health

'How it feels to be married to someone with depression.'

All I know for sure about mental illness is that I know nothing at all.

I was not exposed to mental illness growing up. I am extremely lucky, I know this. For the longest time, I was that insufferable person who thought people with depression simply needed to think positively. 

Then, I met my husband. We have completely different childhoods and life experiences, but hold the same values and place importance on the same things. But because of our differences, mentally we are pretty much the yin and yang of each other. My view of the world is as about as PG 13 as you can get, whereas his is definitely rated R and above. I’m aware of the bad things in the world, but I have the luxury of ignoring them and moving on with my day. For my husband, the bad things cannot be easily silenced or ignored.

Since I met my husband, my view and understanding of mental illness has completely turned around. I used to have a very damaging idea of it, but now I can at least understand that it is simply not a matter of thinking positively. Anxiety, panic disorder, and depression (all of which my husband suffers from) are never a choice, and they can never be cured. If you live with mental illness, it’s always there. It is not about getting to a point where it is no longer a problem. The goal is to learn how to manage it so you can live with it day to day.

How to talk to people with anxiety, a handy guide.

Video by MWN

In medicine, there is a saying ‘the more you learn, the less you know’, and this is how I feel about mental illness. Each time I finally grasp something about it, I realise I still have so much to learn and in comparison, I really know nothing at all. It is like pushing a magnet up a hill of magnets. As you get higher, more magnets get stuck, and it becomes more and more difficult to push.

My husband has explained to me that nothing can be done to make me fully understand how he feels every day. He has said unless a ‘depression simulator’, where people can experience exactly what living with mental illness is like, is invented, people who do not suffer from it will never fully know just how hard it is to live with.

I feel guilty because I have the luxury of forgetting how hard it is for him. Not that I do it on purpose, but when I ask my husband to come shopping with me and he takes a long time just to get his foot out the door, I have to remind myself that he is building up the courage to be in a space filled with people. In a place like a supermarket or shopping centre, his anxiety could easily be triggered. He knows this and can never forget it. Whereas I must remind myself of this. Life for him isn’t just a matter of getting up and going. Some days just getting of the couch can be an impossible task for him.

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In addition to feeling like I know less as I learn more, I also feel more scared as I learn more. The feeling of every so often thinking I have a basic understanding to realising I don’t, has really done a number on my nerves. At the very least, it’s given me a glimpse of what my husband goes through every day. But for someone who is the mental embodiment of sunshine and rainbows, it has added some clouds to my sunny disposition.

Along with mental illness my husband suffers from a few physical health problems, most of which were causing him significant problems but remained undiagnosed for over a year. We recently found ourselves in the emergency room from 12am to 5am one morning. The following couple of weeks saw him on the couch unable to walk, and meanwhile I ran around getting shopping, cooking meals, cleaning, doing washing, going to work, taking our dog (who has great timing) to the vet, planning birthday and anniversary celebrations, getting medication from chemists, walking at half pace because I hurt my back lifting our giant dog in and out of the car, etc. the list goes on.

I’d never been more tired in my life and I am still trying to recover from that seven solid days of non-stop ‘wife life’ as I call it. I feel like I haven’t truly rested since then, because now it weighs on my mind that at any moment it could all happen again at any point in time. And if I haven’t fully recovered from the last time, will I be able to handle it the next time? Of course, I know that I have no choice. Not that I feel forced or burdened, but there is no alternative to seeing the person you love suffer. You just get up and do what needs to be done to help them.

I realised my biggest fear when musician Chris Cornell died of suicide. My husband is a musician too, he’s grungy and rough around the edges. When we first met, we were listening to music in my car and he said ‘this song is very Audioslave-like’ and I agreed. He was surprised that I knew Audioslave, and I told him I was a fan of Chris Cornell and Soundgarden. For some reason that moment has always stuck out in my mind. I loved his music, but I didn’t know much about Chris Cornell the man.

I certainly didn’t know he suffered from mental illness, and when it was reported that he’d committed suicide at 52 years old, a wave of fear rushed over my body and it all suddenly became very real. My husband has managed his depression for 31 years, and I am so proud of him. But to be in such a state of mind where you think that no longer existing is the only way to find peace is a serious mental condition.

My husband says it takes a special person to partner someone with mental illness. I don’t feel special at all, I feel ill-equipped and unprepared. But I knew of his mental illness before we got married, and whilst it was a big concern of his, it has never been a concern of mine when it comes to having a lasting marriage. Do I worry that, with all of his combined health issues, he may not make it past 50 or 60 years of age? Yes. Am I scared that I will be left behind to face the latter half of my life without him? Yes. Are these fears irrational? I don’t know.

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What I do know is, no matter what, I will be by his side for the rest of his life. For everything I don’t know about mental illness, that is the one thing I know for sure.

All I can do for my husband is support him constantly. I feel like it is not enough, as do many people, but I know that it doesn’t go unappreciated. The smallest things can make the biggest difference. Just yesterday my husband told me to let him do things around the house, washing, dishes, etc. because by doing it all myself I am making him feel like he is of no use. So there I learn something else; bearing all the weight isn’t always the best idea, especially if you’re buckling under it while your partner has no load to carry at all. I am extremely thankful for my husband’s understanding of his mental illness, and that he is open and honest with everything he feels. I do not know how I would handle it if we were both clueless about it.

But for all the stresses and nights spent worrying, none of it cancels out the good times we share. And it certainly doesn’t cancel out the amazing person he is. My husband is funny. He has a way of describing things, people, situations etc. in the most crude, unexpected and hilarious way. He will say something out of the blue so casually, and it will have me in stitches for the rest of the day. The ability to put a smile on my face no matter what is a true gift of his.

My husband is also Buddhist. Buddhism has helped him manage his mental illness and has opened up an entirely new way for him to exist in the world. For someone who has lived a very disordered life, Buddhism puts things in order and helps him see things with clarity. My husband is the only person I know who actually works at being a better person, for no other reason than he believes he can be better, and Buddhism helps him do this.

I feel like my life hadn’t truly begun until I met my husband. The best times of my life have been spent with him. He has taught me so much and I feel like I’ve taught him a few things too. My fond memories so far aren’t the places we’ve been or the things we’ve done. My fond memories are having him with me during those times. When he pulls the car over so I can pat some cows in a paddock, it’s not the cows I remember after all this time; it’s that he pulled the car over for me.

For all his achievements, understanding me may be his biggest one. And this is where mental illness will never be a factor, because it doesn’t define my husband. Yes, he experiences and suffers from it every day, but it’s not who he is. On the days when things can be too much for him, I like to think my ‘soldier on’ attitude helps him, even just a little bit. It hurts to see him suffer, but I know it’s in those times when he needs me to be strong. There are plenty of times when he’s been the strong one for me, and in the end that is what marriage is all about.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, please seek professional help and contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. 

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