My boyfriend has been severely depressed for a while now, and he’s told me that the only things keeping him from killing himself are me and his cat. I’m afraid that if we break up (or his cat dies), he’ll go through with it. He’s been to counselors and on antidepressants, but nothing has worked so far. I’m really scared and don’t know what to do. —Julia, Victoria, Australia
I’m so sorry, Julia, for what you and your boyfriend are going through. I want to help you with two plans: an immediate, crisis-management plan; and a long-term plan. Both of these are equally important.
First: if your boyfriend brings up suicide in a conversation, keep him in that conversation. Most suicide-prevention experts advise that you ask at least three questions: (1) whether he has thought about how to do it, (2) if he has a time when he’s planning on doing it, and (3) if he has the tools he’d need to do it. If he says yes to any of those things, this is an actual emergency, and you need to get him to an emergency room. If he says he doesn’t have specific plans, he’s just been “thinking about it,” ask him to talk more about that. Don’t panic, and don’t judge him. Just be loving and inquisitive, and let him talk about his feelings. Often, suicidal people feel like their problems are unfixably huge. But when they actually start talking about those problems, the very act of explaining them to another person can shrink them down to life-size. A lot of our scariest emotions only feel that way because they’re secrets—once we share them they turn from a gigantic, panic-inducing force into a common, if crappy, human experience.
Second: depression is one of the most exhausting, frustrating illnesses in the world to witness. It’s not “sadness”; it’s a black hole in your partner’s brain that sucks away their energy, personality, self-esteem, ability to see anything good about your life together, and sometimes even their ability to remember anything good from their own lives. One of the hard things about loving someone in this situation is that you naturally want to fix their problem, and you can spend all of your time worrying about them, telling them how great they are, and trying to motivate them or support them or solve their problems for them. But even the most well-loved depressed person in the entire world is still going to have depression, because it is an illness, not an emotion. You can’t love it away any more than you can love diabetes away. This can make you feel powerless, which can go on to make you feel helpless, drained, exhausted, and even depressed yourself. Having been on both sides of this dynamic—the depressed person, and the depressed person’s partner—I can tell you that they’re both painful places to be.
Right now, keep reminding your boyfriend that he’s just sick right now, and he has a treatable illness, and to encourage him and support him through the process of finding treatment that works for him. But remember: it’s the doctor’s job to cure him, not yours (or his cat’s). It is unfair for him to put so much responsibility for his health and wellbeing on you, someone who can do nothing about his health and wellbeing. He might not be aware that he’s being manipulative, but he is. Don’t fall into that trap.
It is extra important right now that you spend at least some time each day away from him, focusing on your own stuff. Spend time processing this situation with friends and family. Spend time by yourself, relaxing and having fun and not thinking about your boyfriend—not because you don’t care, but because, if you don’t take care of yourself, the black hole in his brain is going to suck away all your life force, too, and then you won’t be able to help anyone.
Your boyfriend is sick, and if he gets the right treatment, he’s going to get better. But you can’t make yourself sick for his sake. It won’t help either of you. So right now, you can support him, and you can love him. And you can also remember that one of the best ways to do that is to keep loving and supporting yourself. —Sady ♦