#BellLetsTalk is this week here in Canada, and this event, which brings awareness and raises funds for mental health initiatives in Canada, was what first got me talking about my husband’s struggle with depression and anxiety (you can read my previous blog posts here and here).
Since opening up about how we deal with mental health in our marriage, I have received letters from people around the world (and from friends close to home), opening up about their struggle either with depression personally, or with their struggle in coping with their partner’s mental illness.
When you are the partner of someone with a mental illness, there is often a lot on your plate. You might be the recipient of a lot of negativity. You might be the person fielding questions you don’t know how to answer. And if you are a mom, you are the glue holding everything together for your kids.
It is easy to feel so alone and like no one understands what you are going through- and the truth is, it is a really hard thing to understand unless you have been there.
So this year in honour of #BellLetsTalk, I’ve recorded a video on my YouTube channel on the questions I get asked most frequently on how I cope with my husband’s depression and anxiety. To watch it, click here or click on the video below.
Here are the top strategies that have helped us to cope with mental illness in our marriage:
1. REDUCE STRESS IN THE HOME
You might be thinking, Lisa, you have 6 little kids- how on earth do you reduce stress at home?!?! So of course, there are certain things I cannot control, like the noise or mess that my wonderful little people make. But I do control things that add to stress in our home, like how busy our schedule is, and how often / late I work. I found providing as much predictable stability as possible in our home life, especially in regards to our schedule, played a huge impact in coping with mental illness.
2. WE DON’T MAKE PLANS TOO FAR IN ADVANCE
This one might sound a bit funny to the outsider, but it very much is tied to the first point above. We don’t commit to things too far in advance simply so that we have the flexibility to stay home if we need a quiet evening in. It does not mean we don’t plan ever (we book holidays in advance, doctor’s appointments, etc), but where social engagements are concerned, we simply prefer to be more flexible. We sometimes book visits with friends as short as the day of, and this has helped to eliminate unnecessary pressure in our home, which has proved to be so helpful for us.
3. I HAVE LEARNED TO LET GO OF CONTROL
This is a really tough one for me. I REALLY LIKE TO PLAN! And in the beginning, having to cancel plans because my husband was too anxious or overwhelmed to go out, was very difficult for me. But I have learned over the years, that being more flexible helped EVERYONE. Conflicts over what time we go to church, or preferences in how the dishwasher is loaded, used to bring about a great deal of stress. And now, I work hard to simply be more flexible with this stuff- and it has really helped us cope. It doesn’t mean I never express my preferences or become a “sacrificial lamb” so to speak- but not sweating the small stuff and being more flexible in thought and action have proved to help things immensely.
4. BE KIND RATHER THAN CORRECT
When I did not understand mental illness in the beginning, I really thought it was something that could be “corrected” or “fixed” rather quickly. I have learned that this is simply not the case. Depression and anxiety is an ongoing illness that needs to be managed, by a combination of good lifestyle choices, medical professionals, and sometimes medication. In the past, I used to use phrases like “can you just make up your mind” or “can you keep up” or “just snap out of it” or “just relax!” But again, I learned that these don’t really work very well. What I find helps us both to cope in periods of anxiety and depression, are empathetic phrases like, “that must be really difficult,” or “wow, that must be really hard.” Of course, this is easier to type than to say sometimes in the moment, but experience has shown me it really is a more effective approach and helps us cope and thrive.
5. GO ON DATES
Going on regular dates in an essential part of how we cope with mental illness in our marriage. I find it’s like medication in a way, and when we don’t do it regularly, we feel the absence of it. It might seem like an impossible task to add to the list, especially when it feels like you are juggling so many things already, but trust me when I say it is so important. The depressed person can sometimes tell themselves a viciously negative story: “it would be easier on everyone if I wasn’t around, I should just leave to make everyone else’s lives easier, I am such a burden to everyone I love.” I so badly want my husband to understand how UNTRUE this is when this story gets in his head. Having regular date nights I have found helps this narrative not speak so loud!
6. GET AND ACCEPT HELP YOURSELF
When you are carrying the heavy load of supporting your spouse, and it feels like too much to handle on your own, get your own help. There are loads of ways to support your own mental health. For me personally, I turn to prayer, non-judgemental friends who just listen and don’t try to fix anything, and the support of professional counselors and therapists as necessary.
Accept help when it is offered- if someone offers to babysit, or cook a meal for you, take it.
Finally, if you would prefer to speak to someone anonymously and just vent emotions you have that you might not share with someone you know personally, there are 24/7 distress lines available by region (here are the ones in the Greater Toronto Area). One day I was so overwhelmed, angry, frustrated, resentful and melancholic, that I spent a good 45 minutes with a very kind and compassionate woman on the Toronto Distress Line and boy did it help me cope.
Finally, and I hope this really comes across in my YouTube video, what I wish everyone knew about mental illness and marriage, is that there is SO MUCH HOPE. You CAN live with depression and anxiety and have a healthy marriage, fulfilling work life, and joy-filled existence. It took us about three years to figure out strategies that work, and we are learning every day, but now we live on the other side of coping with mental illness. We have climbed out of the trench, seen the light, and when we fall back into the trenches again, we have the experience of knowing we have survived a bad experience in the past, and will survive it again.
I have developed a free resource that I hope will help any spouse supporting a person with mental illness. Just enter your email below to get my “Positive Self Talk Guide for Spouses of Persons with Mental Illness”