Kat Dyke -Relationship dynamics and depression

 

The 16-22th May 2016 has not been like any other week. It has been Mental Health Awareness Week; a much needed occasion designed to raise awareness and tackle the stigma still attached to mental health. This is something I’ve always been passionate about, but in all honesty I am not always as open about my own struggles as I could be. The thing is that as much as I encourage others to share their experiences, I still have apprehensions about discussing things so openly, and I’m not alone.

We live in a time where an estimated one in five of us will experience depression at some point in our lives, but despite this we are still not particularly good at talking about it. Understandably, talking about mental health with a friend or family member who is unwell can be difficult and it can be hard to know what to say, but this doesn’t mean that silence is the answer.

The focus of this week’s campaign is relationships; the wonderful connections that we all make (and all too often take for granted) which are so important in maintaining good health and well-being.  Relationships are fluid and during times of illness these dynamics can change. I’m hoping that by sharing a few of my own experiences I can shed some light onto how depression can impact relationships, and how they can also be key to recovery.

My personal experiences have taught me two key things. Firstly, that even good strong relationships can be strained by issues like depression. Caring for someone who is ill can be difficult at the best of times, and when this illness has invisible causes it can be particularly challenging. Secondly, and most importantly, good relationships are invaluable to recovery and to maintaining good mental health.

I’ll start with the first more gloomy point. One of the things I discovered during the depths of a depressive episode was that I was unable to fully appreciate the kindness of my friends and family. During that period my thinking and self-esteem were disorganized and negative and as a result there were many instances when I felt that I deserved to be isolated and alone. I’ve come to think that this is one of the most cunning tricks of depression and also one of the reasons that small acts of kindness are so important in supporting someone who is unwell. Although at times I felt undeserving, I also felt various other emotions (albeit slightly muted). During this time things like receiving post, borrowing lecture notes or being cooked for were invaluable. These small things gave me the chance to feel valued and normal, and although these feelings didn’t always last long, they provided glimmers of light in what was otherwise a dark place.

Another cruel trick of depression was to make me exhausted and apathetic, which meant that the things I would usually do to repay kind favours went out the window. This put a strain on my close relationships as things became very one-sided, and eventually led to unhelpful but understandable comments from those around me. In a moment of exacerbation someone incredibly close to me once said ‘I just don’t understand why you can’t be happy’. This was heart breaking as I really didn’t know. I knew the answers to many questions, but that one was, and remains out of my grasp. Although everyone’s experiences of depression will be different, it’s important to remember that no one chooses this and given the option we would all surely chose health and happiness.

Fortunately, in spite of all the challenges my wonderful friends and family stuck around to help me crawl slowly back to health and happiness and as my thinking became clearer I was increasingly grateful to those around me. I also came to realise that sometimes we need to refocus and really appreciate what we have. It’s clichéd, but when it comes down to it the most valuable thing you will ever have is the love and support of others. Be kind to yourself, give yourself time and above all value those close to you. And if you ever notice a friend who seems down, don’t be afraid to ask ‘are you ok?’ and then to listen patiently for an honest answer.

Kat Dyke (@kat_s_dyke) is a PhD student within the School of Psychology. (lpxksd@nottingham.ac.uk)

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If you need someone to talk to Samaritans are available round-the-clock (and free to contact) on 116 123 (UK & ROI)

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