Fine, some of the time: The impact of mental illness on relationships
I feel like I don’t have the right to write about depression because I’m not depressed. I know the term gets used a lot, but it doesn’t always have a capital ‘d’ or mean the same thing to everyone. When I was in high school one of my friends, a beautiful and incredibly talented artist, was clinically depressed and prone to self-harm. People talked about her in hushed tones and nudged each other when they saw her bandaged wrists peeking out from the sleeves of her school jumper. Everyone knew why she had the bandages, but no one ever asked her about it. It’s not a subject people feel comfortable talking about really and goes on the things-we-don’t-talk-about list, along with abortion and the colonisation of Australia. (If that sentence made you inwardly cringe, then I rest my case).
Anyway, becoming a counsellor has meant I have to be comfortable talking about everything, and having hard and awkward conversations about all of it. ‘Have you tried to kill yourself in the past?’ and ‘If you were going to do it, how would you do it, and when?’ are questions I need to feel OK about asking, and OK about hearing the answer. These topics are hard enough to ask when you’re sitting across the room from a client. Asking the same questions of your partner when you go home is a different thing entirely.
According to WHO, depression is ‘characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest or pleasure in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities (World Health Organization 2021 https://www.who.int/). As someone in a relationship with a person suffering from Depression (capital ‘d’), I see first-hand the dramatic change this illness has both on a person’s ability to function in life and on their personality as a whole. In comparison to the reality of living with it, who’s description sounds like a bloody good time. If you look, you’ll find a lot online about how to support your partner or loved one suffering from mental illness, but you’ll not find a lot about how to support your loved one’s loved one – you.
With more than 264 million people worldwide affected by depression (World Health Organization 2021 https://www.who.int/), you’d have thought we’d have figured it out by now, and that there’d be some tried and true strategies to combat the guilt, frustration, impatience and despair that is commonly felt, not only by those afflicted with this and other mental illness, but by those who love and support them. Something I hear a lot is that you’re no good to anyone else if you don’t look after yourself first (accompanied by either an oxygen mask or life jacket analogy) and, whilst that does make sense, it’s hard to focus on minimizing your screen time and practising impeccable sleep hygiene when your other half is running on 3 hours sleep, memes and tequila.
Whilst the effects of mental illness itself is devastating, its impact on relationships is equally heart breaking. Regardless of your personal level of resilience, or surplus stores of positivity, navigating your way through tearful arguments, snarky ultimatums and dramatic blow-ups seems like an exhausting and sometimes pointless journey where you start to doubt that the destination is even out there at all. When I type it all out like this though, it’s made me realise that maybe that’s because it isn’t, because it’s not realistic to expect that one day, everything will just magically be OK and we will all live happily ever after without mental illness…I mean, not to be a downer, but there’s 264 million people are out there saying that’s bullshit.
I had a client say to me recently that their goal in therapy was to be ‘fine, all the time’, and I had to (gently) challenge that thought. According to psychologist Susan David, this type of thinking is a ‘dead person’s goal’ (Susan David https://www.susandavid.com/the-talks), meaning that the only way in which we can stop experiencing negative emotions and challenging situations is by no longer being alive. It’s simply not realistic or achievable that we can be fine all the time, whether we suffer from a mental illness or not, and if we don’t accept that, well, shit’s gonna be REAL hard. The realisation and acceptance that there is no ‘end’ or destination is actually a welcome relief. All relationships, with or without the added burden of mental illness, experience peaks and throughs, and we can’t control that any more than we could a physical illness or ailment. What we can control is our own expectations.
The effects of mental illness are often recurrent and long lasting, which means that it might take time to figure out strategies that work for both you and your partner so that you each feel supported, loved, and respected. Some simple strategies that can be helpful are:
- Taking the time to listen to what each other actually needs, rather than making assumptions
- Scheduling time for the two of you to spend together
- Spending time alone or with your own friends / family
- Speaking to a mental health professional, either individually or as a couple
Most of all, identifying the things that you love about the person that you’re with and understanding that they are still that person, despite their illness, is going to mean that while your journey might be endless, at least you’ll enjoy most of it.