My girlfriend has anxiety, how can I help?
April 11, 2010 6:12 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend goes through spurts of bad depression and anxiety every two to five weeks. It often comes with stress from her job or something like moving apartments. Things can be extremely well between us for weeks before, but once she gets down, her life sucks, I suck, everything sucks, and then she wants me gone. Things always get better when shes out of the rut. How do I know what are her real feelings and what is just being depressed?

Shes currently in a rut. I try to tell her how amazing she is, but she twists everything i say into attacks against herself. I love her more than anything and don't want to lose her because of a spurt of depression.

We are back and forth between really good times, talking about long term plans, and these episodes, where "I don't know her", and she basically doesn't want to be in a relationship. Is it selfish of me to assume that she really does love me and this is just the depression talking? I really, really, love this person and don't want to lose them. But she is a beautiful bird and I don't want to keep her in a cage. I just can't go the rest of my life worrying I did the wrong thing.
posted by mewmewmew to Human Relations (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
leave. trust me on this. run away. you will be targeted as the cause of her unhappiness. things will get worse.
posted by spacefire at 6:24 PM on April 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

How do I know what are her real feelings and what is just being depressed?

I wouldn't be surprised if you get slammed in this thread for suggesting that any of her feelings aren't her "real feelings." But I know what you mean.

I don't know that there's some objective right answer to this. She's being not-a-very-good-girlfriend (negative self-confidence, lashing out at you, hostile toward the whole relationship, etc.) for part of the time you're together.

You should assume this isn't going to suddenly get better but that it's indicative of what she's like (though it would be useful to know how long you've been together). You can't be her psychiatrist and make things all better somehow.

What you can do is assess how happy/unhappy you are with this situation. Is it bad enough to be worth breaking up over and looking for someone more stable, or can you live with it?

You're not morally obligated to accept behavior just because it's labeled "depression" or "anxiety," or because someone claims it's beyond her control.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:26 PM on April 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Has your girlfriend tried to address her depression with an evaluation, counseling, or medication? Clearly, her depression is effecting her life, your relationship, and you. Until she does something to address these cycles, there is no way to sort out your relationship. Start there, and if she refuses to get help, seriously consider moving on because while you can't force her to do anything she doesn't want to do, you also don't need to live like this if she's unwilling to take steps to change things. Best of luck.
posted by katemcd at 6:28 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

mewmewmew: “How do I know what are her real feelings and what is just being depressed?”

Jaltcoh: “I wouldn't be surprised if you get slammed in this thread for suggesting that any of her feelings aren't her ‘real feelings.’”

Preemptively: I hope not. Because, while that bit may be easy to misunderstand, behind it are some good motivations. I think mewmewmew just meant something like: 'how do I know if she really means it when she says that she never wants to see me again?' As in: is that a real feeling? Or is she just exaggerating because she's depressed?

To mewmewmew, I want to say that I think there's only one place where this could possibly be worked out: between the two of you. You have to talk with her about this. I know you might be worried about talking with her here, since it might feel as though even bringing it up might trigger another unhappy episode for her. But it has to happen, both for your sanity and for hers.

The thing to keep in mind is that you care about her, and that being direct here isn't wrong; in fact, it's the best thing you can do for her. You need to stop her, sit her down, and say: 'look, I know you've been depressed lately. It seems like this depression is something that happens periodically. And I want to support you through that and make things easier. But - remember when you say that you wanted me gone, and that I didn't really know you? That hurt. And sometimes it feels like you're pushing me away in the middle of hard times.'

What's important to remember here is that neither of you has any right to expect that the other change their feelings for you, but you can request that they change the way your partner treats you. You can't demand that she feel any better about herself any more than she can demand that you get depressed along with her when she feels down; but you can request that she try not to say certain things to you that really hurt you. Keep those two things - feelings and actions - separate as you go over this with her.

It's important to do that because you'll want to impress on her that, while you really want to help her with the way she feels when she's depressed, and while you'll forgive a lot of stuff she says if you know it's just stuff she's saying because she's down, you need to know through certain actions that she's not trying to drive you away or hurt you.

Basically, it just seems like you should sit down with her and say: 'do you really mean it when you say those things? Or is it just sadness? I understand, and I don't even mind that much if it's just stuff you say when you're sad - only I just need to know that you don't really mean it.'
posted by koeselitz at 6:47 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

You probably already have a list of topics that set her off when she's in a rut. Avoid them. Just hold her and comfort her and listen to her. If she's reacting negatively to being told that she's amazing, then don't tell her that. Just try to make her feel safe and loved. Be strong for her.

When the good times come back, sit her down to talk about her behavior during the bad weeks and how it makes you feel. Encourage her to see a psychiatrist or her GYN about this so that they can identify or rule out an organic cause. It could just be a hormonal thing; many women find that starting on hormonal birth control, or trying a different prescription, smoothes out their mood swings. Or it could be any number of other things, but it definitely sounds like she'll benefit from a doctor's consultation on this.
posted by brain at 6:54 PM on April 11, 2010

Jaltcoh and koeselitz basically have it covered. All I'd add is that when you initiate the conversation that koeselitz recommends, don't do it when she's in a down phase.

Also, when she is in a down phase, don't try to fix her. You can't, and any attempt to try will hurt both of you. So when she wants you gone, go, after letting her know she can call you when she feels better.

Sometimes the last thing a depressed person wants or needs is somebody seeing the depression. The shame that depression can induce is no less profound for being spurious.
posted by flabdablet at 6:59 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could she be borderline?
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 8:18 PM on April 11, 2010

Could she be borderline?

Ugh, don't do this. Don't diagnose, and ESPECIALLY don't diagnose something controversial, difficult, and truly hard to treat.
posted by liketitanic at 8:20 PM on April 11, 2010 [12 favorites]

Have you told her how deeply hurtful it is to you? Maybe you should tell her, and remind her, and tell her not to do that, that it hurts you, and that it hurts the relationship. She really needs to recognize what she's doing and that she's causing you both pain.
posted by anniecat at 8:27 PM on April 11, 2010

This is what is called "being moody." Just because one is depressed, or feeling low, or hormonal even, does not give one carte blance to be mean to someone else. What I would do if I were you is tell her to cut it out and then back off when she is in one of those moods. If you become too solicitous during these times you are encouraging her to be that way.

I am not saying she doesn't feel bad. I am not saying that during these times she is not suffering. I AM saying that you don't need to feed bad behavior, and if she cares about you at all, she will come find you when she is feeling better.

Now, if she is asking you for comfort or for help during a bad phase, of course you want to be there. But your mama did not raise you to be a virtual punching bag, and your girlfriend will respect you more if you simply kindly and firmly refuse to be one.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:30 PM on April 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Second this question so hard. Thanks for asking it.
posted by doublehappy at 8:34 PM on April 11, 2010

What you have described about your girlfriend all sounds like the symptoms of clinical depression. If she is clinically depressed, it means that her brain is not functioning well, and her decision making (and self-perception and other-perception and a whole lot of other brain stuff) is not fully functional.

If you love her, you should urge her to seek a diagnosis and treatment. In fact, you should do more than urge, you should facilitate it. What that diagnosis is and what treatment (if any) should be should be decided by your girlfriend in consultation with a professional, but depressed people often do not even want to speak about their feelings, let alone get therapy. Being depressed makes any initiative or change very difficult to enact. As a healthy person who loves her, you may have to directly take her to a professional -- that is, you may have to stand her up, get her dressed, and put her in a car/on a bus/walk her down the street to a mental health professional. This is not forcing her to get treatment -- she will always have the choice while sitting in the doctor's office (without you, of course -- wait in the waiting room). But depressed people need this level of support as much as someone with a broken leg needs help to get to the hospital. Their legs work, but the bit of them that can decide to seek help isn't working properly.

As for longer term issues -- that will have to wait for the longer term. If your girlfriend is depressed, her ideas of what she wants will be as distorted by her mental illness as her image of herself; her behaviour will be affected as well, and how she truly feels about you. Until that illness is treated, if she is ill, neither of you will really know.

If you really want to give your relationship a chance, do this much: take your girlfriend to a professional psychologist or psychiatrist. Or even a general practitioner, if that is all you have access to. Help her get there for an assessment and potential treatment. Make any further decisions after this.

/I am not a professional. But I do know what I'm talking about.
posted by jb at 8:39 PM on April 11, 2010 [7 favorites]

I spent 17 years chasing this answer walking on egg shells half the time. I guess I got two answers by her actions. One, we stayed married for 17.5 years. Two, we are now divorced. I am convinced that the reason has to do with her depression (treated and medicated on and off) more than anything.

Regardless of the reason, her depression, me being an asshole or any and everything in between, walking on eggshells SUCKS and I would not recommend that to anyone. Talk this out and work it out one way or the other or you will both be miserable.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:43 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

You probably already have a list of topics that set her off when she's in a rut. Avoid them.

... and while you are busy doing all that avoiding, please realize that it's not what normal relationships are like.


I consider myself pretty normal. I've dated – been engaged to – someone I thought I loved, someone I thought I'd spend the rest of my life with. I acted just like your girlfriend, occasionally depressed and what not, despite all the happy times we shared. I even went on anti-depressants, just because I realized that the whole thing wasn't fair to him either. Then we broke up, and as soon as I was single depression and pessimism were just a thing of the past. I knew the entire time that we weren't quite right for each other, but couldn't bring myself to admit it to myself or to him. The depression, moodiness and over-the-top sulkiness was just one way of letting those feelings rise to the surface. I couldn't admit that getting engaged was a mistake, so I made his life miserable until he broke up with me. What a relief!

I've since met someone else – we've been together for four years – and I've been happy. All the time. It may have been that I've matured since, but it also may be that your relationship isn't all that great for either of you. There's nothing else in the world quite like being with someone who helps you be perfectly happy.
posted by halogen at 9:51 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

brain: “You probably already have a list of topics that set her off when she's in a rut.”

halogen: “... and while you are busy doing all that avoiding, please realize that it's not what normal relationships are like. ¶ Leave.”

I know brain's comment seemed short, and it was easy to skip over what he said, but it was very good advice. He didn't just say "avoid the subject." His advice was to avoid the subject until the depressive episode is over and then bring it up again.

I have to say, it seems like that's the best thing to do here. I know a lot of people have flashbacks to horrible experiences where they spent years walking on eggshells and avoiding certain subjects, but it honestly sounds like that's really not what mewmewmew is facing here. I think mewmewmew needs to at least make an effort to talk to her; that's the key. If the talking doesn't work, then other solutions might be better, but the talking is the thing.

I totally agree, though, that a relationship where that becomes the norm can be awful. It's a terrible habit to get into. Seriously, mewmewmew - you have to do something, else you may be in for a long bit of unhappiness.
posted by koeselitz at 10:11 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

It doesn't sound great for you at all but I am struck by your comment that it often comes with stress from her job or something like moving apartments at the start of your post. I agree with other posters that she may be needing professional guidance, but can I ask what you contribute to the strong functioning of your relationship when external factors like job stress and house changing occur? These are pretty big things and they need support and action, not mere praise of the person enduring the nerve-y disruptions these things can cause.

I agree a bit with halogen that sometimes these kinds of despairing reactions are possibly to do with the interactions of two particular kinds of people who just aren't gelling when life exigencies present themselves. I, like halogen, have been this kind of person at times because when external realities present themselves to both of us, I feel left in the lurch, pathologised as unstable, actually left unsupported. I don't think a pat on the head and a 'but you're great honey' is enough - I have wanted to run screaming from the whole relationship. I need to feel held in my partnership.

Here's what that looks like to me: some calm reflective listening to mirror back to her what you think she is saying is the underlying problem [work? house? etc] and don't be drawn into the rest of the drama. "This is a pretty stressful situation, and I'm worried about the house move too. We should make a list together of what needs to be done. I'm already on top of x,y, z so there's mainly a, b, c etc to organise" or "It sounds like work is really mounting up for you. Can any of the fiddly bits be done at home because I'd be happy to help you with that" or "sometimes it's impossible to please everyone at work all the time, do you wanna brainstorm some conversation hacks with me before you see X again?" or a reassuring phone call or text during the day like "how did it go with X? I hope you held your ground/blew them away with your presentation/got through that list of crazy-making things-to-do at work today/ etc" When we face things together it defuses the drama because I feel heard, addressed and 'held' in a partnership.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:45 PM on April 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been depressed - often very severely - for most of my life, for many reasons. When I am in a downward spiral, and I get told how awesome I am, it ... doesn't work. I know I'm awesome; I'm just feeling all the anti-awesome bits strongly enough to drown out that knowledge. Being told I'm awesome when I'm in the Bad Place results in a fairly hostile reaction of 'how the hell would you know anyway? You're not in my skull, feeling this way.' Or, 'You're biased, you don't count.' It makes me angry, on top of the depression. And then I'm angry at myself for getting angry at my husband for trying to help. And then I feel worse, and so on and so forth.

Not only that, but when I say 'Go away' what I really, honestly mean at that moment is 'GO AWAY. NOW.' Sometimes, when I'm like that I need to be alone, otherwise I just feel worse and worse and worse and worse ... I need solitude to recover my balance, and people (no matter how loved) are a stress that makes that nearly impossible. Usually it only takes me an hour to recover myself to the point where I can just cry on his shoulder ... sometimes, though, it takes up to a day, if my stress levels are really bad. It sucks, for both of us, but well, it is the best method for recovering myself that we've found so far.

What does work ... just being held, or having sweet things done for me - housework, cooking, being given flowers, being given space and time. That's me, though - same may not be true of your gf.

Also? Therapy. For your gf, for your relationship, to facilitate being able to get through these times with minimal long-term harm.
posted by ysabet at 11:40 PM on April 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

In the interests of exploring every option (and absolutely not because all female mood is related to the menstrual cycle) - something does sound unusual about the cyclical nature of the depressive/anxious episodes. It might well be that the anxiety side of the problem is periodic, or occurs with external triggers, but I think I'm pretty confident that many people's unipolar depression isn't that labile. I'd strongly second brain's post above in suspecting an organic (i.e. possibly hormonal) component to the behaviour - although if you want to approach this at all with her, you'll probably want to do so very carefully: it can easily look dismissive of the severity of the problem.

IANAD and there's not much information here.
posted by cromagnon at 3:51 AM on April 12, 2010

Remember that you're only in this situation because you've been consenting to it. You're not in a consistently healthy relationship, you're on a happy/awful merry-go-round. You know you're on it, and you have so far chosen to stay on it. She is also perfectly aware of the cycle and is choosing to stay on it.

I spent several years on that same carnival ride. The longer I stayed on it, the harder it was to forget during the "good" times that the bad times were just about to appear around the bend. This really sucked the fun and affection out of even the "good" parts, so that the happy/awful gradually morphed into an anxious/resigned sort of cycle. I got better at managing the periodic emotional brutality, but only at the cost of all the joy that the relationship had once provided.

As Koeselitz suggests, this is just my little flashback and not perfectly analogous to your situation. But while you're wondering whether she "really loves you," ask yourself some other questions:

Why am I willing to live this way? Why am I consenting to the role I play in keeping this cycle going?

Am I willing to live this way indefinitely? If I can't accept the idea of living this way forever, where do I draw the line and say 'enough is enough?'

posted by jon1270 at 4:41 AM on April 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Like Ysabet, I too have depression/anxiety where I push my signifant other away (and others in the past). It sucks. And dumping her for it isn't good either. It's reinforcing the notion that she isn't good enough, this depression/anxiety ruins her life, she won't find anyone else. Does she love you? Yes. But she's frustrated with her illness or the way she behaves. But it is up to her to find help. Unfortuantely, it's not as easy as take a pill or go to therapy. The illness/behavior is buried deep and sometimes you just can't get rid of it (for example I'm 38; one can't change "like that" and sometimes I think a touch of it will always be there).

It sounds like you love her--really, really do love her. And that is important and will help. But you don't have to take abuse. You too need to learn how to deal with it in an effective, non abusive manner towards yourself. See if you can go to couples therapy to learn how to deal with it. Maybe it really is as simple as you going away for an hour, etc. I know when I'm left alone, I come to my senses that I'm an idiot, my illness is an asshole, and I need time to regroup--sometimes cry alone. But what makes everything worth it that when the storm is over, I can come back and get a hug and understanding.

I would suggest you don't leave her. Make her aware of the impact it's having on her and you. Both of you learn a better way to deal with this. It sucks, trust me.

I'm sorry you're both going through it.
posted by stormpooper at 8:28 AM on April 12, 2010

Seconding cromagnon...this could be PMS/PMDD. For a few days to a week out of every month, I feel like everyone around me is is annoying, my life sucks, I can't do anything right, etc. etc. There are occasionally (really hormonal) days where I literally HATE people for no good reason other than they exist. Then the hormones regulate and I realize it was just my PMS whacking me out. My boyfriend has learned to read the signs, and keeps a low profile (doesn't bring up emotionally charged topics, goes out with his friends) during my werewolf phase. And brings over wine and chocolate.

If she's amenable, you might suggest visiting her doctor...there are treatments for PMS/PMDD to lessen the severity of the hormonal ups and downs (Yaz is a low dose bc pill that is purported to lessen the symptoms). PMS/PMDD is hard to recognize when you're having it. It just feels like a down/bad mood. But make no is real and it can be serious. Debilitating even. Maybe give her some alone time to work through it...give yourselves some space and time away from each other. Best of luck.
posted by Z if for Zillah at 12:48 PM on April 12, 2010

"Is it selfish of me to assume that she really does love me and this is just the depression talking?"
Is it realistic to think her depression will cease to be an issue?
How prepared are you for her depression to be a permanent factor in your pursuit of happiness?

Remember: Only you can prevent forest fires. Come to think of it, Smokey The Bear was right about more than just forest fires.

Best of luck.
posted by 2oh1 at 2:42 PM on April 12, 2010

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