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Living with a person who has depression

Many people do not know how to behave around a person with depression: Aruna reflects

Aruna Raman

is a strange being. As someone who manages depression and anxiety on a daily basis, I struggle to understand this hundred-headed snake living inside me. Just when I think that deep breathing would calm my frayed nerves, the sinking feeling in the stomach thinks that their time in the sun has come. I can imagine that it must be equally bewildering for someone living with a person with depression. I often encounter cocky rejection, puzzlement, and a 'by-comparison-one-upmanship' – someone else has it worse, or someone else is doing better. My earlier strategies used to be combat or withdrawal, which would either lead to nasty arguments or sulking.

However, in an attempt to understand myself, I actually started listening to people around me, and realized that they wanted to help, but were struggling. Though the profusion of discussion on these disorders is a blessing for us, it also creates a confusing static in the minds of those who want to help us. A friend recently remarked, “We love you, but we just don’t know what to do.” This sentiment led me to gather my own thoughts on what could have helped me (or could still help). I won’t spout empirical research here - these are small everyday steps.

Step 1, Step 2: Routine, and the lack of it

Establishing a routine is an oft-cited coping strategy for those fighting depression and anxiety. This works wonders for me – having a clutter-free routine helps me find stability. Since there are so many thought transgressions in my head, predictability outside of myself helps me iron out the wrinkles in my head. I feel most anxious in the morning, apprehensive about how the day will unfold. My routine helps me untangle these.

People in my family have well-meaningly questioned why I need to follow the routine in a particular order. I’ve been asked if I could skip going to the gym on a particular day, to ease my (and their) schedule. However, for me, the routine actually guides my journey from apprehension to a state of preparation for the day. My request to the family and friends circle is to let the routine be. The difficulty of it might not make sense, but it is a means to triumph over small obstacles – and big ones. You wouldn’t snatch away blood-pressure medication from the hands of those who need to take it, would you?

The “I forgot!” and head-scramble

My memory is fleeting and unpredictable ­– on some days it is a reliable comrade, and on other days, a deserter. If you live with someone battling depression, you will observe that they might tackle items on the same shopping list on three different days – running back to the grocery store, when they could have shopped for everything on Day 1. That would be the logical approach! If only depression listened to the dictates of logic!

I have often found myself staring at things that are on my shopping list, and forgetting to pick them up, only to make a mad dash for the store next day. Again, allow us to live with this – most people think that mitigation lies in offering to do the shopping for the person, but great reserves of energy need to be summoned up in preparing a shopping list for another person. I find myself shopping by free association and patterns - I have a broad sense of what I need, and start putting things together in my mind based on what I see.

I also suffer when objects in my vicinity-map are reorganized. So, if the newspaper is tucked away under the table rather than being on it, or a spoon in the kitchen drawer is in a more suitable location rather than the one I remember, that is a trigger. Let things be!

A close friend of poor memory is the head-scramble. If likened to horse-riding, a poor memory is a gentle canter on the horse, while the head-scramble is a fierce gallop. Quite simply, the head-scramble is the tendency for several thoughts to collide and be entangled. In my life, I am surrounded by pathological over-instructors, who will ask me to take the trash out, and while I am at it, call the plumber, and send a WhatsApp message to my second cousin, while figuring out how to make a perfectly frothy coffee. STOP! After a point, this is just senseless babble. I feel something inside me recoil. I know that multitasking is the queen-trait that many are proud of, but I am only able to process a few instructions at a time. I am able to multitask when I organize information into patterns that make the most sense to me. One helpful tip is perhaps writing down these instructions for me, so that I am able to make sense of them when there is space in my mind to do so.

Wide open spaces

A few times a month, I take a break from my daily routine, to work from home. This gives me the opportunity to restore myself, work at my own pace, and be meditative. Of course, “work from home” day is construed as “call the waterproofing contractor” day, or “give clothes for ironing” day, or “make phone calls to the travel agent” day. This defeats the purpose of carving out the alone time to untie knots in my head. I try to schedule these down days when I have a palpable sense of low energy or something being amiss, so overburdening my time actually serves the opposite purpose. If that sounds like an indulgence, well, if sugar-free confections help diabetics, these strategies help us!

There are also occasions when I might not want to be socially visible ­– dinner with friends, or being present for a family occasion. Well-meaning people have often mentioned that if I made the effort, I would feel better, or, an argument that does not sit well with me – “do it for the sake of X or Y.” I only have this to say – you wouldn’t pull someone battling dengue out of bed to knock back a few pints, would you?

Say 'yes, you can!'

The domino effect of depression is most alarming – people close to me have often remarked that they don’t know what sets me off. It pains me to sense that they think they need to walk on thin ice around me. Being in this state of mind causes constant guilt, and erodes your self-worth. So, simple gestures of reinforcement go a long way in reconstructing one’s ego. For instance, I have gone into deep lows over something as simple as being countered on a restaurant selection or parking spot suggestion. Again, there’s a difference between throwing a hissy fit over disagreements because one can, and serious impacts. I don’t believe in the indulgence of positive projections ­– “That’s a great idea!” and what not – being a cynic myself. I ask for unquestioning assent, when practical, which is great for my self-worth.

The great mold

Our society thrives on reinforcement by comparison – someone always has it worse, or has made better life choices. Here, the laws of excess apply. A person who abseils with one hand tied behind their back, while making fresh organic food for their three kids, while holding an investment banking job and writing a book by night, will always make a better success story as compared to someone who fights an ill-recognized, intangible battle in their head. My appeal to all loved ones is to have disagreement with choices, but, accept them (even if grudgingly). I have made certain life choices that make the most sense to me, while being consciously aware of the fact that these choices will minimize risks, in case my mental health deteriorates. A significant energy-drain for me is to explain or fiercely defend those choices. Sometimes, I feel like disinterest is better than an active and counterproductive interest in my life.

My account is, by no means, an active 'demystification.' I am as befuddled as you are, but I ask you to try and walk this path with me.

Aruna Raman is a social innovation professional currently working with an American university. She tries to practice mindful living on a daily basis to cope with her anxiety and depression. Aruna also speaks about dealing with anxiety and depression as a caregiver in this piece.