I started writing this post six months ago. I started again four months ago. This week I opened it up again. It has been very difficult to get the words right, but then I realized that getting them right is impossible. There is no way that I can convey everyone, regardless of their experiences, what it is like to be married to someone who struggles with depression. The audience is too diverse and the experience is as well. My thoughts and feelings on this matter maybe similar to that of another spouse, or they might be quite different. It is impossible for me to get it right, because there is no “right” when discussing a subjective experience. I can only write about my experiences and hope that something in the story is useful to other people. When I look at it that way, the only way to get it wrong is to not write the post. So I wrote it. All 3000+ words of it. The first part is personal history for context. The rest is things I think will help other people in a similar situation. I put those things in bold for those who want to skim. At the very bottom are links to resources for those who need them.
Howard and I have been married for twenty years. It was not all bliss. Parts of it were gut-wrenchingly hard. In hindsight, many of those horribly difficult parts were directly related to Howard’s struggles with anxiety and depression. Other difficult parts were directly related to my personal stash of neuroses and emotional baggage. Yet our marriage is good. Our life together is more than good. We have built a partnership through the years that sustains us, a business, and our four children. Part of the reason our marriage is still good twenty years in, is because we pulled together when things got hard instead of pulling apart. That required conscious decision from both of us and bucketfuls of forgiveness that we splashed all over everything.
Howard is a bright spot in my life. He makes me laugh. He makes my days better, which is why it hurts so much when this amazing person vanishes into himself and radiates despair or anger. Suddenly instead of having a life partner who is carrying half the load, or even saving me because I’m stumbling, I have a person who is faltering and struggling to carry only a fraction of what he usually does. Not only that, but he radiates the bleakness and it permeates the house, actually creating additional stress and strain. These days we have good strategies for minimizing the impact of a depressive episode. That was not always the case.
The first time I really got to see inside Howard’s pit of despair was on our honeymoon. I was twenty, still trying to figure out who I was as an adult. Still trying to choose which life patterns I wanted to emulate from my family of birth and how I wanted to do things differently. I’d been around depression before with one of my siblings, but my family did not name it. It was the elephant in the room around which we all danced, trying to create a peaceful life. I carried that approach into my marriage. I knew Howard had mood swings. I’d witnessed some during the course of our engagement. But there we were, about halfway through our honeymoon, laying in the dark together while Howard cried and talked. He was letting me further into his heart than he’d ever let anyone before and it was terrifying for both of us. I stared into this deep, dark, seemingly bottomless pit and knew it could swallow me whole if I was not careful. It could swallow us both. And I did not want that to happen.
The next morning the bleakness had passed and my wonderful Howard was back, but I did not forget that the pit was a possibility.
Our family, the new one that Howard and I made together, danced with the elephant for decades. We built habits in the hopes of increasing the good times and reducing the bad ones. We looked for cyclical patterns. We evaluated. Early on I might have suggested therapy of some kind, but Howard had done therapy following the death of his parents and he reported it hadn’t done much for him. We were smart people, surely we could figure out the right diet, or exercise program, or spiritual regimen. All of these things were good management tools and we used them. Sometimes they helped. Other times they were powerless. We were powerless.
It was not until eighteen months ago that we named the elephant. That was when we finally saw this thing that had always been in the middle of our lives and said it was
B. a problem
C. something we should address.
That shift came because of many things, the most obvious being when our friend Robison Wells began speaking publicly about the mental illnesses that plague him. Rob and a couple of other friends showed Howard that admitting a problem could be a step toward better answers. There was also quite a lot of spiritual guidance and inspiration. Howard and I are religious people and we believe that we were guided. We also wish we’d been a little less thick headed to inspiration when we were younger.
The other thing that shifted was me. I’d been sorting some old emotional baggage (because of inspiration) and finally realized that my job was not to fix Howard, nor to save him. I was to love him no matter what. In fact that was a very clear inspiration directly to me, that Howard is strong and that my job was to love him, not fix him. After realizing that, I changed my answers. When Howard was filled with despair and said “I’m broken.” I stopped saying “No you’re not. It’s fine.” I allowed broken and suddenly let’s get this fixed became an option. Howard no longer had to live up to my need for everything to be fine. He finally had the space to consider and then seek treatment. This is exactly what I mean when I said that some of the difficulties were caused by me, even though I am not the depressed person. He worked so hard to be fine for me.
Howard has a problem with the chemicals in his brain. They sometimes make him feel like a complete failure as a human being, even when everything in our lives suggests exactly the opposite. It means that yesterday was happy, but today is miserable even though nothing has changed overnight. We tried all of the non-medicinal options for nineteen years and we still found ourselves occasionally trampled by the unnamed elephant. It was not good for us, nor for our kids. But a year ago things changed. That was when Howard saw a doctor and we started fixing the chemistry by applying medication, and it worked.
When I say “it worked” that doesn’t mean everything is all better now. Howard still has depressed days, but they aren’t as often and they don’t get as bad. Visits to the pit of despair are a rare occurrence, where they used to be regular. Howard has had the chance to experience a steady happiness where life feels generally good. More important, when Howard is having a bad brain chemistry day, we see it, we name it, and we know how to adjust for it. This is quite different than trying to adjust for an elephant that no one wants to admit exists.
If you have a loved one, a spouse, sibling, parent, friend, partner, who is depressed, and you want to help, there are some things I think you should know. The first and most important is this: You can’t fix it. There are dozens of ways that depression can be managed, healed, or even cured depending on the causes of it, but you can’t fix it for them. The depression exists in your loved one, maybe it is chemical, maybe it is situational, but it is inside them, not you. I tried to fix Howard’s depression. Believe me I tried. For eighteen years of marriage I adjusted all of the things I could conceive of adjusting in the hope it would prevent or alleviate the dark days. He’d have a dark day and I would clean all of the things because then a dirty kitchen wouldn’t add to the stress. I’d manage his schedule. I’d take over chores that were usually his. I’d hug him when the shape of the darkness allowed for that. (Sometimes it didn’t and he would flee from all touch.) I argued with him when the dark manifested as verbalized self-loathing.
My efforts helped some. I could see that they did, which is why I kept trying harder. I kept hoping that I could exert control over this thing. My efforts also masked the problem. When your loved one says “I’m broken.” It feels like the right answer is “No you’re not. Of course you’re not. Everyone has bad days.” The more powerful and helpful answer is to say. “Yes you’re broken. This depression is not normal. I love you anyway.” I love you anyway is the answer which allows the depressed person stop being strong, and start seeking help. I love you anyway gives the depressed person permission to change instead of demanding a status quo.
As soon as Howard decided that maybe he was willing to see a doctor, I did the research. I found out who we should go to. I made the appointment. I continue to make appointments for him from time to time. Because making an appointment is an act of will. It feels like an admission of illness. Making the appointment is a barrier that can be really hard to clear. I schedule half of the things which end up on Howard’s calendar anyway, so me doing this is a natural extension of what I already do. The frustrating piece was sitting on a waiting list for three months before they would make an appointment. (There’s a shortage of mental health professionals in Utah.) I went with Howard to the first appointment, but not any of the others. Again, this was me helping him over the first hurdle. After that I needed to stay out of the way because Howard has to own this process.
That is the second thing I want you to know: the depressed person has to control their own healing process or it will not work. I suppose it is possible to force someone to take drugs, but that doesn’t make them want to change the way that they’re relating to the depression. Howard had a huge emotional process to go through with taking medication. He had to grieve. I don’t know why daily medication requires grief, but I felt the same thing when I had to begin thyroid medication. It feels like weakness, or failure. It feels unfair. I see lots of friends who take psychoactive medications making snarky comments about the meds that they are on. Howard started taking the medicine and at first he didn’t want to see that it made a difference. Then he could see the difference and was angry at the medicine for working, because it meant he needed it. Slowly Howard is learning the ways that the medicine helps him. He’s learning that it is a useful tool and that it is okay to use all of the available tools in dealing with this.
Naming the depression changed everything. The moment that we looked at Howard’s depression and said “maybe this isn’t normal.” It changed all of our conversations on the subject. We started talking about the depression as if it were a phenomena that could be observed, which it is. We developed a taxonomy of sorts to describe the different variations. Howard directly asked me to be his spotter with the medications because he is very afraid of slipping into abusing medicine. He and I used calm times to discuss how to handle depressed times. I began to pay closer attention to the sorts of things he would say when he was sliding into depression and I learned when gently pressing him to take a pill was the right choice. I don’t have to press as much as I used to do, because Howard has learned to watch his own brain and identify when he needs the medicine. It took lots of practice. I am very much a part of Howard’s management process, but he is the director of it.
Even with excellent treatment there will still be hard days. Some depressions can be worked through and resolved in a permanent way. We may yet find a way to do that for Howard, for now we still have to manage the down times. The hardest days are the ones where I’m not feeling completely stable myself. I could be ill, under stress, tired, or just feeling a little down. If Howard hits a depressive patch during those days, it feels massively unfair. I find myself angry at him for being depressed, even though I know he would never choose this. There was one day where all manner of little things went wrong, and I was ready to cry. That was the day when two of my kids had emotional meltdowns simultaneously and Howard was having a medium-down sort of day. I lamented to Howard how unfair it is that I never get a turn to fall apart while someone else picks up the pieces.
The “never” part isn’t true, of course. There have been many times when Howard has rescued me and taken care of me. This is one of the reasons the depressive days hit so hard. I depend upon Howard. He handles his things, I handle mine. We’re both full to capacity with things to do, but without warning Howard will be unable to do his things. He’ll feel like he’s never going to be able to do his things again. He’ll say that to me as he’s sorting the thoughts in his head. And the horrible little voice of anxiety will whisper in the back of my head “what if he’s right?” Right now depression shows up and lays him flat for a day or two. But we don’t know why it shows up. We have no way to make it go away. What if some time it doesn’t leave? This is the horrible fear that I lock away in the back of my brain during the hard days. I see the depression and I know it could destroy us, because when Howard is deep into a depressed day, he is different. His thoughts and attitudes are different. His capabilities shift. The Howard I love and depend on is gone and all I can do is wait for him to come back.
So that is a thing you should know too. Depression can be traumatic and terrifying for the loved ones because they are forced to face being powerless. Of course, that one is unlikely to be news to you. But it means that you are at a higher risk for anxiety and depression yourself. Be on the lookout for that. Be aware that you might also need help and treatment. It is possible that the best thing you can do for your loved one is to go see a therapist or spiritual advisor yourself. You need a support network, because this is a hard load to carry. Faith is a huge part of my support network. I have conversations with God about Howard’s depression all the time. I feel like we’re partners in helping take care of this amazing person we both love. I truly believe that any path that Howard walks toward eliminating depression forever will be an inspired walk of faith. I hope that we’re on that path already even though I can’t tell how far we’ve come or how far we have left to go. But if this is a lifetime-long walk, I’m okay with that. I didn’t sign on to be married to Howard just for the easy stuff.
Preserve your own balance. In order not to be pulled into depression myself on the days that Howard is down, I have to actively shield myself against his moods. This is hard, because I am a naturally empathetic person and I am highly attuned to the emotional states of my family members. Sometimes this means that I need to have physical space from Howard when he’s depressed. Sometimes Howard provides that space deliberately in acts of heroism. In recent memory we had a family party on a day when Howard was depressed. It was the first time I’d been able to enjoy the company of my siblings in a very long time. Howard hid himself away, keeping his bleakness contained so that I could enjoy the event. I recognized his sacrifice and told him that I did. The verbal recognition was critical so that he knew that I knew that he was making a special effort for me. Also so that he knew that I was aware of his depression and he was not abandoned with it. It was our way of working together to make sure that the depression did not ruin a party. We hope for future parties where Howard and I can both attend.
Listen without judgment. This is probably the most important function that I serve for Howard when he is depressed. He needs to process and think through what he is feeling. Over the years we’ve learned how to communicate the depression without wallowing in it. It is rare that I’m able to say something that alleviates the depression, but not being left alone with it is a huge help.
Talking about it can help. There is a silence that blankets anything that hints at mental weakness or illness. People are afraid to admit that they’re struggling with mental health issues. Some of those fears are founded in reality. Employers think twice before hiring someone with admitted mental health struggles. People look askance. The stigma is real. But part of what helped convince Howard to get help was when he first started talking about the depression with trusted friends. Part of his ongoing process is to speak up on the internet when he’s having a bad week. The responses to those posts are overwhelming support from others who have walked similar paths and thanks from people who are grateful that someone is willing to speak up. This is the reason I wrote this (very long) post. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs it. And because once I began it, I realized that I needed to say all of it. I’m certain there will be more things to say on a different day, but this is my last thought for you right now. Hang in there. You and your loved one can get through this and find a better place. Howard and I did.
Edited to add: As a result of questions and discussions prompted by this post, I’ve decided to add links to some support organizations which may be useful.
NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They have a page dedicated to helping people connect with support groups and discussion groups both online and in person.
Google also led me to DBSA the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. They also have a page devoted to helping people connect with the resources that they need.
There is the ASCA, Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. If a history abuse of any kind factors into your loved one’s depression, it is probably best to talk to someone who knows how to thrive after that.
If you want a faith centered approach to healing, you might consider looking at the LDS addiction recovery program. Reading through their 12 steps, most of it applies if you just substitute “depression (or anxiety, or mental illness) for the word addiction. You do not have to be a member of the LDS (mormon) faith to use these services.
I am certain that these are only the beginning of the resources that are available to you both locally and internationally. The world is full of people who understand your pain and would be delighted to help you find a happier way to live.