At its worst, I found myself sitting in my car outside our house having to build up the courage to go inside. My husband had been diagnosed with severe depression six months earlier. He had tried anti-depressants in the past, but was now refusing to eat or drink, far less swallow a tablet that could possibly make him feel worse rather than better.
Some times I would open the front door and he would still be in bed fast asleep in the same position I had left him 12 hours earlier. At other times though, I would open the door to find the house in disarray. Plates, ornaments and glasses smashed. Furniture and books strewn around the room, as if a tornado had rushed through the door and thrown everything up in the air. The chaos would be the only visible sign of the moments of rage and torment he had experienced earlier in the day. On these days too he was usually asleep when I got home, curled into an exhausted, filthy, twisted ball under the duvet we were given for our wedding.
I fell in love with him when I was six. I would gaze at his cute shorts, and delight in throwing balls of grass and mud at him at play-time. He was the gentlest soul I had ever met. He would make leaf houses for snails and rescue and nurture abandoned baby birds. Even then though, there were always the days when we didn’t play. The days he would be unresponsive to my attempts to make him laugh by tying his shoelaces together, or putting worms in his desk. Those were the days that the teacher would say “Derek’s feeling a bit sad today, just let him be..” and I would just let him be, playing my own games while casting an eye over to him in the hope that he might be looking at me wanting to join in. He never was.
Depression seemed to hit us like a freight train moving at full speed. We had only been married for two years, and life seemed good. One day life was good – the next day it was not, and wouldn’t be again for over eight years.
My experience of his depression and our relationship oscillated wildly. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed with sadness and self pity and could hardly move from the bed myself. On other days, I would wake up thinking that our situation was ridiculous and that I just needed to get it all sorted out. I would spend the day nagging him to get up, get dressed, get moving, eat something…just pull himself together. When I remember those years now, they still feel oppressive and fill me with immense pain.
I was so deeply affected by the experience of caring for someone suffering from depression, that I became a counsellor in order to offer support to other couples in the same situation. I say “couples”, because I believe that depression is particularly destructive to spousal relationships, and particularly hard on the person put in the place of the carer.
Above all, my own experience taught me that in order to care adequately for other, you must first care adequately for yourself. I see many clients who come to counselling following a bout of depression caused by the mental stress induced by caring for a partner with either severe physical or mental ill health.
For me, the first thing I had to realise was that it was ok that I wasn’t ill too. Somehow in my mind, I had developed a deep sense of guilt that my husband was profoundly depressed and yet I was not. A recent client of mine compared it to survivors guilt, and said that she often felt ashamed of herself if she was having too much fun.
The second part of my journey was to force myself to let go of my sense of outrage, injustice and self pity. I would spend days feeling enraged by my husband’s selfishness, his lack of love, his apparent total disregard for me or our relationship. Fighting against the endless swelling tide of his depression however, became utterly exhausting and demoralising. It was stronger than either of us.
When I let go of those emotions, and the expectations I had of the way our life had been and how (I thought) it should have been now, I was able to stop feeling angry. When the anger stopped, I was able to truly mourn what and whom had been lost. During that time of my life there were many painful losses, many bad decisions made, and many wounds inflicted.
My husband’s depression didn’t disappear overnight. It improved very gradually. He took small steps entirely under his own volition, until we had something again that resembled a normal life. He began to work again, he found a small group of friends and he became a devoted and doting father.
We celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary this year. For me the occasion is always bitter sweet. It is with a feeling of gratitude and pride that I look back across the many memories we have forged together. It is with unfathomable love that I look at our beautiful children, but the sadness of the person I lost both in my husband and myself, will always remain. A part of our essential characters were casualties of my husbands depression, and I write this now knowing that would likely not have been the case had we both been better informed about mental illness, and as children been given a vocabulary with which to talk about feelings.
Ava Smith (name changed for confidentiality) is an individual and couples counsellor practising in the UK and a kind supporter and contributor to this blog.