The first time my depression caused me to have a breakdown, my family did not know what had hit them for days together. Sure, my parents rallied around me to get me treatment, to make sure I was safe, but after I had started limping back to functionality, they had no clue how to behave around me.

You see, my first breakdown wasn’t anything like they had seen with anyone they knew. I had stopped eating for days, I had isolated myself and finally, I had attempted to commit suicide. It is hard for parents of a grown woman with kids to see their child go through that. For years after that, my family swung between pussyfooting around me so as to not trigger anything to outright ugly confrontations that give me an inkling of how difficult it is for them to have a person in the household who is mentally ill.

I was diagnosed five years ago with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder; a large component of both those mental illnesses is depression. In the former, depression is a part of the cycle that I go through – three months of relative balance in my emotions, then my mania climbs. I am vibrant, talkative, risk-taking, uninhibited, full of creative ideas, compelling. If I do not check myself, then, what awaits me is a steep, quick fall that ends in dark days where I do not want to face even the prospect of breathing, where all I do is lie in bed, under my covers hoping I don’t wake up the next day. In borderline personality disorder, however, depression can be triggered by many factors. In my case, it is mostly stress. Depression, therefore, is a very real part of my life. It is also a very real part of the lives of my family members.

Family and friends of a person with mental illness walk on eggshells a lot. With depression being so deeply prevalent and so tragically ignored, most people in India are desperately ill-equipped to deal with depression and other mental illnesses in their family. Mental illnesses weigh a family down – financially, emotionally, physically. At its worst, the presence of a mental illness tears a family apart. I know this from my own life. I have two marriages behind me, my brother and I do not talk, and my parents end up holding on to the last threads of their reserve when they stay with me for long periods of time. If it were not for the innocence of my children, who do not know a mother different from theirs, I would probably have to adopt trees as family. It is gut-wrenching.

Sandhya Menon
Sandhya Menon

The idea that something about me is putting a physical and emotional strain on the people I love the most is a familiar and malefic ghost around me every single day. I am not alone – if you are someone who suffers from depression or any mental illness, this happens to you too. Every day you fight the insurmountable battle to be who you should be for your family against your compulsions and pain. We sometimes deaden ourselves to that battle. Sometimes, we fight, fight, fight till we no longer are able to understand what it is that we are fighting. It is this thing that tears families apart.

Even as families think you are making an effort to accommodate your illness and their feelings, there are times when you simply cannot do the many things required of a functioning person living in a community. For the past three months, I have been living with a relapse of depression. It is also a time when my parent are visiting me. I watch my mother fold the clothes, tidy up the house, do the little chores that go towards maintaining a home. I see my father feed the dog and help my children with things. I know these are things I must do. And yet, I sit there, reading, looking into my phone, painting – doing things that make me feel good in the immediate sense.

Imagine what that does to ageing parents. Imagine how this situation leads to a place where neither party wants to understand, where both parties feel aggrieved. Imagine how a family might work towards staying together, untorn.

After I was diagnosed with depression, every time a conflict arose with a family member, my first reaction was to blame my illness, sometimes even voicing the fact that I was ill, blaming a lot of my uncorrected, unregulated behaviours on it. While my illness did cause all those behaviours, I had no right to blame my illness if I was not getting treatment. And I fell off the therapy and medication wagon so often in the first two years that I was intensely erratic and unpredictable in my affections and anger.

As therapy and medicine regularised, I started to understand how taking responsibility for my behaviour was a huge step in fixing things with my family. When they started to see that the effort from me to make things easier on them was genuine, they started to do more. Observing them do more, I started to do more myself. Has this fixed my family? No, we are still wary, our trust levels are still low, our interactions are still strained. But we carry on. Because that is what families do.

Years of living with mental illness and having lived through deeply challenging times even when I wanted to give up on life has taught me a few things, the most important being asking for what I need. And here are a few tips that might help you, if you have a mentally ill person in your family.

  • Reach the deepest reserves of patience and love. See if you can rise above yourself and your ego to see if you can provide what they need.
  • Use words. Ask them if they’ve eaten, if they would like to do something with you, if they would like help with something they are doing. Do not assume that your depressed loved one will ask for help. Tell them what you need as a parent, as a spouse, as a caregiver. You might not get it immediately but it will come eventually.
  • Show interest in their treatment gently and unobtrusively. Some of us like to talk about our therapy sessions with someone close.
  • Do not treat them like children. Do not force medication – a gentle reminder will do. Do not force them to eat, or bathe or whatever, especially if they’re at a very low point. Gently urge them to do what they need to do, reminding them how good it feels once they’ve done it.
  • Have faith. As a family, stick together and be the safety net the depressed person needs. You want validation too but the depressed person needs it more. Have faith that when depression lifts, you will get a lot more back. Because that is what love does.