There Are Days I Can’t Take It, but My Focus Has To Be on My Loved One (Dealing With a Mentally Ill Family Member When You Have Depression)
Approximately one out of every four Americans will suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition each year. It is therefore common to have multiple people in a family simultaneously experiencing the debilitating symptoms of conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder. When this situation arises, it is vital that everyone get the help they need, even when one person with mental health issues is deeply involved in the care of another.
My wife has struggled with bipolar disorder for years. I’ve done my best to be there for her, as she fights for her freedom from debilitating symptoms.
But I’ve had on-and-off issues with depression over the years myself. Lately, those familiar feelings of emptiness, low motivation, and a lack of energy have returned.
I know from long experience that stress and anxiety can trigger a fresh bout with depression. If I’m being honest, I must admit that dealing with my wife’s mood disorder every day has exacerbated my condition.
When you have a loved one who suffers from serious mental illness, you must do your best to be solid, reliable, and consistent in your support. You must arrange your schedule to accommodate their personal and medical requirements. Prioritizing someone else’s needs, in any situation, inevitably entails sacrifices and compromises.
Unfortunately, clinical depression is an uncompromising condition. It demands your immediate attention. If you ignore its pleadings, you’ll pay a heavy price.
There are days you can push through, regardless of how difficult it is. But other days the feelings of emptiness, despair, and hopelessness are so powerful that they overwhelm your defenses.
This is problematic when you have no responsibilities. But when you’re caring for a loved one who is mentally ill, the situation is even worse. On those days when you just can’t take it, you’ll have to be there for them anyway, and do your best to be of service.
This isn’t good for anyone. Your efforts will be sloppy, half-hearted, and ineffectual. If something serious happens, there’s a good possibility you won’t be able to handle it.
If you can get someone to fill in for you when you’re at your worst, you might get by. If you don’t have that option, though, you’ll need to find a different solution, one that benefits both you and your loved one. Because if your depression goes untreated indefinitely, it can worsen and create a crisis that puts you both in a precarious position.
I’ll admit, a couple of times in the past when I was having a bad day, I made things worse for myself and my wife by panicking. That didn’t help either of us, nor did it help my friend who had to leave work early to rush over and check on us after reading my desperate text messages.
These incidents were warning signs. For the sake of both of us, I knew I had to change my approach.
About three months ago, I made an appointment with a mental health professional for an online consultation. I discussed my situation, my fears and concerns, and she helped me create a plan to avoid future difficulties. What I’ve done has worked out well so far, and perhaps it could be useful to you too if you’re facing the same circumstances.
Day-to-Day Strategies for Managing Your Depression
Even when you have significant and important responsibilities, you can take action to manage your depression aggressively and effectively.
Here’s the menu of self-help strategies I’ve adopted that have helped me cope with my depression while still meeting the needs of my partner with bipolar disorder:
Get Regular Exercise, Watch Your Diet, and Get Plenty of Sleep
When stress and depression wear you down, your self-care skills can atrophy. You’ll indulge in junk food, make excuses for not exercising (“I’m too tired today” or “I just don’t have time”), or stay up late watching TV or spending time on your computer, seeking a quick fix of escapist fun.
Don’t let this happen. You should make a determined and consistent effort (with a real emphasis on consistency) to exercise regularly, preferably at the same time each day so it becomes a routine. You should refuse to buy processed food or junk food when you’re at the store, and literally force yourself to prepare and consume only healthy, nutritious meals. As for sleep, you should make a commitment to get the hours you need every night, like clockwork. Be sure to stick to a regular schedule, so your body will learn to shut down at exactly the right time.
Healthy living is a wonderful and powerful antidote to depression. It can protect you from future attacks and help you dampen the symptoms if it has already developed.
Practice Open and Honest Communication With Everyone
You should let everyone in your expanded circle of family and friends know how you’ve been feeling. Help them truly understand the consequences, and you might be surprised how many of them offer to assist you in caring for your loved one during those times when you just aren’t up to it.
Even if they can’t help directly, they can offer you advice and a sympathetic ear. This alone can dramatically improve your mood, or at least take the edges off your most intensive and disruptive symptoms.
Unless they can’t handle it, you should speak openly and honestly with your loved one who has the mental health issues as well. When they understand how you’re feeling, they will likely do their best to meet you halfway. They will let you know when they really need you, but also let you know when they’re feeling okay. This can help you steal some moments for yourself, when the situation is stable and there is no danger.
You should encourage your loved one to be completely honest with you about their symptoms, too. This can be enormously helpful to them and create a dynamic where you’re each supporting the other during difficult and stressful times.
Seek Out Pleasurable Experiences Whenever You Have the Time
Individuals with depression often overlook opportunities to improve their mood by having a little fun. You may not be able to leave your loved one alone for three or four hours while you go out to a movie or out for a round of golf. But throughout the course of a typical day, you should be able to find 20-30 minutes of free time on multiple occasions. During these short windows, you should do something that brings you pleasure or satisfaction but doesn’t require more effort and energy than you can muster.
This could be reading a novel, playing a game of billiards or darts, studying a foreign language, doing some yoga, preparing part of a gourmet meal, playing a game of online chess, or a thousand other activities that you would find interesting or stimulating. Your imagination could be your guide.
On at least some occasions, your loved one should be able to join you, if they’re feeling well enough and are willing. Simple activities that entertain, engage, challenge, or otherwise lift your mood will have a huge impact on your attitude, and on their attitude as well. They will give you an extra boost of energy, and over time can help lighten your feelings of depression.
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Become an Expert on Your Loved One’s Symptoms
You may only have a general idea of what your loved one is experiencing. This may limit your ability to recognize the severity of their symptoms, or anticipate a crisis unfolding in its early stages.
You should make a committed effort to find out as much about your loved one’s condition as possible. You can do this by speaking with their treatment professionals and researching their disorder on your own. The idea is to become as much of an expert on their condition as possible.
This might not seem to have anything to do with your depression. But in fact, your understanding of your loved one’s disorder will impact your ability to take care of yourself, just as much as it impacts your ability to take care of them.
When you’re unable to read the signs of mental illness and interpret them properly, you’ll be left feeling uncertain and on edge. You’ll be on crisis footing constantly, always afraid that if you look away or take a few moments to yourself, something catastrophic might happen. This is exactly the type of emotional overload that can cause depression, or worsen its symptoms if ithas already developed.
Your deep knowledge of your loved one’s condition will put you on safer ground. It will relieve some of the pressure, and help you decide when you need to remain on alert and when it’s okay to take some time for yourself.
Get Treatment for Your Condition and Follow Your Doctor’s Advice
The absolute worst thing you can ever do when you’re struggling with mental illness is to put off seeking help. Or interrupt your therapy or medication regimen because you’re too absorbed by someone else’s problems.
If you feel like you won’t have the time to attend in-person therapy sessions, you can always try online therapy. It’s widely available now, and it’s the perfect alternative for those who have a limited amount of time to seek care for mental health issues.
Regardless of the format, you can benefit tremendously from therapy. You’ll have a chance to discuss all your feelings, emotions, and experiences with a trained professional who can help you develop healthier habits of thinking and behaving.
With depression, you can also benefit from medication, if you take it regularly and in the proper doses. Some medicines may work for you while others may not. That’s why you must communicate with your doctor about how your medication affects you, so they will know if your current medication regimen is working.
When you have depression,it is important that you get all the help you need. If it takes an extra effort to arrange your schedule to make time for treatment, you should make that effort. Your health is vitally important to your loved one, and it is critical to the future that you and all of your loved ones hope to share in the years to come.