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Learning How to Best Support My Wife With Her Mental Health

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Firstly, I want to start this article by stating that I have never experienced mental health issues firsthand, so it is fair to say I cannot ever fully comprehend what it is like to live with these kinds of issues and how something seemingly insignificant to me can have a much more drastic effect on another mind. I can, however, discuss my experiences with supporting an individual who deals with mental health disorders daily.

My wife has been prescribed many different medications for depression and anxiety since she was 17. That’s 10 years of bouncing from one hope to another, eager to find a medication that is right for her, with minimal side effects. Recently, after a decade of uncertainty, she has been referred for a psychiatric assessment to ascertain whether she has bipolar disorder. This feels like a positive step forward towards a diagnosis that may finally lead to the correct treatment. I don’t have any qualifications in the assessment of mental health in any way, but I have often considered if my wife is bipolar due to severe fluctuations in her moods. To that end, with my complete lack of knowledge on the matter, why has it taken professionals 10 years to consider this as an option?

There is probably a reasonable explanation to this, and some quick research can tell you that depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders are often difficult to distinguish due to very similar symptoms. Furthermore, the answer may be more complicated still, and my wife may be the victim to all the effects of depression, anxiety and bipolar. At any rate, my wife and I are moving closer to the answers needed to ensure she is put on the correct treatment, but her formal diagnosis, while a very worthy topic on such a platform, is not the sole purpose of this article.

Platforms such as this are invaluable sources of both information and support for those living with mental illness. However, as the partner of someone experiencing these difficulties, and with a devastating lack of awareness from early education to public channels, platforms such as The Mighty proved vital in my attempts to understand what my wife was going through, and, what I considered most important, how I could help. And there, in my somewhat arrogant pursuit of what I could do to “help,” was the trap I laid for myself.

Upon first learning my wife had experienced mental health issues from the age of 17 — when we were still a fledgling couple initiated when a shy guy plucked up the courage to ask an attractive bartender out for a drink — my first instinct was to ask questions to better understand her disorder. I was careful not to pry too far, but I wanted to learn as much as possible so I could best support her, and, thankfully, she was always very receptive and open to discuss her condition. I will forever be proud of myself for taking these first steps in understanding my wife and her mind, and this was important “groundwork” for me to get to where I am today — a point where I was ready to hear of her attempted suicide attempt many years previously, a fact she only recently disclosed to me.

However, knowing what I know now, it’s fair to say my interest and willingness to learn was somewhat slightly misplaced. This goes back to my previous, possibly ambiguous statement of the trap surrounding the word “help.” I think it is fair to say that many people in my position have often thought something along the lines of “what can I do to help?” The issue there, in my opinion, are the words “do” and “help.” Looking back, I think I was expecting some form of quick trick to stop my wife feeling depressed; actions I could perform, through conscious effort, to make her happy. This, I’m ashamed to say, was completely the wrong frame of mind, and now feels extremely selfish. The truth is, I really struggled with her depression in the early stages of our relationship, and on her worst days I often found myself thinking, “why can’t I make her happy?” Or, “what am I doing wrong in our relationship that is preventing her happiness?”

However, it is here that a turning point occurred; I decided — since my wife was so willing to discuss these topics, and for the sake of the relationship — to express these concerns, stating I felt in some way useless and was struggling with the thought I was or wasn’t doing something I should or should not be doing to make her happy. The result of this open discussion was incredible, and extremely eye opening for me. My wife gave me insight into her working mind I could never have fully gleaned from my independent research because, ultimately, everyone experiences mental illness in a unique way.

She told me that, when she had a particularly dark period, nothing I could do or say could haul her out of that state of mind. She explained that she herself often didn’t know why she felt the way she did, and there was never really a “reason,” in the sense of something that had occurred or been said, for her depression. She went on to explain that she did not feel it was my responsibility to make her happy during times she felt like this, and what I was already doing — supporting, listening, laughing and loving – was invaluable to her. Despite being diagnosed with depression, she said she was overall very happy, especially in our relationship.

I cried that night. Not because I was sad I couldn’t do (there’s that word again) anything to help, but because I had been so oblivious to what my wife really needed – support.

So, this leads me to the crux of this article; it should not have been a matter of “what can I do to help?” — but instead, a matter of “what can I be to support?” This shift in understanding and perspective changed both our lives. I stopped attempting cheap tricks and gestures in an attempt to make my wife happy and instead made every effort to become the supportive, caring partner she needed me to be. It was no longer about what I did, but what I was — a partner, a friend, a confidant; someone to hear her concerns without being the guy who tried to tell her how to fix it and, importantly, who bore no judgment toward her. Becoming all of this meant my actions naturally aligned, and I found that, without conscious effort, I was doing everything I needed to do to show she was supported, cared for and loved. Nothing she could say would change that.

It is this shift that eventually led my wife to gain the courage to share the story of her suicide attempt with me — something she had never shared with anyone before, and ultimately the weight of that event in her past was now shared between us, meaning it was a much lighter cross for her to bear. Hyperbolic metaphors aside, she finally had a sense of relief from something that had caused her internal struggle for the past 10 years, and she felt infinitely better for sharing. Without the preceding events leading to my wife’s courageous seizing of that opportunity to share, I believe her secret would have continued to weigh on her, possibly for the rest of her life, and I dread to think of the damage that may have caused.

I understand this story is highly personalized to the situation with me and my wife. However, my disclosing of this indulgent story of self-experience has led me to the following piece of advice for any friend or loved one to someone experiencing a mental health disorder: if you care for them, then that is exactly who you need to be to “help” them. If you show them you care, that they are loved and they can talk about their experiences without being judged, it will be invaluable to their accepting who they are and how they feel.

From my own research, there is not a vast amount of information and advice available (outside formal higher education) to those who support someone with mental health disorders, and that is why I felt it was important to write this article. Caring for someone with mental health issues can be difficult and exhausting. It is OK to admit that and sometimes feel overwhelmed. We are, after all, only human, and it can be incredibly tempting to throw in the towel and remove yourself from the situation. Fortunately, I never came close to giving up on my wife, and we both benefited from our shared willingness to understand each other’s perspective and approach the situation as a team.

So, if you are struggling, please don’t give up; you can and will, make a real difference to someone’s life who is struggling internally if you make the effort to be who they need you to be. Though they will most likely never ask it of you or expect you to change for them, it may be life-saving that you do. Ultimately, if you are ready and willing to open an honest dialogue, and consider that you might need to change to support the person you care about, then I promise it will be an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s wife.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via Katie_Martynova

Originally published: August 23, 2017
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