Depression doesn’t just affect the person suffering, it changes the lives of the people around them too. Rebecca Reid explains how her relationship has survived
In most relationships, there is a point where the romance clears, and you really see each other for the first time. It’s a bit like the moment at the end of a night out when all the lights go on at a club and you realise that you’ve been dancing in what’s basically a cellar with ideas above its station. Our moment, my fiancé Marcus and mine, should have been when he told me that he had depression.
We had been together for three months and were lying on my bed, when he propped himself up on one elbow, looked me in the eyes and said, “I need to tell you something”. Of course I panicked, thinking he was going to say he had changed his mind and wasn’t that into me, or that he had some hyper-contagious disease. So when the words, “I have depression” came out of his lips, I was, frankly, relieved.
Depression really didn’t seem like a big deal. After all, who didn’t have a bit of depression? As far as I was concerned it was the common cold of mental health issues. So while it should have been our watershed moment, it wasn’t. I was too in love with being in love to allow a little thing like mental illness get in the way. Three and a half years later, I know how naÏve that was.
As he explained to me that day, when we first got together, Marcus was taking anti-depressants. He had been diagnosed a year before he met me, and he was starting to get a grip on his illness – using exercise and meditation as well as medication to manage it. Between his efforts and the joy of a new relationship, it was six months or so before I first experienced a low patch. But when the low patch did eventually come, it floored me.
During those easy first few months, I had assumed that if it affected us at all, it would only mean he was a bit sad occasionally – not that it would sometimes leave him struggling to eat a whole meal or have a conversation with me. The hardest part of loving someone who has mental health issues is learning to work out how much of their behaviour is being governed by their illness. Everyone, no matter how great they are, is capable of being moody, unreasonable or unpleasant. Unfortunately, when your partner has depression, you can end up playing a sort of guessing game. Are they leaving you to do all the household chores because they’re being lazy, or are they ill? Are they monosyllabic because they don’t care about the bust-up in your friendship group, or because having a conversation is too hard?
When my fiancé was really unwell he would take himself off for long walks, hide out in coffee shops or immerse himself in work, rather than coming home. I knew where he was, but that didn’t stop me worrying constantly. Letting me help was hard for him. I would become overbearing, sending panicked messages and trying to overcompensate with affection. Marcus saw his illness as a weakness and believed he was protecting me from the reality of it by pulling away, but to me, it felt like a rejection. I knew why it was happening, but I still couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that he was on some level, abandoning me by wanting to be somewhere else.
I used to look at other people whose partners had depression and think they were saints. They seemed able to bench their feelings and needs to support their partner. I wished that I were like that. The truth is, sometimes I couldn’t make myself be calm and understanding. Once, Marcus couldn’t come to an event that I was speaking at, because he wasn’t well. It was a huge moment for me, and I really needed him there.“I’m sorry,”I remember him saying. “I wish I could”. Knowing that he wanted to but couldn’t almost made it worse – at least if he were being purely selfish I could have had a go at him. As it was, I had to bite my tongue.
I just about managed to hang up the phone before I burst into tears, but I can’t pretend I did a great job of hiding my frustration. It wasn’t his fault, but I was still angry with him. When people asked where he was, I forced a smile and said something non-committal about work, pretending that I hadn’t even wanted him there.
A year after Marcus told me about his depression, during the second bout of illness that I watched him go through, something shifted. A friend asked me how I was, and I said, “Fine”, in a typically British fashion. “Really?” she replied. “You don’t seem fine.”
I realised then that I couldn’t keep pretending everything was perfect. I wasn’t fine, and that was allowed. During drinks with my girlfriends, rather than brushing off the question and saying we were great, I answered the question, “How are you both?”, honestly.
Forcing the words out – that Marcus had mental health issues, and that sometimes those issues caused tensions in our relationship – was agonising. I thought it meant I was failing, that it was my fault.
The reality was completely different. As soon as I opened up about my experience, so did other people. By stopping the pretence that we were a golden couple with a perfect relationship, I became someone people would confide in. I was shocked at the number of friends who told me that they were in the exact same position.
My friends and I never talk specifics about our partner’s mental health. They deserve their privacy, and in any case, it’s not about them. It’s about us. What we needed was a safe place to admit that we don’t always get things right. That everyone, no matter how hard they try, screws up sometimes, and dating someone who has depression does not mean you’re being a saint.
The idea of getting angry with Marcus over something that is caused by his depression used to scare me. But you cannot sustain a relationship with someone if you’re too scared to criticise them. People who have depression can, and will, still behave badly for reasons other than their mental health and treating them like an ill person is a real passion killer. My challenge has been to learn to recognise the signs – the loss of appetite, the reduced tolerance for alcohol and a slight withdrawal in conversation. By knowing the signs I’ve learned how to pick my battles.
There’s a good reason why, on a plane, they tell you to adjust your own oxygen mask before helping other people. When you love someone you want to help them first, but that instinct is short sighted. ‘Self care’ is not a phrase that sits easily with me, but I’ve learned I will always be more useful if I’ve taken half an hour to watch something on Netflix while I paint my nails before entering into an emotional conversation. A small amount of selfish time is a huge investment in your ability to help another person.
When Marcus made the decision to come off anti-depressants two years into our relationship, I was terrified. It was agonising to know something that would affect my life so much was out of my control. But I respected his choice. And the world did not collapse. It has been two years since he stopped taking them. We are incredibly lucky, his illness is pretty much in the past now. There are still occasional bad days, but we get through them together. I cook, even if he says he’s not hungry, but I don’t push the point. We lie on the sofa together, and I don’t force conversation, or activity, instead, we’ll watch a film we both love.
Looking back, I’m glad that when Marcus told me about his illness, I was naÏve about it. If I had known quite how difficult living in the shadow of depression could be, I might have panicked and pulled away from him. If I had done that, I would have missed out on the most important relationship of my life. On his best day or his worst day, Marcus is still my best friend, and my soulmate.
Self-care: a partner’s guide
Because your mental health is important too
“We talk enough about the impact of a mental health issue on partners,” says psychotherapist Damien Ridge. But your mental health is just as important, that’s why its vital to take stock of your own wellbeing – at least once a day.
Find an ally
Your partner might want to keep their mental health issues a secret but it’s important not to end up isolated. Try to negotiate being able to tell a few close friends or family members what is going on, so you don’t feel totally alone.
It’s not you
“People worry they’ve caused their partner’s depression or they’re not enough for them,” says psychotherapist Kate Thompson of the Tavistock Centre. Couples counselling for depression can help you find a way to talk about these fears.
Get clued up
Understanding depression from a clinical viewpoint – minus emotional attachment – is key, otherwise it can feel like there is no hope. To find out more about depression, Ridge recommends The Blue Pages (bluepages.anu.edu.au).
Hair and make-up: Andrea Bayliss at S Management
Kate Thompson, The Tavistock Centre (tavistockrelationships.org)