I have many friends who have a spouse who struggles with depression. We share that story. I asked my husband, if I could interview him, with the hope that we could be of some support to those couples who are in the midst of “the black dog.”
How old were you when you first remember having depression?
For many people vulnerable to depression, a stressful incident called a “trigger” causes what is referred to as an “episode.” The terms “trigger” and “episode” are used by mental health professionals and they’re also user-friendly to the public.
I was 20 and in college when I had my first episode. The university that I attended had an active student government, and I was serving in one of the top five positions elected by the student body. Back then, I was pretty cocksure—I thought of myself as just being very confident, but I’m sure others saw me coming across as being too ambitious and arrogant. Figuratively speaking, others who thought they knew best decided to bring out the “long knives.” I was cast aside. I was humiliated—as if I had been publicly kicked to the curb and left there. I felt betrayed. I was shattered by the behavior of those who I thought were my friends.
What were your symptoms?
I was very lethargic and I slept a lot. Things that usually engaged my interest—a favorite TV show, movie, or book, for example—didn’t appeal to me. I became withdrawn and didn’t want to socialize. My attention span also waned.
How long did they last?
They lasted two to three months.
How did you get through it?
I had the good fortune of having a girlfriend who kept trying cheer me up or just make me laugh. We had started dating a year before the episode and were already building a loving relationship.
Eventually, I was able to focus on other things in my life…other interests. It helped that I had a wonderful circle of friends throughout campus who were great at checking in on me and just hanging out together. Going for long walks also helped to clear my head, and combined with the other things that I just mentioned, I was able to put things in perspective. I also prayed. I had been raised in the church, but during college I had attended worship services only when I went home for a visit, and my visits had become infrequent, as had my prayers. This episode sparked a renewal in my relationship with God.
But, I should have sought professional counseling. Looking back, the only excuse that I can offer for not doing so is that I was afraid. Here I was on a modern college campus that accorded scores of opportunities to seek counseling, and I ignored them! That was a mistake. A lot of future emotional pain could have been avoided if I had shown more courage in dealing with my depression early.
When did it come back?
Eight years later. Experts point out that a change in career pattern is often a trigger for depression. I was building a promising career in state government, but then suddenly all of my avenues for further advancement were blocked. Politics and government can be a nasty business, and I had been very careful in walking the tricky maze of bureaucracy. But, I saw my career going down the drain. I felt worthless and ignored.
Were your symptoms the same?
This episode can be described as “functional depression”—another term used by mental health professionals that makes a lot of sense. While I experienced some lethargy, I remained productive in my day-to-day routine. I did my job, but was very unhappy and felt stuck in a rut. I brooded at home. I felt cut off from my old friends, who were living in different parts of the country.
Frustrated about not getting ahead at work, I turned other interests such as community organizations and church activities. My energy was focused on them instead of constantly trying to climb the career ladder. A second difference between the episode in 1991 and this one was in my sleeping pattern. When I was depressed in 1991, I slept a lot. In 1999, I didn’t sleep very much. Insomnia had asserted itself into my life, and it still pays me a visit from time to time.
I had a similar episode again in 2003, and hit rock bottom in 2009.
What did you do in 2009 that was different from the past?
I sought counseling and was prescribed medication.
In 2006, we had moved from Illinois to Iowa. By 2009, I had been a stay-at-home dad. Being with my children was a blessing! I was also working part-time in a job that I enjoyed. But, I had aspirations to begin a new career that were not coming to pass, and we were facing financial difficulties. During this time, my wife and I had a lot of arguments—back then, when we were angry with each other, I would tailspin, crash, and burn.
What was it like going to counseling and taking medicine?
It was a huge step. First, I sought counseling from ministers that I knew. That kind of pastoral care was immensely helpful and it was a wonderful, safe outlet to express my frustrations and fears. Ministers are also good at building contacts with professional therapists, and I was referred to one.
Through counseling, I finally accepted that I had a recurring illness that required therapy and medication. I realized, at long last, that I couldn’t just keep pulling myself out of a hole every few years when depression threw me into one. That pattern would continue—or get worse.
My therapist recommended Citalopram, a mild medication used for treating depression. She said this was appropriate, given my history and symptoms of functional depression. My doctor agreed, and I was prescribed the lowest dosage—half of a small tablet each day. They were both impressed that I had managed to pull myself out of each of my episodes over the years, but were firm that the smart, healthy thing to do was to either prevent the episodes or significantly limit their impact.
What have you learned about yourself?
I learned that I was a jackass for not seeking professional help earlier than I eventually did!
I also finally realized something that had been staring at me full in the face for years, but I had ignored it, continuing on my merry way. You see, experts acknowledge that depression tends to run in families, and clinical studies have been conducted to provide some evidence. That doesn’t mean that because your aunt Gertrude was a raving lunatic, or had episodes where she was sad and withdrawn, that you will have depression. Instead, it means that there is an increased chance of a disposition toward it. Depression and its associates—namely obsessive compulsive disorder, known as OCD—has definitely run in both sides of my family. I’m one of the current beneficiaries of that legacy—three cheers for my ancestors, way to go! To my descendants, abandon hope, woe unto you! On a serious note, though, it’s possible that one, two, or all of my children will experience episodes of depression. It’s also possible that they won’t.
What do spouses need to know about being married to someone with depression?
I was fortunate to have a loving spouse who advocated therapy each time that I had an episode. It’s important that a spouse be able to detect the symptoms of depression. There were times that I didn’t notice them, but my wife did immediately. She brought them to my attention, saying “Black Dog is back” or “You seem to be retreating into yourself lately.”
A spouse shouldn’t be the depressed person’s therapist, but can be proactive in convincing the depressed person to seek help. He or she should not hesitate in expressing concerns and doing some gentle prodding. It can make all the difference in the world for your marriage and your family.
What advice would you give husbands who are dealing with depression?
For Pete’s sake, listen to your wife! She knows you better than anybody and loves you. She’ll be the first one who notices a change in your behavior and mood. Tell her if you feel tired, disappointed, frustrated, worried, and so on. After she listens, she might suggest that you also talk to a friend, another family member, your pastor, or, depending on the situation, to a mental health professional. We are very fortunate that in the 21st century there are plenty of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and therapists to whom we can turn for help.
How are you today?
I’m doing well. I experienced a trigger during the summer of 2012, but it was managed far better than my previous episodes and it ended within a significantly shorter amount of time. The things I learned in counseling after my 2009 episode, along with medication, made me better prepared to meet the challenge of depression when it reared its head. As I have done with each episode since 1991, I pray. When I felt myself beginning to slide into depression in 2012, I could feel God responding to my prayers: “You’re going to be fine. This time you’re stronger and wiser. This time you will bend like a reed in the wind, then swiftly stand upright again.”
Thank you for sharing your story.
You are welcome.
We hope this helps. You’re not alone. You can get through it. As the spouse, I think the best advice I can give is don’t over function. You aren’t doing him any favors. Take care of yourself. I ran the trails, had coffee with friends and practiced yoga. Speak the truth in love and be gentle with yourself and your loved one.