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Care in Unusual Places

Support for caregivers dealing with depression can come from many different places and sometimes those places can be quite unusual.

We are often have family asking how things are. We respond to friends who inquire after our mental health. We thank those who help with afternoons of respite or a meal that we don’t have to prepare. And sometimes we receive help and support when we least expect it.

The other day I was out to lunch with my daughter who was in town for a short visit. We went to an Ethiopian restaurant as both of us like that cuisine and both of us know that I don’t get to enjoy it often as my husband is someone who doesn’t venture out beyond the tried and true.

The two of us talked of many things and eventually we had to talk about the depression and challenges that my husband was experiencing as all the symptoms had escalated as of late. As I tried to explain some of the things that were taking place, tears welled up in my eyes. We still talked and soon the tears were more plentiful and she had joined me in the “let it out but this is not the venue to do it in” dance.

The owner of the restaurant, a delightful woman who does all the cooking and who has never failed to have a smile on her face was talking with another group of people at another table. She kept looking our way and then very suddenly, she came over and said, “Whatever is making you unhappy, whatever it is, you will be able to handle it.” And then she gave me a warm, deep hug. When she finished hugging me, she looked at both of us and said simply and matter-of-factly, “Tea. I will make both of you some tea. That will be good.”

She went off, worked behind the counter, and finally came back with two tea cups and warm, soothing tea for both of us. “It has ginger in it. And ginger is good.” She then smiled and went off to the kitchen, leaving two very cared for women in her wake.

Care for the caregiver comes in some very unusual forms. Be aware of taking whatever support you can get whenever you can get it and be thankful for people like Elsa who reach out not because they know you well but rather because you are a fellow human being and you deserve to be cared for.

– Bernadette

Depression and the extended family – part three

In response to a reader’s request about how to talk about depression with extended family members, I’ve been sharing in part one and part two the story of how my husband and I handled this issue throughout our journey.

My mother was, at the time, in the midst of returning to college for first a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in social work. Most definitely her background in this area went a long way in helping her understand the nature of depression, the symptoms and treatments.I felt I was able to be pretty honest with her about what I was going through. She wasn’t able to do much beyond listen, but having that sounding board did help. My stepfather was supportive in practical ways like employing my husband in the brief periods when he was able to pull himself together and get to a job.

And then there was my father and his wife. Always concerned, always ready to help…but somehow sharing with them was harder. Maybe they were overly sympathetic, over concerned? I’m not sure, but I tended to gloss over just how hard life was when talking with them.

So, in the end, we had several very different experiences as we tried to communicate the fact of depression in our world with our extended family. In hindsight and in summary, here are some of the things Bern and I have learned and written about in regards to depression and extended family:

+It’s worth it to share what’s happening. You’re going to need all kinds of support, both practical and emotional, and the people who have known you the longest may be your best support of all.

+On the other hand, think carefully about who you’ll share with and exactly how you’ll share. This nugget is true no matter who you’re considering sharing with, but with your extended family (who you’re likely to have continued contact with, no matter what) it’s especially important. Think ahead of time about your relationship and your comfort level. Think what the consequences are likely to be when you share particular things. Imagine what might happen afterward, and plan out what you’re going to say so that you end up with a situation you can live with and that will be helpful to you.

+After this consideration, you may realize that there are some family members you’d rather not share with. That decision, even if it’s necessary, may be tricky. How will you keep things quiet? How will you handle it if that person finds out down the line?

+Accept help from those extended family members, in whatever ways they’re able to offer and in whatever ways you’re comfortable accepting. Keep in mind that recovering from depression can be a long slog, and having a big safety net may become increasingly necessary.

Thanks again to Jennifer for suggesting this topic as a post subject. I hope you found something in this series that might be helpful.


Depression and the extended family – part two

The question of how to talk about depression with extended family is a big one. Earlier this week I wrote about the beginnings of my family’s journey in part one. Today’s post is the next step of my personal story.

My husband and I come from pretty different backgrounds. His parents were in their late 30’s when he and his brother were born. They were from small, rural towns, and their views of life pretty well echoed their age and their life experiences. My parents, on the other hand, were just out of college when I was born, fully caught up in the civil rights movement, and fairly “enlightened.” So communicating with the two sides of our family as depression dragged on and on was pretty much two different stories. Today I’ll focus on what we experienced with my in-laws.

We tried very hard to do some updating and educating with my husband’s parents. Explaining that depression is a true illness. Trying to erase the stigma. Working to overcome outdated and hurtful mindsets. I don’t think we ever got very far. They continued to be supportive over all the difficult years, but they never did (and still don’t) understand. For them, when a person (especially a husband and father) feels “down,” it’s his job to “get over it,” “pull himself up by his own bootstraps,” “get a job,” etc. They expressed concern, but very often these types of comments and always this attitude were evident. It got to the point where we realized we were beating our heads against a brick wall and we just gave up. When my husband didn’t get better and didn’t get better, we basically just glossed over it and stopped talking about the subject, though it was the elephant in the room.

Strangely enough, my in-laws both had personal experiences with depression. They just refused to see their own experiences in those terms. Trying to commit suicide as a teen? No depression there, just a difficult home situation. Two years out of work and miserable after a mid-life heart attack? Just a rough patch. Obviously we were fighting a losing battle in trying to get them to change their attitude toward brain illnesses.

Thankfully, my husband’s brother and his wife were a different story. There we found real support, concern, and understanding of the nature of depression. That’s where we turned when we needed a shoulder to cry on. And, down the line, that support was reciprocated when my brother-in-law was hit with severe depression. Hmmmm….notice a family pattern there? I still shake my head when people refuse to believe that depression has genetic roots.

Always throughout our journey, our goal was to be open with our family. For one thing, it was pointless to try an hide depression’s effects from the people who were closest to us. But we also felt the need to speak the truth, trying to bring something once considered “shameful” out into the light – mainly for our own benefit. Hiding would have just made it all worse.

Next time, how we discussed depression with my side of the family.


Depression and the extended family – part one

Recently a “Depression’s Collateral Damage” reader requested that we address the topic of talking to extended family about a spouse’s depression. It’s a topic Bern and I have addressed in our books but not, so far, on the blog. Thank you to Jennifer for the suggestion. It’s a big topic and I hate to write a post so long that it seems intimidating, so I’m going to give spread this one out over two or three days…

Every family in which depression plays a role has its own story about how the experience played out. Each family is different. Rarely are two cases of depression the same. Consequently, though there are likely to be some similar themes, every depression story is unique.

In my husband’s case, there were warning signs for a long time that something serious was going on. For a number of reasons, I didn’t pick up on those signs. I passed all the red flags off in my own mind, and in my conversation with extended family members, with excuses and extenuating circumstances.

Until, one day, I couldn’t.

He finally hit the point of what was once termed a “nervous breakdown.” I won’t describe what that looked like, but believe me – it was frightening. Having a two-year-old who I felt needed to retain as much normalcy as possible made it impossible to handle on my own. I had no choice but to reach out for help from both our parents.

I was met with some interesting reactions. Support, caring, tangible assistance certainly – especially in the initial “shock phase.” But then there were subsequent reactions that left me reeling at the time and still make me scratch my head today. Jumping to bizarre conclusions about causes of the breakdown. An (absolutely untrue and uninformed) assertion that “He always was selfish. He just has to pull himself together and think of others.” An ostensibly supportive piece of advice to remember that I could always just walk away from him and get a divorce. (I will stress here that I make absolutely no judgment against anyone who makes the decision to do just that. As I said before, every case is unique and I fully support anyone who feels that’s the best option. In my particular case, I did not feel walking away was an option.)

That was all at the beginning of our journey. But then severe depression dragged on and on. Literally for years. More than a decade. And that extended period required an entirely different kind of framework for conversation with our extended family.

More on this subject to come soon…


Here I Am. Really?

Yesterday at church I cried. I didn’t cry because I felt the deep presence of God. I didn’t cry because I was especially touched by the words of the presider. I cried because of a song.

Here I Am Lord, by Dan Schutte is a song that has been around for many years. I know the words by heart. I have sung it numerous times. But yesterday I could not sing. I tried. I wanted to. I just couldn’t.

Why? Because I was powerfully and achingly aware of a God who didn’t seem to care, who seemed to be shutting doors, who wasn’t hearing our cries. I was aware of the people who were supposed to ease the pain and were choosing not to. And those thoughts were very strong because my husband standing beside me could no longer feel happiness, could not leave the darkness that he was dwelling in, could not feel the love of God or people.

Depression does that. It robs the person and the people who care for that person of the presence of hope. There comes a time where you feel no hope that the medicine will kick in, that the cloud will lift, that this will become something of the past.

All who dwell in darkness now, my hand will save…..really?… when this darkness has gone on for such a very long time?

Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?….yes, who? No one thinks of meals or breaks or any kindness when the disease is depression. What light will shine through a darkness so heavy that the pressure is physically felt?

Yes, yesterday was a rough day but today is new and we begin again. I only ask that for the millions of people who suffer from depression out in the world and for the millions more who care for them that somewhere at sometime they will feel the healing touch of their Higher Power, however they see that Power, and that they will feel the physical care of that Power through a fellow human being. I hope for hope for them.

– Bernadette

The Pain of Happiness

I can’t begin to explain the pain of happiness when it comes to depression. For someone (and their caregivers) who has been depressed for a long time, for the heaviness to lift, for the depression to leave and for the chance to be normal surfaces, this is the happiness and this is the pain.

My loved one felt today what it was to be happy, to be like “normal” people. The change was real and palpable and full of laughter and purpose and happiness. Then toward evening, the cloud descended. The depression was back. The tears, the begging for the happiness to stay.

Just like that it was gone. Just like that we were back to square one. Just like that all of us were plunged once again into what has become for us “the new normal.” Or should I say “the new happiness lacking normal?”

People who fight depression have got to be the strongest people in the world because they know what it is to be happy and they know what it is to have the happiness taken away. And they are wiser because they cherish those moments of happiness unlike too many of us “normal” people who often don’t even realize happiness is happening.

– Bernadette

Blending Brain and Body


I have a great deal of respect and awe for the brain. I have seen it at its very best and I have seen it at its very worst. One thing that amazes me, though, is how few doctors look at the brain as an organ that not only keeps our bodies in running order but also is capable of going awry in so many ways.

Since I am dealing with a husband who has been depressed for over 50 years, who just over a year ago suffered a concussion and who is now exhibiting some interesting behavior, I am having trouble understanding why all his symptoms are not being looked at as a whole. Instead the psychiatrist treats the depression, the neurologist treats and concussion, the behavior therapist treats the unusual behavior and very rarely do they look at the situation as a whole.

Too often we overlook the brain. We don’t check for connections. We don’t look for the entire picture. And doctors are the guiltiest of all. The family members might be seeing the whole picture and might be making the connections but once again the doctor will only see one part unless family members are taken seriously and doctors look beyond their specialties to see the total picture.

Concussions have been shown to open the door to depression but do we consider what happens to the brain that has already been dealing with depression and is given a concussion? Do we consider the effects of medication that worked during the depression faze and how that might change with a concussion added to the mix? Was compulsion always in the mix or did that series of lithium medication cause it?

Amy and I have always pointed out to the people in our gatherings that we know so very little about the brain when we know so much about the rest of the body. It is high time that we start giving this amazing and frustrating brain its due. And we can only do that if we look at the body as a whole, all the organs – most especially the brain – working or suffering together. As long as we continue to isolate the brain, we will continue to not really know our bodies.

– Bernadette

Putting recovery to the test

Lately I’ve been writing about how amazing it is to watch and enjoy my husband’s current triumph over depression and anxiety. As Bern and I have both said before in this space, recovery can be an up and down thing, hard to trust.

Most recently my husband has had a major physical setback (a fall that caused a broken rib) that forced him to postpone his new career until he heals. Knowing that his joy about that new career that was largely responsible for his depression recovery, my first thought was whether he’d have a significant setback emotionally.

Initial readings looked good. When he phoned from 8 hours away to tell me the bad news, I was surprised by how positive he sounded. So positive it was a little frightening, actually…he was trying so hard to reassure me that I was afraid he was just acting.

When he got home and had to spend days zoned out on pain killers and muscle relaxers (NOT a great thing for someone with brain illness, in my experience), my concern grew. He was irritable, illogical. He provoked arguments and assumed ill intent from everyone at every turn. All typical of his worst depression behaviors.

Thankfully, when he was able to ease up on the meds, his former healthy (well, healthy emotionally…the rib is still not in great shape) self returned. He’s thinking clearly, making preliminary plans to return to work, dealing with the regular ups and downs of life in a productive way.

But the point of Depression’s Collateral Damage isn’t the depressed person him/herself – it’s the loved ones who have to struggle through the illness right alongside the depressed person. Notice how I wrote that even though my husband sounded positive initially, I immediately worried that he was just covering? And how, rather than shrugging his rotten moods off as the effects of strong pain meds, I quickly jumped to imagining them as depression symptoms?

It’s a constant trap we caregivers have to watch out for. I’ve been burned so many times it’s hard to trust the recovery when it’s put to the test. So I write to remind myself. And to remind others out there who are supporting a depressed family member. Hang in there, everyone.


Help for Postpartum Depression

At Memorial Hospital in Lawrence, Kansas, new moms are regularly screened for postpartum depression and routinely at discharge, new parents are informed of what the warning signs of this depression are. A support group called Build Your Village meets regularly at the hospital. The support group was started by Melissa Hoffman, a Lawrence nurse, who suffered from postpartum depression over ten years ago. At that time she felt there was no place to turn for help and she decided she didn’t want other women to feel as alone as she did during her depression.

Across the country more awareness is growing about this type of depression. New moms and dads can suffer from a variety of postpartum depression. A temporary sadness following the birth often called baby blues might be one. Then there is the possibility of anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress as a result of a difficult birth and psychosis. Postpartum depression is not just that the woman might harm the baby, but rather different individuals in that family unit might act out in very negative, harmful ways.

Not seeking treatment for postpartum depression does put the babies themselves at risk. Emotional and developmental disabilities may occur later in life as well as opening the door for failure to thrive, lack of bonding, and social attachment issues.

So if you have an inkling that something might be up with that new mom or dad, talk to them or talk with their medical professional. Be aware of the symptoms of postpartum depression. Remind the person that they are not alone – as many as 20% of women have postpartum depression – and they are not to blame – it doesn’t say anything about the type of parent you are – and you will get better.

Thanks, Melissa, for the difference you have made in countless families’ lives.

– Bernadette

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood


“It’s a beautiful day!”

How many times has a caregiver or friend of a depressed person said this to a depressed loved one? I know I have been guilty of it. I wake and look out and despite the fog and rain we are experiencing now, I think, “It’s a beautiful day!”

My loved one, on the other hand, looks out and groans, “Oh, no! Such an ugly day and it’s raining!”

Some people could argue, “Well, if you would just adjust your attitude.” Others might say, “You just are not seeing all the possibilities in the day.”

Neither reply helps.

For many depressed people it is not a beautiful day. Many of them try to make it a beautiful day, try to make it seem so for them. Many of them try to adjust their attitude, but often the depression creeps in and shifts that attitude to anger because, “why should I be the one that doesn’t see the beautiful day.”

We know so very little about the brain. We don’t know why some people respond positively to a day and others don’t. So many feelings, thoughts, and chemicals guide that response and many of those things we have no control over.

So depressed people can shift their attitudes, can pretend it is a beautiful day., or wish for it to be true for them but it doesn’t always work. Depression robs them of that control. They have some but they are not super human.

It’s a beautiful day in our neighborhood, but as Fred Rogers would say, accept those neighbors around you with love and care. Don’t force. See the good. And continue to love them, despite the condition of their day.

– Bernadette