was first diagnosed (about 19 years ago) and I’d encourage anyone who might think he or she is depressed to find it and use it.

  23. The daoeess in the tunnel is a powerful metaphor… It is undeniably how depression must feel. I recall a psychiatrist once told me many patients with depression can’t see the forest from the trees. I disagree on a few poitnts.
    there are many types of depression. Biological depression is rarely predictable and has a strong genetic component. These require medical intervention.
    Many times depression is caused by a trigger. In such cases, creating false optimism can help according a to a few psychiatrists I met. They said mindset can make all of the difference. In many cases, they assured their patients that the anxiety depression states were just a phase. Furthermore, hope sees to be the best predictor of suicide prevention. What better way to prevent your family member/friend than by giving hope. Assuring them life is worth living…
    The saddest part of depression is the stigma. I hope it changes.

  24. Louise Grace says:

    I loved a man with depression, unfortunately it came close to destroying me as well as him. It was the end of our marriage when he was unable to seek help after a year of agonising struggle for both of us.
    For those that survive I salute you, an enormous task for both the person with depression and those that love them

  25. For me, this could have been called “How to Love Yourself.” So often, learning to love yourself in the midst of depression is the hardest thing to do. Thank you for sharing.

  26. ELISA Davis says:

    My mum currently lives with my fiancé and myself. She’s 60 and single. I think she has depression however hasn’t admitted it until tonight. Her language and angry moods are really hurtful. She will say irrational comments that are generally blaming me in some way. I’m seriously struggling with this behaviour. I feel so frustrated and angry myself when she says things that are completely untrue. At the same time I feel really sad that she is feeling so much pain. I try to encourage mum to change her language, but she gets angry with me.

  27. I often feel that I no one will love me for me when they see my moods and low times. That they will leave because it’s all just too much for them to take. My self doubts. My anxiety. My over thinking. It’s too much for someone. I get that actually. Yet I want someone to be there for me despite all this. To love me despite all this. But I don’t know if there is someone like that. Or ever will be.

  28. Thanks for this Andrew. My partner of three years suffers from depression. It’s the first time in my life (I was 34 years old when we started dating) I’ve been close to someone who suffers from a mental illness. I learned early on that the best thing to do is, as you said, just listen. Just be there. When she cries I hold her. When she needs to talk, I listen. I have urges to give advice but I resist them. It can be very difficult to understand that no amount of encouragement or saying the “right things” will help. It often will have the opposite effect, because it can make the person even harder on themselves (“why can’t I just snap out of it? What’s wrong with me?”).

    It can weigh heavily on myself when she is in the depths of the darkness, but I also find inspiration in her, in her strength to find her own way out, in her awareness, in how she truly appreciates life when she’s not in that space. I wish that depression was recognized in our culture for what it is. Keep up the good work of talking about it and spreading awareness. This is so important.

  29. Yes, I agree. Listening is the best thing you can do. Being there in the dark tunnel with someone is giving support. Support is key in someone’s recovery. However, the person listening has to continue to take care of themselves. Attend counselling sessions or be part of a support group for loved ones who live with depression. Self care is essential to be able to continue to be supportive and listen. It is not your responsibility to fix… Just listen… be there and love..

  30. Thank you.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This is the second in a series of essays on depression from some of the Good Men Project’s most valued voices. The first in the series is here. [...]

  2. [...] on depression by some of the Good Men Project’s most valued voices. The first two parts are here and [...]

  3. [...] on depression by some of the Good Men Project’s most valued voices. The first three parts are here, here, and [...]

  4. [...] read there, but the site sounds like an excellent idea!  You should read their article about living with someone who has depression.  Good Men Project also republished my latest [...]

  5. [...] How to love someone with depression. [...]

  6. […] How to Love Someone With Depression – This is an old article, one which I know I have read before, and I am pretty sure I have linked it on this blog before as well. But I don’t think it can be shared too often. If you have someone in your life who has been diagnosed with depression, be they friend or family, please take a minute or two and read this. It outlines what depression feels like and what you should and should not do in your effort to help. […]

  7. […] recently read an article (http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/how-to-love-someone-with-depression/) that has helped me to continue to gain insight into myself, my life, and how to “move […]

  8. […] 19, 2012 BY ANDREW LAWES 48 COMMENTS   […]

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