When You’re the Wife of a Man With Depression
I started writing this post six months ago. I started again four months ago. This week I opened it up again. It’s been difficult to get the words right, but then I realized that getting them right is impossible. There’s no way I can convey to everyone, regardless of their experiences, what it’s like to be married to someone who struggles with depression.
Howard and I have been married for 20 years. It was not all bliss. Parts of it were gut-wrenchingly hard. In hindsight, many of those horribly difficult parts were directly related to Howard’s struggles with anxiety and depression. Other difficult parts were directly related to my personal stash of neuroses and emotional baggage. Yet our marriage is good. Our life together is more than good. We have built a partnership through the years that sustains us, a business and our four children. Part of the reason our marriage is still good is because we pulled together when things got hard instead of pulling apart. That required conscious decision from both of us, and bucketfuls of forgiveness we splashed all over everything.
Howard is a bright spot in my life. He makes me laugh. He makes my days better, which is why it hurts so much when this amazing person vanishes into himself and radiates despair or anger. Suddenly, instead of having a life partner who is carrying half the load, or even saving me because I’m stumbling, I have a person who is faltering and struggling to carry only a fraction of what he usually does. Not only that, but he radiates the bleakness and it permeates the house, actually creating additional stress and strain. These days we have good strategies for minimizing the impact of a depressive episode.
That wasn’t always the case.
I’d been around depression before with one of my siblings, but my family did not name it. It was the elephant in the room around which we all danced, trying to create a peaceful life. I carried that approach into my marriage. Our family, the new one that Howard and I made together, danced with the elephant for decades. We built habits in the hopes of increasing the good times and reducing the bad ones. We looked for cyclical patterns. We evaluated. Early on I might have suggested therapy of some kind, but Howard had done therapy following the death of his parents and he reported it hadn’t done much for him. We were smart people, surely we could figure out the right diet, or exercise program, or spiritual regimen. All of these things were good management tools and we used them. Sometimes they helped. Other times they were powerless. We were powerless.
It was not until eighteen months ago that we named the elephant. We finally saw this thing that had always been in the middle of our lives and said it was:
B. a problem
C. something we should address.
I finally realized that my job wasn’t to fix Howard, nor to save him. I was to love him no matter what. Howard has a problem with the chemicals in his brain. They sometimes make him feel like a complete failure as a human being, even when everything in our lives suggests exactly the opposite. It means that yesterday was happy, but today is miserable, even though nothing has changed overnight. We tried all of the non-medicinal options for nineteen years and we still found ourselves occasionally trampled by the unnamed elephant. It was not good for us, nor for our kids. But a year ago things changed. That was when Howard saw a doctor and we started fixing the chemistry by applying medication, and it worked.
When I say “it worked” that doesn’t mean everything is all better now. Howard still has depressed days, but they aren’t as often and they don’t get as bad. Visits to the pit of despair are a rare occurrence, where they used to be regular. Howard has had the chance to experience a steady happiness where life feels generally good. More important, when Howard is having a bad brain chemistry day, we see it, we name it and we know how to adjust for it. This is quite different than trying to adjust for an elephant that no one wants to admit exists.
If you have a loved one, a spouse, sibling, parent, friend, partner, who is depressed, and you want to help, there are some things I think you should know:
1. You can’t fix it.
There are dozens of ways that depression can be managed and healed, depending on the causes of it, but you can’t fix it for them. The depression exists in your loved one, maybe it’s chemical, maybe it’s situational, but it’s inside them, not you. I tried to fix Howard’s depression. Believe me, I tried. For eighteen years of marriage I adjusted all of the things I could conceive of adjusting in the hope it would prevent or alleviate the dark days. I’d clean everything because then a dirty kitchen wouldn’t add to the stress. I’d manage his schedule. I’d take over chores that were usually his. I’d hug him when the shape of the darkness allowed for that. (Sometimes it didn’t and he would flee from all touch.) I argued with him when the dark manifested as verbalized self-loathing.
My efforts helped some. I could see that they did, which is why I kept trying harder. I kept hoping that I could exert control over this thing. My efforts also masked the problem. When your loved one says “I’m broken.” It feels like the right answer is “No you’re not. Of course you’re not. Everyone has bad days.” I’ve found the more powerful and helpful answer is to say, “Yes, this depression is not normal. I love you anyway.” I love you anyway is the answer which allows the person with depression to stop being strong, and start seeking help. I love you anyway gives the person with depression permission to change instead of demanding a status quo.
2. A person with depression has to control their own healing process or it will not work.
Howard had a huge emotional process to go through with taking medication. He had to grieve. I don’t know why daily medication requires grief, but I felt the same thing when I had to begin thyroid medication. It feels like weakness, or failure. It feels unfair. When Howard started taking the medicine, at first he didn’t want to see that it made a difference. Then he could see the difference and was angry at the medicine for working, because it meant he needed it. Slowly, Howard is learning the ways that the medicine helps him. He’s learning that it’s a useful tool and that it’s OK to use all of the available tools in dealing with this.
3. Naming the depression changed everything.
The moment that we looked at Howard’s depression and said “maybe this isn’t normal,” it changed all of our conversations on the subject. We started talking about the depression as if it were a phenomena that could be observed, which it is.
4. Even with excellent treatment, there will still be hard days.
Some depressions can be worked through and resolved in a permanent way. We may yet find a way to do that for Howard, for now we still have to manage the down times. The hardest days are the ones where I’m not feeling completely stable myself. I could be ill, under stress, tired or just feeling a little down. If Howard hits a depressive patch during those days, it feels massively unfair. I find myself angry at him for being depressed, even though I know he would never choose this.
5. Depression can be traumatic and terrifying for the loved ones because they are forced to face being powerless.
Of course, that one is unlikely to be news to you, but you have to watch out for anxiety and depression in yourself. Be on the lookout. Be aware that you might also need help and treatment. It’s possible that the best thing you can do for your loved one is to go see a therapist or spiritual advisor yourself. You need a support network, because this’s a hard load to carry. It’s a lifetime-long walk, I’m OK with that. I didn’t sign on to be married to Howard just for the easy stuff.
6. It’s important to listen without judgment.
This is probably the most important function that I serve for Howard when he is depressed. He needs to process and think through what he is feeling. Over the years we’ve learned how to communicate the depression without wallowing in it. It’s rare that I’m able to say something that alleviates the depression, but not being left alone with it is a huge help.
7. Talking about it can help.
There’s a silence that blankets anything that hints at mental weakness or illness. People are afraid to admit that they’re struggling with mental health issues. Some of those fears are founded in reality. Employers think twice before hiring someone with admitted mental health struggles. People look askance. The stigma is real. But part of what helped convince Howard to get help was when he first started talking about the depression with trusted friends. Part of his ongoing process is to speak up on the Internet when he’s having a bad week. The responses to those posts are overwhelming support from others who have walked similar paths and thanks from people who are grateful that someone is willing to speak up. This is the reason I wrote this (very long) post. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs it. And because once I began it, I realized that I needed to say all of it. I’m certain there will be more things to say on a different day, but this is my last thought for you right now.
Hang in there. You and your loved one can get through this and find a better place. Howard and I did.
The original version of the post appeared on One Cobble at a Time, and was written in March 2014. All time references are in relation to that date.