Talking about mental health is no longer taboo. But what it is like to live with someone who struggles with their mental health? Beyond the support they can supply, spouses often receive little attention. Now divorced, one woman describes what it is like to live with, and then lose her husband to depression and alcoholism.
Google ‘my spouse is depressed’ and you will not be overwhelmed by advice aimed at you. Mostly, what you will find are articles outlining how you might support your partner.
Much as mental health has become a far more acceptable, mainstream thing to talk about, the reality of living with a depressive, and the effect that that can have on loved ones, ‘depression fallout’ as it has been termed, is widely ignored.
To begin with, diagnosis itself can be tricky. Depression doesn’t necessarily present as lying around in bed, but can manifest as anger, frustration, irritability. It can be hard to recognise, and there can be a long period of unexplained difficulty, living in a toxic home environment. Fiona’s (not her own name) ex-husband suffered from depression and alcoholism, they are now divorced.
“At home he would just watch TV, nothing else. He didn’t feel like sex, making dinner together, anything. If he was out he was great, but the moment we would get home his mood would change completely, and I couldn’t reach him at all. I’m pretty sure he knew before we met that he had a problem, but hadn’t really admitted it to himself properly,” says Fiona. “He would blame others. Then when we met, in his head I was the one who was supposed to fix it.”
Often a new partner will experience a sort of honeymoon-of-mood period, where they unwittingly behave as a sort of emotional plaster to their depressed spouse. Eventually, inevitably, they will cease to be a source of mood enhancement, and the depression will resurface. “Before we got married, there were no signs of depression, he was a really happy person,” Fiona recalls. “The first sign of something wrong was at an anniversary celebration, there was a problem with our hotel, a small thing, but he just switched off completely.” Being easily overwhelmed, or suffering from hair-trigger stress levels, are common symptoms often ignored in online lists of signs of depression.
Back in a hole again
As the marriage progressed, Fiona’s husband’s depression would continually resurface. Months would go by, and then something would happen and he would be “back again in a hole, only this time even darker.”
Getting a person to acknowledge there is a problem, and to seek professional help, can be huge uphill battles. The scariest thing for a depressive is to look inside, to have to face the bad stuff causing the mental health issues. Instead, they often look outwards; blame people, work, lack of energy, for their dissatisfaction.
Slowly, the depression became the dominating factor of life for Fiona and her ex. “After a while you realise you’re acting according to their moods, which are constantly switching. You don’t know whether they will be having a good day or a bad day. And a good day could easily turn into a bad day in a split second, over nothing.”
Exhausted and overwhelmed, self-care became an impossibility. “Looking after yourself is really, really difficult,” explains Fiona, “because all your energy is spent on the other person. It’s hard to even work out a time when you could look after yourself, because everything depends on their mood.”
Fiona’s husband would not admit it was depression. “He would say ‘I do not have a problem, the problem is yours, I feel fine, you’re overreacting’. It’s very difficult to talk to a person like this. You try to fix it, to help them. They might give you a reason, you fix that, then realise ‘no, that wasn’t the problem, it was just an excuse’. It is very difficult to help a person like this unless they want to work on themselves.”
Bouts of attending professional help were abandoned at the first sign of recovery, or when the work came up against something serious, and therefore scary; psychotherapists use the term ‘flight to health’.
“You will find that they will work on themselves for a while, and things will become better, and then suddenly they will decide ‘oh, I don’t need any therapy’,” Fiona explains. “It leaves you very fearful, because you see that this good mood is temporary, that they need to keep going for counselling.”
Making the decision to leave a loved one who is suffering is challenging, and often guilt-ridden.
“There was a moment when I realised that I needed to fight for my own health,” Fiona recalls. “I felt like I was going crazy, literally crazy. I could not understand what was going on, I could not find any reasons for the behaviour and whatever I did was failing. Because of what was happening I was getting down, and then suddenly he would be in a good mood. But I couldn’t switch back and forth as quickly.”
Reaching out to tell others what’s going on can be hard, for fear of misunderstanding. “People think ‘oh it’s your husband, you need to be there for him’. And you are. But by the time you admit to anyone what is going on, you’re already in so much trouble you need to do something. And you realise that this might not be approved of by a lot of the outside world. Because it seems like you’re leaving a person in who is need.”
In Fiona’s case, her husband was an alcoholic, and his increasingly aggressive behaviour made the decision to leave easier. “He gave me a pretty good excuse to leave.”
Realising he also had a drink problem was, she says, “incredibly difficult. Especially in Ireland. He would be the last one to leave the pub, everyone else would look extremely drunk, whereas he would look fine. He would be first in the gym early the next morning. You think that an alcoholic is someone who has problems at work, with their health. That was not the case.” To this day, she is unsure whether the alcoholism was a coping mechanism for the depression, or if the depression was caused by the drinking.
The anxiety created from living with someone who is to some extent in chaos took a huge toll. “That cost me a lot emotionally. At some stage I had to make the decision to switch off emotionally. Because it was killing me. I thought I can’t cry anymore, I can’t get upset. I have to be very logical and practical.”
Returning to normal, healthy behaviour is something she is still working on. “I can be emotionally unavailable in new relationships because of how I had to behave in my marriage. As soon as there is any disagreement I walk away without thinking twice. You bring a lot of that to your next relationship. Overreacting, or provoking the new partner.”
If you are in this situation, the most important thing, she says, is to try to find others who have experienced something similar, whether through support groups (AA for family members, CODA), or books. “The feeling of guilt when you leave is massive. Talk to people who have gone through the same thing. You will realise that you are not on your own, you haven’t overreacted, you’re not imagining it. Nor are you a terrible person for leaving. You didn’t have any other choice.”