“We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.”
Negativity is a hallmark of depression. The pessimism of a depressed person can taint all aspects of daily life, sapping us of joy and energy. It’s hard to smile or have fun when someone close to us is frowning or lashing out in irritation. When we try to ignore the waves of negativity coming at us, when we try to dance in spite of the darkness, we can end up feeling guilty for leaving him or her behind, or our attempts to remain positive fall flat, overwhelmed by the effects of depression.
Holidays or special days such as birthdays and anniversaries can plunge a depressed person into an even deeper depression. Some have noted that just before or on the special day, the depressed individual will experience a crisis that makes it difficult or impossible for a celebration to occur. In extreme cases, the depressed person will deliberately plan something that can keep the focus on him or her. Depression has a tendency to make the sufferer intensely inwardly focused, unable to care or even notice that others might wish to celebrate and enjoy special times.
This type of behavior can have several effects. Nondepressed persons might question whether they are entitled to feel good when someone they love is feeling so bad. They may wonder why they are not appreciated, why they can’t have the perfect holiday like everyone else around them seems to have. They might attempt to celebrate in spite of the negative emotions, but perceive the celebration as spoiled by the feeling of walking on eggshells, trying to placate the depressed person. How, then, can we continue to celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other special days without putting more strain on an already strained relationship?
It was New Year’s Eve. The family was scheduled to go to a friend’s house to celebrate the holiday with games and goodies. Everything was set. The kids were excited at the idea of seeing their friends. The mom, Sherry, was looking forward to a relaxing and fun evening. But then the father, Stan, declared that they wouldn’t be going. His depression, he said, made it too hard for him to be with so many people.
Sherry thought about the consequences for her, for the children, and for her husband, and came to a decision. She would take the children to the party and Stan could stay at home where he wanted to be. Trying carefully to not let anger enter into her tone, she stated to her husband that she and the kids were going to the party even if he didn’t want to go. He could stay at home and watch the ball drop on television and they would be home when the party was winding down.
Stan stayed at home. When the rest of the family returned they told him about their evening and asked him about what he had watched on TV. This family successfully navigated the celebration of the holiday without leaving anyone out. Stan did what he wanted and was able to share it with his family on their return and to hear their stories as well. Although the interest on his part might not have been the greatest, he was at least able to be included in the holiday in some small way. Sherry and the kids enjoyed themselves and could return to the situation at home with a more positive and supportive attitude. Their happiness was tempered because Stan couldn’t join them, but the celebration had taken place even though he hadn’t been there.
Holidays, for any family, are times of negotiations. For a family living with a depressed person, considering creative options can be an important tool for remaining healthy and happy. The holiday may not look the way it has in the past, but with care, it can still be a satisfying time for all.
How can I talk with the depressed person to find out what would be his or her preference during a holiday time?
How can we look at a holiday differently and still help everyone to celebrate in a way that is good for them?
Reducing the Stress of Celebratory Times
It’s a fact that times of celebration and joy can bring along their share of stress. In our efforts to make a day special, we tend to go overboard, trying to fit in more than we can comfortably pull off. A day of celebration at Christmas turns into a month of trying to create the perfect experience: baked treats, parties, perfect gifts, shining decorations. A child’s birthday turns into a circus of too many guests, too many presents, and overly elaborate and expensive activities. If we’re not mindful of our own limitations, by the time the special day is over we’re so tired from the production we’ve created that we have little energy left to enjoy ourselves.
This state of affairs is one we can’t afford when we’re dealing with depression. Our time and energy are already sapped in dealing with the depressed person’s illness; our checkbooks may already be stretched as we try to cover the costs of treatment. It’s time to downsize our celebrations.
First, we have to take a fresh look at what makes a particular day special. What can we absolutely not leave out if we want it to be a true celebration? What is extra “fat” that can be trimmed without depriving us of a happy time? Sticking to only the necessities that we can comfortably manage is a must.
Before a holiday, make a “holiday tip sheet.” If there are children in the household, have them decorate the page. Each member of the family, sometime in the days before the holiday, writes or draws what they would like to do to make the holiday special and happy. Just before the holiday, the family can consider the ideas on the tip sheet, each member choosing one thing to do. Those individual items are the only things that happen on the holiday. Anything else is extra. Negotiating skills and creativity may be required to ensure that each item is possible. But in the end everyone gets something they want and no one—the depressed person included—is excluded.
Downsizing our celebration requires us to reassess our priorities. In the end, what’s more important—that the house looks like something out of a magazine, or that everyone involved comes away with a happy memory? When the celebration is over, how do we want each person to feel—exhausted from the strain of entertaining, or peaceful in knowing that happy memories were made? Getting down to the essence of why we’re celebrating can help us create a time that allows dancing in spite of depression.
Preparation and Practice
When a special time is coming up, thinking ahead can help you avoid difficulties down the road. Practice, before a mirror if necessary, talking about the approaching holiday and how it might affect each person. Imagine the responses, and imagine not only listening to those responses but also reacting to them in a positive way for everyone concerned. Whether or not children are involved, consider what the adults in the relationship need to do to prepare for the holiday. Decide together what each of you wants to do for the holiday. What needs to be done to make this possible?
Sometimes it is difficult to talk to a depressed person. He or she may have great challenges expressing their feelings, or their words may be consistently negative. Running through a conversation in your mind ahead of time will help you as you have the actual conversation. A good conversation with the depressed person can lead to a good celebration for all concerned.
Dealing with Sabotage
Whether they intend to or not, depressed people can put the kibosh on a celebration before it even gets going. It may be that they’re overwhelmed by the prospect of extra work and extra people in the house, causing them to plunge into an emotional state that renders them incapable of celebration. Or it may be that they’re so mired in the negativity that accompanies depression that they can’t bear to see others feeling happy. Whatever is behind it, the actions and moods of a depressed person can seem like sabotage.
From the time she was little, Alice loved birthdays. She thought it was a day to celebrate the person and, in a way, thank them for being in the lives of others. Her partner in their early years together agreed that birthdays were special, but over the past two years Jonathan had been battling depression and had become inwardly focused, so much so that he would joke feebly that it was “all about me.” Alice decided that despite Jonathan’s depression, she would still celebrate her own approaching birthday by inviting friends over and having a small party.
On the day of the party, with everything ready and only a few hours to the arrival of guests, Jonathan announced that he felt absolutely horrible. The depression, he said, had gotten so much worse, he couldn’t imagine coming out of it. Alice listened, seeing Jonathan disintegrate before her eyes, crying and bemoaning how horrible he felt. There was nothing to do but to cancel the party. Another birthday uncelebrated. Alice reflected later that night that it had also occurred on their anniversary, her birthday the previous year, and the day she found out her watercolor was chosen as the best in a local art show. Depression was killing all of Alice’s life celebrations.
We deserve to celebrate the good times in life. If your depressed partner is unable to do so, speak up ahead of time to let them know you understand, but that it is important to you to celebrate these milestones in your life. Then, go ahead and celebrate. It is one of the ways you can renew your own spirit so you can continue to help your loved one heal.
“Success is measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which one has overcome while trying to succeed.”
Booker T. Washington
Picture yourself biking through a landscape marked by hills and valleys, on a beautiful spring day. Parts of the ride are arduous, even painful, as your leg muscles pump their hardest to reach the peak of the next hill. You’re almost ready to give up when you reach the top of the hill. From this height, you’re able to see more hills and a patchwork of colors in the foliage below. You feel a soft and cooling breeze on your cheek. You hear the joyful song of wild birds. It was worth the effort, just to get to this place.
Now it’s time to head down to the next valley. This is an easy ride at first, as no effort is needed to coast downward. But before you know it you pick up more speed than you like. You’re careening down the hill, frightened that any little bump in the road will send you tumbling to the bottom. Finally you make your way to the lowest point, where the lovely sights and sounds of the hilltop have disappeared. You’ll have to make another difficult climb up the next hill to experience that beauty again—but the memory of the beauty you enjoyed at the top gives you the energy to do just that.
This imaginary ride is much like what we experience in life. Ordinary days, months, and years are punctuated by exhilarating views as we celebrate joyous times with those we love. Much of our time is spent in getting to a place where we can celebrate. But some of our time is also spent in fear and concern as the low places, such as caring for a depressed person, loom ahead. We need to drink in the experience of joy on the hilltops to keep us going when we hit the valleys.
Higher Power, allow me to be fully present in times of joy, that I may be able to use this joy to get me through the low points of life.
Celebrating with or without Your Partner
Close friends invited Annie and Jason over for an end-of-summer dessert and pool party. It had been a long, tough week of errands, evening meetings, and puzzling over how to cover the mortgage. An evening of relaxation by the pool with people who had stuck with them through good and bad was exactly what Jason needed, especially since Annie seemed to be making little progress with her treatment for depression.
The invitation was for seven p.m., and by 6:45 Jason was ready to head out. But as he reached for his keys, he discovered that Annie hadn’t put on her swimsuit; in fact, she hadn’t even risen from her place on the couch. She seemed to be in no hurry to get changed and go along. The ensuing conversation sounded something like this:
“It’s 6:45. Time to go. Aren’t you coming? I thought you wanted to come.”
“Well, I don’t want to be late. Let’s go.”
(Deep sigh.) “Okay.” (No movement.)
“Are you coming or not?”
Jason had a decision to make. It wasn’t the first time this had happened—Annie, sometimes paralyzed by the depression that had been with her for months, made them late to events that were important to them. This time, Jason made a choice that he hadn’t tried in the past. Jason went on to the pool party, leaving Annie behind to follow on her own timetable. He tried his best to make his decision clear in a nonjudgmental way, telling her he hoped she’d be along soon, and he’d let everyone know she’d come as soon as she could. He just needed to be part of this celebration with friends, whether she came along or not.
Depressed people seem to have no sense of time. They’re chronically late for appointments. A trip to the corner store for two or three items can turn into a two-hour absence. A chore that would take a well person twenty minutes might take a depressed person an entire day. Confusion and muddled thinking prevent them from operating on the same schedule as those who are not depressed. A lot of friction can result as we try to live with this.
Chances are, if this situation sounds familiar to you, there’s a conversation you need to have with the depressed person sometime soon, when you aren’t trying to get to an event that both of you would normally enjoy. That conversation could center around the possibility of choosing to go to the event on your own time and allowing your partner to arrive whenever he or she is ready, or it could involve choosing to do activities at a time of day that is more comfortable for the depressed person. For example, if she has more difficulty in the morning, you might plan activities for the afternoon and evening hours as much as possible.
Once you’ve considered these possibilities in the cool of an unrushed moment, create in your mind a proposal you might present to your partner. A conversation ahead of time might forestall feelings of frustration next time you plan to go out.
Celebrating Your Relationship
It was their two-year anniversary, and Sharon had hoped something might change that would allow them to enjoy the special day together. Instead, the day began with Theresa staying in bed until almost noon, on the heels of her promise that she would get up early that day and look at the classifieds in the paper. Then she didn’t eat anything, saying she wasn’t hungry. Next came complaints about how dirty the house was. Sharon left to run errands, a tactic she often used to avoid arguments with her partner, returning to find Theresa sleeping in front of the television. When Sharon woke her, she yelled at Sharon for waking her from a sound sleep, and returned to complaining about the house. She didn’t eat any dinner even though Sharon fixed her favorite meal, with candles and flowers on the table, which she’d bought to mark what was supposed to be a special day. Theresa was in bed again well before nine p.m. Why do I stay with her? Sharon asked herself. She hasn’t worked in months; she yells at me all the time. Obviously this milestone in our relationship doesn’t mean much to her. Everything was all about Theresa, and Sharon was sick and tired of it all.
Depressed people can be hard to love. The illness seems to erase the qualities we had originally enjoyed and appreciated in them, replacing them with traits that are unattractive at best. We find ourselves wondering, as Sharon did, how we can celebrate the relationship together when the person we originally committed to appears to have disappeared.
In this confusing and painful time, it can help to take a giant step backward and look at the situation and the relationship from a distance. Go for a walk, go out to a movie, or even take a weekend trip alone to do something pleasurable. Simply getting time away from him or her can allow us to return with a renewed ability to handle the difficulties of depression. While you’re having some time away, make a conscious effort to remember what was previously good and positive about this person and about your relationship.
Seek out people you can talk to about how hard things are right now. Unloading the frustration and hurt to a trusted third party can be a lifeline. At this time, when your relationship looks so very different than it did during good times, you need to create some distance that can let in light and energy, allowing you to keep dancing together through the darkness.
Sit down and write out your partner’s full name. Now, taking each individual letter, write a quality that you have seen, see now, or might see in the future from your partner. Work as hard as you can to use all of the letters in your partner’s name. When you are done—whether or not you have a full list—take some time to reflect on the qualities. Recall times when you were especially aware of those qualities in your partner. Take time to remember that these qualities have not gone away. Depression is hiding them.
Rely on PACT at this time. When you are in communication with your Higher Power and your community of support, it is difficult to plunge into the depths because so many hands are holding you up. Time taken regularly with your Higher Power can remind you of the meaning and purpose in life; life is more than the negativity of depression. A phone call or lunch with a trusted friend will help to keep you afloat when it seems like an important person in your life is plunging deeper into the abyss. Share with someone what is going on regarding the upcoming holiday or special day. Get ideas about what can be done to make the holiday enjoyable for all of you, from someone who’s not affected by the depression. Allow those outside the circle of depression to celebrate with you in a healthy way.
Remember your PACT with your Higher Power:
Above all, don’t allow depression to keep you from participating in the joyful dance of life.