[May 6-12, 2013 is Mental Health Week in Canada. At least 1 in 3 Canadians experience challenges with their mental health each year. To grow empathy for people struggling with mental health and depression (and their families), Tim shared his experience with depression on Monday, and I am sharing my experience as a wife of someone with depression today.]
The first time Tim allowed me to see his depression, I was shocked. We had gotten married in the midst of my own recovery from burnout so I had come into the marriage thinking I was the one who needed mending. I hadn’t realized that he also walked with a limp. He hadn’t really mentioned it while we were dating or engaged (mostly out of fear and partly because he hadn’t come to terms with it himself yet), so when he told me he was fighting depression, and that he had recurring bouts of it, I was surprised.
Living with a sick person is challenging. Living with a person whose illness not visible is even more challenging. Without warning, it feels like someone swaps the healthy, hard working man I married for a lethargic, tired and unmotivated one. And then, just as suddenly, one day he feels better. As glad as I am to have my happy husband back, it is still maddening.
One of the big challenges of living with a depressed person is dealing with my own impatience. “When will this end?” is frequently on my heart. I want to “fix” his problems, to ask the right question that might illuminate his soul and draw him out of the slump, to solve the mystery of what it is that weighs him down so that he can live lightly and freely again. I have to continually remind myself that time is the main ingredient for healing and that the most helpful thing I can do is simply accompany him in the process.
Having experienced moderate depression myself, I’ve learned that sometimes what a depressed person needs is permission to rest, to feel blue, to sleep and to stop trying to push himself so hard. So I try to be compassionate and give my husband space to be.
Each time his depression comes, I face certain fears: my husband wants extra time to rest and reflect, but am I coddling him and making matters worse by letting him sleep and spend hours on the couch? On the flip side, am I asking too much of him if I expect him to do the dishes, for example? If I pick up the slack around the house, would he feel like I am trampling over his sense of dignity? What I fear most is that he would slip deeper and deeper into despair. That I’d lose him forever.
There is also the matter of wanting to know what is going on in his mind and heart yet also giving him space. I feel uncertain about how much he wants to talk. I’ve learned to be gentle in broaching the topic and open-handed in how long each conversation might last. It’s hard not to press him for answers or explanations because I’m afraid the negative voices will skew his perspective and cause him to make irrational choices. But I’ve learned to trust the process, to make sure he knows I love and support him, and to act on the belief that kindness, rather than force, is a more effective motivator for him to open up to me. I’ve learned, too, that I need to encourage him to pay attention to what is going on inside of him, because one of the gifts depression brings is the opportunity for self-reflection and spiritual development. Sometimes this means prompting him to seek help from a professional.
Being the wife of a depressed man feels pretty lonely at times. Not everyone understands the nature of the illness. And not everyone knows how to respond helpfully. I want to always speak well of my husband so I have to carefully choose who I can confide in. Not that we want to pretend that everything is OK or that we’re perfect. Far from it. But there’s only so much explaining you want to do; and only so many well-intentioned pieces of advice you can take. So I’ve learned to keep silent about it to most people, save for a few trusted friends.
It’s pretty draining having to be the one to keep things going. I often feel just as tired but I don’t have the option of curling up in bed or lying on the couch all day. It takes energy to keep hoping. To keep reminding myself that depression does not define the man I married. To remember that depression is a visitor who will eventually leave. Buying flowers for myself is one small way I find solace from the unrelenting demands.
In the times when my husband is sad and tired from living, I sometimes wish someone would drop by with a meal, or offer to take me out for a coffee. Even a text message or an email one-liner would lift my spirits. I long to know that we are being thought of and prayed for. I long to know that we are not alone.
The most insightful analogy we’ve heard about living with someone with depression is that it’s like sitting with them in the dark, waiting together for the sun to rise. That’s what I try to do for my husband whenever depression visits. As his wife, it would make a world of a difference to know that someone is waiting with me, too.
PS – If you’d like more resources on helping people with mental health challenges, here are a few:
Canadian Mental Health Association
Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries
A Prayer for Mental Health – a blog post by Stacey Gleddiesmith
How Do I Help a Hurting Friend? – a book by Rod Wilson [affiliate link]
Unmasking Male Depression – a book by Dr. Archibald Hart [affiliate link]