Why you can’t always nurture a loved one out of depression

Why you can’t always nurture a loved one out of depression

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By Dani Fleisher

“Come back to me,” I’d say to my boyfriend while we were in bed together. Physically he was right there, but mentally he was miles away.

“I want to,” he’d reply. “I really do. I just can’t.”

Last spring, my boyfriend fell into a deep bout of depression, and suddenly I found myself alone in my relationship – a far lonelier place than actually being alone. The man I loved was gone, and I had no idea who this listless, melancholy person was who’d taken his place.

He did really want to come back, but the lies his brain was telling him were too powerful.

Most of us know these things are true: I have people who love me. I have people whom I love. I am a part of my life, and it would matter to people if I was gone.

But in my boyfriend’s depressed mind, those statements turned into questions, leaving an uncertainty that he could feel in his bones. Reason didn’t stand a chance – he felt hopeless and beyond repair.

And I felt powerless to help him out of that darkness.

I thought my love and effort could overpower his sadness, so I did nothing but focus on getting him better. I dragged him out of bed and made him take walks with me; we went to therapy together; and I called his friends to tell them how worried I was.

At some point, I’d decided I couldn’t be OK until he was. I’d have to nurture us both back to life.

But then I got angry – really angry. As the weeks turned into months without much progress, I became frustrated that we were always focusing on him; as a result, my needs weren’t being met. I resented him for not being able to see how good his life was, for not trying harder to get better, as if it were a simple choice he could make.

I began to take his depression personally. If he really loved me, I wondered, wouldn’t I be enough to make him happy?

As I groped around for answers, I became more aggressive in my efforts to help him. I pressed him for answers he didn’t have, and I became hostile when he wouldn’t listen to me about what he needed to do to get better. Without saying so, I made it clear to him that it wasn’t just his own happiness that depended upon his recovery, but mine as well.

One night, after he refused to meet me out with some friends, I called him on my way home, demanding to know what happened. I screamed at him and he screamed back, searching futilely for an explanation that would satisfy me, until he finally spat out: “What is it that you want from me?”

“I just want you to care about me – about my feelings,” I cried.

“Well I don’t!,” he shot back. “I don’t give a s– about you! I don’t care about anything anymore – don’t you get that? I’m sitting here watching TV and wishing the ceiling would collapse on top of me – and you want me to care about your feelings?? I f—- can’t!”

Sometimes hearing the truth can free you and break your heart at the same time. That night on the phone, I finally heard him: He wasn’t capable of loving me then. He simply had no access to his feelings for me; they were buried under his depression. And it had nothing to do with me, which was perhaps the most painful part of all.

We hung up and I pulled into an empty parking lot, where I wept under the fluorescent street lamps.

We decided that it was best for me to move out. He needed the space to work through some things on his own, and I needed to be able to live without being consumed by his illness. We still went to therapy together. We still fought and cried.

But slowly, we became close again. He switched meds and went for more therapy, and talked to friends and pushed himself to be more active. As I put less pressure on him to get better, he was able to actually get better. He’s not quite himself yet, but he’s getting closer every day. I don’t feel alone anymore, and it seems as if our relationship will survive.

And yet, real damage was done. Things were said that can’t be taken back. I still feel residual anger and insecurity. But I’ve realised that just as his recovery can’t be rushed, neither can mine.

In the meantime, I’ve accepted that relationships are not about being anyone’s saviour. I couldn’t save my boyfriend from his depression any more than he could will himself better to save me from my loneliness.

Sometimes the best you can do is tell someone you love them, and let them know where you’ll be, should they be ready to come back to you.

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