Watching someone you love unravel is hard work.
He is angry all the time. He is impatient and I don’t know what’s wrong. He’s not sleeping. He’s anxious. The other day was his first day off work in three weeks. He started drinking at 8am. When I ask him if he’s okay, he gets angry. When his friends ask him if he’s okay, he shuts down. If he’s not working, he’s not doing anything. He doesn’t talk anymore. He’s just stressed or asleep or drinking. All. The. Time. I don’t know what to do. – Nicole, 29.
Almost overnight, we made the transition into serious problems. (Well, millennials did at least)
Maybe it’s because mental health is, finally, receiving the attention it deserves. We are more aware of the signs and symptoms of trouble than ever before.
Maybe it’s because life’s problems are more serious. Heavier. There is more talk about financial stress, uncertain futures, kids with problems, global insecurity, endless expenses. Suddenly phrases like depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse are sneaking into our discussions.
These conversations, particularly when they’re about a partner like in the passage above, are brushed with helplessness.
Nicole is 29 and she is worried her partner has depression. She’s worried he’s turning to alcohol, instead of to her, to deal with it.
There is a huge gender gap, not in depression itself, but in the number of suicides committed. Why? Because men are not as likely to recognise or respond to feelings of distress. Instead, particularly Australian men, have a tendency to shut down. Remain stoic. Not discuss their feelings or the ways in which they’re struggling. This means the way they do find to deal with it is more dramatic and, too often, final.
So how to help someone, who will not help themselves?
It will be difficult and frustrating and some days will be better than others. I have experienced depression, and eventually sought out help. But that was after my partner and I had been through some really, really tough conversations. And a lot of used tissues.
Here’s what worked from someone who has been there. Here’s how you can help, and also protect yourself:
First off, don’t take it personally
This is easy to say, but very hard to do. Like many women, I have suffered from depression in the past. My partner at the time found it difficult to believe that the problem was not somehow related to the relationship. That it was not their fault. “How could you feel like this if you’re happy in your relationship?” “People who are in love don’t feel like this.”
But they do. And it might have nothing to do with the partner or the relationship or the job or the appearance of “having it all”. Depression creeps up on you and it’s a feeling of numbness, more than anything else. This is difficult for someone on the outside to understand, particularly when they are trying so hard to help.
Don’t take it personally. Please don’t take it personally. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve read about depression in relationships is that people with depression find it very difficult to think about something other than themselves. That’s why it’s so difficult on their partner. I know this to be true. I have done it.
Listening is often more important than talking
Someone with severe anxiety or depression is not always going to make sense. Something that might seem small to you – like the shower curtain falling of its hooks – or maybe just completely untrue like “I’m not doing anything I care about, there’s nothing here that makes me feel fulfilled” might be the loudest voice in your partner’s head at the time. There’re other voices, telling them that these thoughts are stupid or unproductive or untrue. But these voices are self-deprecating and even more unhelpful.
At these times, just listen. Your partner is not necessarily looking for help or advice. Also, it is not your job to “fix” their depression.
Just let them descend the waterfall, talk through all the things that are going round and round in their head. You might have moments where you become angry, frustrated, sad for them. But don’t stop listening.
Avoid phrases like ‘just get over it’ or ‘it’s all in your head’ or ‘we all have bad days’ or ‘look at the things you can be happy about’. Don’t dismiss their thoughts or feelings as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘dramatic’.
It’s likely they already feel helpless and stupid and painful for feeling like this, for talking about it. But you want them to keep talking. One day, if you listen long enough, they will hopefully work it out on their own.
Have the conversation and make a plan
Tell your partner you are worried about them. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. “Did something happen to make you feel like this? How long have you been having these thoughts? How do you feel happiest? I’m worried about you. You seem different, more stressed, less yourself. What’s going on in your head?”
Don’t be afraid to suggest your partner seek help. But this is unlikely to work first time. People experiencing depression or anxiety are likely to withdraw, and avoid talking about it. Be gentle and persistent in encouraging them to see a specialist.
As well as this. Encourage activity. Take the lead in doing exercise, cooking healthy, getting outdoors, listening to music, going away for the weekend. Look to things that will aid in relaxation. Lead by example in moving forward and making confident, positive decisions. Both of you being paralysed by fear is not going to help anything.
Set boundaries for yourself
This is really, really important.
The last thing you want is for both of you to be stuck in a downward spiral. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. Even if your partner is going through a difficult time, don’t neglect your own needs and don’t make the relationship all about them. Make your own needs heard and set clear limits on what you can and cannot help them with. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ sometimes. It’s important to protect your own wellbeing.
Keep your own life moving forward. Don’t feel guilty about taking steps and being happy, just because your partner is struggling. Make plans, meet friends, take steps professionally… It will help show them what is possible.
Finally, seek support when you need it. Approaching your partner’s family or friends for help is a sensible, smart, often necessary step to take. My partner did it when I was in a bad place. I was angry and hurt at the time. Now, I am grateful. Sometimes, more voices are needed to drown out the self-doubt. They were what encouraged me to finally seek help.
There’s a bigger problem here, too.
I watched the first instalment of the ABC program ManUp last night. In it, Sydney radio presenter Gus Worland travels around Australia trying to get to the bottom of why the Australian “bloke” won’t discuss or respond to their own needs.
He’s trying to change the way Australians see “real men”. He wants to stop more men from dying in something that is so preventable. But it’s a collective effort.
When Worland interviewed women on the street. Some told the camera they liked dating “manly” men, that it would be okay if their boyfriend talked about his feelings “so long as it wasn’t all the time”.
We need to adjust our expectations of what it means to be a “man” too. In order to help your partner feel comfortable talking about their feelings and their emotional distress, it’s necessary that you stop looking for only stiff-upper-lip support. Don’t dismiss their feelings. And remind them, it takes more strength to be vulnerable than it does to be silent.