How can I help my girlfriend who's coming out of depression, without going out of my mind? (sorry, long)
October 20, 2009 7:27 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my girlfriend who's coming out of depression, without going out of my mind?

My significant other is dealing with pretty serious depression, and is, by her account, slowly getting better.
We've been seeing each other for several years, starting as we both were finishing college. She moved home afterward to deal with other medical problems (exacerbated by the depression) and she is currently looking for jobs (kind of. See below).
We've been doing the long distance thing for about two years now, seeing each other for usually a week at a time, every month or month and a half. We've lived together overseas for a few months, about a year and a half ago. Currently, she's working part time at a retail job as part of her getting-better program to feel-like-a-real-person. (Overwork was a major factor in the depression)

Now, she's "looking for jobs", except, after several months, she hasn't really started. She gets panic attacks, anxiety, etc, and shuts down for a few days or a week.
She's seeing a few different doctors (psychologist/physiologist), but is very careful with medication after being put in the hospital with bad combos that exacerbated life-long nasty migraines.
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I'm getting really frustrated.
She's told me that one of the things that frustrates/stresses her is that she feels that if she doesn't have "progress" to report, then she's failed me, and she's failed us. (on top of her own frustration with "failing" herself.)
Conversely, if I avoid asking how the job-hunt is going, she's pointed out that she's not stupid, knows it's foremost on my mind, and feels guilty for dancing around the subject... aaaand pressured for not achieving tangible progress.

I can't lie and say that being together is not important to me-- after two years of long-distance (the last year of which has been filled with "I'm ready to get my job and move to your city"), I want to be with her... and she's said, pretty constantly, that she wants to be with me. I want to reach a compromise, 'cause it's pretty painful to hear about bad days/setbacks... but be unable to do anything other than say "I'm sorry to hear that" over the phone.

She is unwilling to move here without having her Real job (the one she studied for, busted her ass at university to graduate top at one of the best schools in the country, the one that two years ago had companies lined up at her door... and the schooling for which drove her to work too hard, depression, etc).

On the one hand, I'm trying very hard to be supportive- to listen when she has a bad day, and not ask questions/point out the long-term ramifications for us about another day/week/month of no progress. I really do rejoice in the little things-- when she's had a good day at her retail-job, or worked in the garden, etc.

I love that we both keep coming back to "I want to be with you, I wish you could be here" and that doesn't die when we're around each other (even when we lived together before, or I was in her city for several months, etc).

On the other hand, all I have are words. I trust her-- implicitly, but at the same time, it's hard to ignore the logic of "Well, if you want to so much... just do it."

I don't understand what she means when she says "I wanted to do X today, but felt wimpy." or, "I wanted to do X today, but I couldn't get started."
... to my mind, it's a relatively simple issue-- if you want to do something (simple things, like write an email to a prospective job, check your voicemail, etc), you ... just do it.

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I realize that some of these issues are facets of depression. But it pretty well sucks to be a part of her life part-time.
How do I stay supportive-- and does anyone have any suggestions?

I mean, we've thought of her moving here. (That's what we both want. It's far and away the best city for both of us job-wise. She spent 4 years here at school. I just got an awesome job a few months ago after a year of looking. Her concerns: she must be self sufficient, and if she moved down here to do a part-time job, like she's doing now up there, she wouldn't actually ever pursue her Real Job... (she insists that moving to a new city requires adaptation, etc ... my argument that when I moved to hers, it wasn't a problem, and I'd never been there before. To my mind, "my" city isn't a new one for her. She's just been absent for two years.) To her, it's a "All I have to do is start looking for the job"... but she's scared stiff... and scared translates into stalled.

I move up there-- which she's told me would make things far worse (her living at home would become far more awkward, she'd feel, in her words, "responsible for forcing you away from my great new job, your school (I'm getting a second degree) and place that you live, and making you come live where all you have is me... which would put even more pressure on me and raise the stakes where I'm already failing to begin with!" (For the record, I love living in random new places. But can't argue with the logic that says quitting my new job and school is a bad idea. ... though it'd be, in my mind, absolutely worth it.)

We've thought of somewhere random. "We could move to Nome, Alaska..." ... both of us hated the idea. So there's a start.

I know that relationships are about compromise; I've tried to point out that I am willing, and very eager to compromise, but our latest read on the situation is that there's no middle-ground-- her coming soon would be against what she feels she needs for her-self/sanity, and my just sitting here waiting for her to wake up one morning and get something done... is asinine, and one of the few things I _really_ find difficult to keep doing-- watching her try the same thing of "Maybe it'll be better tomorrow" for months at a time goes against every fiber of my being. If it's not working try something different..
I know I can't help everything. I know I can't fix everything, and that a lot of this is stuff she needs to do for herself... but at the same time, I want to be an active, supportive part of her life... and not just... on hold.
Followup/further questions to throwaway11001001@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
It sounds like you're being as patient and understanding as you can be expected to be.

Her concerns: she must be self sufficient, and if she moved down here to do a part-time job, like she's doing now up there, she wouldn't actually ever pursue her Real Job... (she insists that moving to a new city requires adaptation, etc ... my argument that when I moved to hers, it wasn't a problem, and I'd never been there before. To my mind, "my" city isn't a new one for her. She's just been absent for two years.)

Yeah, this sounds kind of dumb to me. It might be time for an ultimatum. That's what I'd do, if I were you. It's your decision, however; I don't envy you for having to make it.
posted by smorange at 7:42 AM on October 20, 2009


I don't understand what she means when she says "I wanted to do X today, but felt wimpy." or, "I wanted to do X today, but I couldn't get started." To my mind, it's a relatively simple issue-- if you want to do something (simple things, like write an email to a prospective job, check your voicemail, etc), you ... just do it.

While I am extremely sympathetic to the horrible position you're in, I suspect the above is the crux of your problem. AskMeFi is filled with "I can't get started / just thinking about it triggers an anxiety attack" questions because this is really common among people with less than stellar mental health. And it is hard to understand if you've never fallen to your hands and knees on the floor, trying to breathe through the overwhelming fear of thought of sending an email, etc.

Just as an example, something that seems really simple to you, like perhaps "create a resume" can be an a process of 27 exhausting steps for someone like your girlfriend: organise your work history, draft the thing, format the thing, line up references, buy the right ink for the printer, find nice paper... each one of those can be a multi-day project for someone who is struggling to function.

I'm sure MeFi will be along shortly with suggestions of excellent books and CBT to help you understand your girlfriend and to help your girlfriend help herself. (They will be followed by the "I married/dated this woman for 10 years and it was HELL - dump her while you can.") But the only thing I can really contribute is that getting moving on something like job applications is the hardest part. You have zero momentum. It can be... very difficult.

My suggestion would be that if you are just sitting there waiting for her to wake up and try something different, then make a plan for your next visit to give her hands-on help and see if you can give her some momentum. Sit down with her, pick out some jobs, do her resume with her, and do the applications over a few days. Plan some treats around that - that after you guys do five, you can go out to dinner to celebrate or whatever.

No, you can't live your life for her and no you can't do this stuff for her full time, but you can literally hold her hand in the short term to see if you can help her over the hurdle of getting started. The first step really is the hardest, and for some people surfacing from long and debilitating periods, it really is monumental.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:52 AM on October 20, 2009 [19 favorites]


Your girlfriend will probably find her way eventually, and then kick herself for putting up her own roadblocks for so long (even if some or most of her behavior comes from her depression). You can't force her to accept your way of doing things, even if your way is better, but a healthy compromise in a relationship does not have to be 50-50, but by definition it can't be 0-100. You're not ok with keeping things long-distance and on hold indefinitely. It's not unsupportive to say so.

It's also not unsupportive to point out that the things making you miserable aren't helping her to get better. When someone you love is in therapy and discusses that with you, it's reasonable to say, "You're saying you want X, but keep doing Y. It's self-defeating behavior and I don't understand it. Our conversations about it don't seem to go anywhere. Are you willing to discuss it with your therapist and/or doctor?" It sounds like her current mental health care is insufficient (after two years she still feels stuck, scared, and like she's a failure), so think about encouraging her to seek new options--a new therapist, a new form of treatment.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:03 AM on October 20, 2009


I don't understand what she means when she says "I wanted to do X today, but felt wimpy." or, "I wanted to do X today, but I couldn't get started."

Then you don't understand what depression is. This is exactly the thing that is broken. It's "I wanted to do [positive thing], but my brain convinced me that it was too scary/exhausting/not worth it/I couldn't because I'm a failure/stupid/etc." That is depression.

While depressed, it's really important to have a support system. The fact that she has her therapists and her family there means that it will be very hard for her to move back to your city, where she doesn't have that support. She has you, but living with you will be new, and new living situations are bumpy at first.

... to my mind, it's a relatively simple issue-- if you want to do something (simple things, like write an email to a prospective job, check your voicemail, etc), you ... just do it.

She can't right now due to depression, similar to how people with broken arms can't play basketball right now. How about you? Can you assist with these things? If checking voicemail means sorting through important and trivial things, can you do the first pass and direct her to the one important message? If looking through job boards is overwhelming, can you do it and just send her one or two really stellar jobs to apply to?

You will have to talk to her about this, of course, because if you send her job ads unbidden, then it really ramps up the pressure. Talk to her about what exactly is difficult right now, and about ways she thinks you could simplify it for her. But don't expect that to heal her broken arm overnight—right now we're just trying to work around the broken arm.
posted by heatherann at 8:32 AM on October 20, 2009 [12 favorites]


You sound exhausted. It sounds like you need to figure out how to detach from her depression. You're not her therapist or doctor, you're her boyfriend. It sounds like you both have kind of gotten into the habit of blurring those lines. You need to stop that.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:54 AM on October 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


She's told me that one of the things that frustrates/stresses her is that she feels that if she doesn't have "progress" to report, then she's failed me, and she's failed us. (on top of her own frustration with "failing" herself.)
Conversely, if I avoid asking how the job-hunt is going, she's pointed out that she's not stupid, knows it's foremost on my mind, and feels guilty for dancing around the subject... aaaand pressured for not achieving tangible progress.


Tell her to cut this bullshit right out. She is putting you in a no-win situation where you're responsible for her feelings of frustration. Well, you're not. If she feels frustrated, that's her business and she has to respond to it by either asking you to do something concrete or dealing with it herself. She is depressed and disappointed with herself, that is why she feels bad, the minor details of your conversations have nothing to do with it.
posted by kathrineg at 8:58 AM on October 20, 2009


And yeah the corollary to that is to completely stop pressuring her and just enjoy the relationship you have now. You can't make her do anything and it's not likely to change due to pressure OR help from you. So just take a xanax (or go for a run or whatever) and try to let it go and let the chips fall where they may.
posted by kathrineg at 8:59 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


It doesn't sound like she is really coming out of depression - it sounds like she is still in the thick of it.

I think that although she is having a hard time accepting moving to your city under less-than-ideal circumstances, it might be infinitely easier for her to be near you where you could offer more immediate support. Just having you physically close might do a lot to help her feel better.

That said, Terrible Llama is right - it isn't your depression. She needs to deal with it. Before she moves to be near you make sure she has a therapist and support networks in your city, so she isn't relying solely on you.
posted by mai at 9:02 AM on October 20, 2009


Seconding a Terrible Llama!

Since your support has stagnated at this stage for a while change the way you are giving support. It NOT unfair of you to expect her actions to follow her word. When you see each other in person are you visiting her or is she visiting you? By increasing her frequencies of visits to the town you both want to live in you can start building her support network (a biweekly appointment with a dr in your town, rebuilding friendships that have drifted while she was away), going to Real Job related things together.

You sound like a wonderfully supportive boyfriend that has gone far beyond the call of duty, be sure to take care of yourself and not be focused on her depression.
posted by saucysault at 9:26 AM on October 20, 2009


I've got depression. So does my long-distance girlfriend. So I feel like I understand, if only in a general way, what both of you are going through.

What keeps us sane is remembering not to try to take responsibility for each others' feelings. If my girlfriend is depressed — well, obviously I'll put in some kind words and tell her I love her, but I won't try to pull her up out of it, and I certainly won't try to change anything about my own behavior just to make her feel better. That's not because I don't want to help. It's just that I know her depression isn't about me. It's her brain doing its thing, and she's the only one who can do anything about that. If I try to fix it, it'll wear me out, annoy her, and not solve the problem.

So f'rinstance...

She's told me that one of the things that frustrates/stresses her is that she feels that if she doesn't have "progress" to report, then she's failed me, and she's failed us. (on top of her own frustration with "failing" herself.)

Conversely, if I avoid asking how the job-hunt is going, she's pointed out that she's not stupid, knows it's foremost on my mind, and feels guilty for dancing around the subject... aaaand pressured for not achieving tangible progress.


...that sort of frustration and guilt and self-blame is a really common thing for depressed people to get caught up in. It's good that she trusts you enough to tell you about it. But you're not obligated to do anything about it, and in fact in all likelihood you can't do anything about it. You can tell her, "I'm really sorry you're frustrated" and "Gee, that sounds like it sucks" and "I love you," and you can ask "Is there anything I can do to help?" — but don't be surprised if the answer to that question is "no," and don't kick yourself over it.

(It looks like kathrineg and I are interpreting those paragraphs differently. It didn't sound to me like your girlfriend was trying to make you responsible for her guilt and frustration. If I'm wrong and she is, then I agree with kathrineg's assessment — that's really shitty, and she needs to cut it out.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:54 AM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's hard to be a depressed person. It's also hard to love a depressed person. I've been on both sides of the equation, sometimes simultaneously. To be honest, she doesn't sound like she's coming out of it so much as she's surviving the thick of it. It's awesome that she's holding down stable employment, but your accounts of her being "careful" about medication (I assume this means that she is unmedicated at the moment) and panic attacks shutting her down for days at a time are not so awesome.

I get the sense that you think that one day she will no longer be depressed. If that is the case, I am sorry to tell you that she will always be a depressed person. She may be less depressed at points and more depressed at others, but if her depression is this severe and long lasting, it's here to stay.

You stay supportive by being good to yourself. You're trying too hard to accommodate her, and it's draining you. It's okay to have needs. It's okay to tell her that you have needs. It probably won't be effective to come out of the gate with an ultimatum, but you should be able to discuss a timeframe for those needs. It might be helpful for her therapist to facilitate this conversation, perhaps you could call in while she's in a session or attend a session with her the next time you're with her.

I know you're in a rough spot, if you'd like to talk about it, my email is on my profile.
posted by crankylex at 10:11 AM on October 20, 2009


I was thinking about this, and I think in addition to all the stuff above, you might want to consider that what she's doing is, in effect, stringing you along. She might be (and who the hell knows) using her depression as an excuse to maintain distance between the two of you and not move forward with the relationship.

It's a way to look at it.

All any of these things are are 'ways to look at it'.

But I'd give that idea a breeze-through and see if resonates at all.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:18 AM on October 20, 2009


Your description is full of her requirements, her specifying the ways things should be:

She is unwilling to move here without ...
she must be self sufficient ...
she insists that moving to a new city requires ...
there's no middle-ground ...


Her requirements are all well articulated, and make some sense. But. None of it is working. She is still very depressed. You are still apart.
- Wherever you live, there are probably adequate, perhaps even really good, therapists and psychiatrists.
- Getting her life together so she can move to where you are may be stopping her from getting her life together.

It sounds like you are bending over backward to accommodate her requirements. That's not very healthy, and certainly not working. Start treating her like a more healthy person. - Expect her to get a job, even if it's walking dogs. Maybe especially if it's walking dogs. Outdoors + exercise + sunshine + animals can be fantastic therapy.
- Expect her to assertively pursue a better medication regimen. There are a lot of options, and while there are still people who are difficult to medicate, it's way better than it ever was.
- Expect her to be actively seeing a therapist, and following recommendations. It's my opinion that there are a lot of sub-adequate and outright incompetent therapists. She should look hard for a great therapist.

She may resist, get angry, dump you, yell at you. But you are part of the system that's helping her stay stuck. I've a lot of experience being depressed. It's awful. I'm grateful for my daily zoloft. Part of getting better is fighting back hard enough, and being willing to try a lot of medications. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 11:14 AM on October 20, 2009


Depressed people have more between where they are and where they would be "just doing it". Those things (apathy/fatigue/anxiety/fear/habits, etc) are what people that don't have depression don't see. So you don't get it. That's okay, you don't have to get it. Just remember that she needs a healthy level of patience and you can't fix it for her.

The funny thing is that "just do it", while far from the reach of the depressed person, is ultimately what is going to happen. But as DarlingBri says, making a resume may seem like one thing, but it is made up of many steps, all of which are potential stumbling blocks. So to "just do it" may need to be broken up into all the smaller steps. Today, "just do" the opening a document editor. Tomorrow, "just do" the gathering of work history. then "just do" whatever the next step is, and so on and so on. Encourage the next step, then let her decide the pace from there. It may take a week or two to get it done, but what's the difference between that and doing nothing for two weeks because she's stuck? At least every day there is a little progress which should not be undervalued. Any progress is better than being immobile and thinking about how bad the immobility is.

You don't mention a therapist or group counseling as part of her support system. While they are critical for figuring out the right medication(s) and dosages, psychiatrist visits usually don't happen more than every few weeks. There needs to be more opportunities to challenge the mindset that is immobilizing her. Therapy or group could be happening 2 or 3 or 5 times a week. She is in a serious situation -- she needs to take serious action. Once every few weeks does not sound like it's enough.

Isolation is fuel for depression. Don't support her withdrawal from others. You don't have to press her into socializing, but human contact is very important. That's the unique power a group can provide: a safe place with support and managed expectations.

As for your assistance, something you could do is be there when she is trying to do something she wants to do but can't. All you need to do is be there with her, over the phone or in person. Let her get impatient, upset, but stay calm - let her vent the energy, but remain with her so she can see that it is safe to take a step at a time. Let her try it on her own, but set a deadline of an hour or less -- not enough time to avoid it and habituate more fear.

If she is stuck, perhaps you could illustrate the steps of what she has to do -- not for her, but for yourself. For example, if she is stuck with the resume, show her how you would do yours. One step at a time. Collect your history, references, write a draft. All from scratch, just like she has to do. This may upset her too, because it's so easy for you, but still stay calm. Ask her again and again if she wants to do it. Show her how any given step can be done.

The tightrope to walk here is persisting in the right level of encouragement without pushing too hard. It is a tightrope, as you've already seen. So don't expect to do it perfectly the first time. Or the tenth. Just allow yourselves to find the pace that will work for her. I believe that if you do this, eventually, she will accelerate her pace on her own closer and closer to where she would like to be.

One of the best ways I've heard to look at loved ones is that they can hold the faith when you can't. Maybe that's all you need to do. No matter her progress or lack of it on any given day, you can share your belief that she will one day get better, at her own pace.
posted by buzzv at 1:00 PM on October 20, 2009


nebulawindphone: "(It looks like kathrineg and I are interpreting those paragraphs differently. It didn't sound to me like your girlfriend was trying to make you responsible for her guilt and frustration. If I'm wrong and she is, then I agree with kathrineg's assessment — that's really shitty, and she needs to cut it out.)"

Yeah, I feel like I phrase that with a lot of blame. I don't think she's necessarily trying to do it but the net effect (poster can't win no matter what he does because she will get upset and imply he is responsible) is the same, even if she's doing it unconsciously. I think it's important in close relationships with people who are struggling with mental illness to demand that you be treated well. You don't stop having feelings or needs just because someone else is depressed (or anxious, or insecure) so you have to make sure you're being treated decently and getting your needs met.
posted by kathrineg at 6:35 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Do fun things with her, don't place a lot of expectations on her.

Smiling/laughing triggers chemicals in the brain that actually make you feel better, so if you can make her do that, you will be helping her. Send her jokes, watch funny movies together, etc. She may not be super-responsive to the humor, but if it doesn't outright irritate her, it can't hurt.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:59 AM on October 21, 2009


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