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Column: Living with someone who’s depressed is hard – partners need support too

The biggest learning curve my husband and I have taken from my mental health problems is that without communication, depression will win, writes Fiona Kennedy.

Fiona Kennedy

MY HUSBAND RECENTLY spoke on The Last Word with Matt Cooper on TodayFM, on behalf of Nurture. Nurture is a charity providing support for women, their partners and their families around postnatal depression (PND), fertility problems, miscarriage and related issues. The purpose of the interview was to make people aware of the impact PND has on not just the woman who is struggling, but also the partner or family who are trying to support her.

The problem with depression – well, one of many – is that for the duration of an episode, be it PND or otherwise, it fundamentally changes the person who is affected. Our outlook shifts dramatically, we’re withdrawn, irritable, tearful, unfocused, forgetful, utterly useless around the house and generally not very good company. That’s all been well-documented, and I don’t need to go into it again here. But what about the person, or people, living with this stranger? How does it impact on them?

As with what I’ve written here before, I can only speak from my own experience, but having weathered several episodes of depression with an incredibly strong man by my side, I’ve seen first hand the impact it can have on a partner, and consequently on the relationship.

The benefit of hindsight

Of course, I’m writing with the benefit of hindsight. At the time I wasn’t able to see any of this. I think when it strikes me most is when I see photos of my husband during periods when I’ve been depressed. He looks completely and utterly worn out – physically, mentally and emotionally – he’s drawn, looks exhausted, and the light is gone from his eyes.

The first time it struck, we didn’t know what was going on and he just couldn’t understand my behaviour. As the years passed and we’ve learned to recognise the warning signs, he’s able to react more appropriately, both for me and for him, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier on him.

The biggest danger to our relationship when I’m not well is the lack of communication that goes with it. This isn’t deliberate. I know how much stress it causes him when depression raises its head again, so I try to hide it from him (noble, but spectacularly unhelpful). In this, I’m invariably unsuccessful. He knows me well. The first indicator is that I generally become quite businesslike – we talk about what needs to be done, bills to be paid, the kids – but there’s no room for chat. Laughing stops. I’m horribly snappy, with him and the kids, my patience threshold goes down the toilet. I avoid eye contact. But still, still, I think I’m hiding it.

He has a counterpart to this little dance as well, and rightly so – out of a sense of self preservation, he will withdraw emotionally. Depressed me assumes he’s angry with me, I withdraw further… and so it goes. I’m sure you can see how rapidly this can escalate into a serious problem.

I made a promise that I would always let him know

Thankfully, we’ve learned to live with it, in a manner of speaking. That’s not to say it isn’t still hard – it is, and never more so than when I once again have to tell him I’m not feeling great, and see him steel himself for what might happen next. That conversation is never pleasant, but I made him a promise that I would always let him know, and that’s one that cannot be broken.

I think it is all too easy for the partner of someone with depression to get lost themselves, and be dragged along. The first instinct will probably always be to look for a solution, and try to fix it, but this (in my experience at least) doesn’t work. It’s like trying to fix the flu. You can’t. All you can do is provide support while they ride it out, and try to avoid getting the flu yourself.

I think it’s much the same with depression. It is absolutely vital that partners and family look after themselves first and foremost, and recognise that there will be times when they simply cannot support their loved one in the way that they would like, for any number of reasons – they’re tired, the kids need looking after, there’s literally nothing they can say that will make it better or they’re simply too frustrated by the whole situation and need to get away from it. Sometimes the best thing to do is give hugs, others it’s to walk away. Knowing which is right at any given time is the challenge.

We’re talking. We’ll keep talking.

Depression, if given the opportunity, could take a devastating toll on a relationship. It will certainly test it to the absolute limit. Looking back over the last six years, I can see several times when Ronan could have been forgiven for walking away. But he didn’t (luckily for me he has an incredibly stubborn streak in him).

He stood by me at times when I couldn’t see a future for myself, never mind for us as a couple. He quietly kept the house going when I wasn’t able to. He provided chocolate, tea and hugs as needed. He pushed me to do things I really didn’t want to that he knew would help. He didn’t always get it right, there have been many arguments over the years, and many times when I felt he was deliberately trying to misunderstand. Likewise there have been countless times when I have pushed him away, and blamed him for how I was feeling.

The biggest learning we’ve taken from all of this is that without communication, depression will win. The hard conversations have to happen, much and all as we don’t want them to. Sometimes we both need space and time alone, sometimes that’s not possible and we have to just keep going. But we’ve made it this far, and we’re still standing. I’m in the process of tapering-off medication with the hope of managing without. We’re hopeful, yet apprehensive, as it could go either way. The weekend was tough. Today is good. We’re talking. We’ll keep talking. And depression will not win.

Fiona Kennedy is a 30(ish) year old, happily married, mam of two, living in a small town in Connemara. She has two crazy dogs, wonderful friends and a loving, supportive family. Oh, and clinical depression. She blogs at Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @SunnyScattered

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