The guy I love is depressed, how do I deal with it/take care of myself?
February 6, 2010 9:53 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend's severe depression is coming back and I'm having trouble dealing with his withdrawing because of it. How do I deal with this in a way that is healthy for both of us?

Some background: my recent boyfriend has been completely open since we started dating that he has problems with depression. a couple years ago he had a severe bout that made him unable to get out bed or function like a non-depressed person. He had been going to therapy, but only got better with a mixture of weekly therapy and anti-depressants. When I met him, he was perfectly functional and feeling awesome. Any issues he was having were talked about openly with me and with his therapist and he works through things as they come. He's more self-aware and willing to work on the issues he has than most any person I've ever met. I have a lot of love and respect for him because of this, and it breaks my heart that despite his hard work he still battles depression.

He's been feeling pretty bummed out for the last couple weeks, always for one reason or another. But I didn't realize how severe it was until this last week, when he almost totally withdrew from communicating with me. He would text me, but only to reply to a text I sent him (sometimes) or to tell me how depressed he felt. I didn't see him for a week. It hurt me that he was pulling away from me, and while I knew in my head that it wasn't about me, it pushed all of my buttons the wrong way. I was simultaneously worried about him and how he was doing, and bothered that he was pulling away from me so quickly. I didn't know how to reach him.

We had a really good talk about it last night. He was completely candid about what was going on--according to his therapist, this is just a cycle of his depression, he's just got to ride it out and use the tools she's given him to realize that it's just a feeling that will pass. He's still going to therapy, he's taking his anti-depressants, he's doing all the things he can. He's not trying to pull away from me. I needed to hear him say this. He explained a lot of things that I hadn't known about his depression and how he feels about it, and it helped me understand that he really does have, essentially, a disease. And he's dealing with it, but it's still there.

Our conversation made me realize a few things. a) This is not going to just go away. He is likely to have another spell of severe depression. b) While my needs are important, when he is depressed he can't meet them in the way that I'd like. Not because he doesn't want to, he's just using all of his willpower to get out of bed and go to work. c) Me whining about not hearing from him enough or about how I feel so abandoned WAH WAH WAH is not going to help him get better, or help me continue to be happy and healthy.

So. I guess my question is: HOW do I stay happy and healthy when he's not? I feel like this last week I've let this consume me. I've been so worried, such a bundle of nerves, that people at work have noticed that I'm not myself. And the dreams... stress dreams all week. I waver between worried, sympathetic, frustrated and lonely. I feel like it will be so much better for me, him, and our relationship if I'm more able to take a step back from what is going on and realize that it's not him, it's his disease, all I can do is be understanding and noncritical, and stay out of the way. How do I do that? I'm not sure if that can just be answered in a neat little how-to, but I'm hoping someone who's been there will have some coping skills or advice for me.

And please, no DTMFA. This isn't a dealbreaker for me, but it's definitely a new facet to the relationship that I'm going to have to learn to maneuver.
posted by sherber to Human Relations (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
HOW do I stay happy and healthy when he's not?

Ensure you have a life of your own, outside the life you share with your boyfriend. Develop hobbies you engage in alone or with friends, hobbies that you continue to pursue even when your boyfriend is happy. Your life, and your happiness, cannot be so intimately tied to another's person's that your life falls apart completely if his does.

This is not to say your relationship is unimportant, or that you should not be sad because of your boyfriend's sadness--but that you need to remember that your life is enhanced, rather than completed, by your boyfriend.
posted by sallybrown at 10:05 PM on February 6, 2010

Best answer: "... it helped me understand that he really does have, essentially, a disease. And he's dealing with it, but it's still there."

No, no, no, no, no. Not "essentially." Depression IS a disease. The rest of your question shows that you care about your boyfriend and want to help in what ways you can. But the first step has got to be getting rid of that "essentially." He can't just magically will himself through a major depressive episode. There isn't an element of choice.

Once you understand that, taking care of yourself in this situation becomes more of a question of, "my wonderful boyfriend has a chronic illness that manifests itself in ways that sometimes make him less available to me than I'd like." The fact that he's seeking treatment is huge; so is his willingness to be open about what he's working through.

If he's receptive, helping him with every day things (doing laundry together, going grocery shopping) will get you some time with him and will help to restore the cycles of normalcy that depression can destroy. Stop by and ask if he's up for taking a walk. Be prepared for rejection, but you'll learn when you can push him a little and when you need to let him be.

I also highly recommend Living with a Black Dog, by Matthew Johnstone.
posted by charmcityblues at 11:08 PM on February 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Trickily, both of Jonstone's books are titled Living with a Black Dog. But I actually meant this one- Living with a Black Dog: How to take care of someone with depression while looking after yourself.
posted by charmcityblues at 11:11 PM on February 6, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, charmcityblues. I'm realizing I've had this attitude for a long time that I understand depression, but really I don't. I'm still wrapping my head around the fact that it IS a disease, it's not just that he "feels bad" and I need to try and make him feel better. Saying that aloud is one thing, seeing it in action and believing it is another. The way you framed how to take care of myself is really what I need to remember--it's not personal. It's his illness. And, I'm ordering that book from amazon right now, it looks like just what I need.

Also, it's funny that you mention doing everyday things, because my way of getting to see him tomorrow is to take him grocery shopping. So I'm doing something right :)
posted by sherber at 11:28 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're like me, you'll tend to do things to make him feel better or make him smile, and you'll chalk these moments up as a success - but of course when you don't manage it will frustrate you all the more as if it were a failure. You'll somehow start feeling responsible for his feelings. And this is not good, because you'll start taking his disease personally.
This is pressure on you both.
I think what he needs most is that you're there in the way he needs you to be, and that he doesn't have to worry about you feeling bad because of him.
Maybe if you come up with things that you could do regularly, like the grocery shopping, or maybe a plan for you to stop by at certain times during the week, then it will help you not feel bad about not doing more the rest of the week. And it will help you maintain contact.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:10 AM on February 7, 2010

And the rest of the week: Do fun things. Meet people. Have fun. Your joy in life, while still being there for him, is something he needs.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:11 AM on February 7, 2010

First, you need to accept that the depression has nothing to do with you. It was there before and it won't go away just because you do the right things. This can be frustrating - at least it was for my girlfriend when I still suffered from depression - but it is essential to acknowledge this.

Second, you are already doing the only thing you can do: talk and try to understand. But as sallybrown writes also live your own life. It doesn't help your boyfriend when you are around all the time and worry about him.

Third, if you want to know more about depression I recommend reading The Noon-Day Demon - An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon
posted by jfricke at 1:12 AM on February 7, 2010

I found Darkness Visible by William Styron was very helpful in understanding depression, which, perhaps like you I thought I “got” but really didn’t. Also, your own therapist, if you don’t already have one, might be the way to go. Try to be patient. You will need a lot of patience.
posted by ads at 5:41 AM on February 7, 2010

Just commending you for wanting to stick with him. That says a lot of wonderful things about you. I truly hope that when he spirals back up he appreciates you. Best of luck.
posted by dzaz at 5:50 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi sherber, it seems to me you're doing all the right things, but there a few aspects in the description of your boyfriend's emotional state and treatment that I find worrying. Of course I don't know any details and am not a professional, but here goes anyway:

You describe him as "feeling awesome" when you first met him. Now of course it depends on what exactly you mean by that, but is there a chance that your boyfriend might not be suffering from unipolar depression, but rather from bipolar disorder? The latter is often not diagnosed correctly, because traditionally the condition has been associated with alternating severe manic and depressed episodes. Yet over the past decades it has been established that people suffering from bipolar disorder don't necessarily display signs of severe mania, but that there is a different and very common form called hypomania, the symptoms of which are much milder than full-on mania, but it is still a very problematic condition (check e.g. wikipedia "bipolar disorder") that requires different medication than either unipolar depression or severe manic-depressive disorder - also, since there are various mixed forms of the condition that may change over time, it requires constant attention to and adjustment of the treatment.

Secondly, I am concerned about the therapist saying that your boyfriend needs to "ride out" what seems to be a major depressive episode. Confronted with such symptoms, I would urge the therapist and the psychiatrist to take a much more proactive approach. Instead it seems to me that they have initially decided on a certain dosage and treatment and accept his current condition as somehow normal. While I'm certainly not saying that medication and therapy combined are always able to avert such episodes, I get the impression that they are not doing enough to help your boyfriend with his problems and somehow accept it as his fate. Has the dosage of his medication been increased, since he displayed the signs you describe, has switching the medication been considered?

Again, I don't know the details and certainly don't want to urge any course of action, but am just trying to raise awareness of the possibility that your boyfriend might have been misdiagnosed and/or that the treatment isn't specific and proactive enough. It might help to raise such doubts with his psychiatrist and therapist and, possibly, get a second opinion if they don't seem responsive.
posted by RabbitRun at 7:24 AM on February 7, 2010

I just wanted to second what RabbitRun said, in a sense. I'm not a professional (just someone with mental illness studying to be a Social Worker), but I know that deep depressions usually trigger the therapist and psychiatrist to do something like raise or change medications. You may want to become aware of your boyfriend's treatment anyway -- it's good to know in case there's some emergency and a doctor needs to know what medications he's on.

It is really great that he is still going to see his therapist despite all this, and it's wonderful that you're educating yourself. Sites like have more information and support groups as well.

Good luck!
posted by Jenesta at 8:51 AM on February 7, 2010

Response by poster: RabbitRun-- I'm pretty sure that this episode is due to him being irregular with his meds about a month or so ago, and him and his therapist seem to think so, too. I feel like his treatment is pretty proactive, he has a therapist who he sees weekly and is there pretty much 24-7 by phone if he needs as well. I had initially thought of asking if he needed to raise his medication or change it, but then he told me about how irregular he's been in taking his anti-depressants. I've seen how even a few days of not taking them can affect him, so it's no surprise that a couple months could land him feeling like he does now. If he gets back on his medication and things don't get better, I'm sure another course of action will be taken. He's being watched over very closely by his therapist.

Also, in "feeling awesome" I just meant that he had a handle on life. He was aware of his depression, but on medication and therapy that helped him. He was doing well because the therapy and anti-depressants were doing their job.

Anyway, this question isn't about the details of his depression, as those are his to figure out with his therapist and psychiatrist. I'm trying to find my role in his illness. thanks.
posted by sherber at 9:46 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: sherber, this the reason is why I padded my attempt at giving advice with lots of caveats: the fact that your boyfriend temporarily went off his medication changes the picture quite a bit. It's also a very common phenomenon - my psychiatrist recently told me with a rather frustrated expression on his face, that in his estimation 70% of his patients only have severe problems because they keep going off their meds and could otherwise lead perfectly normal lives.

So without assigning guilt or patronizing your boyfriend (which is pretty hard - having been depressed for long stretches of time myself, I know how quickly one feels being patronized and how defensive one can become), I would try to figure out the reasons together for his being irregular with his medication and tell him how hard it is for you to deal with him if he does so. His depression is not just his business, but also yours and the sooner you make clear how it affects you the better.
posted by RabbitRun at 11:16 AM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: One more benefit of learning to take care of yourself: If you don't, then he will no doubt feel guilty for dragging you into the vortex of his depression. Being caring but calm, you will become part of his support team (along with the psychiatrist and therapist). Then, when he is doing better, the two of you can go back to a more balanced give-and-take in your relationship.

This is probably obvious from the answers but you need a support system of your own, including but not limited to your boyfriend, and strong enough to be there for you when he isn't. Knowing that there will times when he can't be there for you, plan ahead and identify the activities and people that will help you stay in touch with the good things in life.

Also, think seriously about who you can talk to when his depression starts to wear you down. If you don't want to be discussing his issues with family or friends then a therapist is great choice since you know what you say will be held in confidence. You might want to check out low cost therapy provided by interns (under supervision). Some of the interns can be wonderful. (I know several people who have found therapy with an intern to be more helpful than previous work with a licensed professional - it depends more on fit more than experience especially for your situation.)
posted by metahawk at 11:56 AM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't add much to what others have already said, but since you're interested in learning more about depression itself, I'd strongly second jfricke's suggestion of Andrew Solomon's book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which is the most comprehensive, humane, and readable treatment of the subject I've found.

Good luck!
posted by cirripede at 4:53 PM on February 10, 2010

Response by poster: Just as an add-on to anyone else who might find this thread: the book posted by charmcityblues upthread I just got in the mail and skimmed through.. it's a great resource. It says what others up here have said and more, and treats it in a way that is just serious enough without being drab. It's simple and to the point in the best way possible. I recommend it, a lot. Thanks :)
posted by sherber at 3:02 PM on February 11, 2010

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