I suffered silently with depression for most of my life. I successfully hid it from my wife for nearly 16 years. I felt guilty for how I felt and how it would affect my family. I felt shame as many who suffer mental illness do.
But in the end, I couldn’t hide it any longer. I knew I needed help. And I knew that holding back was negatively affecting my family and not fair to them.
Of course, my wife was understanding. Think about the devoted spouse who nurses you back to health when you’re sick with the flu. She wanted nothing more than to see me well, see me happy, and get things back on track.
But there’s no manual for spouses of those who suffer from depression and it can be frustrating to see your loved one suffer and not know how to help. You desperately want to make things better but sometimes you just can’t.
Over 3 million people in the US suffer from major depressive disorder each year. I am writing this to help those who love someone who is suffering from depression. Whether it is you, or your spouse, or other romantic partner, it is my great hope that the lessons I’ve learned in my recovery will help.
1. Understand what depression is like.
It can be very difficult to deal with the significant other’s depression symptoms if you do not know what they’re going through. Sometimes, the symptoms themselves make it difficult to describe the experience. It can be helpful to understand what your significant other is experiencing. Different people experience depression differently. Two people with depression can have different sets of symptoms.
First of all, understand that depression is not just sadness. Often, sadness is a symptom. But people with depression can also experience anxiety, apathy, guilt, a sense of hopelessness, a sense of worthlessness, irritability, and mood swings. Often, there will be a loss of interest and activity, even things that the depressed person previously found pleasurable.
A person with depression can gain weight or lose weight rapidly. There can be excessive fatigue, hunger, or loss of appetite. There can be cognitive effects like loss of concentration, and memory effects. For me, fatigue is a serious issue. I know that I can have trouble even focusing on words on my computer screen during a depressive episode.
So depression can present itself in a myriad of ways. Combinations of these symptoms can feel like absolute hell. Thoughts of suicide are common among people with major depression.
Understanding what to expect, and that signs and symptoms may come and go, may help you understand what your significant other is going through. For me for example, I would sometimes get irritable with my wife or my children. Afterwards, I would feel an incredible sense of guilt. It was easier for my wife to understand why I was acting that way when she knew it was the disorder.
2. Don’t try to fix what’s wrong.
My wife is a troubleshooter. She’s an engagement manager for a healthcare company. She manages people and relationships and is good at it. No, she’s brilliant. So when I let her know I was suffering from depression and needed help her first instinct was to fix what was wrong.
When I would break down in front of her, her first question was always “what’s wrong?” The truth is that most of the time the answer is, “I don’t know.” I may perceive some problem in my life or I may be stressed to the point where symptoms have been exacerbated, but usually I was sad because I was sad.
For me, attempts to fix what is wrong are particularly frustrating because I can’t describe what’s wrong. If I could, it wouldn’t fix how I’m feeling. I will discuss better alternatives below. Of course the urge to fix what’s wrong for someone you love is strong. But I think you’ll save yourself and your loved one a lot of stress and frustration if you table this.
3. Be present for them.
This is actually the most helpful piece of advice I can offer. When I was breaking down or having my lowest moments the best thing anyone could do for me was just be there. Be in my presence. I can tell you that one of them best things my wife ever did to help me was just to hold me, and softly repeat “It’s OK, it’s OK.”
Just not feeling alone, and feeling supported was the greatest gift and provided the best relief in the moment. This would help me process these hard feelings and get through them. It would combat my desire to isolate myself which is common in depression, but not a healthy coping strategy.
And honestly, this is about the easiest thing I can think of someone doing to support a loved one was having an incredibly difficult emotional time.
4. Participate in their wellness.
In my case, I was ashamed of needing help and worried about worrying my wife. So I actually sought therapy for several months without telling her. I know, not very bright on my part.
But my therapist actually got me to confide my wife, and suggested we seek couples counseling. This was sage advice. My wife could feel like she was participating in my wellness and recovery because she was. I felt like having a mediator present trained in therapy enabled me to be more honest about what I was feeling.
So now I discuss everything with my wife. And this is the kind of relationship I want to have. She knows when I’m going to see my naturopathic doctor, change my supplements, see my therapist, do a workshop in shamanism, or seek out some other healing modality. She is an active participant in my wellness. I also check in with her regularly to see how she’s managing in dealing with my mental health.
I also think that encouraging a significant other to do what’s healthy can reinforce those behaviors. For example, socializing can be very difficult for somebody going through depression. Encouraging socialization, can lift the spirits. Going on a date night with another couple, or attending a party, or just going out where you’re going to interact with other people together is a really positive step.
You can also encourage your partner to keep their appointments, take their medication and/or supplements as directed, and to make healthy choices about diet and exercise and meditation. Nagging is not helpful. But a quick, “Hey, what time is your therapy appointment today?” works.
5. Focus on self-care.
The metaphor that’s commonly used to talk about self-care is being on an airplane when the oxygen masks deploy. You have to put your own mask on before you assist anyone else. If you do not and you pass out, you will not be able to help anyone. Likewise, helping your spouse through a mental illness can be externally stressful. If you do not take care of your own mental and physical health it may get to a point where you cannot help.
So is important that you check in with yourself and do what you need to do for self-care. Watch your stress level. Take a break if you need one. Seek help if you need it.
As I mentioned, going to couples therapy is a great way for my wife and I to process our emotions around what’s going on. After an appointment, will often go for lunch or coffee, and kind of make a date out of it. This is something I’ve grown to enjoy and I think has deepened our relationship.
6. Be intimate.
Touching feels good. Touching and sex release the hormone oxytocin. This is a feel-good chemical that can help stave off some of the symptoms of depression.
It can be difficult for someone with depression to be intimate. Often, a depressed person is not somebody who is feeling high self-esteem. This doesn’t always lead to feeling sexy. But like with social interaction, sexy time is beneficial.
Simple touching, like hugs, kisses, holding hands, back rubs, etc. are reassuring and feel good. One of the issues experienced during depressive episodes is insomnia. I would sometimes go days with just a couple hours of sleep. This became a vicious cycle where the less I slept the worse I felt; the worse I felt the less I slept.
I found however, that by holding my wife in bed, I was able to fall asleep. This was a significant find. And really not an unpleasant way catch some Z’s.
So touch your significant other. Do what you can to make them feel attractive. Encourage intimacy. These things will go a long way towards alleviating depressive symptoms.
7. Understand it’s a long journey.
I can tell you that healing happens. It is not a quick journey. It takes time, you’ll need patience.
There will be ups and downs. Healing is not a straight line. Processing can be slow. So take care of yourself and take care of your significant other. You’re in it for the long haul and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Photo credit: Flickr/Steven Depolo