“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.”
~Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Depression like many illnesses, takes a toll on not just the person suffering from the illness, but on those who love them as well. As a loved one, you struggle with knowing how to help that person, what to say, what not to say, it’s although your living in a house littered with eggshells. I know that personally, I feel guilty at times because it can be emotionally draining to live with and love somebody who has chronic depression and at times I feel resentful of the impact it has on the family.
Logically, I know that depression is a grueling disease that envelopes every fiber of a person’s existence. It plays cruel tricks on the mind compelling the person into believing that everything that happens is somehow a catastrophic event and that life is an endless series of lows in which one can’t seem to crawl out from under.
I know that depression can and does strain marriages, family relations, and friendships. It contributes to a person’s capacity to feel loved, and have self-worth. For some, the crushing weight of feeling continuously hopeless, lethargic, or not having an ability to feel pleasure in everyday activities is devastating and can lead to thoughts of suicide.
The thought of death for some, must feel like a release, a way to end the suffering of depression which can literally make a person feel as though the constant surge of emotions, or even numbness is suffocating them.
I have seen firsthand the effects of depression. I have watched someone I love become locked within their own mind and battle for their sanity. I have watched as they self-medicate, spend what seems to be an obscene amount of time in an endless cycle of self-loathing, while barely able to gather the strength to climb out from below the covers and face a new day. I have listened as they blame others for their circumstances, not recognizing that it is the illness at fault and no one else, including themselves.
My emotional side tells me to prattle away to the person with ignorant comments, such as, get it together! Stop feeling sorry for yourself! Life isn’t that complicated! I want them to realize they are loved, they have a great job, and things could always be worse, but those are just absurd statements to make to a person suffering from a medical illness. I wouldn’t tell a cancer patient to “just get over.” Why would I, or anyone for that matter, feel compelled to say that to a person suffering from a mental illness?
The frustrated side of me wants to tell them that I get depressed too. I sometimes have anxiety. My life is overwhelming at times from caring for not one, but two people who are suffering from mental illness, but I don’t have the luxury to stay in bed all day and feel sorry for myself. I have to get up every day, pull myself together, slap a smile on my face, and confront the day head on while handling my responsibilities. If I can do that, why can’t you?
That there is the key phase “Why can’t you?” The reason they can’t, and I can, is because I’m not suffering from an excruciatingly painful mental illness that has plagued me since childhood and they are. I can try to empathize with the pain, the suffering, and feelings of shame and failure. To some degree I do, I’ve been down that road as a child. I felt abandoned, neglected, as if I was an outcast, and I was enduring years of abuse. I felt I wanted to die and in fact, I did try on occasion to end my life when I was just eleven years old. The difference between my suffering and someone who is facing a chronic mental illness is that my suffering was environmental. Once I was removed from the environment, I spent time in therapy, I gained the tools to move on and lead a somewhat functional life. People who suffer from a mental illness are going to suffer no matter what environment they are currently in and that is the one thing many people fail to understand, including myself at times.
I suppose in the end, I’m not angry with the person who is suffering, I am angry at the illness. In fact, I am infuriated by it because it is tearing away at the very fabric of our family. This wretched disease that slowly eats away at the life of the individual and those who must watch the person they love gradually die away.
Depression is an insidious beast and emotionally, I have a difficult time reconciling with this monster. I miss the loving, intelligent, witty, gentle, compassionate person I know still exists trapped somewhere within this deceptive malady, and I hate the illness that has stripped away what I love most about this person and it hurts.
With my son, I can easily understand and have an endless amount of empathy and compassion. He’s a child, he isn’t being manipulative, and he isn’t trying to absolve himself from his responsibilities. My son doesn’t have the tools to process his emotions and he has been fighting his illness since before he began school and I fully comprehend that.
In all the years that my child has been in therapy I have become an unwilling expert on mental illness, I know what it is, and I know that it is indeed a medical illness with a biological foundation. Do adults who are suffering not deserve the same empathy and compassion as we’d show a child? Most of these individuals have suffered since they were a child as well, and now they are adults who continue to suffer.
With my knowing all that I do about mental illness, you’d think it would be easier to live with but when you’re in the thick of it, it’s difficult to separate the illness from the person, but that’s exactly what has to happen. The impact of depression on the family is palpable and especially when you have a vested interest in the well-being and happiness of the individual who is suffering. For now, I can only wait, be supportive, hope, and continue to believe in the person I love and encourage them to one day seek out help so they’ll no longer have to suffer unnecessarily.
Another thing I can do is remember to keep my own feelings in check while refraining from making potentially harmful comments that perpetuate stigma and could prevent this individual from seeking help. Judgment and criticism serve no one and if I ever hope to inspire positive changes, I also need to shy away from the “Tough Love,” approach. I know it will be challenging, but what else can I do? I wouldn’t abandoned someone who has a life-threatening illness and depression is a life threatening illness for millions of people we meet every day.
If you or a loved one are suffering from a depression, please contact your local NAMI, they can help. I know they’ve helped our family immensely.
“There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, ‘There now, hang on, you’ll get over it.’ Sadness is more or less like a head cold- with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees