My wife has been battling depression for a long time. How can I support her in this struggle? I feel like I was a great support to her in the beginning, but now I can feel myself becoming worn out. How can I stay positive through this?
If you have ever taken First Aid training, you will remember a mantra that your instructor repeated over and over: don’t become a victim yourself. When I first heard those words, they sounded callous to me — human beings are hardwired to help, and we want to get to someone who is hurting as fast as we can. But then I came to understand that this rule just makes a lot of sense. If you want to be able to sustain an act of compassion, you have to start by making sure that you are standing somewhere solid and safe. Jumping into a pool with a drowning person isn’t an act of compassion. Jumping into that pool is a pretty reliable way of ending up with two drowned people.
Depression is a disease which pulls people into its vortex. Unlike other communicable diseases, which the well-trained caregiver can avoid by wearing latex gloves and a paper mask, depression moves from one person to another in a way that we haven’t yet figured out how to contain. When I visit a depressed person at their home or in the hospital, I can feel the atmosphere shift into something thick and heavy as soon I walk through the door. If you are exposed to depression too much or for too long, you end up where you are, Supportive, which is to say worn down and worn out.
I have two suggestions for you. First, go to your friends and your family and tell them that you need their help. That may seem like a hard thing to do. But, I bet if you were in their position, you would want to be given the opportunity to help a couple whom you loved. So, please, grant them that favor. Ask for a hand with day-to-day life: let folks know what a difference it would make if they made you a few meals or if they took your wife out to a concert or to the park so that you could have some down time.
Second (and this is even more important), if you are not already in therapy, find yourself a counselor. You need the help of a well-trained professional who has a toolbox full of ways that you can be a support to your wife. Even more than that, you need access to an impartial person to whom you can tell the whole truth — not just about what’s going on with your wife but about what’s going on with you. If you’re feeling angry or disappointed — with your wife, with yourself, with life, with God — then it’s imperative that you find somewhere safe to say that out loud without fear of being judged. The spouse of a depressed person usually knows intellectually that his partner’s disease is not her fault. But that may not stop him from feeling betrayed. You need a place where you may name your feelings, no matter how unfair or irrational they may seem to you. Trying to keep those feelings locked inside will wreck you.
Your love for your wife is clear from your letter, as is your commitment to walk with her during this hard time. If you are going to be able to maintain that commitment — if you are going to find the clarity and the energy that you need to be there for your wife — then you need to make another commitment right now: it’s time to start taking care of yourself.
Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Rev. Elfert to firstname.lastname@example.org.