Seeing a loved one suffer from depression is extremely frustrating, leaving family and friends feeling helpless and lost not knowing how to help. As a loved one withdraws and becomes more hopeless in their outlook, it is maddening on so many levels. Having dealt with this on and off since the age of 15 I have learned a lot and my hope is that by sharing my thoughts and experiences, it will help family members begin to understand how the things they do and say may affect their loved one and give them at least a place to start.
A very powerful yet simple gesture that helped me was when others would take the time to ask me how I was doing even when it was obvious I wasn’t fine. When someone would approach me, seeing how badly I was feeling, and say they were praying for me or just give me a hug, it helped me to feel less ashamed and worthless. Most people tend to keep their distance. I needed constant reassurance that people were not going to abandon me and that despite erratic, negative behavior and lack of productivity I was still loved. Just when others felt their words were falling on deaf ears and they were exhausted and frustrated that what they were saying appeared to make no difference, that was the exact time I needed support the most. I knew I was causing others frustration and was being desperately needy, but hearing from loved ones on a regular basis that they continued to love and support and truly care no matter what, absolutely made a difference. I’ve told people I didn’t believe them, not to bother caring and even told a few to shut the **** up, but looking back all of that was out of pain and guilt because I felt so badly that I was putting them through this. I wanted to scare people away, yet at the same time I needed them to show me I couldn’t. Every time someone reached out, made a point to check in and be reassuring (not that I’d get better, but that they were on my side and believed I was trying) it honestly meant the world to me. In my mind I was completely unlovable and a burden, so to hear that I wasn’t, always made a difference. There were times my existence was reduced to a lifeless ball on the couch when all I could do was beg God to make me disappear. Often I would hope the phone would ring and there would be someone on the other end who cared about me at that specific moment in time. Oddly enough, if the phone ever did ring, I more often than not would let the answering machine pick up, but when I heard a concerned voice message it was a tremendous comfort to know someone cared.
When I was severely depressed I would isolate myself and speak very little as I tried to deal with ruminating thoughts and a growing belief that the world would be better off without me. Obviously this is extremely difficult for the family members who witness this suffering on a continual basis and it is exhausting both mentally and physically. My husband would gradually have to assume the responsibility of two parents while trying to work full time and then had to try to figure out how to best support me knowing he’d most likely get nothing in return. His ability to love unconditionally was tested every single day, but he never gave up. And here is where extended support systems can be so crucial in helping a family dealing with this illness. At first it seemed as if everyone was willing to help, offering babysitting, meals, coffee or just an empathetic ear. But as illness worsens and returns time after time, phone calls, support and visits slowly stop coming. Of course that is understandable due to the uncomfortable position it puts people in. It is not an environment people want to be in because their efforts seem futile and sometimes unappreciated. No one likes that. And the family who is dealing with illness is well aware of this too, so very often they put up the front that everything is better just so they can lift the burden from friends and family.It’s a vicious cycle. Sometimes I would call my pastor and just cry and ramble on, making no sense, often repeating myself over and over. It is not fun to be on the receiving end of those calls. It never helped me to hear a lecture or a pep talk when I was done. But if someone needs to cry or scream or talk, let them and when they are all done just tell them you love them and will be there for them the next time. I promise you, being reassured that there is someone out there who will not stop supporting you is a huge comfort to the entire family.
A woman from my former church showed up at my house one day during a time I was really struggling and had a tendency to be mean or unresponsive. She came in despite my annoyed look, said she was worried about me and did not want me to be alone. She assured me she was not going anywhere and she didn’t care if I remained silent the entire time, but she was there to listen if I wanted to talk. She informed me she was just going to sit in the corner and simply be there while I slept and stay until my husband got home. She even told me not to bother arguing with her because she was staying no matter what. Her presence, determination, lack of judgment and willingness to make me feel safe is something for which I am eternally grateful. Her comforting presence and her total acceptance of me was valuable to my husband as well because he was able to rest for one day knowing I was safe.
One of the most helpful things my husband ever said to me was in a simple note. He wrote, “I hope you are resting. I wish I could help. Please don’t ever feel bad for feeling bad. I love you.” No guilt, no shame, no pity; only love, support, reassurance and acceptance. Hearing that he wasn’t upset with me for feeling bad lifted a tremendous burden.
If you know someone who is suffering, these are strategies worth trying. Remember too that this illness causes entire families to suffer and a strong support system absolutely makes a difference. It is unpleasant at times and always difficult, but you will impact them in ways you may never fully realize. I can pretty much guarantee that one of those times you go out on a limb and risk being treated in an unappreciative way, you will most likely be saving someone’s life.