The vast majority of this blog talks about mental illness from my perspective – how it impacts on me, how it manifests, various treatments I’ve tried. But, there is someone else in all of this, as there is for most people living with mental illness. There’s my husband. For others it could be a friend, or a family member. Whoever it is, there’s no escaping the fact that mental illness in one person has a profound impact on those close to them.
I asked Hubby to write a post for me on what it’s been like for him living with someone who has depression. It was extremely hard for him to write this, it took strength and courage, and required him to think a lot about a time he’d much rather forget. I can’t find words strong enough to express how grateful to him for doing this. He’s living with depression as much as I am, and I think it’s really important both for him to able to express his side of the story, as well as for you to hear it.
He also spoke about it on The Last Word with Matt Cooper on Todayfm, on behalf of Nurture. Nurture are an organisation who provide support to women, their partners and their families around PND. They are doing incredibly valuable work, and provide individual counselling and support groups around the country.
I was also privileged to be sent a piece of writing by another man who has struggled with his wife’s depression. It reads so similarly to how Hubby felt, which in some ways makes it very hard to take, but there’s relief in it as well – no more than people who experience depression personally being able to identify with each other, I think it will be hugely helpful for partners/carers to know that what they’re feeling, while extremely difficult, is ‘normal’ (for want of a better word!)
If what you read in either of these pieces, or hear in Hubby’s podcast, resonates in any way, please, please – get help.
Living with a loved one with depression is hard. It’s really hard sometimes. How heavy the burden of hardship gets depends on one thing: acceptance. But the path to acceptance is a difficult one. It’s steep, unforgiving and beset with hidden traps. Ultimately it is of course worth it – for your relationship, for your own mental health, and for your own ability to find joy in your life.
One of the biggest barriers to acceptance is processing the massive flow of negative feeling something like this can cause. This flow can easily turn into a deluge that threatens to drown any happiness in life, and replace it with resentment and anger. It takes a lot of thankless perseverance to be able to process and control the negative feeling and sense of injustice.
There is a lot of information and support out there for partners of people with depression but you have to dig a little to get to it. For me, it was comforting to know that what I was feeling was perfectly normal and part of the whole situation. It didn’t lessen the intensity of the emotions, but I guess it was a consolation. No matter how much support was there though, managing the emotions and accepting the situation still has to happen internally.
There was a big sense of feeling unappreciated throughout a lot of the time that Fiona has covered in this blog. For the partner of someone in a depressive episode, the many little things you do won’t get noticed; you labour away quietly and make sacrifices for this situation and no-one will ever know. Consequently, your inner child is not happy about the lack of a pat on the head. There is a palpable sense of injustice – partly because you are affected so much by someone else’s troubles and also partly because in the dark of night you think “I didn’t sign up for this. Is this what my energy has to go on now?”
For me, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome was the huge sense of frustration with how a depressed person sees things. It frequently amazed and infuriated me how the Depressed Fiona would see things so differently, so negatively, compared to me. I used to think “How could she skew her perception like this? It’s so distorted that she must have gone out of her way to find something negative about this!”. ‘This’ could be anything from a beautiful sunny day (“sun won’t stop the car tax needing to be paid”) to maybe bringing the kids swimming (“the pool is freezing, they’ll get sick”).
A combination of these emotions can very easily make way to resentment and anger. It takes work to be vigilant and stop that from happening. Again, this goes back to acceptance and the idea of controlling what you can, and accepting what you cannot.
Unfortunately it’s an ongoing task, but I know from experience it’s worth it. These negative feelings really are perfectly normal but it takes work to manage them. This mindfulness, this level of work, will make sure that any negativity will be aimed at the condition rather than the person who has it.
When things are getting bad, it is not easy to reach out and ask for help – sometimes your loved one is so ashamed of not coping that they don’t want anyone to know – depression has a nasty but amazingly effective way of reallymessing with a person’s perception of things. Sometimes that shame stretches to not wanting their partner to know either. Even if you know your partner is having a bad time with depression, it will be difficult. Depression is also great at cutting off a person’s ability to communicate, especially about emotions. So a small crack appears in the relationship between two people. That crack over time will get bigger, and it isn’t long before it threatens the strength of the foundations of a relationship.
This situation of not reaching out inevitably creates an emotional distance between people. Feeling like you’re being shut out from your partner is hard to deal with it. It’s easy to think it’s your fault, and even easier to start getting defensive yourself which creates more distance, which causes the depressed person’s thought processes to have a field day with this, and things quickly get from bad to worse. That’s one of those times where you have to work your hardest at acceptance. Accepting there’s something going on here that you know isn’t right but is out of your control. Perhaps it’s like watching someone with an addiction; you know what they need to do, but until they see it for themselves it’s pointless. Fiona felt the burden of shame about her depression for the longest time, and it was maddening to see it. I used to literally have to bite my lip when she’d refuse to have people know about what was going on. But perception is what shapes our reality and it’s waste of emotional energy trying to persuade someone that their reality is wrong.
Additionally, asking for help is difficult if you just can’t see that you need it. This happens to the person caught in the ‘blast radius’ of depression too. For me, I knew Fiona needed help with this; I didn’t know that I needed help too. You’re caught right in the middle of a maelstrom, you can’t see how bad it is – the chaos prevents that. You’re too busy trying to keep things going, too busy sticking fingers in dams to have time (or energy) for sitting back and taking a philosophical look at the situation. Ironically, your own perspective gets skewed by what’s constantly going on. It’s hard to describe, but there was a whole part of my mind used for abstract thinking that I didn’t use for months – I was too busy in the full-on onslaught of trying to get through all this. From coming out the other end of all that, I see now that I could have done with so much help, and I needed it so badly. I just never knew at the time because I didn’t have the time to see it.
One other thing that went against me on this is my own personality. I’m a competitive person by instinct and practise. I thrive on challenges and I enjoy being out of my comfort zone. I can be intense when I’m ‘switched on’. This has merits of course but it also meant I sabotaged myself badly. In the past year I literally didn’t know when to give in, when to hold up my hands and say “this is too big for me to handle now, so we need to call in help”. If you work at your limits, the final third of what you do is down to mental strength. The past year had been so much about sheer force of will and mental strength that it was gradually eroding my health that I was jumping from one malady to the next.
Last November I caught a chest infection that never went away. It gradually got worse until late January I fell very sick. I guess I had nothing left and the cumulative effect of stress, winter bugs and little sleep finally got the better of me. All the while Fiona was sliding inexorably into a dark pit of depression and I felt powerless to help – and consequently frustrated and angry at being so helpless. I discovered something that is well documented – tiredness will easily magnify negative emotions, and this bore true for both of us.
I don’t remember much of the worst week as I don’t think I was lucid for a lot of it. But I do remember one incident very clearly: one morning I came down to have a cup of tea with Fi. I was in a heap, but I wanted to see how Fi was doing; she was really bad at this stage. She looked a little brighter, and I said “I’m really glad you’re doing better Fi, because I can’t help you anymore”. And then I collapsed. Physically and emotionally I broke down. It felt like I was glass of water, and someone had taken the glass away so I was spreading out everywhere. Fiona was obviously very concerned, but I remember seeing her trying to engage and she just couldn’t. She was trying to help, trying to be emotional for me but it was all from behind a glass prison. Anyway, the upshot of all this was Fi got a fright (as did I), and the fright penetrated through some of the layers of cotton wool she was living under. She knew this couldn’t go on, and when we talked about the hospital the next day she was fully willing to give herself completely to the process of recovery. She had no choice as she said in her post.
Out of the night that covered us, a few gleams of light broke through. Firstly, such an emotional shock was probably what was needed to get through the layers of depression and give Fiona a different perspective about what was going on. It was bad but helped her I think really commit to recovering with all the tenacity and bravery that’s evident in her blog. I had my own little journey of self-discovery too. When I collapsed and finally admitted I could no longer help Fiona in any way, I felt that I had failed, that I had ‘lost’ and that I had let her down. What I began to realise within a matter of days was that it was probably the strongest thing I’ve ever done – admitted I couldn’t do it any more. There are limits to how long your mind can push your body to keep going, and there are limits to how long your mind can keep going too.
In retrospect this all sounds slightly self-congratulatory. It’s not supposed to – that level of torment for both of us was unnecessary and could have been avoided. We took things too far on our own – for very noble reasons, but it was still not necessary. If you are reading this and you can somehow relate to any of this then reach out now, not later. Partners of people with depression need as much help but in different ways. As a partner you still need to be a support; it’s a lonely watch but you just have to do it. To be able to do that though, you need to have your own emotions sorted out. To sort them out, you need to reach out. If you think you’ll get through it, that you’ll grit your teeth and plug on, then remember that it’s a noble thought but not necessary. It’s not a show of moral strength or integrity to hold out; and I can happily say with full conviction it’s not weak to reach out. Reach out now when things are bad, or reach out later when things are extremely bad – which would you do? It’s like putting off going to the dentist when you’ve a bad tooth : the longer you leave it, the more pain you’re letting yourself in for.
A hidden trap in all of this is the spectre of guilt in the background. Watch out for it – it’s absolutely part of the human condition to feel guilty amongst other things for not being able to help a loved one more, not finding a solution for them (especially if you’re a man). You feel guilty for seeing them suffer and not being able to help. Sometimes when things are bad, and I’m tired, my patience level drops and I’ll snap at Fiona over something stupid. Even worse is when I won’t snap because I know that’s not fair on her; so instead I’ll quietly fume for a while which of course is just as bad. After a while, it’s out of my system, I realise I was being childish, and feel guilty about getting worked up over something small right when things are bad for her. Of course, all of this is very human and very childish (but in a good way). The inner child is in all of us as adults and there’s nothing wrong with getting snappy from time to time like kids having tantrums. I think it’s a way of processing emotions that are too big for us to deal with at the time. Most importantly, don’t feel guilty about it – suppressing it only makes the blowout bigger when it happens (emphasis on when).
There’s a link here with guilt and being a martyr about living with someone with depression too. It is very easy to take everything on so the person with depression can have a clear path to recovery, with no distractions. I was guilty of this. I took on as much as I could to allow Fiona space to recover. In retrospect it was foolhardy – in a subtle way it put Fiona under pressure to recover, and it also gave me too much to take care of and not enough time to take care of myself. If your partner is going through a depressive episode, it really does no good to take everything on yourself, especially in the long term. You still absolutely have to get out and socialise, make time for hobbies, make time for yourself. If the floor isn’t washed it’s not a big deal. Like most things in life, I had to learn this the hard way, but the lesson is well learned. You need to make time for yourself no matter what. This will allow you to still be yourself for your partner, the person they fell in love with and the support, strength and source of humour they need. Being a noble martyr and taking it all on will render you an irritable shadow of the person they need.
Fiona has written about her stay in the Psych Ward in recent months and her path to recovery. It’s worth mentioning that her stay and recovery has been mirrored for me too. Her stay in hospital was a reprieve for me to be honest. During the course of her stay things were obviously difficult at home but simultaneously easier. I was still recovering very slowly from being sick and life still had to go on for myself and the kids. I am extemely grateful to Fiona’s parents and my own who were able to come over and help out when she went in initially. I honestly don’t know how long they stayed for, or how many times they visited – partly due to being so sick, but honestly also due to emotional battering at the time meant I’ve probably blocked some of this out.
Even though it was difficult trying to manage visits, difficult conversations with Fi (the ‘episode’ had made her very very angry at this stage), difficult conversations with the kids about all this, work, dogs, recuperation and the usual responsibilities of life, it was still a reprieve for me. Knowing Fiona was in the best care (and yes, out of my ‘care’) was a huge relief. I didn’t know how heavy the burden had become until it was gone. No more constant hyper vigilence, no more second guessing everything I was about to say in case it could be taken the wrong way, no more secret checking of medication to see if it had been taken, no more constant knot in my stomach about what might come next – no more a lot of things really, a lot of unpleasant burdensome things. So Fiona’s stay in hospital was a stay for all of us. It was much needed. We were really at the end of our tether. That fucking depression was dragging us all down, slowly but surely.
I have mentioned this already, but it’s so important to seperate the person from the condition – something the sufferer can’t do as it’s part of them. Never be angry at the person. As much as you don’t want to be living with this, it’s not a drop in the ocean compared to how much they don’t want it. So be angry at the affliction, not the afflicted. But be angry – that’s important. There are too many emotions that come as a result of being in the blast radius of depression – they can’t be contained. I’m a big believer in physical exercise as a stress reducer. But something like this is too big – you don’t have enough energy in you to expel the anger, frustration and injustice at all this. So talk. Or shout in the car – I used to do that sometimes during really tough times; I’d just roar like a bear with a sore head in the car (my inner child loved this, and always felt better after the tantrum was out of my system).
Reading back over this, it sounds like I’m elevating living with a person affected by depressive episodes more than the person who is actually affected. I’m not. I’m writing about my reality in relation to depression, and for me it was very real. But happily ‘was’ is the most important word.
This post is a snapshot of my life during a really really difficult time. But it’s just a snapshot of a time, and that time has passed. This isn’t a post about burdens, this is a post about redemption. I (we) have redeemed calm again from incredible turmoil. We have redeemed space, and redeemed the ability to breath. We have redeemed each other and far more deeply than before. We have redeemed a life renewed – renewed like a garden in summer after a heavy shower: nourished, flourishing, more colourful and smelling all the sweeter.
So to paraphrase from one of my favourite poems, we are beyond the wrath, the tears and the horror of the shade. Depression finds us, and will find us, unafraid.
Being honest I have sat down to write this piece on a few occasions and each time I get a few paragraphs in and have to stop. I feel like when I am writing about my wife’s depression I am betraying her somehow. And yet she is one of the people encouraging me to write this.
On reflection she has struggled with her mental health long before I met her but I just was blind to it years ago. She was better at covering it up back then and to be honest people’s reactions back then gave her more reason to hide it. Real stigma reactions.
I hated seeing her struggle and I was powerless to help. I could see her doubt in her grow worse. I could see every time she was abrupt with the kids she would think less of herself. Intellectually she grew to know it was her illness and not her, but emotionally she carried the weight of it all. Her thoughts were regularly negative and bordered on the paranoid at times, she believed others thought negatively about her and nothing I could say would change that perspective. She pushed me away at times, pushed others away or at the very least found ways to keep her out of others’ lives.
I know she cried a lot, mostly she wouldn’t let me see it but I knew. I found her sobbing to herself on more than one occasion but I couldn’t make it better. I wanted to hold her but when feeling this way she couldn’t bear to even be touched. She would balk and shudder if I tried to.
It’s my job to help as a husband, right? And like a lot of men I tried and still try to be the fixer. To have all the answers, suggestions, solutions and fixes. But I couldn’t fix this and more often than not she wouldn’t let me try.
Soon after our second daughter was born there was a significant change. And it wasn’t a sudden change I could easily identity. It just sort of evolved. Each day getting harder and harder for her. And as the days went by she had less and less interest in life, in being around others, or even me. Her interest in the children has never waned and has probably being the thing that kept her going at times. Her confidence disappeared, her ability to focus and concentrate too. The kids would go to bed and not long after so would my wife. Retreating to her bed and there I would be sitting on my own with the television all before 9p.m. I didn’t know what was happening. Arguments became common and I just learned to say as little as possible. I was feeling so powerless. It tore me up inside to see her retreating like this.
She would have fears and anxieties about being the house at night, she needed me to stay downstairs while she fell asleep but she couldn’t sleep well at all. Often she would say she would sleep better knowing I was downstairs so I slept on the couch that night. She would sleep, the next day she was better for sleeping but we were further apart. This went on longer than I want to remember.
I am ashamed to admit I started to resent her. I knew it was the illness but this went on for so many years I couldn’t help but have self-doubt creep in. I started to blamed her and felt it was me she was rejecting. I know it wasn’t true but still the thoughts came, ‘she doesn’t like me, doesn’t love me’. Then my negative unhelpful reactions would make this momentarily true and the cycle was perpetuated.
I am a mental health professional so I understand all the theory around depression and anxiety but living with it is a whole other entity. I worry I am sounding like a martyr but the reality is, more often than I care to admit I made things worse. I was no angel and could be impatient, irritable, selfish, and snappy and didn’t show her the respect and understanding I could regularly show my own patients. This was personal and completely different to me.
Her depression enraged me inside and I didn’t know it, I resented it.
I begged her to talk to someone and but mostly it was medication she received from doctors and not a listening ear. That suited her at the time though as she didn’t want to talk to anyone.
The irony isn’t lost on me now, there I was asking her to talk to someone and I never thought I needed help too. A partner or family member living with someone else’s depression is in need of support too. And while the medication worked sometimes, mostly it just numbed things for her. So for her and then for us things were just ‘so’, a ‘status quo’ where things just stayed the same. Nothing great and nothing too bad either. And there we were neither one of us talking to each other about what was going on and the emotional distance just grew.
So for me, my days had their own heaviness. This all became a weight I was silently carrying.
I would say ‘I’m fine’ when asked how I was, how often had I heard that myself?
And here, yet again I felt I was betraying her if I spoke up. I had to eventually though and confided in a few close friends. They didn’t judge me or my wife. They just listened and understood. I should have spoken up earlier for the relief I felt helped, it helped to share the weight of the problem.
Spending the day trying to focus on work and the wellness of my own patients was difficult when my mind is elsewhere. Thinking what drama would occur today, what small problem at home would seem huge to her, and leave me feeling powerless to help.
Texts and phone calls that told me things are bad at home, that today is a rough day, knowing that when I get home today I will be met by a wall of silence. I would dread seeing the number pop up on the display at times. And yet I needed to hear from her. It was my only way to help, to be her sounding board, her listening ear.
When home I will walk in and say hi and ask after her day, all in a poor attempt to make things positive and ‘normal’, not that I knew what that was anymore.
I sometimes felt like a fire-fighter. And just when one fire is out up pops another.
On the drive home, the dread in me grew as I didn’t know which personality I was going to meet today.
I felt alone for a long time. You know that feeling of being all alone even in a crowd of people? We drifted further apart from where we started many years ago. She wouldn’t / couldn’t touch me, not hug me, not hold my hand. I spent a lot of my time making excuses why she couldn’t come to the door, attend this family or social event, why she had reacted the way she had. I realise it wasn’t my job to do this and she never asked, needed or expected that of me but I felt the need to.
I have to take responsibility for my reaction and what I was like and what I can still be like. I used to have this internal rage that would build and build until it exploded somehow. This of course just made things worse and now I was to blame in part.
Why could she answer the door to a stranger asking about ‘are you happy with your phone service?’ Where she would be mannered, polite, appropriate, responsive and good humoured but when the door closed her head sank, her tone changed and the anger or glazed look returned. What made me less of a person that I didn’t deserve on occasion the ‘front’ or ‘mask’?
I know I am her husband and therefor she didn’t need to be like that with me. I needed it sometimes though and never got it. I know putting on the mask took huge energy for her and obviously I wanted her to be real with me. But the selfish part of me just wanted things to be ‘normal’. Even the kids would get the mask and I wouldn’t. But then I think even they saw past that mask at times.
Ya big girls Blouse man, grow up and be the man, be the husband you are supposed to be.
What is ‘normal’? I certainly don’t know and don’t even crave it anymore, and over the years my wish has changed for things to just be ordinary, for us to take pleasure in the simple things in our life together.
The medication is over for now and the woman I knew is returning. Now she can sense the world more acutely. This means she still has bad days on occasions but has become more mindful of what works for her to keep her wellness on track. We both try to watch our wellness and how we maintain it. Eat right, exercise more, talk more, have a social life, value family time and generally find a balance in our lives. If anything she is better at this than me these days.
I have learned to reflect on mental health, my own mental health, all of our mental health. I laugh inside when I hear statistics like ‘1:4 people will experience some form of mental health difficulty at some point in their life’. I believe we all will. Why do I believe this? Because I have lived with it, worked with it and seen that I have mental health too, we all have mental health or as someone called it ‘mental wealth’. Those living with someone else depression or anxiety need support too. They need to take responsibility for their own mental health and seek out the support of friends, family or mental health professionals.
My wife’s post natal depression didn’t just happen for a short ‘baby blues’ period after our second daughter was born. It lasted years and was probably there after our first child too. I don’t believe in labels though. Why do we say ‘I am depressed’? , when we don’t say ‘I am a broken leg’.
My wife is more than a label, more than her mental health and the good days are when she doesn’t let it define her. And while I know she lost sight of this frequently she is also a woman, a mother, a singer, a dancer, a daughter, a daughter in law, a wife and my friend.