Note: This post deals with the feelings of people in caregiving relationships with depressed and mentally ill people. If you yourself are the cared-for person in such a relationship, this post may not be for you. It is possible you may find it upsetting, demoralizing, even triggering. I don’t want that to happen, so please consider carefully before reading on.
Second note: I wrote the following almost a year ago, and held it back until now. Since I wrote it, the nearly two-decade relationship that inspired it has ended. I’ve added some further observations at the end, in the wake of separation.
There is a stigma to being depressed or otherwise mentally ill. I know this firsthand, and also secondhand. I know it’s achingly hard to ask for help. That there is a fear, sometimes justified, that people will think less of you. That they will consider you weak. There is the possibility that you will be discriminated against in your workplace. It’s hard to talk about being mentally ill, let alone to get support.
I want to acknowledge that difficulty. I don’t want to in any way diminish it.
That said, society—particularly the facet of society one finds online—is full of people fighting hard against this stigma. A day doesn’t pass, heck, an hour doesn’t pass that I don’t see a posting or a meme on Facebook or Twitter in support of those who are depressed. Telling them that they are loved, that it’s OK to be who they are, that it’s OK to seek help. That they deserve support.
Even in my industry, more and more people are speaking out publically about depression and mental illness. More and more community resources are appearing. Steadily the stigma is being chipped away. (If you feel you need access to some of these resources, I’d be happy to help you find them.)
This is good. This is progress.
But for caregivers of people with depression and other mental illness, there is no public expression of support. There is no chipping-away at the stigma. There are no pleas to go ahead, talk about it! The first rule of caregiving is: You do not talk about caregiving.
Because caregiving is largely invisible. And because while admitting to mental illness may be perceived as “weak”, admitting to having mixed feelings about supporting people with mental illness just makes you an asshole.
To talk about this stuff, publicly, is to confirm the worst fears of the people who depend on supportive friends, spouses, and family to survive. They have it hard enough, without hearing that the people they depend on sometimes resent them.
Like I said, talking about this stuff makes you an asshole. Makes me an asshole.
It is becoming more and more acceptable for people with depression and other mental illnesses to speak up, to say “I have depression”, to ask for help and demand understanding. Meanwhile, caregivers are left furtively searching out fellow caregivers in private, guiltily sounding them out with questions that start out “…I know this sounds awful, but do you ever feel like…?”
Where I’m coming from: I suffer from depression. I’m also someone who has been living with people who have depression and other mental illnesses for almost all of my life.
Caregiving of any kind is exhausting and often thankless. Loving and caring for someone close to you who is depressed or has a related mental illness can be a uniquely demoralizing experience.
There is an idea out there that being depressed just makes a person sad and listless. As a result, there’s a widespread cultural trope both in media and real-life relationship gossip that goes something like this:
- Depression sufferer: “I’m sorry, I’m just so sad all the time. Nothing makes me happy anymore. Please just be patient with me.”
- Sufferer’s partner: “I don’t understand. I’ve done everything that should make you happy. Snap out of it!”
- We, the appalled audience: “Wow, [partner] is such an asshole!”
It’s true that for some sufferers, depression may well exhibit only as a constant sadness. But for others, it may take different forms. Their illness may exhibit as anger or rage. As coldness and emotional distance. As threats. As ultimatums to choose between them, and any or all parts of your life that exist beyond them. As shaming and belittlement. As gaslighting. As substance abuse. As vicious emotional or even physical cruelty.
They may blame their depression on the deficiencies of the people closest to them, and repeatedly shame their loved ones for these shortcomings.
When it’s someone close to you, someone who knows you well, they have all of the ammunition they need to make you feel like the worst person on earth. This is especially problematic in modern western society, where it’s expected that your romantic partner is also your primary/only emotional support. If it’s a romantic partner you’re supporting, then you can find yourself in a position where the one person you would normally turn to for emotional support is the one person you can’t rely on.
It’s not purposeful or malevolent. They aren’t evil. They’re drowning, and you’re the buoyant object they are clinging to. But that doesn’t change how it can make you feel.
Sometimes, I feel resentful.
Sometimes it makes me frustrated.
Sometimes it makes me angry.
Sometimes it makes me bitter.
Sometimes it makes me feel spiteful.
Sometimes, it bleeds over and makes me depressed.
Sometimes I feel taken-advantage-of. As if my early experiences, coupled with my sense of duty and a certain naivete, left me with a beacon on my head reading “FREE LIFELONG SUPPORT HERE!”.
Sometimes I get tired of repressing, suppressing, and feeling ashamed of my own needs and desires. Needs and desires, some of which literally can’t be satisfied by any third party.
Sometimes I feel like, after decades of dealing with my own depression and struggles of those around me; after nonetheless building a pretty fucking awesome life despite all that was arrayed against me; like maybe I deserve to just frigging enjoy it for a while, without someone raining all over it. (An inadequate figure of speech; I like rain).
Sometimes I’m very, very jealous of friends who describe having relationships which are virtually unrecognizable to me.
Sometimes, yes, I do want to say: “Just fucking snap out of it!!”. Even though I know that’s not possible.
Sometimes, yes, I do want to say: “I got over it! Why won’t you??”. Even though I know that’s unfair.
Sometimes I still get really angry about the friends I’ve lost because I was forced to choose. And about having settled on “not having close friends” as the safest course.
Sometimes—a lot of times—I feel like a jerk for feeling any of those other things.
You want to know what really sucks? Because of the yawning silence when it comes to public acknowledgment and support for these feelings, there’s only one group that vocally calls out to people in my position. It’s the people I’ll refer to as the Positive Mental Attitude Orthodoxy, or “PMAOs”. They aren’t an organized group, per say. I’m just talking about the people who are united by a personal philosophy of avoiding negativity at any cost. You see this point of view reflected in statements about “…not allowing negative people into my life!”.
It’s not a life strategy that’s conducive to growing a soul. But when you’re a lifelong caregiver feeling tapped-out and resentful, you see these folks “out and proud” about dropping their negative associations like hot potatoes. And you wonder, for a second, if maybe they don’t have it right.
PMAOs shouldn’t be the ones filling this void. But a void it continues to be. Because we’re all afraid of showing ourselves to be selfish. Or of dealing a setback to the people we love and support by opening up in public.
While people with depression and other mental illness are increasingly acknowledged, we make do with that one friend we can talk to about it. Or a therapist. Or just whatever resources we find within ourselves. We are the shadows inside the shadow.
I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you.
— Samwise Gamgee
Caring for someone with depression is both a burden and a gift. It’s rarely something we get to choose. Instead, it comes to us unexpected and unavoidable: life laying upon us the chance to prove our worth. To be a light in someone’s valley of shadow. To be a hand to hold and a steady voice in the darkness. To dig in and pick up the slack and carry a portion of the weight. To find beauty in barren places, and redemption in fleeting moments. And in the process, to learn about what we ourselves are made of.
But there’s inevitable ambivalence and ugliness along the way. It would be an easier road to walk if we didn’t feel alone; if we didn’t feel ashamed of our own falterings. That’s why I’ve shared this. These are all things I feel sometimes. If you are in the same position, I hope this admission itself helps you in some way.
Follow-up: As I mentioned in a note at the top, I wrote everything above about a relationship that has since ended, after almost two decades. My partner ultimately felt that the relationship had become a contributing factor to their depression, and I don’t disagree. Sometimes people get into patterns together that can’t be broken together.
I think the biggest insight I’ve had about caregiving since then is that you must get therapy for yourself. I realized this after finding a therapist to help me navigate the separation and divorce. Having someone who I could “dump” on without guilt, who was outside of my and my partners’ shared social circles so there was no sense of betrayal, was and remains immensely helpful.
One of the complications of being in a caregiving relationship is that it can feel selfish to route any caregiving resources to yourself. In our case, therapy always felt like an expense we could barely afford, and so diverting any of the money (or time) that was going to my partner’s care to myself felt like “too much”. After all, I was able to “tough it out”, and as the one able to do that, I should be the one making sacrifices.
If you’re in a codependent caregiving relationship with someone, getting help for yourself can also feel threatening to them, and they can unconsciously sabotage it. Often when I would do things to take care of myself, I’d feel supported at first, but then when I kept at it there would be more and more spontaneous crises that made it “unfair” for me to keep prioritizing my own wellbeing. I probably unconsciously did the same thing about my partner’s self-care at times, with guilt about the expense of therapy and/or of getting childcare so I could still work.
To anyone currently in a caregiving relationship with a loved one, all I can say is to reiterate that you must have a therapist. You must see them every week or two whether you think you need it or not. Breaking up your routine, locating a therapist, re-budgeting, and braving the fallout of suddenly taking care of yourself in a way you haven’t before can be extraordinarily daunting. But failing to take care of yourself in this way isn’t just unfair to yourself; ultimately it’s unfair to anyone else you’re taking care of as well.