Can two people who are both suffering from depression be together? I remember Googling something like this in the past (when I was very young and had my first crush on a boy who also had depression) and feeling disappointed.
There’s a lot of information out there about how to support someone with depression. There’s also a lot of information out there about what steps to take if you have depression.
But what do you do if both you and the person you love – a friend, a significant other, a family member, whoever – have depression?
Step 1: Realize that you are two people who love each other, first and foremost, not just two people who suffer from depression.
In other words, the majority of your challenges are faced by any two people who love each other. To be honest, most of the things I’ve blamed myself for in the past haven’t been my fault or even the fault of my depression – they’ve been byproducts of the relationship, things that came with those relationships no matter what.
In that same vein, when someone else’s mental illness seems like it’s the problem, it really helps to stop and think – is it really their depression or their anxiety that’s to blame? Is there anyone or anything to blame?
Conflicts happen. To me, they honestly feel like the end of the world pretty much every single time, but conflicts have to happen in any situation that involves two people being close enough to love one another. What matters is how you work through them – if you can do that, you’re not just growing, you’re growing closer together.
Often times, those of us who are battling depression are equipped with more tools to work through conflicts than others – after all, we’ve been working through our own internal conflicts almost constantly and somehow made it this far.
Step 2: Learn each other’s patterns and triggers. And talk about them – communicate.
A lot of us have the misconception that if we suffer from depression ourselves, we understand depression as a whole. But here’s the problem – depression is a completely unique experience for everyone it affects.
It is so important that we understand this, regardless of our shared conditions, and still make the effort to learn the specifics of one another’s conditions, because the one thing that’s worse than someone not understanding what we feel is someone saying “I understand!” and not really understanding.
There are going to be three different uncomfortable and difficult incidents that occur between you and the other person when you both suffer from depression. The first is when you are in need and the other person takes care of you. The second is when the other person is in need and you take care of them. These are the easier ones. The third is when you are both in need.
There are ways to get through these times, but these aren’t times you’re going to get through by just winging it in the moment. It helps to talk and prepare for future similar incidents. Here’s an example of a conversation I’ve had in the past with someone (shortened, of course), after which our relationship significantly improved:
Me: Look, it really hurts me when we start to have a disagreement and you just hang up and disappear for an unknown amount of hours or days. The entire time, I freak out, and I wonder what’s going to happen, and my anxiety causes me a lot of pain. Why do you do that? I feel like it’s because you just hate me in that moment…
Them: What? No, not at all. It’s because I care about you. I just know that in the moment I won’t be able to say the right thing. I’ll say something mean or hurtful or stupid, so I’d rather just be a way from the situation for a while and get some distance from it, and then when I come back to it, I’m less emotional and more myself. I just don’t wanna hurt you.
Me: Okay…that makes a lot of sense. But what you do instead still hurts me, the waiting to see what happens is so difficult, can we figure out some other way?
Them: I didn’t know you were going through that. Sure we can, like what?
Me: I just think the uncertainty makes it really hard for me. I want you to have the time you need to work through those initial intense emotions, but can you at least say something before you hang up or stop responding? Like, something to remind me you don’t hate me?
Them: I don’t know if I can do that in the moment when things are heated. The reason I leave is because I’m usually unable to say the right thing. Would it help if I just let you know that I’ll call you or text you the next day? So you don’t think I’m just gone indefinitely?
Me: What if you need more than a day? I don’t want to push you when you’re not ready to talk.
Them: Then, I’ll call or text to tell you that I need another day.
Me: That would help a lot, actually. Thank you.
Me: So, what are you doing this weekend? Let’s go to the zoo!
This conversation might look pretty different if only I had depression, because my needs would probably be prioritized, since the situation would have been much more difficult for me. It might also look pretty different if only the other person had depression.
But we both had depression, so we needed to wait until things were calm and recap what had happened emotionally, and then find a way to do better for both of us. Keep talking. Keep communicating. Learn each other. You both might have depression, but you are not the same.
And you know what? These conversations get easier every single time.
Step 3: Maintain your independence as much as you can when it comes to your mental health.
The person that loves you is there for you, and you are there for them, and that is beautiful, but they are not your caretaker, nor are they responsible for you. When it comes to your mental health, you are your only caretaker, in addition to any mental health professionals you work with. Like everything else, this goes both ways when you both suffer from depression.
It will help any relationship if both parties are doing whatever they can for themselves before going to one another. The people we love are there to support us, not to take our depression away. At times, they are there to just be there even though we are depressed, not necessarily to make things better.
Imagine you’re walking through the park and you have pain in your leg. Your loved ones aren’t the crutch you’re using to continue walking, they’re the person who will sit on a bench with you when you need to rest. When both of you have depression, you might take turns being that person for each other.
The key is this: You do these things for each other because you want to, not because you have to.
However, sometimes, you are going to need support, and the other person will not be able to give it to you. And likewise, you will not always be able to give it to them.
This does not mean they do not love you. Just like you not being able to be there at times does not mean you do not love them.
Please do not make it about you in that moment; try to acknowledge the other person’s struggle as much as you can. If you don’t, there’s a huge chance you are going to deeply hurt the person you love while they are in their most vulnerable state.
At the same time, you can still feel sad or disappointed or anything else. Those emotions are normal and appropriate when you have depression and feel abandoned. When I say “don’t be angry at the other person,” I don’t mean “don’t be angry.” Not all negative emotion needs to be directed at someone.
Here’s what I want to leave you with:
A lot of people tell me depression is something that gets in the way of relationships. They tell me I’m not ready for a relationship. I hear a lot of, “How can you love someone else if you can’t love yourself?” And I hate that. For someone with clinical depression, this means they are doomed to a life of solitude.
Depression is not merely a case of someone having low self-esteem and not loving themselves enough. It’s a legitimate mental illness and should be treated a such, not as a personality flaw. If you suffer from depression and the person you love does too, it’s okay.
Your chances of having something beautiful and successful are the same as any two people. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
You are in no way less deserving or necessarily less capable of maintaining a healthy relationship, nor is the other person.