This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
I used to joke that only men with depression were attracted to me. It was the only experience I’d had, every long-term boyfriend and even the short-term flings. I’d never dated anyone who hadn’t been on antidepressants, or spent time in a psychiatrist’s office. That dark, brooding, introspective type: It draws me in.
I guess having struggled with my own anxiety, and bouts of depression, I’ve always been able to empathize. Then there’s the carer aspect of my personality; I like to look after people, I like to try and fix situations, connect people to services that will help them. I’m studying to become a social worker.
I don’t want to compare my experience as a partner of someone with depression to the struggles of someone who is actually depressed. But years of loving people who could probably not love me back in the same way, it’s taught me coping techniques that I think could be helpful. I am just one of the many, many partners who’ve sat in silence with their loved one, watching them eat for the first time in two days because their brain has been a fog and their muscles hurt and their bed is the only safe space for them to hide in.
When you’re in love with someone who has depression, it can seem really life-changing to connect with someone who thought they couldn’t connect with anyone else. You feel special because your presence makes their bad days less frequent and their good days more common. When you’re in love with someone who has depression, you swear to yourself that you will never see them for their illness but for the intelligent, dynamic, and thoughtful person that they really are. Usually, that train of thought will linger, right until the end.
When you’re in love with someone who has depression, somehow that lonely and isolating disease manages to wrangle you in too. Their bad days become your bad days. Instead of going out on a date to the movies or going to a restaurant, your time together is just lying in your bed cuddling for three hours at 2 PM. Because that’s all the energy they can muster.
Sleeping becomes hard. There are nights spent staring at the ceiling, worrying about the conversation you had earlier in the day when they told you they don’t see the point of being alive anymore. You don’t sleep because thinking about life without the person you love seems even more excruciating than the pain you’re feeling for them.
Your anxiety for them can turn into compulsion: If you don’t think about them enough, their disease and caring for them, then bad things will happen to them. Your thoughts are consumed by how you can next try to help them.
When you’re in love with someone who has depression, sometimes, but not always, your phone conversations for a week or two will revolve around scheduling their appointments with a new psychiatrist. Contacting the disability support liaison at their college. Making sure they turn up to their three doctors appointments. You are their pillar of support, because you love them.
Once while overseas on a vacation, I found myself so consumed by my partner’s depression I was afraid of leaving my hotel in case they needed to contact me or confide in me from back in Australia. I had a panic attack on Vancouver Island as I hadn’t heard from them and was certain they had self harmed.
In hindsight, it’s so obvious that the way I tried to handle my partners’ depression wasn’t healthy or sustainable. By the end of these relationships, I was completely hollowed out. But nobody teaches you how to look after yourself. From a young age, particularly as women, we’re taught that we’re supposed to think about others first.
The truth is, though, you can’t help someone who’s drowning if you don’t know how to swim.
You cannot be the best support system for someone else if your own mental health is impacted from their depression. For me, taking a 12-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course pulled me back from the really deep water. It helped me deal with the severe and crippling anxiety that had crept up on me trying to manage my ex-boyfriend’s depression.
I do regret going into these relationships without firm boundaries or my own support network. But I’ve never regretted having a relationship with someone who has depression. Mostly because their illness was never what made them attractive to me. Despite its symptoms, depression is not a solitary or selfish disease. It may affect everyone that loves them, but that can’t be helped. It’s nobody’s fault.
The only thing you can do is understand that no matter how much you love them, how many hours you cuddle them for, you will never be able to cure them. They are the only person alive who can.