The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Partner burned out by depressed girlfriend’s ‘caregiver committee’

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My girlfriend has been dealing with rather bad depression for several months. Medication and working closely with a therapist are helping some. She is leaning heavily on three people: her mother, her best friend since college, and me. This means constant communication between the three of us, texts and emails. Mostly it is just the three of us checking in and sharing reports of how my girlfriend is doing, but 90 percent of the time it results in action items for me, since I live with her.

I am beginning to really resent this. I feel like I am answering to two bosses, and sometimes being accused of not doing enough for a person I really care about.

But I am not sure how to handle it. I am not capable of being her entire support system. Even if I were, she has been crystal clear that she wants all three of us in her daily life. And honestly, the two of them know sides of her I do not, and probably catch things I do not.

Is there a way to distance myself from the “caregiver committee” that doesn’t read as turning my back on my girlfriend’s depression?

— Caregiver Committee

Caregiver Committee: Let them know you are overwhelmed. It’s fair, and it’s completely normal that you feel this way. Caregiving for depression is really, really hard. They need to know their “action items” are wearing you out.

If you can, think of a few concrete, specific changes that would help you, and ask for them. Also set aside some blocks of time that you are not available except in emergencies and hold those lines.

Make it clear these things are good for her, too, because you can’t care for her effectively when you’re exhausted. Ideally they will come up with other ideas from here, because the mental weight of having to suggest alternatives is just more mental weight.

Also consider forming a “caregiving committee” for yourself — a few people you can talk to who are outside this circle. Friends are the first resort, typically, but a therapist for you wouldn’t be an overreaction. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has support groups and other resources for caregivers.

Caregiving committee and self-care aside, also please add something to your schedule that has nothing to do with anyone's illness or care. This alone can be enormously therapeutic.

You’re doing a generous and compassionate thing here. It is not “turning your back” to draw a line and take care of yourself — it’s a necessary part of being there for her.

Re: Caregiver: Please, please, tell the other two in your little group that you need support, and let your other friends know, and do consult with a therapist or counselor if you need to. You can’t keep pouring from an empty cup, you need to take care of yourself! You are the one on the front lines, you are easily in danger of burnout. If necessary, bring your girlfriend in on the conversation, as she made it crystal clear she wants help from all three of you.

— Anonymous