Help me figure out what to do about my depressed boyfriend please
March 27, 2013 4:04 PM   Subscribe

My once caring, kind, thoughtful bf of six months has fallen into a deep depressive state a month ago and has ceased most contacts with me three weeks ago- the exception being a phone call for my birthday- without outwardly breaking up with me; should I stay, should I go, should I wait and give him space, or wait and try and contact him myself? Do we have a future together according to you? Any thoughts/input is welcome, thank you very much!

We had a good, stable relationship prior to this depressive episode, apparently sparked by his unability to choose a Uni major; never a fight, never went a day without talking to each other. FF to the end of February and he falls into this state of apathy, isolation, numbness, pushing everyone {me, his friends before me} away. He's sought help and has been on Prozac+Xanax for three weeks now, plus therapy weekly {though he seems unsatisfied with his therapist}. I read about depression and tried my best, reassured him, tried to ease his guilt over hurting me stating I'm fine, telling him to give treatments time to kick in, that I care for him regardless and that I'm a phone call away if he ever needs me. In our last phonecall before my bday, he talked as though everything in his life was an anxiety inducing burden- even meeting me, how he cared too much about other people and not himself, how the idea of thinking of somebody before you {in a relationship too} was good in theory but not in practise and how that was why he had not had a relationship in a good while before me. {Notice that he was the one who wanted us to be together after just three dates, I never pushed in that direction} He also said he needed to change everything in his life, find his old patterns again {which he had while we were together too}. I asked him if he intended to break up with me, he replied in a somewhat annoyed voice that was not it and then had to go to call his doctor. Said he'd have called me back but did not {which I had predicted}- and he also said, generally speaking, that he'd have been the one to contact me in the future {after I offered to call in the evenings- we used to hear from each other twice a day}, to rest assured and not worry.

FF 10 days, on my bday he calls and we have a 45 mins talk: he sounded a bit better, he'd been sleeping slightly better, even if he was far from having as regular a schedule as before. He'd picked up a call from a friend to briefly explain her the situation in the meantime, but has otherwise not seen any of them in months. The family has been trying to get him out of the house every once in a while, going grocery shopping with the father etc. He's wished me a happy bday, asked me questions about me and my life, seemed interested in me. I stated that I haven't called him because I didn't want to impose my presence on him, not because I hadn't been thinking about him- I invited him to hang out with me and some friends at a local pub later that night- obviously he declined, using his not having shaved in a month as an excuse. I reminded him I care for him and that I'm always here if he wants to talk or hang out, he first said he knew that, then second guessed himself and said that no, actually he didn't know, and I said that if he didn't before, now he did. It was clear he didn't really know how to end the conversation, so I told him I was happy that he remembered my bday and that he called {"of course I remembered, I've been thinking about it for a few days" was the reply} and that we'd hear from each other in the next few days- to which he relievedly agreed. I asked who was going to call who, just so I knew, and he replied again that he'd have been the one to contact me.

Now I have conflicting emotions: one side of me says I should give him space, let him be, knowing I can't do anything to help now and that I have to respect his wishes. The other states that it's the illness that makes him push those he cares for away and that isolating himself will do no good in the long run- it's depression talking, not him. But is it? As time goes on, I have more and more doubts. I don't know whether this being cut out is really just depression or if he can do it so easily because he didn't care all that much to begin with; and even if it IS depression, I don't know how he's doing, since I have no contact, I can't tell if he's improving, how fast, when he will be at least semi-healed, and if he'll still want me then. I'm afraid of waiting and hurting over something that for him is over and will not be redemeed once he's better- I worry for him, but I also worry for me. I may be selfish, but I need my needs to be met, I need to be in a relationship with a partner who's equal to me, I need to sometimes vent my pain and bad days too- I can't walk on eggshells, pretending to be always happy and cheerful in fear of bringing him down. I also fear that, even if we overcome this, it will happen again and again too- I know relapses are common and I wouldn't want to go through this process all over again. I've been trying to stay strong, but I am in pain and missing him and us and I feel confused and at times consumed by this- some days it's gotten really hard to find any motivation to do anything but watching tv series and reading up on the illness. Needless to say, my productivity is going down quickly- lately I've been trying to tell myself I need to snap out of it and be strong for me and for him,but it's hard still. I care for him, I wanted us to stay together long term, this worth it? Do we have a legitimate shot at gaining a stable, fulfilling relationship again?
posted by opalshards to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can't fix him, only he can fix him.

I would start by calling again (I'm confused, has it been a while since your birthday and the promise that he would contact you?) and asking if you can come over with a pizza. Non-threatening, he doesn't even have to leave the house to see you. If he demurs, ask if you can make a firm date for sometime that week.

If he says anything but "Yes, Thursday would be great, how about 5:00?" I'd say bluntly, "I'd like to be in a relationship with you, but it sounds like you're not in the same place. I wish the best for you and care deeply about you, contact me if you need anything."

Then move on.
posted by arnicae at 4:10 PM on March 27, 2013 [15 favorites]

He needs to focus on his health, not a new relationship. You have legitimate needs he cannot meet. Expecting him to (and him failing, over and over again) will lead to you resenting him and him feeling like a failure. Let him know you are available as a friend (if you are) and move on with your life.
posted by saucysault at 4:33 PM on March 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have major depression, and so do a number of people in my immediate and extended family. Before my illness was under some control, it was terribly hard for my husband. He saw a therapist himself, and she helped him see what was best for him, given that he was committed to staying with me.

The problem for someone in your shoes: there are so many conflicting feelings, and it's hard to balance what's fair to you and to him. You really do need to honor your own needs, and if you continue to be troubled about what to do, I hope you'll see a therapist for couple of sessions.
posted by wryly at 4:45 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

this sounds really hard on you. as someone who has struggled with depression and has a tendency to push people away when depressed i am thinking from what you've written he is probably having trouble with setting boundaries and so is being a bit all or nothing about wanting to be around people. i don't know if he is open to conversing by email but sometimes that can be helpful when one has trouble being honest about their real feelings in dealing with everyday life. i find it's just much easier to converse by email than in person when saying more difficult things. if he does want to hang out again i'd either let him suggest something or choose something no-pressure like a movie with just the two of you. if he's an introvert going to a pub with friends when depressed might be rather overwhelming.

one thing i would encourage you not to do is pretend you are fine or happy or that you are not hurt when you are. honesty is important. you sound like you are being very kind and compassionate and understanding. because he said he hasn't had a relationship in a long time because of personal struggles i don't know if waiting for him will work although i understand that you really care for him. i think you need to take care of yourself and decide how much you can handle of this. don't let your needs get lost in all of this. it's okay to decide, and to communicate whatever you decide, how you want to handle this. you've given him time and space and now i think you need to be more proactive as to how to proceed. i'm not saying get all demanding on him as that will make him run but probably more so with setting your own boundaries. unfortunately, he may not be able to have a relationship right now.
posted by wildflower at 4:50 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Move on. You're you, not an extension of him, which is what you're doing now. Everything is him, him, him. Your mission in life is not to take care of him; no healthy relationship can possibly come from that. You're so wrapped up in HIS problems, his needs, his feelings, blah blah blah blah blah, that you're in danger of disappearing yourself, and becoming sick yourself.

You're not abandoning him. You're giving him the space he needs to get up out of his problem and become a whole person again. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. Right now, you're not helping him, you're hurting him, and you're hurting yourself. Walk away from it.

If he gets better, see how it goes. In a year or whenever, see what happens. But don't wait for it. Tend to your own garden for a while. Move around a little or you'll get stuck. You're not a saint, you're not a nurse.
posted by Fnarf at 5:33 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't see anything in your post that indicates a clear and immediate need to bail. So, though you are not responsible for him, if you are in a reasonably stable headspace yourself, tossing him a life ring is a kind and generous thing to do.

Please note that life rings (the real ones) have ropes tied to them, and the other end of the rope is tied to a cleat on a boat or dock, so that the person in need cannot just pull you in after them. Similarly, don't do anything that puts your own mental health in danger.

Just reach out; arnicae's pizza idea is a dandy one, it could be all that's needed to get a nice in-person conversation going.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:47 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

When my husband and I met, I suffered from major unipolar depression. Today, 17 years later, I suffer from major unipolar depression. I have spent hours and hours and HOURS sobbing in his lap, sometimes begging "Why won't you just let me kill myself?" At times, months have passed when we haven't had sex. Just yesterday, I got sandbagged by my depression reaching up seemingly out of nowhere and had to cry on his shoulder for a few minutes before I could keep getting ready for work.

There is a very real possibility that this will not be the only time your boyfriend has trouble with depression. (The number one indicator for likeliness to have an episode of depression is "has already had one or more episodes".) If you're unwilling or unable to deal with this, you should break up with this guy now, as kindly and gently as possible.

Being in a relationship with somebody with depression can be extremely difficult. I mean, we are maddening. And infuriating. Even as someone with 35+ years of living with it, I sometimes find myself wanting to snap at other depressed people "For god's sake, will you please make an effort instead of just wallowing in it?!" even though I know perfectly well that if they could, they would.

My husband apparently thinks the effort, difficulty, and work are worth it. If you stay with this guy, ten years down the road you might feel that it's all been worth the effort, or you might not. There's no way to know ahead of time.
posted by Lexica at 7:28 PM on March 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

He's in crisis, so the relationship is one-way now. You haven't been together that long--it wouldn't be awful to break up, but it's also not wrong or self defeating to stay and see if things get better, if its what you want. I would second the advice to see a therapist to help you work out your feelings and figure out what your limits are. If you cannot continue the relationship, it's sad, of course, but not the end of either of your worlds. It might help to sit down with him and explain that you are having trouble and its not his fault but that during his recovery, it would be helpful for you to redefine the parameters of your relationship and say you are committed to being a loving and supportive friend during his recovery, and then see how it goes. If you meet someone else, well, deal with that when the time comes.
posted by elizeh at 7:31 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

He's responsible for himself. He's not in any shape to be your boyfriend. Even if you take care of him or try to Florence Nightengale "nurse him back to health" you likely won't get anything out of it other than bring a martyr.

I think your hanging onto this relationship is a waste of time. This kind of self sacrifice can be very damaging to you. You really should move on to someone who can meet your needs. If you want to advise him to get help as a friend, do that. Better yet is to tell his friends to check in on him and keep your distance.

Hard truth here: Your help won't be rewarded with gratitude or eternal love even if you slog it out and are "by his side." He won't respect you or thank you for it. He'll likely blame you and associate you with it.

Be on your side. You aren't being treated well, and you need to move on.
posted by discopolo at 7:57 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Personally, I'd probably wait another 3 weeks to see if his meds kick in.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:18 PM on March 27, 2013

An ex-girlfriend of mine had depression. The relationship was incredible when she was happy but when she was depressed, it became a nightmare. I was tempted to break up with her on several occasions, but I stuck it out. Eventually she ended up breaking up with me.

But you know what? I consider my decision to stay one of the best decisions of my life. If I had broken up with her, I would constantly have been looking back, wondering "What if she had gotten better? What if she snapped out of it a few weeks later? What if I missed out on a woman who was marriage-quality because I wasn't patient enough to wait?!?" But because I waited, I could eventually move on without second-guessing myself.

So I recommend sticking it out. Even if things don't work out, a few months lost is a small price to pay for a life without regrets.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:25 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you have to let him know what's going on with you - it's only respectful to give him a chance to respond. At the moment, a lot of your situation is in your head, both with your emotions and with your ideas about what might/might not be going on. The thing about depression is that it is essentially pain, and pain is very self-absorbed. He's probably too caught up in his own pain to realise that you are having problems too, especially if you are trying hard to seem happy and cheerful when you do talk. Be honest. You may even find that talking about your unhappiness gives you something else in common - not that I'm suggesting it should become a depression party, or 'my pain is worse than your pain' kind of thing. Just that it helps to know you're not the only one, and might give himself something else to think about besides his own pain.

It can also be extremely difficult to face other people when depressed. You can feel like you're unfit company for anyone else, that you loathe yourself so much that you can't bear to inflict your poisonous misery on anyone else, etc. Plus, it uses up a lot of mental/emotional energy so that even dragging yourself to the shops for milk and bread is a huge effort. Getting out of bed is a huge effort. It's a good thing to want to keep him involved with your life, but I nth the suggestion to do something more low-key than going down to the pub. Suggest DVDs (something else to do), pizza, backrub, anything that doesn't involve him having to make a huge effort because he probably hasn't got a lot to make an effort with. Use these low-key get-togethers to broach the topic of your unhappiness and stress with the situation; I would advise not the first one, but after you've established that seeing each other doesn't have to be a Big Deal. The suggestion above about conversations through email or similar is good too - just be careful because it's very easy to misinterpret tone.

But yes, do make sure that you are getting the support you need - whether therapy, or trusted friends, or something else. You do not need to get sucked into his pain and you do need to make sure you have clear emotional/psychological boundaries between you. And if it gets to the stage where the best thing you can do for your own emotional/psych health is to break up, listen to it. You will never be able to 'fix' him, only he can do that; similarly your happiness can't depend on him being 'fixed', you need to take responsibility for yourself.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:13 AM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure your question is answerable. I'm a chronic depressive who also lives with a depressive, but I can't tell you what the future will bring for your relationship or for his depression. Is this his first episode? If it's part of a pattern, then I would assume the pattern will continue and you'll need to figure out if you can live with that. It does sound like maybe he's making some progress, so maybe he would be open to you bringing a pizza over. It's a really good sign that he's seeking help and on medication--even at his lowest point, he made a move toward getting better.

One really important thing for you to remember is that everything he's said to you and will say to you during this episode is being filtered through the distorting lens of depression. So he's not going to be able to foresee a happy future (even if one is possible for you), small tasks are going to seem herculean, minor events are going to feel like more than he can handle. In short, he's not seeing or interpreting things accurately right now. So view what he says with some skepticism and don't take it at face value. Expect to hear something like, "I'll always be a loser, you should find someone who deserves you," and decide for yourself if that's true.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:36 AM on March 28, 2013

You're not a bad person for ending a relationship with a person who is not able to meet you needs.

You're right to think that this is probably something he will have to deal with for a long time. For many people, depression is something that people have to deal with their whole lives. Don't take his rejection of an invitation to go out to a bar with you and your friends as a rejection of you--that's the kind of thing that can be extremely difficult for a depressed person. Normal human functioning--going to school/work, shopping, getting out of bed, cooking dinner, taking care of yourself, calling a friend, can just seem impossible and draining.

It almost seems like you're afraid to contact him. If you want to know how he's doing, why don't you call him and ask? Are you guys long distance? I'm really confused as to what your relationship's dynamic is.

Your question has far too many variables to be answerable, but if you're debating between giving him space and trying to be supportive and preventing him from isolating himself from the world, keep in mind that a depressed person is not going to call you up and tell you how they need your support, no matter how many times you tell them you're just a phone call away. Depressed people are terrible at reaching out to others--it can feel like you're just a burden on friends and family who don't wanna hear about your bullshit. That's just the nature of the illness.

If it was me, and my partner of six months (or even a good friend) was suffering from a terrible bout of depression I'd probably show up at their house with a pizza and their favorite movie and tell them "I don't care if they haven't shaved in a month, if they haven't gotten out of bed today, I'm here because I care about you and I want to be a good friend."

That being said, it's not your responsibility to fix him. It's not selfish to want your needs to be met/
posted by inertia at 8:59 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hello, thank you all for your replies. I've carefully read them all and am pondering as of now.

To answer the couple questions that were asked me:

My birthday was a week ago, which is when I last heard from him {prior to that, I had called him ten days before that}. So the 'contact' has been as follows: my last call was around the 10th of March, he said he'd have contacted me afterwards and called back and only did on the 21st, aka my bday, when he reiterated he'd have been the one to call. No contact since then.

Also, some of you rightly stated that the pub invitation may have felt like too much to handle in terms of social interaction to him- I did not add that I also told him we could see each other separately before I was due to go to pub and meet the others, if he was more comfortable with this. The outcome, needless to say, was the same. The last two times I saw him I went to his place and just watched TV there with him or hugged him saying nothing.

Also, recently he's switched his cellphone off {he says it's because the battery is not charged, we all know it's still uncharged because he doesn't want it to be}, so I can't have 'low pressure contact' with him through text or something like that; also, he almost never checked his email even when he was well and last time he logged in in front of me I saw unread emails from friends of that one is a no go as well, unfortunately.

I'm unsure myself whether this is his first episode of depression or not. When this one exploded, I was told something about how he had felt low before when transitioning from HS to university and ended up not taking exams for six months or so. He said that back then one morning he just 'snapped out of it' and started studying again- now, I don't know if the situation was as bad in terms of 'normal living' as now or whether he was just confused and felt sad etc. I do know that back then no psychiatric help of any kind {neither meds nor therapy} was taken, so I can only assume the situation wasn't as bad as now? This happened four years ago, btw, and I knew nothing at all about this before the illness exploded a few weeks ago.

No, we're not long distance. He lives twenty mins away from me, so I could easily reach him, if I wanted to. You're right in saying I'm afraid to contact him- deep down I am. I'm scared that if I do push contact, I'll break even the thin thread that still exists between us- part of me thinks that if I wait a while more and maybe for meds and therapy to kick in more, maybe things will be a bit better and pushing before that time comes is counterproductive. I'm also really afraid of rejection. I have a bit of an abandonement issue myself and I do know that if he refused to talk to me again or something, I'd be even in a worse place than now. I almost feel as though if I don't move, I won't break anything at least, you know? But I don't know if it's the right approach and I can't 'not move' forever, if he doesn't move either, because that means being stuck together but alone, really.
posted by opalshards at 11:42 AM on March 28, 2013

You sound a little desperate in your update, clinging to a relationship that doesnt exist anymore. i know it's less painful to just think, oh, he's depressed, but I have to urge you to stop hoping that everything will improve. He's not your boyfriend. He's broken up with you. The only thing you should do is tell your mutual friends that you think he's depressed and needs help.

Because you're clinging at this point, and being clingy and desperate is not healthy either. He'll come find you when he feels better.
posted by discopolo at 2:09 PM on March 28, 2013

From your update, it sounds like you're not in a very good place yourself. Have you thought of seeking support for yourself?

My experience has been that if you are not depressed and are involved with a depressed person, you need to be as supportive of yourself and your own needs - including not relying on him to meet them - as you can. If you have inclinations towards depression yourself, they will probably be exacerbated by his depression unless you actively work against it. This could involve therapy and/or medication, but it's totally up to you. Your mention of abandonment issues makes it sound like some therapy could be a good thing, regardless of what happens with him.

I know what it's like to be involved with someone who is determined on the whole no-contact thing when severely depressed. I learned to back right off and let them deal with it their own way. We're not in a relationship anymore, but are still close friends. Things also improved a lot once their medication kicked in.

My blunt recommendation (which you do not have to take) is to try to minimise the amount of mental energy you are currently devoting to him. Find a therapist, they can help with that. See your GP if you think meds might help. If/when he contacts you again, tell him you are doing these things, and tell him that you don't think your relationship is still a relationship. If you still want to work on that, tell him that too. But tell him that he needs to try as well. If he can't, if he doesn't want to, cut him loose. Best thing for both of you.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:37 PM on March 28, 2013

It's hard when someone you love is going through something you can't really help them with.I I don't think he has broken up with, or not - he is simply not able to be with anyone besides himself for now.

I don't think you sound so bad off - of course you feel sad and confused! But also, you seem to be handling the situation really well. You seem to be very understanding of his need for no contact and you've demonstrated that to him.

You have to do the wise thing. The wise thing is to let him be, and redirect your energy towards yourself. Maybe email him something, reiterating that you are there for him if and when he needs you - and start doing things for yourself. Sometimes things aren't so black and white, and you just have to take your cues and roll with things. Don't think of it as "moving on" - think of it more like "gotta keep moving"

Even if he told you right now that he wanted you to wait for him, you'd still have to keep doing your own thing until he was ready- and even then you wouldn't really know how long the wait would be or what would happen afterwards.

So, avoid the difficult conversation that neither of you want right now, and get busy. I know the uncertainty is difficult to stand, but you can work on feeling certain about your own things - and that never changes.
posted by Locochona at 9:35 PM on March 30, 2013

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