THEY say, third time’s the charm. But I suppose that applies for fun things like learning to bike, or play Chopsticks, or make pizza.
It’s my third round at helping a family member through a bout of clinical depression. I dare to say “bout” as if it were the flu and sure to go away after a period of nastiness, because in my first two goes at this thing, it did in fact go away for the sufferer as well as for the family standing by and waiting for the dark clouds to lift.
The nastiest part of the waiting period is precisely that – there is nothing to do but wait. Sure, there’s the to-do list of finding a doctor (or doctors, if the first one doesn’t prove to be a good match), renewing medication, accompanying the person to appointments or when days feel bleak. The work has to be done by the person themselves. There is no way to hurry things along and to “make” them happy on our timeline.
To be honest, it is frustrating, a test of patience, and emotionally draining even on the caregiver. It’s not quite as physically challenging as certain somatized diseases, but the invisible illness can also bring about fatigue and sleepless nights, even for the family and friends on the sidelines. It can be a costly exercise, both on finances and time, to figure out the right cocktail of professional help, chemical and/or alternative treatments, self-help materials and self-care forays, not to mention missed days and income at work, or missed lessons at school.
But I suppose dealing with more than one family member with the unfortunate genetic predisposition to a mental health condition means a kind of familiarity with the beast. To be sure, no two people are the same, and even I myself as caregiver these days am no longer the same person I was the first round and the second round. I’m older and less agile but also, I hope, wiser and less fazed by the Big Black Dog.
Medication and modalities of therapy improve over the years, treatment and thought patterns surrounding the condition change too. While there is still stigma surrounding mental health issues, more and more people are working to break these misconceptions.
While I cannot claim to hold the all-access key to all the solutions that work all the time, allow me to run quickly through a few of the strategies that have been helpful to our own little circle and which I hope will prove just as effective on this third go:
- Understand that the sufferer is coming from a place of fear. Most of their pronouncements will be irrational. It will be tiring to endure listening. Don’t take it personally.
- Be selective about comparisons. Sufferers tend to get lost in imagined doomsday scenarios. “X took medication and look at what happened (negative outcome).” Use it as a chance to pivot to an example with a positive result. The objective is to mirror a success story that they can aspire to.
- Remember that the condition is as “legitimate” as something with a physical manifestation like cancer or diabetes. But remember, too, that it seems scarier because you cannot “see” what you are up against. Keep reinforcing how it is a chemical imbalance and a disease of the brain, not of the person themselves.
- Don’t try to be the problem solver. Medical conditions require medical interventions. Only trained therapists can provide treatment effectively. Only psychiatrists can evaluate when medication is warranted. They also have the (unfair) advantage of not coming with emotional family baggage and know how to phrase things objectively.
- That said, be mindful that for a professional relationship to work, the chosen practitioner must be someone the patient feels they can put their confidence in. Baring their deepest concerns to a stranger can be a scary thought, scarier sometimes than the thoughts themselves. Ensure there is a good working relationship based on mutual trust and clear foundations.
- And an extra but often difficult item: take care of yourself too. Sometimes you may wonder whether you yourself aren’t suffering from the same condition, even if you see that you handle challenges and frustrations differently. You will often doubt yourself. You will doubt your sincerity when you become too tired to listen or too impatient to hold space. You will wonder if you will ever have a day when, for once, they ask how you are. Step back. Breathe. And just as you always try to remember to be kind to the depressed person because of all they are going through, be kind first and foremost to yourself.