A friend of mine wrote an incredible piece on this website (which you can read HERE), where he described depression as a black hole and it really stuck with me. It is such a perfect analogy for this awful all-encompassing condition.
My husband had depression long before I met him. He was very open with me about his struggles with mental health and I have always seen it as just another facet of his personality. As with many relationships, there are things that you cannot change: he likes Marmite. He snores like a drunk warthog with a cold. He has depression.
I find it hard to talk about depression from an outsider’s point of view because it sounds so trivial. It takes the attention off the person who needs it more. It’s like me witnessing a car crash and complaining that my shoes got sprayed with broken glass. But that giant hole of depression is a part of my life too. I spend days tiptoeing around it, trying to work out whether he wants me to throw him a rope or leave him down there in the darkness.
One of the things I love most about Aaron is his sense of humour. His job is making people laugh and he does it brilliantly, but I think I am probably his biggest fan: he only has to say one word, or pull a certain face and I am in convulsions of giggles. So when he’s ‘off’, it’s immediately obvious to me. And I still don’t really know what to do in those situations. In the past I’ve done all, or a combination, of the following:
- Repeatedly asked what’s wrong;
- Repeatedly asked if I’ve done something to upset him;
- Assumed I’ve done something to upset him and beat myself up about what that might be;
- Got sick of asking what’s wrong with no response so stop talking to him completely;
- Lost my temper;
- Tried to carry on as normal;
- Tried to be over-the-top-happy enough for both of us;
- Tried to force him to go to the doctor’s to talk to someone;
- Tried to force him to stop drinking/do more exercise/eat healthier/*insert other thing I read about that week that claimed it might help*.
Surprisingly none of these things did help. In fact they probably just made him feel more harassed and anxious. But as someone who loves a person with depression, it is hard to watch. Nobody wants to see their partner in pain and you will do anything you can to take that pain away.
I am by no means an expert but these are my tips on being as supportive as you can, and also some tips for taking care of yourself:
- Communication. We have a phrase: “I’m having a bad head day”. Sometimes, after 2 hours of silence, Aaron will just say “bad head day”. Those 3 little words are so powerful: I instantly know what’s going on and Aaron doesn’t have to worry that I will pester him all evening. I am then able to ask if he wants to talk about, if he needs anything, or know to just leave him alone.
- You need someone else to talk to. You can then rant about the weird cloud that occasionally hangs over everything at home. You are allowed to say that it’s upsetting when they don’t tell you what’s wrong. You are entitled to feel hurt that they don’t speak to you. You are not a bad person for feeling frustrated and cut off. It is healthy to vent and get it out: it makes you a calmer and more understanding person when you are dealing with the situation at hand. Yes, your frustrations are valid but taking them out on someone who is unwell is not. You need to separate the disease from the person. I often find myself repeating in my head ‘it’s the anxiety talking, that’s the depression. It’s not him’. I’m not telling you that it’s easy but it does help.
- Although it takes over and seems to dominate the personality of the person you love, depression is not – and never will be – the most important thing about them. Treat them as you always would: walking on eggshells and changing your relationship to fit around the disease does not help. It just emphasizes the ‘otherness’ they feel when they’re struggling.
- You are not their saviour. This is the one I struggle with the most. Nothing you do, say, bake or buy will take away their depression. You can help in whatever way works for both of you, but their MH issues are not your fault or theirs. If you put yourself in the role of a mental health caped crusader you will feel like a failure when the next low rolls around, or the current one doesn’t end. You are not responsible for their highs and lows.
This list may seem like it trivialises depression and the toll it takes on everyone it touches. It may seem as though I think I have it all worked out – I want you to know that I definitely do not. Sometimes I am completely overwhelmed. I often feel ill equipped to deal with the way the ground suddenly drops from underneath us. But remembering the points above is what helps me to see my husband for himself rather than his illness, which is sometimes the most powerful thing I can offer.