What Have I Done Wrong? – Caring for a partner suffering from depression: written from a male perspective

The first time I saw C go through a severe bout of depression, I couldn’t understand what had happened. I hadn’t been there when she had started suffering from postnatal depression – we met when her daughter was 18 months, and we hadn’t been going out for very long – so, although we’d talked about her experience & her recovery, I didn’t really know what to expect.

We were lying in bed talking, when (unknown to me) we stumbled across a topic that was a major trigger for her at the time.

I wouldn’t say that she got upset; it was more like the world had suddenly become too much for. She turned away from me, and that was that. Nothing I said would bring her out of it.  She went back home the next day, and we barely spoke for the next two.

I felt awful. It was obvious that I’d said something to upset her, but I really couldn’t work out what had caused this dramatic change.

Since we’ve been together, it’s happened a number of times – this black cloud swooping in & enveloping her. Sometimes there’ll be a more obvious trigger. Sometimes, it almost seems to be a reaction to positivity – like the depression kicks back at her and says “no, you don’t deserve this happiness; have a bit of pain“. I can’t really tell you how she feels when it happens; but these are some of the things that still go through my head:

What have I done wrong?

I still remember that gut-wrenching feeling when C rolled away from me on that first occasion, her faced screwed up to shield her from me. That sinking “oh crap, I’ve screwed up big time here” moment. Trying to laugh it off, explain, apologise. If I’m honest, I thought that might have been the end of us. That I’d obviously offended her so badly that she couldn’t even look at me.

Over time, it’s become easier to spot the difference. Recently, C was staying at her parents for a couple of days, and was going through a low spell. She’d seemed to be more positive that day, so when she asked if I wanted to come down for the evening, I was honest: “I’d love to, but honestly, I’ve got to be in work early in the morning, & it would be a bit much to do a 2 hour commute from your parents”.  I was expecting a sad face “but I miss you” kind of response. What I got was “Oh fuck off“.  It was a bit of a shock, but in a way, it suddenly made it easier to see that it wasn’t C who sent the reply, it was the depression.

I suppose, in part, it took a while to understand that this is an illness. I mean – I knew, of course – she’d always been open about her illness, coping strategies etc, but when actually faced with it, it took time to fully get beyond the idea that these might be “normal” bad moods; that she was just really pissed off with me about something, that I’d done something wrong.

Why is she ignoring me?

For me, this has been the hardest bit to deal with. When C has a severe low, she seems to shut down. It’s like a self-preservation mechanism against the world. I’ve described it as being as though she’s had the soul sucked out of her – she’ll sit there staring at me, almost comatose.

At first, I would try to be helpful:

“Is there anything that I can get for you?”

“I don’t know”

“Do you want a cup of tea?”

“I don’t know”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No. I don’t know”

“Do you want me to leave you alone?”

“I don’t know”

So I’d sit quietly. Awkwardly. Maybe perched on the edge of the bed. Not knowing what to say.

“Why aren’t you saying anything?”

“Umm… What do you want me to talk about?”

“I don’t know”

And so it would continue.

When we do start talking, it’s like the depression is sitting on her shoulder, making her say things to push me away. “I don’t think you’re interested in me anymore”. “I think you just know the right thing to say. I don’t think you mean any of it”.  That last one’s a cracker – there’s literally no way to argue against it. If I say the wrong thing, the depression would be all over it – “how could he say that? What a bastard!”.  If I say the right thing, it’s saying to her “well, of course he would say that, wouldn’t he…”  

Sometimes, the things she says can be pretty hurtful; I’ve had to tell myself not to take it personally, that it’s really not her who’s coming up with these things.

On later occasions, I’ve tried to ignore the depression. Carry on as though everything’s normal. C had said that this helped her to an extent, so that she was focusing less on the depressive thoughts, and could be distracted by everyday things. But it’s really hard trying to have a one sided conversation; especially when the recipient is looking at you as if to say “I literally couldn’t care less about what you’re saying right now. Just shut the hell up”. I know, of course, that she doesn’t mean it – it’s the depression that’s saying that. But it’s not exactly conducive to a free flowing chat…

That’s the thing about living with someone who has depression. If they had a broken leg, they could tell you exactly what assistance they need; they could be on the phone helping to make arrangements with family & friends.

With the depression, we can’t do that. Primarily because at that point, I don’t think C knows either. She doesn’t know whether she wants me to cuddle her or to leave her alone. She doesn’t know what she wants to eat. I don’t know if she will be able to get up in the morning to do deal with the school run.  At her worst, she can’t seem to cope with having the conversation, with forming the words required in order to communicate her needs.

Who should I tell? Who can I tell?

It’s difficult to know where to turn. There is still a taboo about discussing mental illness – talking to someone else about it feels like a huge breach of confidence. Even people who I know are aware of C’s illness, like her mum, feel off limits. I can’t bring myself to phone someone & say “C’s really low at the moment; maybe it would be good if you could give her a call”¸ so I try to deal with it myself. But actually, that’s quite a burden. Because I can’t talk to C about it – well, not when it’s happening, at least.  I don’t mean that to sound like “yeah, she’s feeling crap, but what about me?”, but just like with parenting, it’d be great to be able to phone someone sometimes and say “what should I do? How should I deal with this?”.

Again, with a broken leg, it’d be easy. There’d probably be a post on Facebook, accompanied by a picture of the offending leg; very soon offers of help would come flooding in. Not so with mental illness; it still feels like it needs to be kept hidden out of sight, mentioned awkwardly if at all.

That’s where PANDAS Dads has been a real lifeline. Being able to message in & talk to someone who understands the situation & the kind of thing that we’re going through is a real help. Also being able to ask one of the volunteers to contact C & check in with her is really good – knowing that even if she can’t talk to me about how she feels, she’s at least talking to someone who understands.

How can I fix it?

This is constantly on my mind when C is going through a depressive episode. I can see that she’s suffering, and I want to make it better. And, of course, I want it ideally to be a quick fix; something that I can do now that will flick the switch and make the depression go away. Not knowing what to do can be incredibly frustrating.  Again, it’s taken some time to realise that in the same way that it’s not my fault that it’s happening, it’s also not within my power to fix it.

What I can do is try to be there; make sure that C knows that if she wants to talk about it, that she can; that if she doesn’t want to face doing something because of it, that she doesn’t need to. Lord knows I don’t always get it right; but I think I’m getting better at not getting it wrong…

I don’t know how long the depression will be with us, like an unwelcome houseguest. I can’t say that it’ll always be easy to deal with, that I won’t sometimes get frustrated with it. I know that sometimes C will say something hurtful, and I’ll forget that it’s the depression talking, and I’ll get pissed off with her about it. But I know that as long as we keep talking about it, and with the support of organisations like PANDAS, we will be able to get through it.


One thought on “What Have I Done Wrong? – Caring for a partner suffering from depression: written from a male perspective”

  1. I can understand as a carer of my mum a sufferer of depressive illness in my 30’s and also my daughter how this is and affectsthe family from ALL sides. Love and bags of patience says my dad who has helped all of us and has kept going.


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