NOT trying is just not an option
I can honestly say that caring about someone with a history of mental health illness can be frustrating, and at times; utterly exasperating and annoying. However, if you believe the person you care about is worth being with, then NOT trying is just not an option.
Dating my wife was a pretty typical affair. Pleasant daytime walks were followed by nights out at our favourite local inns and restaurants. During this period she told me a little of her abusive childhood and subsequent life problems, which had left her with a sense of deep anger and disappointment with the people she had trusted. This then led to my wife developing mental health issues throughout her life, to the point where she was hospitalised with acute depression.
Coming into this relationship, as I did, with no real experience of mental illnesses, I was certainly not anywhere close to having the right qualifications to prepare me for what was to come. Add to that; a short fuse, and very little patience, at times, it wasn’t the best recipe for harmony. Also, I have to admit that my upbringing, and subsequent adult years, left me entirely unprepared for what I was about to experience. But I felt that my new love was, underneath it all, a really good woman. Life events had simply damaged her.
As couples do, we decided to become engaged and begin our new life together, so we rented a lovely studio apartment and happily moved in. We were both of mature years and were independent people set in our ways. Each of us had our baggage; both of us had trust issues, and it wasn’t long before these issues raised their ugly heads. We would have terrible, fierce arguments, and I would feel she was being entirely unreasonable and was often blindsided by her seemingly, knee-jerk, overreactions to something which I thought was quite trivial. My anger would flare at the injustice, but that would only cause her to become anxious, withdraw into her shell as she became deeply depressed for days on end. I just didn’t know what to do, and often felt at my wit’s end.
Any disagreement (and there were more than a few) between us, would often result in her taking to her bed for forty-eight hours or more. No food, just sleep. She would emerge looking dreadful, make a coffee, then disappear again. The longer she stayed in bed I found my initial anger would turn into a bemused, mild concern, and then as time went on, sheer bewilderment. I had never experienced anyone going through such emotional pain for a reason I did not understand. It came as a complete shock to me.
When she did finally appear I would naturally expect some remnants of the disagreement to be evident, but not a bit of it. My wife would be bright, breezy and full of life just as if nothing had happened! She had taken to her bed as an angry caterpillar, and emerged a couple of days later; her beautiful butterfly self. I would be utterly confused as I was expecting a declaration of all-out war. I just did not have the knowledge to understand this jigsaw puzzle of a relationship, at all.
Then there were the panic attacks she would have. These would come out of the blue. She would randomly freak out in panic and anxiety, causing me to freak out because I didn’t know what the heck was going on. This was probably the worst aspect of it all. I felt isolated with no one to talk to. I felt I had unwittingly become a psychiatric nurse, but with no knowledge or training.
Understandably, the need to leave her and the situation far behind me, crossed my mind several times, but I simply loved her. Her core personality was one of the loveliest and caring I had ever come across, and I couldn’t bring myself to lose her. She needed help, and I certainly never wanted her to fall back into that black hole of the past, from which, she fought so hard to claw her way out. I wanted to be part of the solution; not the problem.
While she was indisposed (sleeping it away), I tried to understand her pain. I read as much as I could about mental illness in one form or another, but the subject of depression and anxiety was so vast and complicated, it left me with an overwhelming sense of despair. But one of the best things I learned a great deal about was, ‘triggers’. Something I did or said could ‘trigger’ my wife into an overreaction and subsequent disappearance into her world of depression. Equally, she would do or say something that ‘triggered’ me, whereby I would lose my temper, sending her into depression and disappearance. I was a nightmare of a vicious cycle.
Our married life turned me from a man who was confident, and comfortable in his own skin, to someone entirely unsure of himself. Apprehension often accompanied any of the conversations between us, as one wrong word or act, from either of us, would lead to long hours talks as she tried to get to the bottom of what the heck happened. As an old-fashioned man, I wasn’t used to my emotions being stripped naked and dissected. I hated it. What I believed to be absolutely right was, by the strength of her argument, ultimately dismantled and disregarded.
Frustrating! Illogical! Confusing! I wanted to scream at the world, and especially at her, and I often did. It may have made me feel better for a short while, but in the end, it solved nothing.
All she wanted is to feel valued
As an intelligent thinker, my wife had the unshakeable belief that whatever she proposed was the only way forward. This attitude usually proved to be a red rag to me if it failed to make sense, or I thought I knew better. During these times I recognised the need not to worsen the situation by saying something stupid became paramount but not being a fully fledged saint, I often failed on that score. Little did I realise that all she wanted was to feel valued and that she mattered. My wife felt she had so much to offer and needed to express it. It was another lesson I needed to learn.
Over months I began to understand that my anger towards her was only making the situation worse and that I needed to develop the art of patience. Sitting at the table, staring out of the window for forty-eight hours; waiting apprehensively for your angry partner to emerge from the bedroom, certainly teaches you just that; patience. It also gave us breathing time, and time for reflection. I also realised my fits of anger were the ‘trigger’ to her memories and experiences when she was a child, where violence and anger from a parent was the norm and had deeply wounded her. I realised I had to take the initiative and change the way I approached it all.
How can anyone hear someone’s call for help if they’re not listening?
So over the years that followed I began to realise that during the build-up to these periods of her potential depression, it was far better for me to sit quietly and listen to the outpouring of her pain and sadness; rather than by antagonising the situation with some flippant response. A lesson I’ve not quite mastered yet, but I’m getting there. She talked, I listened. How can anyone hear someone’s call for help if they’re not listening? The need to express herself and get it off her chest could go on for hours and hours, and although a strain for someone with a short attention span such as myself, I knew it was important to show both support and understanding; lots of it!
If she did feel the need to take to her bed, then I would simply let her sleep it off undisturbed. I came to see the benefits for us both when she did this, and, when I saw the signs of any anxiety in her, I would suggest she retire to get some rest. It’s my wife’s way of self-medicating and it works for her. She finds that putting the distance of time between any offending incident and recovery from it, brings her healing. The most important thing is just to be there for her when she finally appears.
It wasn’t an overnight thing, by any stretch of the imagination
It took me years to realise that instead of meeting her head on it was better to suggest an alternative and let her think it over. This has proved to be the best way forward for us. At least the direction we take now is open to change, and during that change, she remains bright and optimistic. However, talking and listening proved to be the building block upon which our relationship began to flourish. I have to be honest and say it wasn’t an overnight thing, by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not a one-way learning curve. We have been both nurse and patient to each other throughout it all, and have learned to trust each other.
Eventually, the more I learned patience, trust, and understanding, the more my wife, in turn, felt trusted and loved, and vice versa. It’s been a two-way street.
What I learned to create is a safe environment where my wife can flourish. Some may say that by doing that I’ve given up my own needs, but isn’t that what you do when your loved one has a chronic illness? My primary desire is to see her well. The long bouts of depression have now disappeared and we both, I feel, are more contented than at any time during our relationship. ‘Happy Wife, Happy Life’, as the saying goes. And in return, my beautiful wife dotes on me. A win-win situation, with which I couldn’t be happier.
Having said that, I am fully aware she is still basically a fragile soul and can get sad, angry and frustrated with certain things now and again. But the important thing is that we both know that whatever happens, we will be there for each other. The journey through it all has been rough for us both, but seeing her pretty, confident smile now, has really made it all worthwhile!
Wishing you all well in your future,