When A Loved One is Going Through Depression

I can’t even remember how inostensibly depression began to take over our lives. And when I say ‘our’ I really mean ‘our’ because when your day-to-day is so closely intertwined with another person’s, any shift in one person’s inner landscape cannot not affect the both of you.

Anybody who knows C will know that she is easily the most exuberant person in a room, with a guffaw that can be heard a mile away. Lighthearted but deep, grounded but uplifting enough to carry the entire room with her to the skies; she can lift up the darkest day just by being around.

That is why the sinking in her spirits was so gradual that it was hard for us to spot it. It started with the small things- “Nah, I don’t feel like going out today, can we just order in?” Struggling to wake up in the morning. A little quieter in a team meeting.  Being unsure about herself and her decisions for possibly the first time in her life.

Till one day we sat and talked. That this just wasn’t her. What was going on? I remember how ironic I found it- we had had several conversations over the years about my high propensity for anxiety. But about her, never. I think somewhere I had assumed that if any one of us ever crumbled, it would be me.

Not her, never her. Strong. Robust. Resilient. The one everybody we knew, including me, looked up to for strength, courage and positivity.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that we spent two long years under that dark cloud. How was it, you ask?

Heavy, lumberous. Slow. Effortful. Despairing.

Mornings were the most difficult. No matter how early we turned in, her sleep was fitful and waking up a huge struggle. I remember she would lie in bed every morning with a glazed look in her eyes for what seemed like hours. And I would struggle everyday weighing my options- how much should I push her to get up and face the day? Which would be worse- letting her be or pushing her beyond what she can handle?

I remember thinking how absurd many of the ideas I so easily suggested to my clients seemed at that time. Take it one step at a time. Just 5 minutes of exercise. Just get up and take a nice hot shower. Talk to one friend a day.

It all seemed absurd and ridiculously undoable, even unthinkable, in the face of the utter apathy I could see so clearly in her eyes. Even getting herself to want to do those things seemed like a faraway fantasy.

Our lives gradually became limited to managing to get up and go to work on the days we could manage it, quiet, comforting meals , excuses made to friends who wanted to visit or have us over, and a couple of TV shows that provided a welcome distraction.

Medication. Therapy. Talking. Support. We were doing it all. But when six months passed we reconciled to the fact that what we were dealing with was deep-seated and that we could not expect quick results.

We held on.

And one day, just like that, things did begin to lift. It did not happen overnight. It took us till a few hours later to realise that C had actually enjoyed a particular visit to friends’. Or till a few days later for us to remember that the last few mornings had been just a tad easier. That gave us hope.

But we were also scared. To believe that this would stay.

But it did. And we are now a year into remission. The two years of living under the dark cloud were two of the most difficult years of our lives. Yet, they were also two of the most humbling. The ones that taught us how precious happiness can be when it comes occasionally and shines bright against an otherwise dark and gloomy landscape.  The ones that taught us how strong and resilient we are.

I remember one of several conversations with my mentor about how it was to care for someone with depression. And how surprised she was when I said that even when it goes away, in some ways it has changed the shared landscape of your relationship forever.

But there were some things it taught me like no other dark cloud possibly could. I hope these will mean something to someone, somewhere, caring for a loved one going through depression.

  • Externalise the illness. Even as a partner. When a loved one is battling depression, we are quick to remind them that the worst bits it brings out in them is the illness, not them- “It’s the depression talking, not you.” I now realise it is equally important to externalise your partner’s illness, to prevent yourself from getting hurt. When they reject a gesture of intimacy. When they are not upto doing anything with you anymore. When they seem preoccupied and unable to ‘see’ you. Remember, it’s the depression, not them.
  • Show love through expectation. This is something I had completely stopped doing till a dear friend reminded me of it. When a loved one’s coping resources are at an all time low, it is tempting to stop expecting anything of them altogether. When we move from caretaking to overtaking, we strip our loved ones of all sense of agency. It is actually respectful and loving to say “Would you like to do this today?” or “Do you think you could manage this for me?” on their better days as it reminds them that you believe in their resilience.
  • Take care of yourself. I cannot emphasise this enough, as again, I learnt this the hard way. The days and months of being the strong one will take a toll on you. And if you don’t take care of yourself, your resentment will begin to show up in unhealthy ways in your relationship. It is not selfish to take time out for yourself and do things that nurture you– exercise became my daily go-to and I made it a non-negotiable part of even our darkest days. But I also realised much later that I had stopped talking to my friends because I felt guilty exposing such a personal part of our lives. The day I saw how absurd that was and reached out to my friends was a day of renewal and revival for me. Don’t be afraid to seek that out for yourself.
  • It is okay to share your feelings. There is no doubt that depression is hard, possibly the hardest, on the person going through it. But it is also bloody hard on the person taking care of them. Not more, not less. Just bloody hard. I fought hard to keep these feelings all locked up because I used to think- “She is the one going through it; who am I to say how hard it is on me?”  But that isn’t true. Talking to your partner about how this is a shared experience can actually be a liberating and validating experience for the both of you.
  • Remember, someday it will be okay again and both of you will come out stronger. I am trying hard to not let this sound like a cliché. Because it isn’t. I have lived through it and know that there is possibly nothing that tests the endurance of the human spirit and relationship the way depression does. It makes you cry and it makes you despair; it makes you want to run far, far away.

But I also know that it forces you to plumb depths inside of you that you didn’t know existed, only to bring out the best and the strongest in you.

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