What’s it like being in a relationship where you both have issues with ill mental health? Campaigner and author Natasha Devon shares how she and her husband Marcus deal with its challenges
As I write this, it’s a Sunday. Sundays are always a struggle in our home. Because Sunday is traditionally a day of ‘rest’ and one in which I am left to explore the confines of my own anxious brain unimpeded and undistracted, I invariably have to spend the whole day staving off a panic attack. This coincides with my husband’s almost-weekly dose of the ‘blues’.
It isn’t the usual sort of ‘end of weekend, back to work Monday’ mild, pedestrian cheesed-off-ness. On Sundays, Marcus starts questioning the meaning of existence. Unless we step in swiftly to halt it in its tracks, it can be all-consuming. On a Sunday, Marcus has been known to take to his bed for the entire day, like an Austen heroine, to suffer excruciating migraines, to (completely uncharacteristically) refuse even the allure of a Star Wars film and a bag of pickled-onion Monster Munch decanted into his special Darth Vader bowl.
When we first began dating, one of the first things Marcus told me about himself was that he has a history of depression and that episodes of it have plagued him for as long as he can remember. There is, he was quick to assure me, no tangible ‘reason’ for this. He had a happy childhood. He was loved and cared for, and there is nothing he can put his finger on as being especially traumatic. He wanted to let me know that his bouts of mild depression are both regular and inevitable and that, if we were to be together, they were something I would have to live with, too.
the more you love someone, the more difficult it is to be objective about their mental illness
I, like a total idiot, thought ‘This is my field! I speak and write about mental health all day long! This’ll be a breeze!’ I hadn’t yet learned that the closer a person is to you emotionally, and the more you love them, the more difficult it is to be objective about their mental illness.
Contrary to popular belief, depression doesn’t make Marcus ‘sad’ in the classic sense. Mostly, he is just devoid of enthusiasm, optimism or energy and mildly misanthropic in his views. Everyone annoys him, but not enough for him to say anything. In the worst scenarios, Marcus snaps at me, which, if I am feeling particularly anxious or sensitive , plunges us both into a vortex of self-perpetuating despair – adding guilt to the already crushing weight of negative emotion Marcus is experiencing and leaving me hyperventilating in the corner.
Marcus is a musician and our ‘couple personality’ is characterised by a propensity for daft, borderline-philosophical conversations, telling rubbish jokes that only we find funny, doing accents and impressions, and a shared love of vintage rock’n’roll. Marcus and I seem to be known amongst our friends as good company and fun to hang out with. Like so many people, our struggles with our mental health happen behind closed doors. Mercifully, though, we don’t have to hide them from each other.
Accepting the presence of depression in our relationship is a work in progress. We have talked about it, at length, when we are both in a good head space. I have come to understand that there are certain times when Marcus genuinely wants to be left alone and that no amount of me making cups of tea, or decanting savoury snacks into Star Wars-themed receptacles, or doing impromptu semi-naked daft dances in his eyeline is going to change that. It isn’t personal. I could be a Nigella Lawson-Gisele Bundchen hybrid proffering gourmet creations whilst wearing nothing but a leather thong and it wouldn’t change his mood.
We have created preventative routines that are sometimes enough to stave off the Sunday blues. We get up at a reasonable hour instead of lounging around in bed, because too much sleep is one of Marcus’s triggers. We take a walk to the local park and try to imbibe some all-important vitamin D. We pick up a latte (decaf for him) and a muffin and watch all the local pet dogs walk by, fantasising about a time when we’ll have one of our own. Then we go to the butcher and I try not to barf while Marcus salivates over all the various cuts of raw meat and discusses roasting techniques with the ever-so-friendly bloke behind the counter. It’s a simple ritual, but it ensures we get out, do some exercise, breathe in some fresh air (or the closest available London equivalent) and focus on hopeful, pleasure-giving things like pet dogs and roast chicken. On around every other Sunday it’s enough to lift both of our moods to a place that might be described as ‘normal’.
Marcus’s depression isn’t predictable enough to strike only on a Sunday – three or four times a year it will descend for a few days at a time, usually in winter. Whilst it is fairly disruptive, it’s what a doctor would call ‘mild to moderate’ and we have enough experience to realise it will, eventually, pass. I’ve never asked Marcus ‘why?’ but I’ve heard him tell other people that it’s ‘just part of who he is’. Whilst occasionally the depression/anxiety vortex has resulted in spilled tears (me) and recriminations (him), I don’t hold either of us responsible, in the same way I wouldn’t if Marcus were a diabetic and I had a bad back. Yes, those things are inconvenient, but you can’t deny their existence, wish them away or blame the person experiencing them.
Whilst mixed anxiety with depression is a common diagnosis, the two conditions are radically different in their nature. Persistent anxiety can lead to feelings of depression because of the way adrenaline and cortisol batter our mental and chemical defences but I don’t believe I have experienced anything directly equivalent to Marcus’s depression.
I have been diagnosed with ‘low mood’, which has lasted for a brief, transient period, and I have on more than one occasion been suicidal, but it has always been more of an active feeling of frustration and anger (coupled with weariness at the constant burden of that frustration and anger) that has brought me to that place. Marcus’s illness is in the realms of ‘ennui’ – he is deflated, negative and generally Eeyore-like, as though his depression is a fire blanket that has extinguished his joie de vivre. When my mental health has been at its worst I have actively vibrated with a dark vigour, something that my therapist once described as surplus nervous energy turned inwards so that it erodes and destroys the self.
Depression is a term that encompasses a vast number of conditions, all with different characteristics and triggers, and, like all mental illness, it exists on a spectrum, the farthest reach of which is suicidal ideation or behaviour. Whilst it is by no means certain that depression will lead to a person taking their own life, an estimated 90 per cent of deaths recorded as suicides happen as a result of untreated depression or substance abuse, so it’s important to address this.
Depression is the most common mental illness, but it’s also the one that attracts the least sympathy and most judgment
I’ve heard depression described as an inevitable side-effect of knowledge and intelligence. I can see the logic of this argument. In the context of a world where we’re increasingly secular in our beliefs and science is ‘proving’ that life on earth is a cosmic accident in a vast, unfathomable universe, depression when defined as a sense of pointlessness is kind of inevitable.
That doesn’t, however, mean that it is something we should have to endure. Just as the definition of depression is frustratingly imprecise, so the advice on how to counteract it seems a little futile. Whilst exercise has been shown to be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as medication, it’s realistically best used as a preventative or maintenance-style measure. Seeing friends, getting fresh air and going for a run are all great ideas in theory, but for most people in the grips of severe depression, telling them to go for a walk is like asking them to fly.
My friend, journalist Rosie Mullender, wrote a column for me when I guest-edited a special issue of the Eastern Daily Press dedicated to mental health. Rather than focusing on the most shocking or extreme aspects of mental illness (how low people’s weights became, how severely they self-harmed), I wanted instead to ask contributors to talk about what helped. This, I reasoned, would be much more useful to the reader.
Rosie chose to focus on the myths surrounding antidepressants, how when she realised she was depressed she feared going to her GP because, she thought, ‘even if medication works, you’re not yourself anymore’. When she did eventually try medication, she described it as feeling ‘like the corner of a heavy dust sheet had been lifted up. And there I still was, hiding underneath.’
That’s the thing about depression – like all mental illness it consumes the self until you’re not sure who you are any more.
Depression is the most common mental illness, but it’s also the one that attracts the least sympathy and most judgment. In Britain, in particular, we pride ourselves on having a ‘keep calm and carry on’, stiff upper lip-type mentality and seem to be labouring under the illusion that maintaining this throughout the horrors of the First and Second World Wars meant ‘no one ever used to have mental-health problems’. I don’t have enough words to convey the extent to which people irrefutably DID have mental-health problems during the wars.
Depression is often mistaken for ‘feeling sorry for yourself’ and is most likely to elicit the response ‘pull yourself together.’ In fact, Marcus tells me that when he is feeling depressed, there is a tiny version of him orbiting himself, shouting those very words.
If people with depression could ‘pull themselves together’ they would. Keeping calm and carrying on might have been a tactic that worked in the distant past – I couldn’t tell you because I wasn’t alive – but the world is very different now and so too is our understanding of it and the challenges we all face. We now understand that depression is more treatable the earlier it is identified and the better we understand our own triggers. The biggest enemy of them all is denial.
An edited extract from A Beginner’s Guide To Being Mental An A-Z by Natasha Devon, published by Bluebird Books For Life, £12.99. Buy your copy here .
Natasha Devon MBE is a campaigner who, for the past decade, has toured schools, universities and events throughout the UK to raise awareness and teach others about mental health. She has advised politicians, staged protests both on and offline to effect social change and most recently created the Mental Health Media Charter, to ensure that the landscape of mental health reporting is both responsible and stigma-reducing. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram .