Almost all of us experience depression at some point. Maybe work sucks; maybe you're watching all your friends get married while your own dating life is a nightmare; maybe you're so stressed at school that nothing feels right. No matter the cause, the end result was that you felt hopeless. But eventually, you dealt with it in whatever way made sense to you — you went to therapy, you started medication, you headed back home to your parents for love and good food. You figured out how to heal yourself.
But loving someone who is depressed is a very different story. I've been in two serious relationships with people who struggled with depression and found that, though there are lots of ways you can support a depressed partner, only they can decide when it's time to seek help.
Depression is something to take very seriously — nearly seven percent of adult Americans struggle with depression, a disease that can take a toll of every area of your life, from your health to your finances. But the life of the depressed person's partner is also often on that casualty list. When you're depressed, it is often hard to be a good partner. And when you're the partner of a depressed person, it can be tough to figure out what to do at all. All you can do is be patient, supportive and wait for them to get help — or get fed up and break up. Those are the two main choices, and neither are pleasant.
Is it possible to love a depressed person? Yes, of course — but sometimes, despite your best intentions, you can lose yourself in the process. When I was with my depressed partners, I loved them — but I also felt stressed and scared. This isn't everyone who's dated a depressed person's story — but this is mine.
1. My Social Life Was Limited
When dating my depressed ex, I was forever heading to museums alone, standing awkwardly in the back of concerts by myself, or missing movies and parties because he didn't want to go and I didn't always want to go alone. I got used to making up excuses about where he was whenever I was alone at a party. In the rare case that he did come, I'd arrive late and leave early. I could never tell my friends the whole truth because if I did, they would be angry at him for not getting help, and annoyed with me for staying in a relationship that made me unhappy.
2. I Never Really Felt Supported
When my grandma died, I was a complete wreck. My partner was there for me the day she died, holding me in the hospital while I cried. He was at the wake and at the funeral. But a few days later, when I was extremely upset after cleaning out my grandma's house and sorting through her possessions, he couldn't support me. He was staring at the ceiling instead, lost in his depression. I became angry. "Can't this be about me, just for once?" I asked. "Can't you support me when I'm sad, instead of the opposite? Can't you hold me as I cry, instead of curling up into a ball?" He couldn't.
3. I Wished My Partner's Depression Would Magically Go Away
I convinced myself plenty of times that things were getting better, that my partner's depression was improving, after a magical day or week when they seemed different. But each time, it was only temporary. It hurt even more whenever they crashed again, and somehow, I was never prepared. I found that this cycle would continue indefinitely unless my partner sought help. Depression doesn't just go away on its own.
4. I Felt Like A Jerk
It's hard to always be there for your depressed partner. After coping with their 49th straight day of moping, I found that I was often ready to explode. I've said things like, “How could I ever have been so stupid to fall in love with you?" Yeah, pretty mean. But it can be hard to be patient and kind indefinitely to a partner who doesn't want to get help or change.
I know depression is an illness, but I found the the girlfriend/mother/therapist role that I ended up occupying to be difficult. It was my job to convince him to go to work when he didn't want to; to assure him he was good-looking; to make sure he ate healthy meals. Neglecting myself to focus on him left me bubbling with resentment.
5. I Didn't Have Sex
Sex? What’s that? I’ll never forget the day, years ago, when I went for my annual checkup at my OB/GYN. My doctor asked me what I was using for protection. “Nothing.” She looked at me funny, about to lecture, and then I said, “I’m not having sex.” It was especially awkward, as she had seen my boyfriend in the waiting room when she called me.
It felt embarrassing. Coping with a depressed partner with a non-existent sex drive made me feel like I was not in a relationship, or like something was wrong with me. Having struggled with endometriosis for years, I thought it might've actually been me. But it wasn't.
6. I Neglected Myself
Years ago, while I was in the midst of a relationship with a depressed person, I was shocked to realize that it was time for my performance review at work. How had a year at work passed? I had spent so much time focused on my struggling relationship that career development, family, exercise, everything, had been pushed aside. I couldn't have a normal life.
7. I Ended Up Doing Everything For Both Of Us
Because my partner was too depressed to leave the house or care about anything, I found myself handling every aspect of maintaining our home, from the grocery shopping, to the cleaning, to the cooking. There was little "me" time.
8. I Got Self-Destructive
When I was spending all my time around someone who was deeply depressed, it was hard to avoid acting somewhat depressed, too. I found myself avoiding friends, because I didn't want to tell the truth about my boyfriend. I found myself eating crap food all the time, because that’s what my depressed partner had been eating. I skipped out on good-for-you things, like exercise and family, that would have made me feel better.
9. I Hid A Lot
After a while, I wasn't sure what to say to friends anymore. I was embarrassed about what my life had become. Even while living in the middle of New York City, I found myself hiding at home, hiding at work, becoming more like the partner I loved. Other people’s lives seemed unreal. Weddings, children, birthday parties, vacations — how could those happy things exist?
When I tried to think beyond the relationship, I could not. The more I isolated myself, the more dependent I became on the relationship for everything — not just love. I became too paralyzed to think of anything else.
10. Mood Swings Ruled My Life
When they were sad, I was sad. When they were happy, I was happy.
Unless I was worrying about their next downfall, or still hurt about something they did last time they were sad. It’s a vicious cycle, and even worse, it was out of my control.
11. I Forgot What It Was Like To Not Be Afraid All Of The Time
Any time I said the wrong thing, it felt like everything would fall apart. The stress would sit in my stomach like a bomb, and when things exploded, I thought, "Here it is." Sometimes, I wished I could be in a normal relationship, arguing about dirty dishes or some other trivial thing. After dating a depressed partner for a while, I had a hard time even remembering what a normal relationship was like.
12. Eventually, I Became Depressed, Too
It’s not as easy to catch depression as it is to catch a cold, of course — but eventually, it spread to me. I felt my partners' sadness. I felt sadness at what our relationship had become, sadness at what our lives has become. I didn't know how to get out. Depression became my whole life. And somehow, I was still asking myself, "How did I become depressed?"
13. I Felt Bad For Complaining
I realize that yes, I just complained through this whole piece, and I'm not the one with depression. My partners have suffered from something very serious, something that requires medical help, something that was mostly out of their control. No one actually wants to be depressed.
But no one wants to date someone who is depressed, either. You love your partner in spite of their depression, fueled by the hope that someday they'll get help, someday things will be better. Someday, things will be the way they used to be.
When you're dating a depressed person, you may find yourself at a juncture where you're facing down the two choices: to stick it out, or to leave. If you decide to stay, try to remember why you fell in love with them in the first place. No matter what, give them as much love as you can.
But you can't ever stop loving yourself in the process. Try to remember what you love, who you are, and stayed focused on moving forward as much as possible in your own life. But as hard as you may try, know that it's almost impossible to move someone else's life forward, too. Only they can do that.
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