“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
— Laurell K. Hamilton
If you love someone who is depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. They don’t know. Depression isn’t a straightforward, thought-out response to a tough situation – depression just IS, like December’s weather in Seattle.
Be mindful of the darkness, lethargy, hopelessness and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them, day in and day out, until they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a true friend to someone who’s depressed, but it’s one of the kindest, finest and most impactful things you will ever do.
Angel and I have worked with dozens of depressed people over the years, and we have experienced bouts of depression ourselves. One thing I am certain of is that there’s no “one size fits all” kind of advice for depression. The reminders below aren’t universal clarifications, but simple guidelines that will hopefully give you a general starting point for helping your depressed loved one cope and heal, gradually.
1. Depression is not something a person consciously chooses.
When you’re lost deep in those woods, it might take you some time to realize that you’re lost. For a while, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path – that you’ll find your way back any moment now. Then night falls, again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and although it’s agonizing, it’s time to admit that you’ve disoriented yourself so far off the path, so deep into the woods, that you can’t even tell which direction the sun rises or sets from anymore.
You’re not choosing to be where you are, but you can’t see a way out. That’s how depression felt to me when I was struggling through it many moons ago.
Depression is one of the most helpless and tiring emotional experiences a person can live through. Sometimes it’s feeling lost, sometimes it’s feeling despondent, and sometimes it’s feeling absolutely nothing at all. There are times when depression can leave you feeling completely dead inside, incapable of moving and doing the things you used to enjoy. Depression is not just a bad mood, and it’s certainly not something you can just “get over” when you feel like it. No one chooses to be depressed, and no one can turn it off or on in an instant whenever they feel like it.
2. Depression is hard to wrap your mind around if you haven’t experienced it.
Some people may imply that they know what it’s like to be depressed simply because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or lost a loved one. While these tough life situations can lead to depression, they don’t create depression by default. In most cases these experiences carry with them strong emotional feelings. Depression, on the other hand, is often flat, hollow, and insufferable – literally sapping a person of emotion, hope and reason.
You don’t feel like YOU. You don’t even feel human. You’re hopeless and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and desperate and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be better soon,” but you know you won’t.
Here’s a chilling quote by David Foster Wallace that brings this point home:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.
Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
3. Saying things like “it’s not that big of a deal,” “you just need some fresh air,” or “it’s time to move on” rarely help.
It’s easy to tell someone you love “positive” things like this because you think you’re giving them hope and helping ease their pain, but to someone suffering from depression these kinds of simple, clichéd phrases often come across the wrong way – thoughtless, empty and essentially worthless.
The truth is phrases like these don’t address reality and only agitate the anxiety within, making a depressed person wish they were alone. It’s like trying to strap a two-inch Band-Aid on a foot-long, gaping wound.
So what can you say instead? Again, there’s no “one size fits all” answer. Just be supportive.
Here’s a rough idea of what I might say (maybe not all at once):
“I love you, and I’m not the only one. Please believe me. Please believe that the people who love you are worth living for even when you don’t feel it. Strive to re-visit the good memories depression is hiding from you, and project them into the present. Breathe. Be brave. Be here and take today just one step at a time. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs 900 pounds. Eat when food itself sickens you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason. I’m here now, and I’ll be here tomorrow too. I believe in you. We are in this together.”
And then I’d give them a long, silent hug. Again and again.
4. Even when they’re pushing you away, you can still be there for them.
“I don’t want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth. I might as well be dead.”
That quote from Margaret Atwood’s book, Cat’s Eye, reminds me of the desperate loneliness and despondency one feels when depressed. But even though depression makes a person feel hopelessly alone, that’s often exactly what depression motivates a person to seek, more isolation. People suffering from depression typically get frustrated with feeling like they’re a burden on their loved ones. This causes them to isolate themselves and push away the very people they need the most.
If a loved one becomes distant through their depression, just do your best to remind them as often as possible that you’re still nearby, but don’t force them to socialize or talk about their feelings if they don’t want to. Be patient. Ease into it.
Keep in mind that even though they may want their space, this doesn’t mean they want to face their pain alone 24/7. Schedule in time to spend with them. Offer to take them to their favorite restaurant, or even pick up some tasty to-go food for them. Introduce plenty of opportunities to create informal one on one time where you can break them out of their routine, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Reach out to them at random intervals. Be a present, living reminder that they are not alone.
5. Depression exhausts and consumes a person, which is why you can’t take their behavior personally.
Relentless exhaustion is a common side effect of depression. Just getting out of bed in the morning can be an overwhelming and excruciating experience. Also, someone suffering from depression may feel OK one moment and feel completely depleted the next, even if they’re eating right and getting plenty of sleep. This can result in them canceling plans, departing get-togethers early, or saying no far more often than you’d like. Just remember it’s not about you – it has nothing to do with what you did or didn’t do. These are just some of the prevalent side effects working through depression.
Do your best to never take anything they do too personally. People can only give to others what they have, and depression takes almost everything away from a person. All your actions and words should come from a place of love, but that doesn’t mean your depressed loved one will always be loving in return, and that’s OK. When you do not take things personally, you liberate yourself – you open yourself to loving someone who truly needs you, freely, and without letting needless expectations get in the way of the immeasurable amounts of affection you are capable of giving.
I’d like to riff a bit more on my point above about the fact that “people can only give to others what they have.” Remember, this applies to YOU too. Caring for a depressed loved one can be fatiguing. If you don’t properly take care of yourself, you cannot properly take care of them no matter how hard you try. You may be able to be there physically, but if your mental and emotional reserves are depleted, you will have very little to give.
So set some love and care aside for yourself too. Refill your bucket on a regular basis. That means catching up on sleep, making time for fun and laughter, eating healthy enough to maintain peak energy levels, and otherwise making time for recovery from the pressures of loving someone through their depression. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the Self-Love chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
If you have experience with helping a loved one cope with depression, or if you have anything to add to the list above, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights.
Photo by: Danielle Dautel
I am supporting my 17yo son and the breakthrough has been touch. Simple physical touch. It’s the first thing we experience in life as newborn babies, before we can speak or reason – it connects us with comfort and tenderness and reassurance – it’s massively powerful. Touch quiets the fear and trauma in the primitive brain, which allows the emotional brain to relax and unclench and not spin off into despair – and eventually you can talk to the intellectual brain about what’s going on and what to do next. It takes time but I’ve seen such tremendous positives from simple touch that I’m a believer.
Worthwhile read! Articulates some of my emotions to a capital T.
Very much appreciate this advice to those of us challenged by depression — “exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs 900 pounds.”
Many thanks for sharing!
This article couldn’t have had better timing. My wife is starting with depression symptoms and you made me realize I was “supporting” her the wrong way. Thank you so much for the awesome advice. You probably might have even saved my marriage. 🙂
In late 2014, I fell in love with the most beautiful man. After 8 years of being single and searching, my single days journey had come to an end. Early in our relationship, my sweet love shared that he suffered from anxiety and depression. While I am no doctor, I could easily see that this would be a challenge for us both. While we kept A&D in the forefront, I never really saw the sadness until recently. After a year of laughter, falling in love and endless conversations about the future, it all came to a complete stop. A tragic incident (not death) took my sweet love to a dark place. I thought it was me and then after reading countless articles, I realized I was not part of the equation. It was important for me to learn how to handle both the rejection, isolation and the endless nights alone. Its been 70 days since the darkness. Although my sweet love is seeing a caregiver and taking medication, he finds himself still very sad. Your website has provided me some important tools to help me. I also send the daily reads that are relevant to my love each morning. It gives us something to incorporate in our daily adventures in life. I am hoping for the best outcome, but some days it seems like the journey will be longer than expected. I have my good days and bad days. Yesterday was a bad day, but after reading your blog on Loving Someone with Depression, my anger turned to empathy and my message to my sweet love was tender and genuine. I look forward to reading through your blog to find other things that will help us on our journey.
Having supported my daughter’s depression for many years and reading everything I could get my hands on to help her, this is the best article I have ever read.
I am supporting my partner who was diagnosed to have depression. IHe would always push me away, break up with me and tells me to just look for another partner because it is not fair to me. Instead of getting mad at him, I just keep reminding him how important he is to me and that I will never leave him no matter what! I told him I am his greatest fan and will always support him. There are days when I feel so alone and just wants to give up but I keep my faith and trust that one day he will be healed by our Greatest healer. He has behaviours that are not acceptable to me like talking/chatting to other girls online. I’d feel hurt but I know that it is just one of the products of his depression and boredom. This article has just made me decide to always be strong for him and to never give up on him..on us! Thank you so much for enlightening me about depression.
I had the same thing happen. Though my boyfriend pushed me all the way out of his life. He told me how dark it got. He’s embarrassed to talk to me. I’ll text him and sometimes he responds back. I have sent him things in the mail. I did catch him online talking to other women. When I asked him about it, he said he just needed pointless conversations and wasn’t trying to date anyone. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t talk to me. He said because it’s hard for him to talk to people he loves. This time I know it’s hard for him. I know it’s hard for me. I texted him recently he said he’d been doing better. When I asked him if he’s doing better is he still unable to talk to me or does he not want to talk to me. He said he’s better as far as keeping his brain occupied (with things he does with his son mostly). He said seeing a therapist is still on his list. He hasn’t responded in a few texts since. I don’t know if I’ll ever get him back.
I suspect my neighbor suffers from depression but am not sure. If her live in boyfriend stays away( I have heard there is another women) she goes to bed for days at a time. Does not cook, clean or even speak to her 15 yr old daughter. She will not eat or get dressed.I have seen her do this over and over. But, if he stays home at night or is there for a while the next morning she is bright and chipper and active. Up and acting like all is well. He gives her no money, she gets SNAP. she has no transportation and we live 6 miles out of the nearest town. I offered to take her to look for work and get her back and forth until she can buy a car, she refused. I take her daughter back and forth to school for functions. Otherwise he mom just tells her to find her own way. The boyfriend and daughter do not get along and he has stopped taking her anywhere or picking her up from school. I feel guilty about involving family services but do not know what to do. I cannot at my age handle a 15 year old nor can I take care of her. she is loyal to her mom as well. got any suggestions?
Written so well. Thank you
Marc Fusciello says
I met my fiance about 2 yrs ago. She told me that she has depression and anxiety when we .et but didn’t show any sign of it for about 14 months. As time went on I noticed a different in the way she was handling pressure. We talked about it and I was then told this is how depression is. I have to admit that at first I was lost never being around anyone with this.
I can’t tell you that I understand it 100% but I am trying my best. I tell her that I will be here for her no matter what and my love will not go away if anything it has grown.
Thanks for this article it has given me more help in handling this with her.
Kay Hamilton says
Thank you, its hard not to blame yourself, when someone u love feels this way.now i understand why my daughter keeps saying its not about me, her mum.
Patience is the key factor. When I was very ill, it took a long time to come around. I was living alone at the time but under professional help thank God. I wanted to be well but it took a long time, months to a year, to lift a terrible depression in my mid twenties. I knew with the help of a therapist that I needed more than council at that point. Medication was required and my depression lifted in just two days. Under the watchful eyes of councilors and professionals I was cured of the depression but entered into a mania state which required additional medication trials to keep me stable. Family was supportive as they could be but kind of out of touch. For me, it took real patience with myself. Going through something like this is maddening in itself and being hard on oneself is not helpful. Therefore, the ones around a depressed person just need to wait, love and just be and ask how they may be of help before butting in. It is really up to the depressed person to let others know how they can be of help. For me, professional care with some tender loving care from family and friends is what was needed. I am glad I had distance from those family members who had a difficult time accepting my behavior and mental illness. It’s all very hard on everyone.
My boyfriend suffers from depression. We moved in together back in November but then he got laid off at work and hasn’t worked since. The first couple of months were fine. But these last 2 weeks have been pure hell. I’m on a constant roller-coaster of he’s leaving me, cannot say he loves me anymore, doesn’t even want to touch me anymore, and then he snaps out of it for a few hours and things are slightly better.
I have tried saying I’m here for him, that I love him, tried to give him his space yet all I get is pushed away. I am at the end of my rope. He won’t get help in any form, and I’m ready to ask him to move out. Is there any hope?
This describes me all the way and while I’m trying to love others and take care of them and make others happy.
I should print this article and hand it out to the people around me when my symptoms come up. Depression runs in my family, but I’m married to someone who simply doesn’t think the same way and can’t understand, although he does try. He is learning to support me the right way and give me what I need to cope while I work through it and this article hits every nail on the head.
I used to attribute the symptoms to Seasonal Affective Disorder, but now that I live in the Southwest, I realize it’s deeper than that. The beauty of it is that I can now accept that I WILL get through it, that I’m not “being ridiculous” or “irrational” and I’m not any less of a person when the symptoms arise. I’ve learned to embrace the mantra “this, too, shall pass” and come out of it with a renewed sense of determination to change that which sent me spiraling in the first place.
For many of us who suffer from this, we know deep in our hearts that we’re not alone and there are many people who love us and want to help. Sometimes, though, nothing helps but just. getting. through it. Our friends and loved ones who truly WANT to understand and support us will know that it’s not personal to them and the best thing is to be there with open arms when we come walking out of the dark. Because we will. It sometimes takes a very long time. But we do.
The image of the person at the window fearing the flames more than the jump is one of the most accurate and profound explanations of severe depression I have ever read and it resonated very deeply with me. I have been there, at that window, and I’ve never known how to explain it to people who don’t think the way I do. Thank you for that. Thank you for all this.
This article is absolutely amazing. I’m dealing with a best friend/loved one who is falling into deep depression due numerous life factors of his. I couldn’t understand a lot of his actions towards me but everything in this article literally spoke to me and I feel like I’ve gained a tremendous grasp of what is going on with him. Thank you so much.. :*)
My husband of 30 years has been struggling with depression for 4 or 5 years and was suicidal. He is in complete denial. I eventually got him to talk to a Dr and therapist. I applied all your points above and showed him so much love. 7 weeks ago he decided that he was done with this life and wanted a new life. He left us and moved in with a woman 20 years his junior who he knew briefly 18 months ago and honeslty hadn’t seen since then. He truly believes they love each other and that he loves me immensely too. This has been devastating for me after all we’ve been through together. i just wonder what will happen when the bubble bursts and guilt combined with depression sets in.
This is helpful, it helps me to identify my own symptoms of depression. It also helped me to take a step back and see my 17 year old daughter’s depression in a different light. What about when you, the caregiver, are also struggling with depression?