I’ve had a stressful day at work. I’m mentally exhausted and physically not too sharp either. It’s the end of the working week and I should be overjoyed that I’m heading home. If my wife were there, I would be. But she isn’t. Someone else is waiting for me when I get back. She looks a lot like my wife, but her face isn’t as bright. She doesn’t have my wife’s beautiful smile – more of a dead-eyed stare. My wife often greets me with cuddles and kisses – this woman avoids physical contact with me, unless I can persuade her to rest her head on my shoulder as she weeps. My wife is self-sufficient, a bundle of energy; this woman seems helpless in my presence, effectively bed-ridden, unable to complete the most basic of tasks. My wife asks me about my day and tells me what happened during hers; this woman asks me what the point of living is.
“What’s the point of me living?” That’s a tough question to answer at any time, let alone after a full day at work. I offer a response that I hope will encourage her, place her dark feelings and impulses into context, and give her a boost. There are only so many times and ways you can give an answer though, especially when your words seem to have little effect. Sometimes I feel like shrugging and admitting that I don’t know. After all, self-preservation – a yearning for life – is a natural, inexplicable instinct for most of us, isn’t it? How do you rationalise it for someone who currently lacks it?
The only thing that could possibly make her feel worse is the notion that her current state of mind is bringing me down as well, is making my life worse. It is of course; how can you watch the woman you love crying over her existence and feel anything other than desperately, pitifully unhappy? But to expose her to that would be to multiply her hardship – and she’s already suffering enough. So I smile. I reassure. I tell her that this dip in mood is transient, that it will pass. I look her in the eye with all the optimism I can muster and tell her that I’m fine, and that she will be too in a few days or so. Sometimes my prediction is accurate; sometimes I’m out by a week or so. Sometimes by a month.
The truth is, I often find myself full of anger and resentment. This disease, despite the continuous experiments with counselling and medication, robs me of my wife too often. It leaves a shell of a woman; and not a shell that I can ignore. A grey facsimile it may be, but it’s one that flips between desperately craving reassurance and pleading for respite from her ills; that speaks of ending it all, and a world better off without her in it. My wife can leave my thoughts every now and then, but this imposter demands my full attention at all times. I worry about her when I’m not there, I grieve for the life she fails to enjoy when I am. And should I remove myself from the environment completely, and enjoy a brief reprieve outside her sphere of gloom, I feel inconsolably guilty that I am able to experience simple pleasures in a way that currently escapes her.
Yet I can’t allow myself even a modicum of self-pity. I’m not the one who’s ill. However bad I may feel, my wife feels worse. How can I dare feel sorry for myself when this cruel disease is extending its tendrils through her mind, convincing her that life is worthless? You’d think it would be an advantage for me to be the one who can see the truth; that can see the wonderful woman I fell in love with just beneath the surface struggling to emerge. But it’s a cruel insight, because she doesn’t see it. Trying to convince someone who’s chronically depressed that they are a good, valuable person is like trying to convince a priest that there’s no God. It’s an infuriating, fatiguing, almost impossible task.
But while you can’t talk someone out of his or her depression, you can offer ballast. I have to remind myself that as useless as I sometimes feel, as a loved one who strives to understand her condition I offer something that few people can: a steadying rock, a light through the shade, someone who will always be there for her no matter what; someone who can soak up the darkness and try to reflect back some positivity.
I’m a good person, aren’t I? A great husband…
Not really. Because sometimes my love and dedication isn’t strong enough to win out against those other negative emotions and feelings. Sometimes I fantasize about a life without a depressed person in it. Sometimes I feel like the transient periods of levity she experiences just isn’t recompense for the soul-sapping morbidity that dominates. Sometimes I get angry with her, shout at her and slam doors behind myself. And sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – I think about leaving her, and am stopped in my mental tracks not by the realization that I would miss her dreadfully, but through the fear that she’d kill herself and that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the guilt.
I’m not always a good person. I’m not always a great husband.
I’m human. I’m trying to do the best I can, trying to support someone who has worse to deal with than I could ever dare imagine. Maybe some men would do better. Perhaps others would do worse. She carries it, she battles it, and she experiences the worst of it. But we’re both burdened by it.
Why do I put up with it? Because I love her. It’s a simple realisation that almost always lifts me out of any petulant self-pity and re-focuses my efforts to be as strong and positive as I can be. Because when her black fog passes and the mood lifts and the woman I married returns, I’m the happiest, luckiest chap in the world. When she re-emerges, it makes any hardship seem trivial.
I love my wife. I hate her depression.
Why am I sharing all of this? Well, beyond the obvious catharsis, there are several reasons. Firstly, my wife let me (thanks honey). Secondly, being in the audience last week when Stephen Fry was famously so open about his mental health issues made me realise how comforting and supportive it can be simply hearing that someone else has battled them too. I left the auditorium feeling uplifted and unburdened because someone shared an experience that before had been so personal, so specific to my wife and me. It reinforced that whether you’re a sufferer or a carer, there are people out there that know exactly what you’re going through because they go through it too. It helps me to know that; it helps even more to hear or read it first hand.
Also, it struck me that if my wife had cancer, or was in a wheelchair, then friends and close colleagues would probably know about it. But despite attempts in the media to shine a light on its prevalence, not enough people talk about depression or bipolar disorder – myself included. But treating it so privately just makes those affected by it feel even more isolated.
So if you’re reading this, and any of what I have written sounds familiar, rest assured: you’re not alone. Sufferer or carer, there’s more of us out there than you think. We don’t tend to make ourselves known. I think it’s time that we did.