Today is #BellLetsTalk day, so I'm interrupting a regularly scheduled design post to talk about a topic quite personal to me, and a little vulnerable- mental health.
My husband has for much of his adulthood suffered from anxiety and depression. When we met I almost did not believe him- most people who know him think of him as a very relaxed, happy-go-lucky, gets along with anybody, kind and caring guy.
In 2012, about 5 years into our marriage and 3 small kids under the age of 3 later, depression reared its very ugly head.
There were days when I witnessed my spouse overcome with a grief and sadness that was so uncharacteristic of his personality that it paralyzed him. I witness him unable to get out of bed, unable to enjoy things that normally would have given him joy, unmotivated and just not himself.
And at first, I could not understand it. I wanted to fix it. I desperately, utterly, from the bottom of my core, wanted to take whatever suffering he was encountering off of his shoulders.
The Bell Let's Talk campaign was in its infancy if I am not mistaken when depression entered so loudly into our marriage. I know it helped my husband feel not as isolated, and it helped me to understand a little better what it feels like when you feel so unlike yourself.
Now I have made friends with depression- I say I have made friends with it as it doesn't define me, it doesn't define my spouse and it doesn't define our marriage. It is a challenge, like any other, that we BATTLE together hand-in-hand. I say battle because some days it really feels like a battle- but like all battles, they end. There is always a winner. If I am being really honest there are days that it doesn't feel like we are winning- but I have long LONG term vision lenses on and I am in it for the long haul.
If your spouse or someone very close to you also suffers a mental illness, here are some strategies that have really helped me.
1. LEARN TO SEE THE SIGNS
I consider myself (rightly or wrongly, I am no medical professional), the gatekeeper in a way to monitoring Josh's depression and anxiety. I can see the signs when a low period might be coming in a way he does not. For us, one major trigger is busyness. If we have gone through a season of extreme business, with lots of travel for work, and basically not a lot of margin scheduled in- it's not setting us up for success. Other signs I have read about and experienced include increase or decrease in appetite, too much or too little sleep, and general discontentment with things that otherwise bring joy. Basically, a consistent attitude or mood shift that sticks around for a while.
I think some people on the outside see what appears like a "bad mood" and just suggest, with the best of intentions, the person suffering with a mental health illness just snap out of it. Just go do something fun, just change. I can tell you, from experience, this person really wants to "change" but it's not as simple as flipping a switch.
So as the support system, see the signs, know the signs, and be able to implement a plan for when the signs come.
2. HAVE A PLAN TO DEAL
When I see some triggers starting I try as fast as humanly possible to book some time off for just me and my husband. For us, some time to decompress is a NEED, not a luxury. Other plans that can be helpful are ensuring medical help is available. We are extremely, extremely fortunate, to live in Canada where, while not perfect, great health care is available to us. As the partner, know your spouse's doctor. When depression hits hard, doing something as simple as looking up a phone number can feel overwhelming. So ensure you're in the loop (in a respectful manner of course).
A therapist I met at Platform, Dr. Terry Ledford, says it like this: "depression is like an ugly, mean troll that gets inside the victim’s body and makes him want to do the very things that feed it and make it grow. When a depressed person decreases physical, social and pleasurable activity, his depression worsens." So his advice- starve that troll. Encourage your partner to get out, even just to walk and get the mail, or pick up kids from school. Do something daily to make that wretched wretched troll shrivel up and die from starvation.
It's not easy, and my plan is not elaborate- but it's small things like getting up and out daily that can really help.
3. TRY TO HELP THEM SEE PAST THEIR OWN INACCURATE VIEW OF THEMSELVES
I find this one the hardest. Dr. Terry says it so well: "The most powerful negative perceptual distortion is the victim’s view of himself. The depressed person sees himself as inadequate, unimportant, unlovable and a burden to others. He believes that others would be better off without him. He focuses on his failures and mistakes and dismisses his positive attributes and successes."
This one is hard. This particular one I really, really, struggle with the most. My husband is an INCREDIBLE person. Like, incredible father, incredible friend, even if I wasn't married to him I would think he was amazing. But when depression hits, I really see what Dr. Terry describes. It's like he puts on glasses that are completely distorted. And I want to smash those glasses into a million pieces.
Again I'll let Dr. Terry explain: "To fight depression, the victim must understand that his perceptions are not real. He must not trust his thinking or his feelings. He must remind himself daily that those perceptions are inaccurate. He must listen to and trust supportive friends and family who assert that his negative perceptions are wrong."
So as the partner, learn to realize when your loved ones perceptions are whack. And just surround them with love. Have the kids make him cards. Do sweet things like bake his favourite cake. Remind him he is loved and awesome.
4. TRY AND BE PROACTIVE TO BE PREVENTATIVE
This one is also a bit tricky- as sometimes you can do everything "right" and an unexpected trigger can take your best laid plans and throw them out the window. But I know for us- busyness is a big time trigger, especially in the winter. So here are some tips for being proactive that I think work for us:
- Schedule a holiday in the winter. Winter can be really difficult in Canada, for everyone. So we try and book a sunny holiday, just for my husband to enjoy on his own! It has really helped, we usually schedule it in January.
- Eat healthy and take vitamins. I have just been introduced to Neurapas, which is a combination of St. John's wart, valerian root and passionfruit herb that is meant to help in creating a healthy, balanced mood. I'm curious to see its impact this year.
- Exercise. Again I am no medical professional but the benefits of exercise for everyone are pretty clear.
- Schedule MARGIN. I have written ample blog posts in the past on efficiency and productivity to aid in creating margin. It's important for EVERYONE. So schedule it.
5. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF TOO
This can be tricky too but all the more necessary when you need to be there both physically and emotionally for your spouse. For me, my faith really helps me to see victory in the suffering. I also just fiercely love my spouse, from the very bottom of my core. It truly is an honour to be his wife and I walk this road with him and that is enough motivation for me to battle WITH HIM fiercely.
If you suffer from a mental illness you are not alone. If your partner has a mental illness you are not alone. Keep on talking, keep on walking and starve that troll : )