Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person's story.
As someone who lives with depression, I know firsthand how all-encompassing it can be. I know how it can touch every part of your life.
My husband, TJ, though, still experiences depressive episodes. And watching him struggle has given me a whole new appreciation for how heart-wrenching it is for partners to often be bystanders and unable to help with an illness. Somehow, it feels worse to see him depressed than experiencing it myself.
You see, I’m a fixer.
And my husband’s depression is something I can’t fix.
It’s taken me a long time to truly learn that. We’ve been together for a decade now, but it’s only been a year or so since I started to be supportive versus trying to fix everything. A mix of therapy, working through the issue with friends, and improved communication have helped me analyze why I do this…and how to change it.
Old habits die hard
Before I learned how to really help my husband, I used to treat him in the only way I knew how. I grew up in an abusive household and learned at a young age that to avoid harm, I should do whatever I had to do to keep my abusers happy.
Unfortunately, this turned into an unhealthy habit, carrying over to people who weren’t trying to hurt me, like my husband. I became a super-pleaser…a smotherer. But in trying to make TJ feel better, I was actually pushing him away and making him feel like he couldn’t share his depression.
“It was pretty annoying,” he confesses, recalling my behavior. “One of the problems with smothering is that it doesn’t feel like I’m allowed to be sad. It’s like I’m already feeling messed up, but then I’m not allowed to be messed up or sad.”
Over time, I realized how much I was negating his feelings by trying to cheer him up all the time. Something that I was doing in my mind to “keep him safe” was actually harmful and causing him to feel worse. I’ve since learned that I’d been practicing “anti-empathy” — as sex and relationships educator Kate McCombs calls it — for years without realizing it. I was denying my husband’s autonomy by demanding positive feelings.
I learned from my own depression management, I know that we must all allow ourselves to feel and process feelings of sadness, anger, and all that comes with depression. When we don’t, these feelings are likely to find some outlet on their own. Sometimes, this can even result in self-harm and aggressive behavior. Learning about all this helped me understand that I was stuffing my own feelings down, eliminating the negative in order to always be a Pollyanna for others — at least on the outside.
It wasn’t healthy for anyone in my life.
That said, even TJ admits it wasn’t all bad.
“I know, deep down, you were just trying to be nice and help. I mean, you did get me back on antidepressants and now I’m not sad as much,” he tells me.
Antidepressants aren’t the answer for everyone, but they do help both of us. We both experience sexual side effects from our medications, however. This is difficult, as you might imagine.
Over time, TJ and I have learned to communicate more clearly about depression, something that isn’t always easy since he doesn’t like to talk about it. Still, we’re making progress.
We text each other throughout the day when TJ is at work. If either of us are having a rough day, we share that before we’re together at the end of the day. This helps me communicate my pain levels as well, making it easier to ask for what I might need once he’s home.
Instead of smothering and constantly being around, I give him more space. This allows TJ to process his feelings and have the freedom to both feel and express negative feelings. I try to ask my husband whether he wants company or space before entering a room he’s in. I ask if he wants to talk about what he’s facing or if he needs alone time. Most importantly, I try to give him at least 15 minutes alone when he gets home from work to unwind from the day.
Of course, I’m not always able to practice all of these habits because of my own health issues. There are times when I need more help or am in a lot of pain, and we need to adjust our routine.
Our relationship is a delicate balancing act between caregiver and patient. Sometimes I need more help and other times my husband does. There are odd times where we’re both doing well, but that’s not as often as either of us would like. This kind of dynamic can be hard on any relationship, but especially one like ours in which we both have chronic health issues.
The hardest days are the ones when we both need more help, but aren’t capable of supporting each other as much as we need or want to. Thankfully, those days are increasingly rare because of the strides we’ve made in the past few years.
As we experience life together, I know we’re in it for hard times that lie ahead. But I can only hope that our increased communication keeps us afloat during high tide.
From our mental health expert “Like any other relationship, couples need to communicate with each other with honesty. Each member of the couple must also recall that they’re their loved one’s partner — not their therapist. And while members of the relationship can certainly be supportive of one another during difficult times, each must remember that it’s not their role to “fix” the other. Such well-meaning intentions often lead to dysfunction.”
— Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP
Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. Kirsten recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex! Follow her on Twitter.