I don’t deny that depression is hard to live with. What I often forget to consider is just how tough it is if you are watching someone else – someone you care about – struggling with it. To see your friend, son, daughter, mother, brother, partner in chronic emotional pain. It must be painful to see them fight through the day, exerting every bit of energy in their reserves just to survive the day. It must be painful to see the imprints of self-destructive behaviour etched as physical reminders on their body. It must be painful just waiting for that genuine smile to light up their face.
When you’re supporting someone with a mental illness, you might end up having to deal with what can only be described as a ton of crap when they’re in a crisis. And it must be hard.
In the days after I was discharged from hospital following a suicide attempt, I felt the strain I had inadvertently left on my closest friends. Their reactions ranged from emotional exhaustion to strange nightmares to outright fear of another episode of suicidal ideation. Schedules were planned out to ensure that my days are filled with distractions. Plans were subtly altered so that I wasn’t left alone in the following days. Quick texts to check on me were never far apart.
My friends had been a significant part in pulling me through the bad days. Their emotional support and practical help did me no end of good. However, I couldn’t help but suspect that they felt as if there was something they could have done to prevent that particular crisis. The schedules put me (whether intentional or not) under almost constant supervision as if they thought “if only I kept a closer eye on her, this might not have happened”. The little check-ups throughout the day seemed to be tinted with an undertone of guilt, implying that “I should have noticed that she seemed down a lot sooner”. And, heartbreakingly, someone later confessed to me that she felt she “could have been a better friend”.
Let me ask you, implore you, to remember that symptoms of mental illnesses are impersonal. Non-discriminatory. Random. Just like another illness, genes and environment play a factor in what symptoms someone has. Just as someone shouldn’t feel guilty of a friend developing symptoms of diabetes, no one should feel guilty that someone they care about committed self-harm or suicidal ideation. It would be silly to suggest that you should have been a better friend to the diabetic by encouraging them to exercise or eat more healthily.
It is saddening for me to realise that some of my friends felt as if they should have been able to prevent crises – almost implying that they are responsible, at least in part. That somehow the symptoms of my illness is a reflection of their quality of support. That “if I was a better friend, she might not have tried to do it”.
To think like that is to assign responsibility for someone else’s wellbeing. Given how little control they have over their own emotional health, you are fighting a losing battle for shouldering the burden of your loved one’s health. It is hard, painful, agonising to watch a loved one inflict pain on their own self, but to carry that weight on your shoulders will not lessen the torture for either of you.
If you ever felt guilty, if you ever felt like you could have done something differently, if you ever felt responsible, please remember that these symptoms are, at the end of the day, impersonal.