When someone you love is struggling you want to be able to help. You want to carry their pain because it is easier than seeing them suffer. That just isn’t possible, you can’t cure your partner of their depression. But you can be alongside them. You can listen and talk and make it less lonely. And it is absolutely OK to admit that it’s hard for you too.
My wife and I have always been extremely close. We used to share everything. In the past I often felt as though we were one person, we were so in tune with each other. It was such a massive rupture then, when I found myself immersed in this experience she just couldn’t understand. It felt like a chasm had opened up between us. It was frightening, because I could stand losing almost anything but her.
If your partner has depression, I can’t lie and say getting through it is going to be easy. But I’ve now got the gift of hindsight, and there are a few things I wish my wife had known from the start.
1. Be patient. You can’t fix it.
Why don’t you get out of bed for a while? How about we go for a walk? Are you sure that third glass of wine is a good idea?
You and your partner will both get frustrated if you try and problem solve their depression. Most of the time when you’re depressed you don’t lack knowledge of what will make you feel better, you just don’t have the ability or will to take action.
My wife’s troubleshooting made me resentful. It reminded me of all the things I couldn’t make myself do, which reinforced what I saw as my failings. A depressed mind has the ability to transform even the most well-intentioned comments into negativity and self-criticism. So be patient. If you push, you’ll risk pushing your partner away.
2. Hibernation isn’t a bad thing.
Depression basically occurs when the brain’s ‘fuse’ overloads. This triggers all kinds of biological reactions. I remember asking my psychiatrist why I felt like all I wanted to do was hibernate. He explained to me that the effect of depression on the body is similar to what goes on in an animal’s system when they go into hibernation. It made perfect sense.
This behaviour isn’t an indulgence, it is awful and lonely. It’s not enjoyable to lie on the sofa all day because you’re terrified of leaving the house, or so locked into your thoughts that you aren’t capable of focusing on anything real.
None of us would judge someone with a physical illness for spending all day on the sofa recuperating. We wouldn’t push them to get out and about and see people. It’s the same thing with depression. Yes, eventually seeing people and being active might really help, but for now your partner may just need to rest.
3. I worry about you worrying about me.
You know the safety brief we all ignore on the plane? There’s wisdom in it, aside from the obvious ‘what to do if we crash’. They always tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping those less able. This is a perfect analogy to use when caring for someone with depression. You can’t take care of them if you don’t take care of yourself.
My illness took a massive toll on my wife. She was constantly worried about me, working and managing all our household jobs, not to mention her role in mediating between me and my family. That’s such a lot to deal with. It was so important that she had friends and family to support her.
You might feel like it isn’t your place to talk about what’s happening for your partner, but ask them about it, because you need to acknowledge its effect on both of you. I knew my wife was in the middle of it with me and I found it reassuring that she could share her struggle with people who love her.
Looking after someone with depression can be incredibly depleting. Make sure you do things that are just for you, even if it’s as simple as going to the gym for an hour. It’s easy to forget about yourself when you’re focused on helping your partner through, but you should allow yourself the breathing space to think, ‘what do I need?’.
4. I hate it when you ask me to explain.
One of the things that’s really challenging is to accept that your partner has depression without trying to work out why. Sometimes there is a logical explanation, for example if they’ve just lost their job or they’ve had a recent bereavement. But a lot of the time depression is insidious. Symptoms can build almost imperceptibly. Black moods can suddenly descend.
As someone experiencing this, it is hard enough trying to understand it yourself without being quizzed on it by your partner. What I needed was for my wife to be alongside me, without asking questions or trying to fix things. Just to be with me, so I wasn’t left alone with all that confusion.
5. I can feel suicidal and still love you.
Suicide is always a difficult topic, but we all need to recognise that depression can be a life threatening illness. It’s not something anyone talks about easily and that makes it even more dangerous. In fact, it is often hardest to talk about with the people you love the most. I wish my wife and I had been able to talk about this before I attempted to end my life.
I’ve often felt like I couldn’t tell my wife that I was feeling suicidal without her thinking I didn’t love her. I felt like she would think our marriage wasn’t enough to keep me here. I suppose there is truth in that, because when you’re in intolerable emotional pain, sometimes it feels like it will never get better. Now we can talk about it, I tell her when I’m feeling that low and she helps me stay safe.
While many people can suffer from depression without ever feeling suicidal, if you’re at all worried that your partner might be in danger, talk to them about it and contact your GP for advice. I can’t emphasise enough how important this is. With the right support, you can create a crisis plan together to enact should it be necessary.
This is an edited version of my article originally published by The Good Men Project.
Photo courtesy of Pink Sherbet Photography.