I joined a support group online for people with depressed or bipolar spouses. I expected to find other people who know what it is like to sit downstairs alone in the evenings imagining life after their husband’s suicide.
What I didn’t expect was to end up becoming a relationship counsellor.
Some people are angry and impatient with their spouse’s depressive symptoms. They use words like “lazy” and “can’t be bothered” and “selfish”. I have to remind them that depression is a disease and should be treated as such. They shouldn’t go around getting angry at someone for being sick.
There’s a difference between “won’t” and “can’t”. People with depression often CAN’T get out of bed, CAN’T interact positively and CAN’T pull it together for important family events.
Others are putting up with horrific levels of verbal and emotional and occasionally physical abuse, and blaming it on the depression/mania/addiction. They talk about how their husband tried to choke them and threatened to kill them and say “I had to call the cops. I felt so guilty, I really hate this illness. I know he won’t understand why I did it, either. He’ll think I am against him.”
I have to remind them that depression or bipolar disorder is not a get-out-of-abuse-free card that gives someone carte blanche to emotionally damage their loved ones, particularly their children. You shouldn’t stay with someone who abuses you or puts your children at risk physically or emotionally just because the person is ill, especially when that person keeps insisting that this is all somehow your fault.
But how, people are always asking, do you know what is okay and what is not? Why is okay for my wife to sleep through our daughter’s birthday party, but it isn’t okay for her husband to swear in front of the kids?
So I have developed a litmus test to tell what should, and what should not, be tolerated from a spouse.
The Cancer Principle
Since depression is a deadly disease which causes a wide range of known physical symptoms, I find that cancer makes a good analog because it is a deadly disease without the stigma that comes with mental illnesses. Depression is one of the leading causes of death in the world. Like cancer, some cases are worse than others, and some kinds are more curable than others.
Really, though, you could use any illness that is serious enough to put someone in the hospital. The point is to consider it from the point of view of “my spouse has a serious disease” and not “my spouse is abnormal”.
So, when your depressed husband or wife does something that makes you angry (and they will – it’s hard NOT to be angry when they suddenly sleep through an important event, or leave you scrambling for child care at the last minute, or snap at you for no good reason), ask yourself this:
Would this be considered acceptable if they had cancer?
For example – I go out for a walk with Owl and Perfect Husband is perfectly fine, watching football. I come back and discover that he has crashed in the hour that we have been gone. He is now in the throes of a suicidal misery. He snaps at me twice, then removes himself to the bedroom because he realises that he is growling like an injured bear.
Would this be considered acceptable if he had cancer?
I conclude that the answer is yes – if he had cancer and he suddenly started to feel sick or his pain medications wore off and he became very painful, it is understandable that he would become snappy and then retreat to the bedroom to be alone.
On the other hand, if he had gone onto a verbally abusive tirade calling me a “selfish whore” and threatened to hit Owl, that would NOT have been okay, no matter how much pain he was in.
For example – Perfect Husband agrees to watch the baby while I go to train a puppy. When the day arrives, he has been unconscious for two days and is clearly going to sleep through today as well. I have to cancel the appointment and reschedule it with apologies.
Would this be considered acceptable if he had cancer?
Yes! He was feeling better and thought he could handle it, but then he had a relapse and had to take medications which made him very sleepy and unable to take care of his child. If that was due to cancer, that would be totally understandable.
So I was not angry with him.
On the other hand, if he had agreed to watch the baby and then went out partying with friends and didn’t come back until 5 am, only to fall on the bed dead-drunk, that would not have been okay whether or not he had cancer, so I would have had the right to be angry with him about it.
For example- I watch Breaking Bad. Walter White’s wife discovers that her husband is manufacturing and selling meth, and his contacts with the drug underworld is putting himself and her family in serious danger. He has cancer. Does that make his behaviour okay?
The Cancer Principle. It works every time.
Once someone argued with me, saying “I think there’s a caveat – if they aren’t seeking treatment. My husband sleeps all day and snaps at all of us and he won’t get help and that’s not okay.”
Okay, so then you ask yourself, if he had cancer, and it was making him sick and miserable and yet he refused to seek treatment for his cancer (not even palliative/symptomatic treatment), would that be okay?
The Cancer Principle, man. It WORKS.
Nicki Hunt said:
I think this is a very good way to look at it, as you say, deprssion IS an illness it just carries a lot of baggage. Replacing the word depression with cancer can give you a whole new way of looking at the situation. Sending love, and I hope PH is soon on the mend xx
A Black Dog About The House said:
Great blog. I have liked and shared it on The Black Dog About The House FB page.
Perfect! 🙂 I consider myself to be a “Depression Survivor” just like others are “Cancer Survivors”. You’re absolutely spot on with your analogy and I will share the heck out of this post because the WHOLE WORLD should read it and take it to heart!
The best thing I ever did for my family was to check myself into a Psychiatric Clinic for 6 weeks roughly 10 years ago (after years of trying different meds and outpatient treatment). Nobody who has not experienced true depression for themselves (as much as they love and want to help you) can understand what it means to be in the grip of it. Partly it’s because people often misuse the word “depressed” when what they really mean is “very sad”. When you’re truly depressed you’re not sad, or angry or anything at all! Nothing matters. Everything is pointless. It’s like being stuck at the bottom of a pit with muddy sides, and the more you try to claw your way towards the light, the more you get sucked back down. It’s a scary and lonely place that your loved ones simply can’t get to … nor do you want them to!
I will be on anti-depressants for the rest of my life. I’m okay with that, because I NEVER want to slip back into that pit!! I’m not ashamed to admit that I take anti-depressants because they’re not “happy pills” … they simply replace what my brain is lacking that a “normal” brain has. I like to use the analogy of a diabetic needing insulin. It’s the same thing!!
THANK YOU for this post, Carol!
Glad you are fighting to stay in remission! Keep up the fight and yes please share this to help other families. Depression is brutal for the victim AND their families.