My girlfriend has been depressed for a number of years, unable to shake feelings of sadness and hopelessness that carry over into almost every aspect of our life together. I do everything I can to help her, but I feel like I'm just propping her up, and despite the medications she's taking she doesn't seem to ever improve. I want so much to help her, but I feel like I have nothing else to give. It's to the point where her depression is dragging me down with her, though I would never say that to her. I feel as much like a caretaker as I do a boyfriend. I have thought about leaving, but I'm afraid it would devastate her, and I truthfully don't know that she would survive it. Am I codependent? What's my issue, and what steps can or should I take that would help both her and me? —Dragged Down
It sounds like you have been a tremendous source of love, strength, and support for your girlfriend in her battle with depression. That takes incredible patience and compassion, but it can also take a toll on you. In cases of chronic depression, it is very common for partners to begin to feel more like caretakers than anything else. Very often, when one takes on the role of caretaker, it becomes such a consuming task that the caretaker loses touch with himself/herself. It’s a positive sign that you seem to have a solid sense not only of where she is, but also where you are. It also seems like you have come to the realization that this situation is not sustainable and that something must change. So the question, as you insightfully pose, is where do you go from here?
You’ve asked some really important questions about yourself: “Am I codependent?” “What’s my issue?” “What steps can or should I take?” These questions are as important as they are complicated. I strongly encourage you to begin your own therapy. Developing a strong therapeutic relationship with a clinician will afford you a much-needed opportunity to focus on yourself. You’ve managed to take care of your girlfriend and remain connected enough to yourself to come up with these questions. A trusted therapist will help you thoroughly explore these questions, develop insights, and create and implement a plan of action. You might also want to look for a caretakers’ support group. The burden on caretakers is significant, and there is great therapeutic value in realizing you are not alone. You’ve been shouldering a significant burden on your own for years; it sounds like you are ready to let someone help you carry the load.
You mention that your girlfriend’s medication does not seem to be helping her. The specific mention of medication but not therapy makes me wonder whether your girlfriend is in therapy. If she is not, I would suggest you encourage her to begin therapy, in addition to the medication treatment. Medication treats symptoms, but it doesn’t address all of the problems that often underlie depression. In order for her to have a chance at any kind of substantive change and lasting relief, she needs to be working on these issues in therapy. Also, it is very important that a psychiatrist, and not a general practitioner, be managing her medication. Psychiatrists are the experts in the medical treatment of depression, and they will be able to provide better care than a general practitioner.
Also, if her depression has lasted for years with no improvement, it might be time to look at changing the treatment plan. This could mean adding individual and/or group therapy to her treatment regimen, trying a new therapeutic approach, or making a change to her medication. Consider suggesting that she talk about these possibilities with her psychiatrist and therapist (if she has one). If, after years of treatment, she isn’t getting any better, something probably needs to change. Your girlfriend should know that she has the right to be an active participant in her treatment plan and to discuss changes to this plan with her clinicians.
You took a leap when you wrote in with your question. I hope you will take another one and find some support for yourself. This is a painful, complicated issue, and you deserve to have support as you work on figuring out what is best for you.