“My wife had been telling me for months that I was depressed, and I kept saying I wasn’t. I couldn’t accept that I was misinterpreting reality,” says Ian, who was poleaxed by depression for several months at the age of 51. “My anxieties centred around money and I was convinced we’d be out on the streets. That wasn’t a complete fantasy, but at the same time a calm clear head would have dealt with it, whereas I couldn’t.
“I used to wake up every morning at 4am and obsess and try to get my wife to obsess with me. It was a terrible worry for her. She kept trying to convince me I was ill and then got shouted at. At times I got very angry with her, and although by that stage she knew it was the illness talking it didn’t make it any easier for her.”
Ian is not alone. A worldwide study published in 2008 found that our chances of suffering from depression peak in our forties and fifties. But while the torment for sufferers has been well documented, much less is said about their partners, whose lives can also be devastated by months or even years of constantly treading on eggshells and not knowing what to do for the best.
Depression tests even the most solid relationship to the limits. Many, like Ian’s, don’t survive.
It’s not hard to see why. Partners are first in the firing line for the relentless negativity and even hostility of a partner whose behaviour may have been changed radically by their illness, yet who often deny that anything is wrong. For the partner it’s a double whammy because depression eats away at the very things that brought you together in the first place. Meanwhile the spouse you once relied on for support in a crisis has withdrawn into depression just when you need them most.
Hypnotherapist Caroline Carr uses her past experience of life with her depressed husband to support other people in a similar situation. She says: “Partners inevitably feel it’s their fault, because often people who are depressed blame everything and everybody else for how they are. One of the worst stages is when you first become worried. It’s a horrible time, very baffling and a real emotional rollercoaster. Often I recommend that people talk to a mutual friend or family member who may have been aware of changes, and might be able to suggest that the person gets help.
“It’s also important for partners to talk to somebody who can help you process your myriad emotions, whether it’s a friend or a counsellor or therapist. You think you can cope on your own but you can’t, because it’s really hard. It’s draining and exhausting. Both partners are going through hell.”
Of course it’s vital that the depressed person knows their partner cares and is there for them, but it’s neither realistic nor helpful to be selflessly available 24 hours a day.
Caroline Carr’s husband spent periods of his year-long illness staying with his sister, and that helped her to cope. She believes partners need to step back emotionally and maintain some sort of life outside their partner’s depression by continuing to do the stuff they enjoy, and staying in contact with friends at a time when social life invariably dwindles.
The depressed person might hate the idea, but ultimately it’s the best way to help them and to ward off the obvious danger of sinking into depression yourself.
Ian’s depression responded well to medication and therapy, but ironically his recovery led to more conflict with his wife. This is more common – and more understandable – than you might think.
Ian recalls: “The conflict was very painful. You’re so delighted to be better and you forget all the miseries the other person’s been through on your behalf. So there’s this strange role reversal: you’re up and jolly and they’re exhausted and on the floor. I couldn’t see why anyone would be upset that I was better. It’s also quite hard to apologise for what’s gone before – how can you apologise for being ill?”
In Caroline Carr’s experience it is not uncommon for problems to persist. In her book, Living with Depression: How to Cope When Your Partner is Depressed, she explains that knowing what to expect can really help. “Partners need to know that the experience of depression is extremely profound,” she says. “It’s a big mistake to think that you can go back to where you were before, because everything your partner says and does will be coloured in some way by the experience they’ve been through, as will yours.
“The message I give to partners is that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, but you don’t know what that light is going to look like. And there are things you can do which will help you find your way out of the tunnel.”
More information: www.carolinecarr.com
Tips on how to cope
- Remind yourself that your partner’s depression is not your fault. It is their issue.
- Get support, either from a friend or professional counsellor/therapist who can help process the maelstrom of confusing emotions.
- Don’t give up stuff you enjoy and as far as possible maintain your life outside their depression.
- You can’t help anyone if you get depressed too.
- Exercise helps, but on your own you can end up churning things over and over. Go with a friend who can help process what you’re going through and hopefully move on to something else.
- Above all, let your partner know you’re there for them. Recognise their achievements, even if it’s simply getting out of bed and you’re cringing inside with worry.