|Image credit: Matthew Johnstone|
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 really messing 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.