What It’s Like to Live with a Depressed Husband

olive chan —  May 9, 2013 — 20 Comments

[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.

What It's Like Living with a Depressed Husband

Covered | Acrylic on Canvas | 8″ x 10″ | by Olive Chan

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]

  • kcaudad

    May I just say, I love your ‘Covered’ painting! It is a beautiful image of supporting someone through a dark time. Your insights are also very helpful to read. Thanks you for being brave and sharing your story.

  • Kaz

    My husband has depression. As well as depression, he struggles with severe anxiety that impacts his life in many, many ways, manifesting as social phobia and agoraphobia as well as a fair amount of generalized anxiety. This means that just about everything that people take being able to do for granted is hard for him. I’ve supported him for the last 5 years financially as he can’t work. He’s started studying but has found this very difficult as well, as any sort of evaluation tends to lead him to feeling panicked. Still, his university is extremely supportive and he’s been struggling on. Sure, he can’t always get to classes, and can’t present in front of people, but he’s doing what he can. He’s learned to drive (this was too scary for him for a long time), can now do things like go out to dinner with me without being a quaking mess at the end of it. He can spend time with my family without fear, and do simple things like collecting the mail that was once nearly impossible for him. We even got married, and he did a speech. This was huge for him, because he hates being in front of people on display.

    For my husband, his depression and anxiety hasn’t been a visitor that eventually leaves, but rather a constant in his life for at least the last 15 years. Even though his symptoms are much better than they were, he still experiences a lot of suicidal thoughts – just on more of a weekly basis than multiple times a day. He still has days where I’ll go to work, come home and he’ll still be in his pajamas, mindlessly playing computer games because as soon as he stops, his mood goes down. The house will be a mess, he won’t have done the dishes or eaten or any of that. It’s tiring sometimes for me to be his carer as well as working. I have issues of my own as well – a history of depression myself (although not very severe), and much larger issues with anxiety. But I cope and move on. And he has always been able to put his own problems aside for long enough to look after me when I need it. Looking after those he cares about is probably one of the most important things in his life.

    It took years for him to seek help from professionals. Even though I’ve urged him to do so as long as I’ve known him, his anxiety tended to prevent him from taking the steps he needed to take. It wasn’t until his symptoms were improving that he felt able to talk to a doctor or a psychologist about them. He was too anxious to see someone, and too fearful of judgement to talk about his problems. I did the best I could to support him. I work in mental health (actually specialize in working with people with anxiety, funnily enough!), but of course as his wife, I can’t treat him – and it wouldn’t matter how much help I provided that drew on my knowledge and experience, it’s different coming from a spouse compared to someone whose sole role in ones life is to provide mental health assistance.

    With support from me, our family, his doctor, psychologist, his university and a lot of other people along the way, he’s been slowly improving. It’s taken a lot of work and there is a long way to go. Every now and then he’ll look back, and say, ‘wow, I really have come a long way. Remember that time I got so panicked at the idea going to dinner with you for your birthday that I panicked and blacked out? Now, we can go out to dinner any time!’ It’s really the small things that give me hope for a brighter future for him. His life has completely changed over the last 5 years, and he is on the path to recovery, even though we know that it’s probably going to be a rocky one.

    • olivechan

      Dear Kaz, thank you for sharing your story and experience. Even as I wrote the piece, I was acutely aware that there are people like you and your husband whose lives are impacted by depression to a much greater degree than I have experienced. You inspire me. Thank you!

  • wellingtonian

    Hi Olive

    My mother dealt with depression during my entire teenage years and it impacted our whole family, as well as her marriage with my dad.
    However with time she has overcome the illness and matured into the greatest mother figures I could ever wish for – I am positive your experiences will strengthen you in the long run as a couple and as parents.

    I love your insight and your love for each other really inspires me.

    • olivechan

      Thank you for this. Sometimes I worry about the impact of depression on our child and your story gives me hope that we will all come out stronger for going through it together.

  • annette

    May I just say you put into words what I have been trying unsuccessfully to communicate to myself…especially the buying flowers part. I’ve often referred to depression as the most selfish disease because as a partner…you feel invisible. Thank you for sharing and helping me feel not quite so alone.

  • A friend.

    Ps 107:19-20

    19 Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he saveth them out of their distresses. 20 He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions.

  • verbosa

    verbosa
    This is the exact place I find myself at the moment. After months of acute illness, my partner is stable but unmotivated and in need of MUCH rest. I’m having trouble staying patient, but you have pointed me in the right direction. Thank you!

    • olivechan

      Verbosa, that is certainly not an easy place to be. I wish you much grace, patience and strength in the process. Know that you are not alone. Xoxo Olive

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  • margi

    I’ve been with my husband for 24 years, 19 of those married. He was up front about his depression very early in our relationship. I had no idea for many years how much it would impact our lives and our relationship. I adore my husband, he’s a good man. I know his depression is an illness. I would never say “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” though of course I want to at times.
    His depression can manifest itself in different ways at his job. He has a very stressful job, and when he’s depressed his thinking can be clouded and he can make poor judgement calls. Thankfully he’s also very smart and very good at what he does. Plus has a very understanding boss. At home he sleeps, a lot. He’s been in a depressive state now since November. I would say a majority of his weekends are spent in bed. It’s hard to not be resentful. It’s hard to have to tell our 14 year old son, “Dad’s having a bad time,” It’s hard that he isolates himself, which in turn isolates me. I want to have a normal happy relationship with him, and I’m not talking about,um, that aspect. I’m talking about going out for dinner, or movies, or having friends over, or keeping the yard tidy or having a conversation other than “how was your day” I’m the main parent, dh has no concept of homework or music practice, or any of that.
    Depression has recently become the media darling of Facebook. There are always memes going around about how to treat a depressed person, or what it’s like to be depressed-ever comic books(which I bought for my husband for Christmas) You know what I’d like? Recognition for how incredibly difficult it is at times to be in a relationship with a depressed person.
    Margi H.
    Just down the road a bit in Olympia Washington (USA)

    • olivechan

      Margi, thank you for sharing your experience. I have utmost respect for you. I agree that there is not much out there in recognition of how difficult it is as a spouse or family member. Much patience and strength to you and your family in this journey.

    • Mylifewithz

      You took the words out of my heart and mouth. My husband and sister in law struggle with depression. She likes to occasionally post things that educate others about her illness. I understand it’s an illness that is commonly misunderstood. Even more misunderstood are the people who live around others with this illness. Iv often wanted to educate her and my husband on what’s it’s like to be on the other side and how horribly frustrating it can be. It gets tiring to offer my sympathy to others that keep reminding me of how I can never understand them. What about me? I’d like to be understood too. I’d like some sympathy every now and then too or maybe something like,”Thank you for your patience and understanding. I know how hard my illness can be on others”.

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  • Melissa O’Brien

    Oh please someone tell me how to work through the anger and resentment. I have been married to my high school sweetheart for almost 14 years. 3 years ago he had a horrible back injury. He was put on high doses of pain medications and long story short, became addicted, had to detox from them and has never, ever been the same. He is like a shell. He is here physically but emotionally I feel like he is 100 worlds away most of the time. We have four children. I homeschool and our youngest is only 6 months old. She was a BIG surprise!! I am emotionally exhausted most of the time and feel so alone. My husband does work hard at his job but has spent most weekends napping on the couch, totally unmotivated to do much of anything. He does put on somewhat of a good show for our kids, but, his energy level and motivation is nil. We have no emotional, spiritual or physical intimacy and most of the time I think of how much easier it is when he is not home. I know this sounds horrible and selfish, but I can so relate to the women sharing how burdensome this is for the spouse. Short term I did well caring and loving him through it, three years and four children later, I am spent. I feel unloved and more like a caregiver than a spouse or partner. I finally convinced him after three years of trying to see a counselor. He has started but I know it will be a long process. He is on high doses of antidepressants and anxiety meds and they help a little. I am just lonely and resentful. Someone tell me how they worked through this.

    • lynn

      Man that’s so hard. I have 4 kids, the youngest is 10 months. I’ve been married for 13 years and my husband has struggled with depression on and off. I’ve reached several “I give up” moments, and my kids always ended up being my motivation. Though they are little they can love really well. During the times where my husband has been severally depressed and I felt so lonely and unloved, I soaked in every snuggle, hug, “mama I love you” and card! That has definitely helped me through the really bad times. 2 years ago he reached a point where it was so bad, HE started doing research and looking for help. It took several months, but he found new ways to manage it and is even able to be honest and chat with me when he’s having a hard time. He still struggles every other month or so and can last months long or a week, but he does have “tools” for not letting it get as bad as it was. I would like to hope that if your husband is seeing a counselor, he will hopefully learn some “tools” as well. As far as resentment, I had a couple years in there where I had to work through that with someone and my spouse (while he has feeling well). Seeing how bad he feels for what he’s put me through (at least he feels that way when he’s clear minded) reminds me that he doesn’t do it on purpose and that he really does care. It is so hard to be married and feel like a single parent. I feel ya there. I hope he gets the tools he needs and you have a close friend you can confide in. Actually taking about with someone really does help and bring perspective!

  • Meg

    You eloquently expressed exactly what it is like to have a spouse who suffers from depression. I really needed to read this tonight. Thanks, it made me feel not so alone.