I don’t know about the rest of you, though I suspect you feel the same way: I would not be alive today if not for the people who have supported me throughout my +16 year battle with depression and anxiety. The people have shifted, to some extent, be it my parents, girlfriends and then wife, but if not for the people who have been closest to me, I never would have survived. Full stop.
That being said, being a support person with mental illness is really, really, really hard, particularly if it is something you’ve never experienced. I once had a girlfriend whose parents denied the importance of mental illness and didn’t let her see a therapist when she really needed it – as a result, she didn’t know how to deal with my depression. It took a visit for her to my therapist to get her in a better place about how to deal with me.
Being a support person requires a lot of characteristics: Kindness, empathy and a whole lot of patience. And it also requires great communication from both people. So, related to that: Here are five things I think that support people should know.
1) We never expected you to fix us, because you can’t: Depression, anxiety and the like do not disappear just because you have a great wife or an awesome best friend. Heck, I don’t know if mental illness ever really does go away. I have never, ever expected my wife or friends to fix me. It doesn’t work that way, and while the advice from my closest friends can be critical, nothing replaces medication or professional therapy. We don’t expect you to fix us, and if that is the expectation that someone has on you, the relationship needs to be recalibrated. That’s not right and it’s not fair to you.
2) We’re really, really, really sorry: Sadly, guilt is a common symptom of depression, and on this one, we probably feel really, really bad. I cannot tell you how bad I have felt for the pain I have put my wife an others through – the worry. The stress. Having the same conversations over and over and over again. I feel so bad for the things that I have said and done. I’d do anything to take it back.
3) This isn’t intentional. We’d love to stop: I suppose I can’t say this for everyone, but I suspect it is true for the vast, vast majority of us–we wish we could stop. Almost no one wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Hells yeah, I can’t wait to be so miserable I can’t function so I can lean on my husband for the WHOLE DAY!” If I had a magic wand right now and could wave my depression away, I’d so so in a millisecond. No one wants to live like this. And we’d stop if we could. That’s important, because sometimes someone gets so miserable that you almost think want to feel that way. We don’t.
4) Please be patient: Depressed people can be angry, cranky, irritable, lazy and a whole lot of undesirable traits. Please give us a chance to pull ourselves out of the funk. After a time, most of us do. My feeling has always been this – no matter how ill a person may be on a a mental or emotional level, they should be moving towards trying to be better. When I have had moments of severe depression, my wife will say to me, “Okay, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to change your life or seek additional treatment in order to feel better?” If you have an answer to that question, you’re moving in the right direction. And to our support people: If there is an answer to that question, please give us the patience we need to get better.
5) We want you there, no matter what: It’s counter-intuitive, but there have been times I have thought to myself, “I know, darling wife, that I am telling you I’m fine. I’m not fine. Don’t leave me.” We get snappy and rude, and that’s wrong. Depression should never, ever be an excuse for poor treatment of others. But please know that, no matter what walls we put up, we want you there. Maybe not physically, maybe not at that exact moment, but yes, we want and need you with us. We want to know you are a call away.
What about you? What do you have to add? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below!