What I Wish I’d Known Sooner About Helping a Loved One Get Through Depression

I don’t want to be my husband’s caregiver. I want us to be a team.
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I don’t want to be my husband’s caregiver. I want us to be a team.

I sat slumped on the floor, sobbing, a growing pile of crumpled tissues beside me. He stood across the room, exasperated. Another argument.

His depression was getting worse. Some days, he couldn’t be emotionally present so I withdrew, not wanting to burden him with my own troubles. I held the stress and resentment in until they became too much, and I exploded into a weepy mess. Despite all the tears, our marriage felt dry, like we were wandering in an endless desert.

I knew going into the relationship that he struggled with depression—he told me early on. He hadn’t been on medication or in therapy for a while, and he was managing pretty well on his own. He had rough days from time to time, but that was it.

About a year and a half into our marriage, things began to change. At first, we thought it was work-related stress. But when he changed paths and went back to grad school, it didn’t get any better.

We still had plenty of good times, but he didn’t seem like the man I married. I didn’t feel like myself, either. I felt drained. Even on good days, there was an underlying tension, like we were waiting for another storm—the sting of harsh words that whirled between a depressed husband and an exhausted wife, leaving us both feeling lost.

The struggles I have described are not unique. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “an estimated 25 million American adults are affected by major depression in a given year, but only one half ever receive treatment.” Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that about 350 million people are affected by depression.

But those numbers aren’t the whole story. For each depressed person, there are loved ones wondering how to help. We wonder how to get them through this—and we wonder how we’ll get through it ourselves.

Don’t Lose Yourself Trying to Help Another

Before my husband got treatment, I tried to help him as best I could. When I asked if there was anything I could do, the answer was always the same: “Not really.”

I felt helpless, and I started to feel inadequate—like maybe if I were a better wife, he wouldn’t feel this way. Deep down, I knew this wasn’t true. My husband affirmed this with his constant gratitude. But I couldn't shut off that part of me that felt there had to be more I could do, and the pressure mounted fast.

I worried about my emotions bringing him down further, so I stopped sharing my struggles. I withdrew until it all got to be too much. Heather Gray of The Good Men Project writes, “Spouses, in an effort to support their loved ones, give themselves away. They deny their own needs and avoid setting important boundaries. While based in good intentions, these are the choices that often lead to resentment, anger, and impatience.”

What she describes is all too familiar. In the months when my husband was at his lowest, I started letting myself go. He was trying to take care of himself, and I was trying to take care of him. Neither one of us was looking out for me. Finally, I had to embrace the truth: nothing I do can change the fact that my husband has depression. I can’t “love” it away.

As the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says, “It is extremely important (and not selfish) for partners of those with an anxiety disorder to take care of themselves.” It’s easy to gloss over that bit in the parentheses, but that’s the important part. Self care is not selfish. We have to get over our guilt of feeling like it is.

Many of the self-care tips NAMI gives are so basic—eat well, sleep well, etc.—yet they are things we are quick to neglect. In order to be our best for those around us, we have to take care of ourselves first. Aside from basic physical care, there are plenty of ways we can maintain our own mental health.

NAMI puts it this way: “It’s like the advice we’re given on airplanes. Put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help someone else with theirs.”

Know That Depression Isn’t a Weakness

Depression is called a mental illness for a reason—it truly is an illness, and we’ve got to drop the stigma. The National Institute of Mental Health emphasizes this fact: “It is not a sign of a person’s weakness or a character flaw. You can’t ‘snap out of’ clinical depression.”

There is nothing weak about having depression, and there is nothing weak about getting help—whether it’s therapy, medication, or a combination thereof.

In his TED talk on emotional first aid, Dr. Guy Winch notes that people with depression are often told they need to “shake it off.” But we would never dream of telling someone with a broken leg to “walk it off.” This attitude is part of what he considers favoritism in how we treat the body over the mind.

Someone once told Chonda Pierce, a Christian comedian, that she shouldn’t talk about her antidepressants because it made her faith seem weak. Pierce had the perfect response: “Then you should take your glasses off and drive home! Where’s your faith?”

Seeing a therapist is the best thing my husband has done not only for himself, but for our marriage—and for me. Once he started going to counseling and taking medication, change began to happen. We were able to connect more and talk about what we were facing—together.

Dr. Dennis Lowe and his wife, Dr. Emily Scott-Lowe, recommend talking about depression as a third party, like it’s an intruder in the marriage. This can help both spouses to better talk about the situation. It’s not my fault. And it’s not his, either.

Through his work with a therapist and our continued efforts at home, I saw glimpses of the man I fell in love with. We fought less and laughed more.

Together, my husband and I have made a commitment to better take care of ourselves. We’re cooking healthier meals, and we got a gym membership. Exercise has been known to help ease the symptoms of depression. Each of us is looking out for our own well-being, and we’re keeping each other accountable.

Reach Out to Others for Support

My biggest regret from the past year is how little I’ve spoken about this to others. It’s not that I should have advertised the situation, but I should have been more honest when people asked how we were doing. On the surface, we looked good. But in reality, we were desperate for support.

Depression is hard to talk about. It’s easier to write this piece to publish online for strangers than to talk face to face with people I’m close to. In the times I did share our struggles, the love received was a much-needed boost, whether a text from my mom or a letter from a friend. Most everyone offered encouragement. Many shared their own stories, and I began to see for myself how widespread depression is.

Friends and family aren’t the only ones to turn to for support. NAMI offers Family to Family, a 12-week course for family members or friends of people who have mental illnesses. In her book Depression Fallout, which deals with the effects depression has on marriage, Anne Sheffield writes about how members of an online community came together to support one another. Though they didn’t know each other face to face, they related to each other’s struggles and shared sincere, helpful advice.

It’s can be hard to let people in, to let them see behind the glossy exterior. But it’s so incredibly worth it.

There’s Always Hope

It’s been a few months now, and I feel like I have my husband back. It’s like he went away for a while, but I didn’t realize how far away he was until he returned. He’s more productive and motivated, caring and romantic. His eyes sparkle. And we are stronger.

In our darkest moments, I often wondered, “How long do we have to keep going like this?” Even now, with my husband and our marriage doing so much better, there are difficult moments. I think about how life isn’t going according to “the plan,” or I feel helpless again. But I can’t let the difficult moments define myself, or our marriage. For every difficult moment, there is a moment of beauty, joy, or gratitude.

For stand-up comedian Kevin Breel, the darkness of depression has helped him appreciate the light. In a TED talk about facing his depression, he says, “My hurt has forced me to have hope.”

A big part of the hope my husband and I have comes from our faith. Praying together has helped us keep everything in perspective. When we feel broken, we can cry out to God. The deacon at our church recently preached about the Israelites wandering in the desert in the Old Testament, and I couldn’t help but think of our journey with my husband’s depression. The deacon talked about how God didn’t simply take the Israelites out of the desert—instead, he helped them get through it. And, he added, “Even deserts have borders.”

I know depression won’t ever fully go away. But even deserts have borders (and the occasional oasis). As time goes on, we’ll keep finding new ways to grow stronger as a team. And as my husband often reminds me, “We’ll take it one day at a time.”

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners