Patricia brought her husband, Dan, into therapy a couple of years ago.
“I want you to try to help him understand what it feels like to have depression. He thinks I could stop the cycle if I was more positive, or exercised more.”
Let me describe Patricia to you.
She works at a huge church, where she helps run their children’s Sunday School and daycare programs. She’s an active, fun-loving mother and grandmother, whose basement looks like an art studio, with grandchildrens’ projects displayed all over the place. She laughs a lot, and her giggle is so infectious, you find yourself smiling and laughing along with her. Weight had always been an issue for her, but a bariatric surgery has helped her, and she heads out early every morning to a boot class. She and Dan have worked very hard on their marriage, and are happy.
Patricia had done a lot to try and manage her depression. But it didn’t always work.
Her diagnosis? Major Recurrent Depression.
In therapy, we had identified four aspects of her struggle.
- Winter was much harder for her, the cold, dreary months triggering sadness and loss of energy. She had bought a special kind of light to use during that time.
- She’d loved being a hands-on mom, and had to rebuild a sense purpose after her last child left home.
- Her self-worth had suffered with her lifelong battle with food. She was insecure around others, and a lot of our work focused on building a sense of competence.
- Plus, depression ran in her family, especially on her mother’s side. She could remember her grandmother, at times not getting out of bed, her door shut, isolating herself from her family. She’d never wanted to be like her.
But at times, Patricia hit a wall. It felt like something invaded her being. She’d become weary of doing anything. She’d lose the desire to hear her grandkids’ voices. She’d have to make herself go to work. Then she’d come home and want to sleep.
Intrusive thoughts of hurting herself would crowd her mind.
She hated losing control of her life.
Dan, her husband, didn’t understand. What had happened? Nothing that he could see. And Patricia couldn’t always explain it herself. It didn’t happen all that often – sometimes a year or two would go by without any major issues.
How can people — especially people who love you — understand the not knowing? How can they empathize with something they don’t experience? How could Dan have compassion for the lack of control Patricia felt from time to time?
I talked with Dan, as Patricia listened.
“Imagine you’re given a house to live in. The floors are covered with carpets from around the world. When you walk around in it, living your busy life, you enjoy it. You get to know its nooks and crannies.”
“But there’s a trick to this house. Every night, the powers that be dig a hole in the floor somewhere, and then cover the hole up with one of those rugs. The next night, the hole could be in a different place. It’s randomly moved. No one can tell, not even you who are living in the house, that anything is different. And it’s your job to go on living normally.”
“Now imagine how you would feel. Your steps would be cautious, your ability to enjoy and feel free diminished. With enough time, you’d feel better. You could go for days without falling – maybe even weeks or months. So you go on living. Until the day you fall in a hole.”
“That’s how it feels for someone with recurrent depression. They have to live their life, knowing that they might not see the depression – the fall – that’s about to happen.”
“You learn you can get out. But you can’t always know what’s waiting for you. It’s your house. It’s what you’ve been given. There are beautiful things about it. But there are pitfalls and struggles that aren’t always under your control.”
Patricia’s eyes filled with tears.
Dan looked at her. “I’m sorry. Now I get it.”
People with recurrent depression can learn to live with it — to manage it. They can watch for signs or triggers. They can sit under light boxes, eat well, exercise, meditate, connect with others, take medication if needed, and get enough sleep — very good habits for all of us, but especially those with depression.
Yet absolute control doesn’t exist.
If you love someone who experiences it, you can help most by understanding.
By listening when all efforts haven’t worked, and they have to struggle with one more fog — one more desperate or despairing time.
By not judging — giving them the message that you know they’re trying.
By asking how you could help.
By supporting them to receive the treatment they need.
Because sometimes, you can’t see the hole.
You can now listen to Dr. Margaret on her new podcast, SelfWork With Dr. Margaret. Each podcast features a different topic, and you can listen while you’re driving or walking – at your leisure! Just click here!
Subscribe in the gray box on the right, and you’ll receive a weekly posts from Dr. Margaret, as well as a copy of her free eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy,” a guide to choosing a therapist.