Lately, clinical depression, and mental health in general, has gotten more of the media attention it deserves. Brave patients have come forward and described what it feels like. Artists have visualized depression, and about a year ago, several articles about semi-colon tattoos made the rounds (evoking the ire of parts of the IBD community, but that’s another story). Here are the issues that I have: a) depression has many, many faces, yet, articles tend to focus on sadness and being unable to lead your life. b) chronic diseases affect everyone around you. Family members and friends often don’t speak out, because they feel that they have no right to- they are not the primary sufferer of the disease.
This past week, I experienced a glimpse of what family and loved ones of people who suffer from depression go through. My friend Katja was visiting me during my Spring Break. This visit had been planned for a while, and she brought her friend Wiebke with her. They both grew up in the same town in Germany, and had stayed in contact long after Katja had married an American and moved over here. Days after Wiebke arrived Katja texted me to tell me that something was off with Wiebke, and I should be prepared. ok, we shall see, I thought.
Once they had arrived, we had coffee, and she seemed like a funny, intelligent woman. I instantly liked her and could see why my friend was friends with her. If you are expecting some friend-fest all over Portland, I’ll have to disappoint you. It was a roller-coaster of emotions. The next day, Katja was sick with the flu. As in feverish, green in her face, no voice. While I was wondering whether I should get her into urgent care, I heard Wiebke saying: “Well, that’s really shitty for my trip that you’re sick now.” Say whaaaa? The next complaint was the weather, it was too grey, too cold, too rainy. I did point out that this was something clearly out of my control, but that we could go to the art museum, or to Powell’s or other places. “I need nature! I need nature to recharge.” So, her and I walked over rainy Mount Tabor for about three hours. She seemed happier after that, but couldn’t really bring herself to actually say anything positive. She was afraid to use public transport, and therefore walked all over the city, vanishing for hours on end. She couldn’t bring herself to sit with us at the table and chat in the evening, fearing for her independence- it was bad enough to stay with bougie people like us. Katja slowly recovered, but at this point was unable to face her friend. “I see a person that looks like Wiebke, but this is not the person who used to be my friend.” In all of this, I could see Wiebke’s depression, her unhappiness, her attempts to escape it, only to be caught by another fear. It was painful to see her. I don’t think she hurt one of her oldest friends out of malice, but her erratic behavior made it impossible for everyone around her to engage. Accusations and insults were followed by breakdowns and profuse, tearful apologies. Being in a place she didn’t know probably didn’t help either. I finally confronted her, and asked if she had ever thought of anti-depressants, and a therapy, she told me she rejected chemical substances, and had stopped going to therapies, “it was too hard”.
What are you supposed to do? In movies, there is always this one person that stays with you no matter how much you hurt them, no matter the horrible things you say to them. But movies take 120 minutes at the most.
They left a few days later, Katja a wreck, Wiebke deteriorating slowly. We finally decided to contact her family to either come and get her or convince her to return home, where there is a health system, a family, and a known environment waiting for her.
I am still reeling from the experience. Wondering whether I could have done more, could have protected my friend better, whether I should have drawn clear boundaries or helped Wiebke?
On a larger scale, I am wondering whether there needs to be a change in the way we treat depression- so that not only the afflicted person gets some sort of help, but that their loved ones are involved in their treatment, one way or another. So that they have some sort of tools to not only help the depressed, but also protect themselves, for they are suffering, too.
P.S. Before anyone gets upset: Mentioning that your loved ones and friends are suffering too, is not meant to diminish the suffering of people with depression. It is also not meant to make the depressed feel guilty (and as extension even more bad). I simply meant to draw attention to the ramifications of a disease like this.