My husband has struggled with depression for most of his life. It’s not unique to our marriage or even his adulthood. Early childhood trauma followed by emotional abuse during adolescence and too many moves to count made it difficult for him to get help or form secure relationships. Despite all of this, he is wonderful. He has many talents, and his experience in life has given him an empathy for others that is unlike anyone else I know. He’s made an entire career out of helping people. However, he’s never quite been able to break free of his own darkness.
Mental health is only beginning to be brought into light, and as those who suffer are finally getting the support they desperately need, those of us who walk beside them in the shadows of their depression are largely alone in uncharted territory.
My own attitude towards depression, and my spouse, has evolved over time. In the beginning, I was naively optimistic. I saw depression as a rough patch – sadness that we would overcome. I attempted a lot of “cheering up” and made every attempt at “fixing”.
Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t.
As my husband’s depression worsened, my optimism waned. I felt more alone than ever, but I didn’t talk about his depression with anyone. It felt like it wasn’t my story to share. I was also afraid that I would be judged for it. The truth is, I often blamed myself. Why couldn’t I make my husband happy?
I shifted from trying to cure him to trying to alleviate as much stress as possible. I stopped asking him for help. I tried to up my income to combat financial stress. He was fighting so hard just to make it through each day, leaving very little left to give by the time he got home at night. I exhausted myself trying to manage our family on my own.
I often felt as if my husband and I were living parallel lives. We were side by side as I felt all the joys of young parenthood. Although he was there – at the birthday parties, on Christmas morning and every soccer game in between, it was as if he was behind a glass wall. He could see everything, but the joy couldn’t reach him. Crueler, though, than the darkness of depression were the fleeting flashes of light. When he had good days, they were bittersweet. I wanted to soak up every moment, but at the same time, I was guarded. How long would it last before I was missing him again?
My anxiety reached an all time high. I worried about him constantly, and I felt so inadequate. Simultaneously, my self esteem dimmed as my husband’s depression often blinded him to every goodness. I could accept his negativity toward most things, but, in his worst days, it felt like he couldn’t see goodness in me. It was hard not to resent him. Everything and everyone seemed stressful to him. I began to wonder if depression was contagious! It was so hard to remain joyful, and when I was sad, I told myself that my feelings were secondary- not big enough to matter.
The turning point in my own healing was when I shifted my view of depression. Rather than feeling I was married to my husband’s depression, I reminded myself that I was married to my husband who was fighting depression. I began to treat depression as a third, albeit unwelcome, member of our marriage. When I separated my husband from his depression, I found more compassion for his person. If his depression made life difficult for me, how much harder must it be for him? Rather than seeing depression as the thing kept us apart, I began to imagine us united against it.
I also stopped looking to him for my own fulfillment. I chose not to look to him for my worth. Depression aside, neither my husband nor our marriage was meant to complete me. As a Christian, I find my wholeness in Christ alone. I found strength in the resolution that my treatment of him would not be based on his merit, but based on his humanity, my faith, and my own need for grace.
While I have learned to celebrate each step he makes toward overcoming depression, I have accepted that there may not be a sunshiney time in which the cloud of depression has completely lifted.
I honestly planned this post in my head years ago, but I put off writing it- hoping to wait for the day in which I could wrap it up with a nice neat bow. But that’s not real life, and it’s certainly not real life with depression. Still, talking to others about MY struggles with his depression while we are in the trenches of it has been so important.
I’m proud of my husband for the steps he’s taken toward healing, the boundaries he’s put in place and the work he has done. It is so difficult to battle depression, and I am so thankful for every day he chooses to keep fighting.
If someone you love is struggling with depression, please know that you aren’t alone. Believe that it is not up to you to be good enough or joyful enough to cure them. This isn’t your fault. Understand that your spouse would not choose depression anymore than someone would choose cancer. It also helps to learn as much as you can about it! Seeing the list of symptoms that had always felt so unique to my husband, allowed me to depersonalize the disease and view it as the illness it truly is.
Finally, make finding support for yourself a priority. I once read, ”Just because you can carry the load, doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.” Depression is hard– for everyone it touches. You still matter, sister.
Your feelings still count.