Here’s How to Deal with a Partner Suffering from Depression and Self-Harm

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When you’re in a relationship and one (or both) of you suffer from depression or self-harm, it’s a challenge. Your partner will seem distant. They may feel like they’re a burden and close themselves off, but those aren’t obstacles – you can still make your relationship work.

I’m one of the sufferers myself.

I can’t remember when all this started. All I know was that one day everything went downhill.

It was the first time I slid a blade across my skin. I was 13, I think. It was a spur of the moment thing. I didn’t know why I did it.  

I didn’t think much of it. I thought I was like any ordinary 13-year-old girl in 2008. I had my emo phase, I started middle school, my grades were good. Everything was fine, or so I thought. A little self-harming was edgy, but not really a problem.

By the time I suspected something was wrong, I was 19. The damage had been done. I was a mess at that point. My body was covered in scars, and I had lost interest in all the things I used to love.

I was crying so much, I stopped eating, and started seeking comfort in dangerous things.

I got my first boyfriend, who my family absolutely hated. I failed my A-levels. The university I applied to rejected my application.

I’ve always been the bright girl, who’s always had good results. But no more. At that point, I felt so lost. I didn’t know what to do, so I literally dug a hole in my own skin.

My parents were upset and scolded me. They said I failed them and that it was my fault for wasting their money paying for my A-Levels, and how no university would want me now. While I was crying my eyes out, my fingers just started scratching the back of my right calf.

At that moment, I couldn’t feel anything. I just kept on scratching and scratching until I literally dug a hole in it. It was bleeding, leaking pus and fluids, down my leg. There was no more skin left there. It was disgusting.

It got infected after a few days. I have a habit of just leaving my wounds and cuts alone to heal by themselves. But I should have done something about that. I couldn’t walk for a few weeks. I think it was the most severe case of self-harm I have ever committed.  

5 years later, the scar is still there.

I don’t just use sharp things. When I can’t find something to use, I would use my nails. I resorted to that whenever I felt trapped in a situation I didn’t want to be in, like when I’m in an argument.

I’d just find a patch of skin and start scratching until there’s no skin left.

Two years after the ‘incident’, the scar is still visible on my right calf.

5 years later

During my foundation year in university, I skipped classes a lot because I just couldn’t get out of bed. My lecturer started sending me e-mails regarding my absence.

I finally reached out to my personal tutor (we were each assigned a tutor during our foundation year) and she took me to the wellbeing service in my university. That was when I realized I had depression and anxiety.

The counsellor took me to see a psychiatrist in PJ, and I was prescribed medication for my condition. It wasn’t cheap, and I was still a student so I couldn’t afford it then. I stopped the medication after 2 months.

I think I did better when I was on medication, or it could just have been the placebo effect. I felt less sad, I cried less, I started eating and attending classes.

After I stopped medicating, I just forced myself to do all the things that I had to do. I went to classes. I started eating regularly (although not always healthy food). I started to socialize (I previously got anxiety when I had to socialize).

I took part in activities that I normally would avoid. It was good.

My (first) boyfriend couldn’t understand what I was going through. All he saw was me crying and not eating and having random outburst of anger and sadness.

He told me that I didn’t need my medication because those were bad for me. He didn’t understand me and didn’t even try to. Of course, during my second year in university, I broke up with him.

Lip shaped scar from excessive scratching last year while being in an argument with my boyfriend

After that I met my second (and current) boyfriend, who went through a similar experience. He understands what I’m going through, and tries his best to help.

He’ll help me analyse my feelings since I can’t even understand them myself sometimes. When I don’t, I’d get frustrated and lash out, and when that happens, he’d talk to me to calm me down.

When I have my panic attacks, he stays with me and holds me till my erratic heartbeat becomes normal again.  

I understand that it would be hard for your partner when you’re suffering these ‘invisible diseases’, so here are some ways on how to deal with a partner suffering from depression and self-harm.

Understand that it is not something that I can control

Regarding the issue of self-harm, it’s important to know that no matter how much you love someone, you don’t have the power to make them give up a behaviour they’re not ready to let go of yet.

No matter how much they love you, it’s difficult for them to give up self-harming. It’s a habit which has comforted them for so long.

For my depression, please don’t tell me that it’s ‘all in my head’. Yes, I understand where you’re coming from, because I know a lot of the worries I have are ones which I made up.

The worries turn into sadness and anger, and then into fear which prevents me from doing anything, ever. Before I do anything, I’d think of a hundred ways it could go wrong instead of how it could go right.

I overanalyse everything and I can’t stop. All those ‘what if’s are distracting and they prevent me from doing simple tasks like asking my colleague for help or asking a stranger for directions when I’m lost.

Also, the urge to self-harm is ever present. It jumps out at random moments like when I’m cutting vegetables or fruits. There’ll be this little voice in my head that tells me to ‘do it, slit your wrist right now.’ Sometimes I’d stare at my scissors and just think about running it across my thigh.

I know these are unhealthy thoughts. I would suppress it and treat it like it never happened, but sometimes they get the best of me. Just recently, my mind was starting to spiral out of control and I cut myself on my left arm again.

Six times.

Some of them have already faded but these are the ones that are more visible

The funny thing about cutting yourself is that there isn’t any pain at first. I will just feel numb for a while. It’s only when I finally come to my senses, that the pain, regret and shame come flooding through.

It’s hard to explain why I cut myself. I just enjoy watching the blood seeping out of the cut. It reminds me that I’m human and I’m alive. If I go too far, I might die.  

Sometimes I can control myself, but other times, I just let my mind and body do what they want.

Try to be here (even if you’re not physically here)

Most of the times when I’m in my episodes, I just want you here with me. I want you to wrap your arms around me and tell me that it’s okay. I need to know you’ll be here with me until I feel okay again.

I know it sounds stupid, but it’s truly what I need at that moment. Let me cry, let me vent my feelings, and just don’t leave until I’m okay.

It’s difficult for me because I’m in a long-distance relationship. My boyfriend can’t be with me all the time. There are times that I have to be by myself and take care of me.

Despite that, he tries his best through texts, phone calls and even video calls. Just hearing his voice makes me calm.

Last year, I was having an episode in Germany. I was panicking over whether to go out or not. It sounds stupid but deciding to go out or stay in on a Saturday afternoon gave me a panic attack.

When I told him what was going on, he sent me a text saying, “I’m here with you even though you can’t see me”. Somehow, that text gave me the power and the courage to walk out of the house and into the street.

It’s little things like these that matters most to me.

Other than that, if you are with me physically, try to help out with the small things. Depression can make a small task feel impossible. Things like grocery shopping and scheduling appointments take a huge effort. It would be nice to have someone around to help out.

Don’t guilt or shame me

To be honest, making me feel guilty or shaming me because of my depression and scars makes it worse. Don’t tell me “If you loved me enough, you’d stop.” It doesn’t work, and just creates even more guilt which encourages my self-destructive behaviour.

Saying this makes it sound like I’m a burden to you. It feels like I’m just inconveniencing you.

Also, it would be nice if you would listen to me when I open myself to you and not make fun or dismiss my sadness. Give me space when I don’t feel like talking to anyone that day. Figure out what triggers my episodes.

Do not try to ‘fix’ or ‘save’ me

There’s a lot of romanticising of mental illnesses and self-harm in the media. It’s toxic. It creates this idea that you need to ‘rescue’ people who are depressed.

Most of the time, they show a beautiful girl who’s sad with cuts on her arms. Then a boy comes along, and suddenly everything is rainbows and sunshine.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in real life.

Perhaps you think you could handle someone with depression who also self-harms, but the reality is, it’s much harder than you think. It’s not just the occasional sadness and scars on the arms. It’s crying yourself to sleep and staying in bed for days because you don’t have the energy to move.

I was told that guys like fragile and vulnerable girls (like me) because they’re easy. The guy would give attention to the sad girl and then the girl would be all over him. Once the guy got what he wanted, he would just ciao, leaving the girl even worse than before.

Other negative stereotypes include thinking that it’s ‘cool’ or ‘in trend’ to have a mental illness. Because of this, people stop taking the people with the real illnesses seriously.  

Caring for a loved one who’s depressed is complicated and difficult. Know that it’s not your fault I’m like this. I don’t need you to fix me, I just need you to be by my side while I fix myself.

For similar articles, read I Was Self-Harming for 15 Years. Here’s How I Managed to Stop and The Four Qualities Every Well-Adjusted Adult Should Have.

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