Popular culture is supposed to be a digestible, glossier reflection of real life, but until recent years, there has been one glaring omission: mental health. Especially when it comes to relationships.
It is no wonder then, that when I met the love of my life – my husband Rob – in 2009, and he told me he suffered on and off with depression, that I had no clue what it entailed. I knew from a flicker of memory that people with depression sometimes kept the curtains drawn, or were sad and in bed a lot. But Rob didn’t seem to do any of those things at the time because he wasn’t actively ill, and so I assumed that his depression might not be so bad. And how wrong and naïve I was.
I’ve seen plenty of films where physical illness feature. The heartbreaking relentlessness of cancer or the sudden explosive grenade of a cardiac event. But I don’t remember seeing anything that prepared me or taught me about what it’s like when your partner is mentally ill.
It wasn’t that Rob lied to me about it so as not to scare me off. I genuinely believe that he was in denial about it himself, and wanted so desperately to be ‘normal’ (his words) that he didn’t allow himself to fully connect, understand and treat his depression.
But to put it into context, his depression was clinical, and bad enough that he self-medicated it with drugs and alcohol for most of his life. And these two things combined, eroded his sense of self and worth, to the point that despite receiving medical treatment in the latter years of his life, he died by suicide in 2015.
Suicide is a traumatic death, but perhaps the toughest thing for friends and family left behind, is the sense of what they should’ve done, or rather, what they perceive they didn’t do. I tell people time and time again, that it is not their fault, and that no one is responsible for another person’s life. And while logically I know this to be true about losing Rob, emotionally I will always feel like I should’ve done more, that I – his wife – should have been able to prevent it.
In the aftermath of his death, I learned about depression and suicide, and discovered things that I wish I had known when he was alive. I relied on Rob to tell me what he needed, and reacted to his needs, rather than having proactive conversations about it. (Also because he was an adult and we were in a relationship, and I was wary of mothering him).
I also felt like I was dealing with a lot of it alone which made me feel incredibly isolated. I had no idea that hundreds upon thousands of people were feeling similar emotions to me: frustrated, helpless, worried and exhausted. And more than that, that an illness like depression needs to be treated or at least addressed by medical professionals rather than just being handled at home. I was often out of my depth and felt like it was me who was the problem, rather than realising that this was a formidable illness that needed structured support, treatment and understanding.
For me, there are no do-overs. The person I love most took that final, irreversible step. But here is what I learned which may help, if you are dealing with a partner who has depression, and if you are worried about them being suicidal.
Look for changes in behaviour
We all have days when things don’t seem to be going well. But to me, there’s a marked distinction between going through a bad patch and when someone may be depressed. From personal experience and from watching Rob enter periods of depression, it would tend to be withdrawing from friends and socialising, finding it hard to make decisions and exhaustion. For a long time, I didn’t realise what was happening as it wasn’t overtly obvious and Rob tried to cover up how he was feeling. For instance, he would agree to social plans and then cancel an hour before due to not feeling well. After a while, I realised that he didn’t want to cancel too early so as to arouse suspicion around the fact that he might be depressed.
You can help and educate yourself but you aren’t responsible
As the partner, you are going to feel like it is your role to ‘fix’ it, or to do everything in your power to help. It’s important to understand that you can be a cheerleader, a support, and you can create a safe space for your loved one, but you are only one human being who can’t do everything, and you can’t treat their illness. Rob should have engaged with his doctor a lot sooner than he did but we had two things working against us. The first was that he was depressed which meant his ability to do things, even like walking to the shop, were harder. The second, was that he had a self-stigma around being depressed, so he was reluctant to address it head on.
It’s a fine line between being a carer and being a partner
Rob hated the idea of me being his carer – and that pride led to a lot of unnecessary frustration and resentment on my part. For instance, there were times when I expected him to pull his weight as my partner, but there were times when he just wasn’t capable of it such as doing the shop or helping me clean the house. I wish we had just been able to have an honest conversation around additional support, whether that was getting a cleaner or ordering food online. Small things, but things that would’ve taken any extra stress off.
Language is important
When someone is suicidal, language can sometimes be really important but we tend to brush it off because it seems inconceivable that someone you love might take their own life. But it’s important to remember that someone completes suicide not because they don’t love you, but because they are in a state of unimaginable mental pain that they just want to stop. If your loved one says phrases such as ‘I won’t be around to deal with that’ or starts speaking in a way that seems odd – such as ‘I feel like there is no end to this’, it is a good idea to get them to engage with a medical professional, call Samaritans or to keep a close eye. I wish I had known about suicidal sanctuaries such as Maytree.
Whatever happens, it is not your fault
The best thing you can do is provide a judgement-free space for your loved one. It’s important to remember that people can and do recover from being mentally ill. What tends to work is when society pulls together as a whole – from treatment to ongoing support, to destigmatising work spaces, to prioritising emotional wellbeing over economical success. This is a shared responsibility between all of us. But the only time a person is ever responsible for a life, is their own. I urge you to seek solace and comfort in that.