I thought long and hard before publishing this post, primarily because it is one of the most personal pieces I have ever written. After trawling the internet, however, I realised that whilst there are many sites written from the perspective of someone battling depression, or a doctor or psychiatrist on the effects of depression on a relationship, there is very little written from the perspective of the spouse or partner of someone in the grip of a depressive episode.
Depression isn’t a pretty illness. It’s downright ugly, not to mention cowardly. It sneaks up on its victims, often rendering not only them, but those around them, helpless in its grip. So, before I start crying (yes, it’s been that kind of a day), here is my perspective. You will notice that I have used the words “spouse” or “partner”, as I do not wish to give the impression that I am aiming my words purely at women. No matter who you are, if you live with or love someone battling depression, chances are this post will resonate with you in some way. All I know for sure is that it has helped me to write it. If it helps someone to read it, then so much the better.
As the wife of a husband with depression, I can honestly say that it is one of the hardest things to be. To witness someone you love cry inconsolably; to hear them say, with so much venom, that their entire life is shit; to bear the brunt of their anger, simply because there is no one else there for them to vent against; to have moments when you yourself feel low or a bit weepy, and yet you can’t go and talk to your spouse or partner because they aren’t in the right emotional state to comfort you; to hold your loved one in bed, but they don’t hold you; all of this results in a feeling of being left in a very lonely place indeed. In fact, when my husband is in the grip of a depressive crisis, it would be more than fair to say that I have never felt lonelier.
These feelings of loneliness, and, dare I say it, helplessness, are compounded by the fact that society, the medical community, self-help books and websites, rarely give the spouse or partner of someone with depression a second thought, other than to remind us that it is our duty to be there in support of our loved ones, giving them a listening, non-judgemental ear, a shoulder to cry on, and generally navigating the eggshell-strewn minefield of knowing what to do for the best, whilst simultaneously biting our tongues when a verbal salvo is launched in our direction.
The fact that depression is episodic, doesn’t make navigating the minefield any less difficult. Indeed, in my experience, it makes it all the harder. To metaphorically be enjoying a beautiful sunny day, with birds singing and everything full of colour, only to have a black cloud appear literally out of nowhere, is as hard and distressing to witness as it must be to experience. Winston Churchill called his depression the “black dog”. If that is so, then being the spouse or partner of someone with depression is like being afraid of dogs, but having to live with one nonetheless.
My husband was diagnosed with depression around six years ago, although he has suffered with it (undiagnosed) for far longer. For around three years following his diagnosis, he was on medication, which, I cannot deny and which he himself would admit, did help. However, the side-effects were horrendous for him. The worst was the inability to control his body temperature, resulting in his sweating profusely both day and night and with the slightest exertion. Given the fact that he had, at that time, a manual job, it was hardly a pleasant experience to have to change his clothes three or four times a day. His medication was changed a few times, but still the side-effects were less than desirous. Therefore, three years ago, he made the decision that he lo longer wanted to take pills, realising that he could either spend a lifetime switching from one pill to another, or he could take matters into his own hands and work through the episodes in his own way.
For the most part, it has worked, and when depression hits, he will more often than not sleep if he feels the need to, or work in the garden, or work on his motorbikes, or we’ll go for a walk together, anything to stop him retreating into his mind. However, it is at these moments when I feel uniquely alone in the eggshell-strewn minefield, for if I happen to suggest doing something, and that something is not the thing he wishes to do, I will be met with either a disdainful look, or words and facial expressions that contain so much venom, it takes all my strength not to shout “Well fuck you!” and run out of the door.
So, how do I handle it? I hear you ask. How do I handle the loneliness, the resentment that my husband has changed from the man I married (even though I know the change came unbidden and unintended), and the sheer stress of it all? Well, I am lucky in that I have my writing, and so can (given the right amount of caffeine and willpower) escape into a fictional world of my own choosing. I also find that writing down my thoughts and feelings helps a great deal too. I practice meditation and have breathing exercises (inhale for a count of three, hold for a count of three, exhale for a count of three) which helps me to slow down my mind and concentrate on nothing except breathing and counting. Most importantly (to me, anyway), I tell myself four words, four words that I use as a mantra, especially when meditating: This too shall pass. All of this helps me to bear that which – and I choose my words carefully here – would, in any other circumstance, be unbearable.
I love my husband more than anything in the world. He is a good, honest, wonderful, loving man and my best friend, and I wouldn’t trade him for the world. That being said, I cannot deny that there are not times when I wouldn’t gladly trade him on eBay for a couple of bottles of vodka and a Tom Hardy box set!