This piece was written a few years ago to share words of wisdom on how to effectively support someone experiencing depression.
You’ll sometimes be told that you’re outright a terrible support system, or that he would have preferred one method of support over the one you chose in his latest episode.
And as a human being, no matter how he says it, no matter what his words are, you’ll likely interpret them as such:
That you’re just not good enough. That’s you’re not cut out for this. And that you should give up because he needs someone better anyways.
It’ll make you deeply disappointed in yourself that you tried so hard but still didn’t manage to do what’s right.
That you failed him.
So that brings up two important questions.
First, what’s the very best way to show your support? And second, what do you do if at any point in the process, during his episode or after, he says that you should have done something differently?
Let’s start with the first.
This is a delicate question, because as you can imagine, there are hundreds of different ways that you could be supportive to your loved one while he is down. They range from giving his complete space and time to get through his episode himself to continuously being by his side, interacting with him and engaging him in conversation no matter what it takes to get a response.
My go-to is a delicate mix of quiet support and high energy, cute playfulness.
Before I share with you my tactics, it’s most important to understand the purpose here.
The goal is to show your partner that he is loved, unconditionally. Period. Nothing more, nothing less.
He needs to know that someone cares about him. That he matters. That he matters enough not to be given up on. And that you know that he is strong and capable of getting through it himself, but you choose to be close-by anyways. Just in case he’s lonely and because you’d rather be around him too.
The purpose above is largely fulfilled by the quiet support. What this looks like is lying or sitting by him, quietly doing something yourself. Reading a book, watching a movie, or doing some work on the computer for example. And the key is to softly show him that you’re there for him.
I recommend placing a limb on him, or intertwining it with one of his. Get creative and make physical contact. This is a gentle reminder that he’s not alone.
The high energy, cute playfulness strategy helps fulfil the same purpose and additionally serves as a jolt out of the current state. You surprise him with something completely out of the ordinary and his brain has no choice but to pay attention to the entertainment.
This is where you get to take your creativity to the next level. It’s also what takes a huge amount of energy. A recovery from this is often needed, which as you can imagine is extra difficult if he subsequently blames you for not leaving him alone and makes you feel that it didn’t help.
Believe me, the effect of this is even more powerful than the first. Highly worth it, even if he doesn’t recognize this.
So here you get to improvise. It’s drama class again and you win if you get a smile out of your loved one. There are no limits here.
Jump on the bed, shake him around, talk to him in your cutest possible voice… Pretend you’re a happy puppy and want to go for a walk and he’s your owner and needs to take you out before you get too excited and pee all over the bed.
I wasn’t kidding. Anything for a smile here!
Know that this part of the process may take a LONG time. It’s your job not to give up.
There will be challenges you face. Those span from the silent treatment to signs of anger. The silent treatment is worse in my opinion. It gives to sign of whether your efforts are working or not. Anger is often a mask and what it means is that they appreciate you being there and their anger will subside as long as you don’t give up. So stay strong and don’t engage in passing blame or getting defensive!
Eventually you’ll get a positive response. When you do, whatever the response is.
Pause and listen.
Very often, your loved one won’t engage in whatever act you were just putting on, but he will right away start talking about how he feels. That’s exactly what you want.
So when this happens, listen and answer in the most loving and non-judgemental way possible. Don’t make them right or wrong. Just help them feel understood. When you feel you’ve achieved this with a few supportive words, naturally transition into the same playful tone and style, then again opening up the space for him to break the silence and share more of what’s on his mind.
Even to show a smile if you really manage to crack him up!
What I’ve noticed is that it’s important not to stop your playfulness as soon as you get him to share. This shows him that the fun part of this conversation is not an act. Be cool and collected and casually continue to fun to have him continue to be open and feel more relaxed. Although getting a few words out of him might feel like the biggest achievement yet, it’s not time to celebrate and make him feel used. Making him feel like a toy in an experiment might send him back into the downwards spiral.
So this answers the first question of what the best way to be there for him is. The low-key quiet support and the high-energy burst of playfulness work best.
Now what happens if at any point in the process, during his episode or after, he says that you should have done something differently? What do you do?
For example, he might ask to be left completely alone during the process, or after the fact, complain that you didn’t give him enough space.
I think this request is coming from a place of self-loathing and a belief that he’s not good enough to deserve attention. If you do experience such a demand, I suggest leaning more on the quiet support strategy, with some playful variety, as he gets more comfortable with you being around. Don’t give in though.
What I’ve found is that if you leave him by himself for extended periods of time, although he knows he asked for it, his mind will likely go to lonely places, concluding that nobody cares for him.
On the other extreme, if he complains that you weren’t around enough, I would stop and reflect on your actions and find ways to be more supportive in the times he needs you most. He might be onto something and most of all, this could be a desperate cry for help.
As you play around with different methods, you’ll start discovering what works and what doesn’t.
And you’ll start sensing when to lay off and just be around him, versus when to amp up your intensity, attempting to get him to a more cooperative and positive mood.
Get creative with your tactics. And be careful that you don’t completely burn out all your positive energy in one go.
You also need time to recover so you avoid having a breakdown yourself and sending both of you further down the black hole.
– Katrin, with Love
P.S. If you liked this exploration and would like some help in navigating your own tricky situation related to depression, I would love to support you. You’re welcome to schedule a complementary chat with me.