For the longest time I have wanted to write an essay in this vein, and I’m not sure why I’ve decided that this morning is the right occasion – but here we are. Before I launch into a monologue of sorts, I want the record to show that these feelings and opinions are in no way intended to be offensive or critical. Far from that, in fact, they are actually an outpouring on issues that I know affect more than just myself. If anything, this essay is intended to be an exploration of second-person depression (I haven’t decided whether that term will stick yet, but we’ll think of it as a placeholder for now), and a reminder for anyone in a similar situation to myself that you are allowed to not feel okay.
Second-person depression – to stick with the term – is a phrase that I believe, or rather I have to believe, some people will read and understand. You aren’t depressed personally but you’re emotionally close to someone who is – a partner, a best friend, a family member. Their depression doesn’t depress you; let’s get that out of the way from the off. Your moods are not beholden to theirs, you do not – should not – place your happiness on someone else, so let’s not misconstrue these opening ideas as an accusation for depression being air-born.
But depression is tiring, and it is wearing – not just for the person with the condition.
Last year I had my first experience of counselling and it was, in short, quite wonderful. The unashamed outpouring of feelings that I had long since been too self-conscious to share in public was cathartic and rewarding, and it’s certainly something that I would do again. There are one or two pearls of wisdom that I pocketed from that experience, and I refer to them often – for reasons that will probably become apparent:
“This is just how he is when he’s depressed,” I said.
“And that makes it okay?” she asked.
“Well, it’s not his fault, is it?”
“No,” she said, making uncomfortable eye contact. “But it’s not yours either. Living with depression is hard for both of you, it’s just fewer people are talking about the people without depression.”
And she’s right, of course; there are fewer conversations happening around the people living with depression but not suffering from depression – a clear distinction. We live in a world where the dialogue around mental health can be precarious at the best of times, although I have to believe that things are improving. However, given that the people suffering from mental health conditions continue to fight to get their concerns and their suffering acknowledged, it makes perfect sense that those of us in supporting roles aren’t kicking up too much of a fuss for ourselves – in many ways we aren’t entitled to (or so we’ve been led to believe).
Lest he ever read this outpouring, I want the record to note that I love my partner very much – too much, in fact, but that’s another essay entirely. But I’d lying if I said that loving someone with a condition that occasionally makes them hate you is easy – because it bloody well isn’t. On the days when he gets up and can’t look at me, talk to me, acknowledge me; on the days when I say something mildly negative about our relationship and he can’t stand to talk to me for the days that follow this, instead making me wait three or four days for the discussion I’ve nervously started to be fully resolved; on the days when he can’t put on a front for me – his phrasing, incidentally – but he can put on a front for everyone else in the world, leaving me as the only one he’s pushed out. On these days, being the person who lives with depression but doesn’t suffer from depression is hard. And while I’ve been discouraged by many to say this out loud, I’m going to move against the grain and say these things anyway – because I think, in a world where we are trying to expand the parameters of discussion around mental health, we should expand them as fully as possible, rather than expand them in a way that still puts limits on others.
Despite being with my partner for two and a half years, I’m still getting to grips with mental health concerns – they aren’t an easy beast to master, assuming anyone ever does. I know that what he goes through on a ‘depression day’ is something I can’t understand because I can’t experience it; I can only watch him go through this and wait for him to come out the other side, and I am by no stretch of the imagination trying to say that my experience is as hard as his own. But there have been times when, watching this – or rather, struggling to watch this – he’s told me how terrible I am at handling his depression:
“You’re just shit when I’m like this, aren’t you?” shouted over a crowd of people while walking to meet my friends at a fireworks event, to celebrate another friend’s birthday…
In a bid to find a point in amongst this outpouring, I suppose what I really want to say is this:
To the people who are supporting the people with depression: keep on keeping on, because I know that it’s not easy.
To the people with depression: we’re trying our best, even on the days when it might not seem like it.
While people with mental health conditions need and deserve support, as much as they need and deserve a change in the discourse that floats around their condition(s), there will be times when the people standing next to these people will need a helping hand as well – and I don’t think there’s anything shameful in us admitting that.
Esther Harrison lives in the West Midlands with her partner and her dog. She spends most of her time drinking tea, eating cake, and writing stories – occasionally essays – and she is currently working on her first novel.