No one teaches us how to navigate a relationship when mental illness is part of the picture. It is a road of pot holes, and there is no caregiver instruction manual. Sure you have to navigate your feelings and keep encouraging to provide hope, but mental illness has no schedule and nor can it be dictated.
Looking back, I can see that caring for a husband with depression meant being cognisant of what l say and do and as there’s no carer’s manual, I have had to learn the hard way. There have been times l wished l had engaged my brain before my mouth, especially since my husband had already suffered deeply, but unfortunately at times l did have a foot-in-mouth moment, despite my best intentions.
One of the hardest things to manage has been the unpredictable nature of depression and switching my role between being a wife and a carer. One minute l had a husband; the next a patient. This tested my headspace as l fought frustration, loneliness, and feelings I wasn’t prepared for. At the time, I believed that l had to carry his world, including my own, as he disengaged from the world.
For many years I sat in a ‘holding pattern’ for my husband’s depression to pass. This sapped my energy levels and left me questioning my worthiness in the relationship. A further challenge was my expectation that as a carer, I needed to ‘fix it’ because I am the mentally healthy partner.
With hindsight, l now see that this was unrealistic, as it bombarded me with guilt and frustration.
Rather than trying to fix my husband’s health, and live a hypervigilant lifestyle waiting for the darkness to descend, l let go of controlling our life and implemented four simple changes that helped manage my feelings, thinking and behaviour.
From personal experience after 18 years as a carer, I have found these four things matter most when l board my husband’s depression rollercoaster.
- Accept The Current Situation
Acceptance releases expectation and trying to change or fix things. It can be used as a reminder that some things are out of our control. Acceptance is also about understanding that difficult emotions and situations occur, and we have a choice as to how we respond.
There isn’t a need to have the answers or to blame anyone. Loving acceptance means moving from a place of blame, and provides an opportunity to refocus our responsibilities in relation to how we handle our life challenges.
- Acknowledge That Setbacks Occur
The emotional responses of anger, frustration, loneliness and fear are normal and part of the carer journey. It’s when we get struck in one of these places that we risk closing our heart and compromising our resilience. Setbacks will occur as our loved one’s relapse into their dark places. Learning to manage our feelings during these times is important and requires commitment and gentleness towards honouring both the cared for and the carer’s journey.
Fully engrossing our time and effort to search for the why’s and how’s of mental illness won’t necessarily give you all the answers because sometimes those answers are already in our hearts. Refocusing our attention by engaging in enjoyable activities or introducing relaxation techniques, are some ways to manage setbacks.
- Find Your Support Team
Carers need support and deserve it. We do our own serious mental health lifting. We get tired emotionally and physically carrying a daily load, sometimes for two, or even more. Because stigma can close opportunities to seek help, this is where courage to believe in who we are plays an important role in our development.
From my experience, l let go of caring about the judgement surrounding mental illness, even from those who meant well. This was and is still a difficult step as many people walk around with little or no understanding of the enormity of mental illness on the sufferer or the family and friends that support them. I decided to walk courageously and open dialogue. If someone reacted negatively or comfortability, l knew they weren’t the right person to support me. In time, I built a strong team around me who provided a soft landing place during periods of struggle and fatigue.
Brene Brown, a New York Times best-selling author, once wrote, “Courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver”.
- Don’t Forget About YOU!
To avoid burnout and remain an effective carer companion you need to look after you and that means taking those special steps to be nurtured and loved. I embarked on a regular schedule of meeting friends each week for a quick cuppa. At first, there was an internal struggle with guilt, but in time I knew it was helping me to help him. Carers can so quickly go from committed and compassionate to burnt out, worn out and wanting to get away. I wanted to avoid this but also remain my own person.
Supporting your loved one may involve some life adjustments, but make sure you don’t lose sight of your goals and priorities. Make plans, do activities that bring you joy. A big part of our job as carers is to hang on to a sense of hope for both you and your loved one. That’s why you need to keep your independent perspective.
Carers are companions who weather the storms and strap ourselves in for someone else’s ride. There is no user manual when we take on the role, for love and compassion are our only instruction. Acknowledge your contribution and accept imperfections. As unbearable as it can be at times, the illness is not about you. You didn’t cause it nor is it yours to fix.
Carmela Pollock is a voracious reader, spirit junkie and mental health advocate. Her current project sees her advocating the role of a mental health carer, providing support to caregivers through her voluntary work with Beyondblue and contributing to the Deakin University Delphi project as an Expert Panel member establishing guidelines for carers of people with major depressive disorder. She has released her first book titled ‘Grieving for the Living’, that captures her story of supporting her husband of 18 years with depression. Click here to get your copy.