A little while back, I received this question from an anonymous reader:
I have a question. I have bipolar and depression and things like special family events, birthdays, and the holidays are always hard for me as well as all most everyday of my life. My husband has a hard time dealing with it as well as the rest of my family. How can I make it easier on them and get through the holidays and most important save my marriage from my mental illness?
My husband wants to fix it and instead he makes it worse.
A great question deserving of a great answer.
Ironically, two days later, a friend sent me information on a new podcast distributed by Families for Depression Awareness, a wonderful site offering many resources to tackle the very problem you mentioned. One of their latest podcasts is entitled “Family Communication” and features Laura Rosen, Ph.D., author of When Someone You Love Is Depressed and Trina Mallet, who talks about the support her family provided during her struggle with major depression.
Ultimately your best ally is going to be better education and better communication. One of the best bloggers on this topic is James Bishop at Finding Optimism. He has a great post called “Ways to insult someone with depression.”
I would print this out and give it to your husband so he can be aware of the hurtful sting in some of his comments because people speak them with no intention of being mean (usually). Here are some of the statements James lists:
“This is what life is like. Get used to it.”
“Life isn’t meant to be easy.”
“Just snap out of it!”
“Pull yourself together.”
“Who said that life is fair?”
“You just have to get on with things.”
“At least it’s not that bad.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
“You have so many things. What do you have to feel down about?”
“You just need to cheer up.”
“Quit trying to be a martyr.”
“Stop taking all those medicines.”
“I know how you feel. I’ve been depressed for whole days at a time.”
“You don’t like feeling that way? So change it!”
Next, I would print out for your husband James’s post on “Ways to build up someone with depression” because chances are good that your husband is clueless as to what you’d like to hear, what you need to hear. Here are three of James’s suggestions.
1. Be On Their Side
The depressed person will often be defensive, so an accusatory tone is not helpful. Try to convey a sense of understanding. It isn’t helpful to say “Why can’t you just get out of bed?” Instead try “You seem to have trouble getting out of bed in the mornings. What can I do to help you in this area?”
The person may have lost perspective on how big a problem actually is. They will find it hard to hear that what is insurmountable for them is actually not such a big deal. It is unhelpful to say “What’s your problem? You’re upset about nothing.” Instead try “You seem to be finding this issue a big deal at the moment. Can we solve it together?”
When I was very sick, I often thought that my wife was trying to ruin my life. To counter that kind of thinking she would often say “We are a team. I am on your side.”
Depression is an awful illness, a whole world away from pure sympathy-seeking. So you should treat it as such. “I trust you. If you had a choice in the matter you wouldn’t choose to have depression. How about we search for some solutions together?”
2. Give Plenty of Reassurance
Many people suffering with depression feel unworthy of being loved. You need to reassure them frequently. For example “I love you for who you are. I am not going to leave you.”
In a similar vein, they may have lost the ability to recognize their positive attributes. You might reaffirm them with “You are a sensitive person who cares for others” or “People really love you a lot. They think you’re a great person.”
If said repeatedly and with absolute sincerity then it is helpful to say “If you ever need a friend, I am here.”
3. Give Understanding and Sympathy
People with depression can spend a lot of time ruminating on their situation and feeling sorry for themselves. Pointing it out to them is not helpful. Instead, try to sympathize. “I can’t imagine how hard it is for you, but you have all my sympathy.”
“All I want to do is give you a hug and a shoulder to cry on.”
“I can’t honestly say that I know how you feel, but I want to help in any way I can.”
This is, perhaps, the hardest thing about our illness: we have cast, no physical evidence of our disease, to tell people to go gentle. But with enough education and better communication, many loved ones will come to appreciate our battle.