The second conversation I have recorded this week for Mental Health Awareness Week is with my husband.
Matt and I met when I was 16. We started dating when I was 18 and got married when I was 20. This July we will have been married for 16 years.
Being married is challenging. Being connected to another person in this deep, meaningful and mysterious way can be the most brilliant, supportive thing in the world. But when your partner is ill and you are the one who has to care for them, it can be tricky. We say ‘in sickness and health’ and hope that we won’t be tested on this, at least not in a long term way.
The past seven years have been difficult. Many times we have wished that this would be over and we could go back to our previous life, which, at the moment of great pain and confusion, seemed like a life of relative simplicity. The last seven years have changed nearly everything about our relationship. We have learnt how to evolve and grow and learn and adapt together. Matt has been willing to journey through things he has not understood at the time and to support me when he was already stretched to the limit. We have both learnt to listen to each other better. To really hear what is going on. We don’t want to go back. This is better by far.
I am constantly astounded by how fortunate I have been to be married to a man brave enough to keep going when we didn’t understand what was going on, in times of great strife and confusion. Matt is one of the most courageous people I know. He is a man of great integrity.
Also, a fantastic, empathetic Dad to our three great kids.
And I am sorry for everyone else, because you don’t get to be married to him.
We had this conversation in the lounge on Monday evening in front of the fire. We know each other so well, and yet there are new things I learnt through this conversation. It wasn’t always easy to hear what he had to say, but I asked him to be honest and not worry about protecting me and my feelings. At times I wanted to qualify what he was saying, to lessen the blow, to justify my position, but having listened to it back and typed it up, I think it is important that it stands alone, as it was. Painful but true.
And, acknowledgement of how things really are is the only way forward – we have learnt this over and over again.
(Full disclosure: I did alter the order slightly and re-word a few sections so they made sense to people not on the inside of our conversational short-hand).
What was it like, the day I told you I had a diagnosis?
I knew when I was walking into the house that night that I-, that I was going to be told something. Somebody told me – in my head – ‘how you react to the next piece of news will effect the rest of your life’.
Woah. I didn’t know that.
And I was standing looking at the far cupboard in Halkyn Avenue (our old house), in the kitchen, with my back to you when you started to tell me.
And, so that is what happened, but how was it, how did you respond…? I don’t remember.
I think I was positive towards you.
But it wasn’t a sense of relief.
We hadn’t got to the relief yet…
It created confusion.
It created aloneness.
It made me feel like… what have I done to cause this to happen? What was my part in this? And I suppose there was a little bit of hope, that people who I trusted were there to help. And because I knew them, I trusted them. And because I liked them, I trusted them.
So do you think it was quite helpful for you that you already knew my therapist?
Yes. And that I liked them. (My therapist and her husband) I would like to have a drink with them. Whereas if it had been another counsellor, I would have found it harder to accept because I know some therapists who can come across as very aloof and almost controlling. I have heard of people who keep dredging up the past until it seems impossible to move on. Whereas your counsellor was really down to earth, and funny, and didn’t use any therapist-speak.
Also, I think, seeing another friend being supported through this kind of thing was really helpful. Because of him, I knew there were people who could be trusted with these sorts of problems.
I saw something in the Bryony Kimmings show (a piece of theatre I saw recently) and she talked about how she dealt with her partner’s depression and she said she didn’t talk to anyone else about it for a really long time. And then, eventually, she had one friend who she talked to about it. And because she had someone she could vent to, she coped better.
I think that would have been useful, but to be honest I think the most helpful thing to me, at the time, would have been to get a pamphlet… Some kind of information..
That was helpful to me when I got diagnosed. Some information that said.. ‘you may find it difficult to concentrate on reading.. you may find….etc etc.’
Yes, but I didn’t get any of that.
And you feel totally impotent in the NHS system… but I think I feel like that about any health-related issue. Because I feel like I can be very strong in getting what I need and want in almost any situation in life, except in a health situation.
You can’t control it.
Yes, but also the way you interact with it. It can be a very much teacher-pupil relationship in the NHS. It can make you feel disempowered.
Okay, so what has it been like living with me, when I have not been well?
The distance it created was quite haunting. You would sit by the fire in Halkyn Avenue, zoning everything else out, not speaking to me, and you just-, you feel quite alone as a partner. And because of the shame involved in it, and because you don’t know what it is, there is no one to talk to. Therefore the person suffering is totally isolated, but the person who is connected to that person is just as isolated, if not more. And that creates real challenges.
One real challenge for me personally was the way we-, because I didn’t have a full understanding of what the symptoms were-, I didn’t understand why we couldn’t go out for meals and we couldn’t make plans spontaneously, and we couldn’t go on holiday… and that took me a very, very long time to come to terms with.
I wish that I had been able to talk to a therapist or counsellor about how to help someone get well, and how to stay well myself.
For families with small children, I think the line between being stretched to your capacity because of lack of sleep and a new world and doubting who you are and providing and security and health, and being ill, is very thin. There is a very fine line between the normal crapness of that time and something that turns into a long-term depressive illness.
And I think people could fall in one camp or the other on the basis of a really bad few weeks, which might just knock out their reserves. Trying to navigate through that time, but also admitting maybe you do suffer from depression, can be really difficult.
And you don’t see the tipping point until you look back.
For me, it took someone else to see it, because life had felt pretty shit for quite a long time.
But you trusted that person and thankfully we both trusted them and they have been very faithful in supporting us.
As I faced challenges with my own mental health I know now how difficult it is to talk about this stuff and continue to be amazed at your bravery…
I want to say the three things I would advise anyone whose friends or partners are suffering:
1. Get a level of knowledge. Not overanalysing it, but a base level of knowledge of what anxiety and depression – how it surfaces itself on a day to day basis, so you feel a level of knowledge and empowerment.
2. Make sure, as they (the person who is ill) need to protect their boundaries, you also find a way (very difficult with small kids) to still do things that you want to do. Create an agreement with each other that this might be a way you manage the illness.
And 3. try and find a few folks, or go along to a carers group… if they exist… try and find an outlet to validate that you are not the only person going through this.
Okay, a different question.
Has there been anything good about being married to me in the last six years?
We have both been on a journey and I think eventually we have come back together and are really close. We are not living in denial, and we are both fortunate to be able to see out the rest of our days thinking about life in a really, really similar way. Our relationship feels much more compassionate, much more inclusive.
I told you. He’s great isn’t he? Apologies for the gushy blog. Just being honest.
(Next up: Laura, my bat-signal friend.)