When someone you care about is dealing with depression or a mental illness, it can be incredibly hard to figure out how much to help and how to take care of yourself while also being there for them. And when you are suffering from a mental illness, sometimes it feels like all you can do is just yell for help. Two things that all parties are often told is that everyone is responsible for their own emotions and that it’s important to ask for help. I have found that on both sides (as a support person and as someone suffering), these two things often feel contradictory.
Let’s say you’re feeling really down. You go to your best friend and you tell them you’re struggling. You tell them you don’t know what to do. You say “help”. From your perspective, you’re taking responsibility. You’ve owned up to your feelings and now you are asking for help. From their perspective, it seems like you’re foisting off the responsibility for your emotions and they’re expected to simply fix what’s happening, make it better, make you happy. Who’s right? Where’s the balance?
There is a difference between asking someone to help you take care of your mental health and making your mental health someone else’s responsibility. No one else is capable of fixing your depression or anxiety or sadness or whatever else might be getting you down. Sure, they might be able to alleviate it for a while (especially if you’re dating them and you get the nice fluttery feelings around them), but that doesn’t actually turn out to be a long term fix. It’s too much pressure to be the only source of someone’s happiness, to be expected to turn on a switch that makes the bad go away. It’s taken some time for me to start to identify the signs of “fix me” rather than “help me”, but for those who are still navigating a relationship in which mental illness plays a role, here are some things to watch out for.
We all need people. It’s part of our emotional needs. We need to socialize, we need to talk, we need people to take care of us when we’re sick and people to share things with. All that makes perfect sense. But as adults, we also need to realize that no one person can meet all of our emotional needs. There’s simply not enough time in the day. That’s why we have networks with a variety of people. Our networks don’t have to be huge: mine is basically my parents, my boyfriend, and one or two close friends (plus my therapist). But each of these people provides a new perspective and can support me in different ways. It means that when my mom is having a horrible week at work, I can give her some space and go ask my boyfriend to hang out with me for a bit. No one should be required to always be on call, and if you find that you’re constantly waiting for one person it might be a good time to think about building up some other relationships.
2. Make a good faith effort
If your first recourse when you’re depressed is to call that certain someone, this might be a sign that you don’t have other coping mechanisms or that you aren’t trying to rely on yourself. It’s certainly ok to call someone, but there should be other tools in your toolkit that you’re willing to reach for first (and this can be dependent on the seriousness of a given situation. If you’re experiencing severe suicidal ideation then PICK UP THE PHONE. If you’re feeling kind of blah and bored and empty, then see what options you’ve got). This can also be on a larger scale: if medical help is feasible, you should probably be willing to try that out (e.g. meds or therapy). You might try changing your situation (volunteering, getting out of a bad housing situation, etc.). Of course making an effort is one of the hardest things to do when depressed, but before you tell your friend/SO about how miserable your day was, you should at least have tried to get out of bed, shower, and leave the house.
3. Articulate what you need (as best you can)
One of the things that leaves a support person feeling like they should be able to snap their fingers or wave a magic wand and just “fix it” is when their loved one doesn’t give some hint of how to help. Of course there are times when we don’t know what we need and we have to do our best to explain how we’re feeling and ask for a general kind of help, but as best as you can, let the other person know what you need. Tell them if you need to vent or if you need to brainstorm solutions. Call someone up and say “I need a distraction do you want to go out” instead of simply saying “I’m bored help”. This means more work on your part. You have to brainstorm what might help you. That’s part of being responsible. If you can’t figure it out, you can ask for help figuring out what you need (e.g. “I feel horrible and I can’t figure out what to do. Do you have any suggestions?”). Simply expressing how you feel without giving the other person an idea of how they fit in feels like you’re just throwing your depression at them.
4. Be independent
This can mean a lot of things, but at its heart it says please don’t have one person be your only social life, job, or interaction all day long. Have a job, have interests, volunteer, have friends, have a side project. Have things that belong to you and that you’re willing to do by yourself or with a different friend. There’s something intensely unpleasant about having another person waiting around for you all day to entertain them. If your partner/support person sees you at the end of the day, your answer to “what did you do today” should not always be “nothing”. Sure there are days when you can’t manage anything. Sure, there are days when the depression gets too bad and all you can do is crawl out of bed. But if the only times you get out of bed, get dressed, talk to people, accomplish something, or have fun is when that one special person is there, you’ve made them responsible for you.
5. Never imply or say that the other person is required to be there for you.
I’ve had people tell me that they need me, that they’ll have to kill themselves if I leave, that if I’m not around they’ll hurt themselves, etc. etc. Don’t do that. Don’t call someone from your vacation and tell them how miserable you are because they’re not there. Make a serious effort to have at least a few examples you can point to where you were on your own and you were ok so that they can trust that you can spend a night without them.
That crap is not romantic. It’s cruel.
6. Be willing to feel like crap.
This might sound odd, but for people with mental illness, one symptom seems to be a serious inability to tolerate distress. Because many of us start to panic and look to bad coping mechanisms when we feel bad, our support people worry whenever we are in a bad mood. Something that is oddly reassuring is to tell your support person “yes, I feel like shit right now, but I will be ok. I’ll get through it.” As a corollary to this, if you have to ride out a shitty mood, your partner/support people get to choose how much they want to be around you. It’s nice to give them a little heads up: “I feel like crap right now. If you’d like to come over you can, but I’m going to be miserable company and that probably won’t change at least for today.” This lets your support person take care of themselves. They can let you know they’re willing to be on call if things go really bad, but they’ll see you tomorrow, or they can choose to see you anyway and brace for a bad mood.
All of these things exist on a spectrum. Most of the examples I gave were towards the extreme end. Obviously it’s fairly abusive to threaten suicide if someone isn’t always around you, but that type of behavior can exist in a subtler way (the passive aggressive sigh and “I guess I”ll be ok with you”). But if you notice these types of behaviors in yourself or your partner it might be a good time to reevaluate what’s happening to treat the mental illness in the relationship and have a frank discussion about who is responsible for what.