By guest writer Lauren* (names changed to protect anonymity)
My husband was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in August 2020. Since then I’ve been trying to understand what my role is in his recovery, quickly realising that when it comes to being a partner of someone suffering with a mental illness, there isn’t a manual of what to do or how to help.
Daniel* and I have been a couple since our late teens, recently reaching the milestone of almost 16 years together, and in the last five years we’ve crammed in a lot – a wedding, multiple house moves – including a big relocation to be closer to family, new jobs, two children under three, not to mention a global pandemic. When I think back over recent years I can easily understand how things came to a head.
Daniel’s* illness crept up on us – or at least it felt that way to me. Over the years we’d experienced drunken tiffs forgotten by the morning and, more recently, emotional blowouts driven by the sleep deprivation that comes with being parents of a small baby. But something had shifted and the arguments, snappy comments and frustrations felt harder to overcome. I can’t express how proud I am of Daniel for stepping up and recognising that there was something bigger underneath it all and seeking the help he needed. And I can’t fault the support he received from our GP and supporting services. But in the middle of it all I didn’t know what my role was anymore.
I’d gone from his other half, his partner and best friend, to an outsider looking in trying to find my husband behind the fog of low moods and anger fuelled outbursts, all while juggling a newborn and toddler. Like so many others during the pandemic, I’d never felt more alone and isolated whilst desperately trying to figure out how to help him. Naturally, I’m what I’d call “a fixer” – I always look for a reasonable solution. Conflict at work? Bad break-up? My go-to is to sit down with a cup of tea or G&T in hand and hash out the issue. I’ve always thought there was nothing conversation couldn’t solve, but I was wrong. It felt as though all those hours spent with my girlfriends over the years sharing advice and opinions were wasted. I had to switch gears in an instant and make space for empathy and refrain from offering advice or trying to fix it for him. He needed me to listen and give him space. I had to relearn everything I had spent years developing as my own coping mechanism.
As someone who has never suffered with poor mental health, I had no experience or knowledge to fall back on; my understanding was zero. Mental health has been so prevalent in the media throughout the pandemic, but it still feels like a private battle that people suffer behind closed doors. I turned to Google, aimlessly typing “how to talk to a person suffering with depression”. I scoured the NHS website for advice and had a tearful phone call with a mental health charity, looking for someone to give me the answers I craved.
People often liken depression to a rollercoaster of constant ups and downs. Turns that make your stomach flip in the worst way and lows that leave you broken. But for me – as the person looking in, it felt like I was on an endless ocean, sitting in a sinking boat with a bucket desperately bailing out water trying to keep afloat. Whilst all the time having to wear a fake smile plastered on my face saying “It’s fine! Don’t worry!”.
I can’t write this from Daniel’s* point of view; I’ve come to learn that depression is a deeply personal illness. Only he can hear the inner voice that tells him that he’s not good enough on a daily basis. Conquering that voice is a constant battle. He often tells me he’s exhausted, but not from the daily toll of two young children or a demanding job. He’s exhausted by the never-ending work he has to put into correcting his thinking; going through the cycle of understanding why he’s acting the way he is, changing it and trying to move forward positively.
During 4am feeds with my youngest, my mind would go over and over what was happening in my relationship. Apart from the good health and happiness of my children, nothing comes above wanting Daniel* to get better. We recently spent an evening together making a playlist for an upcoming family wedding we’re attending. We sat going through on our own wedding playlist from five years ago, reminiscing about the day and songs we danced to. I saw a little bit of the old Dan* – watching his face light up as he recalled memories and seeing the spark between us again felt so nice. It gave me hope when, at times, I’ve felt certain that our relationship wouldn’t withstand the illness.
Someone asked me recently – “how do you feel?” and it wasn’t in reference to my mood that day (usually a combination of tired, hungry and desperate to go to the loo without a two year old busting in), she was asking me how I process my feelings. In truth, I’ve kept so much bottled up to try and protect my children, my husband and, in some small way, myself. I thought that was the right thing to do. But it’s actually ironic seeing that the thing Daniel needs from me the most right now is to be open with him and to communicate.
As the partner of someone suffering with poor mental health, you can often feel forgotten and incredibly lonely – which ultimately leads you to feel guilty for thinking of yourself above the person suffering. I try to remember every day that the best I can do for him is to take a breath and actively listen, which honestly isn’t always easy when you’re sleep deprived and overwhelmed by the realities of family life. The main thing I’ve learnt is that I can’t fix this for him and I have to accept that. I’ve also realised that when someone asks how I am, the most important thing I can do for myself is be honest.
If you are supporting a family member or friend through a mental health illness, MIND has some helpful tips as a starting point, and remember, you can always speak to someone on the phone if you need. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helping-someone-else/