As we sat outside on a freezing California winter morning - temperatures in the 40s - I complained about how much I hated my job. Abel’s career, on the other hand, had been taking off ever since he left grad school. He was becoming a shining star, impressing professors with his insight, creativity, humor, and passion for helping people. Now he was learning the business of learning. People wanted to hire him and he knew exactly how to take his passion and their money to build an empire of support for people who are visually impaired.
I listened to him outline his business plan with a passion that sparked my own. So many things needed to be done, from setting up his LLC to writing his books to hiring employees. “I can manage the company for you.” I said with excitement.
My enthusiasm was not met with his. He uncharacteristically looked down and said, “No, that’s OK.”
I stared at him, wondering where that response was coming from. He knew I’d run my own company, worked in corporate education for over 20 years, and loved managing smart, self-driven professionals. I was certainly qualified.
He sheepishly said, “Because you’re unstable.”
People who struggle with major depressive disorder and bipolar depression ride waves of emotions. Medication can mediate or alleviate the problem, but our significant others are the ones who see it and feel it the most. Well, other than those of us riding the wave.
Mental disorders are difficult on spouses, especially ones like depression and bipolar disorder where there is so much inconsistency. For one thing, research shows that spouses of people with depression are likely to suffer from depression themselves because of the stress. Clinical psychologist, William Ryan, said, “People who have been married or in close relationships with someone who suffers from depression say that it changes their behavior and personality.”
Spouses don’t know who they are waking up with. Will it be the person they fell in love with, or Ed (extreme depression)? Thanks to mirror neurons, which Lea Winerman describes as, “a type of brain cell that respond[s] equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action,” our spouse picks up on our mood and adopts it. Humans are typically drawn toward the negative rather than the positive. So now there are two tense people in the room instead of one.
The numbering system
Abel can usually tell if I’m in a depressed state when I wake up. But the question is, how depressed? To quantify the issue, we developed a scale of one to ten, something like the face chart you’d see in a pediatrics office. In our case, a one is a smiling emoticon and a ten is shit with sunglasses. His next move depends on my answer. If I say one, we carry on with our day. If I say two or higher, we go into the next line of questioning.
“Is it chemical or situational?” He’ll ask. Two things happen when he asks that question. First, I’m forced to “go online” by kicking in cognitive function. I go from feeling to thinking. By itself that boosts my mood. Secondly, I have to think about what might be driving the feeling. Is something bothering me? Am I angry? Am I nervous? Am I anxious?
From there we have a conversation. If it is situational, I talk about what’s bothering me while he cooks breakfast and listens. Just getting something out in the open helps me to stop ruminating about it and I feel better. Usually in these instances, the number drops to a manageable number and I come out of the depression. A three means I need a hug and a few minutes of his time. Four means I’m depressed, need a hug, and it could get better throughout the day or worse.
However, if I’ve hit a five or higher, the culprit is definitely chemical. I feel like I’m fighting my own body for control. Eight or higher is a suicide watch. At some point, I get in an airtight, impenetrable cocoon where I’m unreachable. Ed sucks the air out of the house and controls the mood. Abel feels helpless and alone. Now it’s a waiting game until my brain balances itself, along with medication and therapy.
Spouses of someone dealing with mental health disorders are often left in the cold. They don’t always feel loved. They do most of the giving during episodes of extreme depression and it is a thankless job.
Does it get better? It can. But it requires effort from both parties. Expecting the spouse with the disability to proactively take care of their mental health is reasonable. Communication about the current mood is imperative. The spouse not struggling with depression may be the one who initiates most often, but with practice, the other person can learn to initiate as well.
Abel’s business has been established. Like everything else in our relationship, we have naturally fallen into our strengths. He focuses on working with kids and schools while I make phone calls, do research, manage the paperwork, and provide input on lesson plans for workshops he delivers to school staff.
Let’s just own the fact that we’re sometimes unstable. It’s not an insult. It’s not a character flaw. It’s our reality. We make accommodations by being honest with each other and, as partners, we move forward together.