It was Winston Churchill who first described depression as a “large Black Dog” and it has certainly dogged much of our quarter-century marriage.
It has left my husband feeling bleak, trapped, hopeless and emotionally numb, whilst I have struggled with isolation, frustration and loneliness; torn between loving support, and angry resentment about the impact of this awful, and oh-so-common illness.
I wanted to honour the marriage commitment I made before God and trust that God was in the midst – but how to pray? What to pray? How to keep going day in, day out in a marriage so different from that which I had envisioned?
There are many different breeds of Black Dog, and I speak only from our own experience. Depression robs the sufferer of the ability to engage with or enjoy much of life, depleting them of energy for anything other than self-preservation. For the person alongside – partner, family member, friend – it is devastating to see a mere shadow of a loved one. I mourned for the engaging, funny, inspiring and creative man I knew was in there somewhere; the man I had chosen to marry, but who had been consumed by this Black Dog.
It is possible to move on from depression – we are there now. But what have we learned along the way that might both redeem our own experiences, and encourage others living with a Black Dog? Three things stand out, that had I applied them earlier, might have saved us both a fair deal of heartache.
TALK ABOUT IT
Fear, failure, guilt, anger, withdrawal, shame – often these emotions kept us pretending that things were okay, and not opening up to others; therefore perpetuating the isolation and loneliness for us both. For men, it seems especially hard to talk about their mental health, but depression is an illness.
I would now say to my husband: “This is not your fault, nor does it make you a failure. This is hard for us both, and I want to see you enjoy life more – please can we seek help together?”
It’s so important to talk about it and it’s okay to ask for help. The first time I shared within a trusted prayer triplet that my husband was depressed and I was very lonely within my marriage, one of my dear prayer partners – who I thought I knew well – burst into tears and said she thought it was just her who was lonely in her marriage. Once it is out in the open, the darkness of isolation starts to lose some of its power, and we can invite others to stand with us in prayer and walk alongside us.
TAKE TIME TO UNDERSTAND YOURSELF AND WHAT IT IS THAT YOU NEED
Once it was known that my husband was depressed, well-meaning friends focused their concern on him. Through gritted teeth I answered questions from them as to how he was, waiting in vain to be asked how I was doing amid this consuming darkness.
There is no blame intended here – when someone is not well, it is entirely appropriate to express concern for that person. But in living alongside someone with depression, often your own life feels put on hold.
I would swing through a full gamut of emotions, sometimes over a week, sometimes over months. It included everything from deep concern and grief for what he was suffering; loneliness because of the loss of connection between us; anger at the injustice of it all and how invisible I had become in the relationship; resentment at all that I was doing to run our lives and those of our children without his support; to a blank shutting down as a form of self-preservation.
For years I kept my emotions locked away inside and pretended to be ‘fine’. Needless to say, this did not serve me well. It took me a while to realise that I needed to make time to reconnect with myself and pay attention to my own needs; to bring those emotions to God, shout and rail at him – he can most definitely take it – and allow myself to be loved and nurtured by my heavenly Father.
If you are living alongside someone with depression, chances are they need your consistent understanding and support. And therefore you need to be resourced to provide this. It is not selfish or disloyal to talk with trusted friends about how you are, or to address your own needs. It is essential for your own emotional, mental and spiritual health.
Do some fun activities, exercise and take regular, small breaks. Spend time with God to allow him to love and resource you. But don’t lose sight of the person who is behind the Black Dog. Seeing depression as a third party helped me to separate the illness from the man I loved, and therefore avoid either blaming him or cutting myself off from him in despair.
PEOPLE ARE WORTH FIGHTING FOR
Depression can make you feel that life is on hold, to live fearing that this is as good as it is going to get, and subsequently to shut down hopes and dreams.
It was dealing with the Black Dog that eventually prompted us to take stock, talk about it to others and get help. But more significantly, to also look much deeper at the bigger picture of our whole marriage.
For us, the Black Dog had come and gone, and its power to dominate our lives had lessened. But the legacy of this was a pattern of dysfunctional communication between us. There was a gulf between us that was only going to narrow if we both chose to move.
Looking at my own unmet needs was not enough. I also needed to admit where my attitudes and behaviour were wrong. It was all too easy to blame all our struggles on my husband’s illness and his reactions to it. But some brutal self-examination showed me some harsh truths about myself that were not pretty.
A process of learning to surrender to God followed, letting go of my hurts and letting my Father love me. With his help, I began to see not only where and what I needed to forgive, but also where I needed to seek forgiveness. I could not change my husband – only God can do that. But I can choose to love him, to see who he is and is becoming, and not remain stuck in who he has been.
We are both learning to communicate better, to understand our own needs and to seek God’s help in changing ourselves and not each other.
Whilst I would not have chosen this path, I can see that I am who I am now because we have walked this path, and because of God’s extraordinary grace and ability to redeem and transform. This whole experience has taught me so much about being willing to surrender to God and allow him, through his Holy Spirit, to graciously, lovingly, and oh-so-patiently, work to change me.
If you are living alongside someone with depression, take time to seek help together and to talk about how you are coping. Recognise that you have needs too, and they are valid. And allow God in his infinite loving grace and patience to hold you, to mould you and to shape you.
- Catriona Futter is a Christian Life Coach and speaker who is passionate about equipping people to discover and live out their unique, God-given identity and purpose. Connect with her at https://equipforlifecoaching.com/blog/