I know that I live in a weird little bubble of enlightened and sensitive people who have already accepted that mental illness is a real and dangerous thing. I know that my experience is quite rare and represents what may sound like the first-world-problems of mental illness issues. This is not meant to take away from the fundamental discussion about mental illness, our stigma against it, or our difficulty even acknowledging that it is a thing. But just as we don't need to stop talking about pay inequality just because some women in the world aren't allowed to drive, I don't think we need to hold off on talking about some specifics of mental illness until we've all gotten on the same page about it. Feel free to disagree! This also isn't meant to make anyone who is struggling with mental illness feel worse and isn't directed at any specific person or group of people.
Mental illness runs in my family: my brother is bipolar, I have terrible anxiety, and my husband has depression. It's been heartening to see more and more posts - on Facebook, here on Groupthink, and around the internet - about how we need to stop treating mental illness like it's made up and is something that people can just get over. We need to be compassionate and patient. That's awesome. We need to stop being such dicks to people who are struggling. I am on board.
Depression, like addiction, disordered eating, or any number of other conditions that seem familiar but aren't (everyone gets sad, but that's not the same as major depression; plenty of people sometimes drink too much but that's not the same as alcoholism; lots of people try to diet but that's not the same as an eating disorder) presents a particular problem: it's easy to think that if everyone is sad sometimes and most people just snap out of it, anyone can. We've talked about how frustrating and discouraging this is from the point of view of a depressed person, but we don't talk a lot about how it feels for the depressed person's spouse or partner - or at least we don't do it with much compassion. I speak about compassion for the partner because we (and when I say "we" I mean people who are sensitive to and try to be respectful of mental illness, not any old jackass on the street) expect these people to be brave little soldiers who ask little and give much. Usually they come up in the context of someone who is seriously struggling talking about how their partner must be getting frustrated with them, and we quickly (and rightly) chime in that we're sure the partner understands, or at least that they should. We don't want the partner to complain or to get frustrated - if they do, we say that they lack compassion and patience. We say that they're demanding and unreasonable and that the depressed person deserves unconditional support with no questions asked. If that person decides they can't deal with it - it's too hard, it's too much, they're having a hard time keeping it together themselves and can't take care of someone else - hell really breaks loose. The well person is a quitter, a fair-weather spouse, can't be trusted and is so, so selfish. What an asshole, to cut and run when they were really needed.
When we change the conversation from, "mental illness is imaginary and everyone is making it up" to "mental illness is real and anyone who doesn't drop everything to support a depressed person is Satan" we're still not talking about it with any real nuance or understanding. It's a step in the right direction, but it can't be our final stopping point. We've beat mental illness! We've won compassion! No.
My husband is seriously depressed. He's been having a hard time finding work, and our field is contract-based with many projects ending prematurely. He worked for about four months out of the last year, and before that he'd regularly wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me that he hated his life and his job and nothing was how he'd imagined it would be. When he's home he's sad and tired and sick. He feels like shit about the weight he's gained, his depression manifests itself in chronic pain and fatigue, and his attention span is shitty. He lies in bed, orders pizza, plays video games, and doesn't clean the house. I work across the country, make the money, and come home on the weekend to a filthy house. I know he's trying. I know he can't help it and I try to really believe that, but it's hard to discern the line between "good-hearted husband going through a rough time" and "lazy deadbeat who spends my money and doesn't contribute." I'm not sure yet where he falls on that line - I think it might be a little bit of both. He's truly depressed, but that doesn't mean he isn't a little lazy. Even before he was depressed he was a shitty housekeeper.
I love him unconditionally. I support him. I'm not leaving him. But with growing horror I've started to understand why the shitty husbands of the fifties and sixties felt entitled to a clean house and a nice meal. I work hard! I make a lot of money! Don't I deserve a clean house and dinner on the table? If I'm going to bust my ass all week can't my partner keep house and make me feel special? Is that so much to ask?
Well, yes. When your partner is struggling with depression that is too much to ask (and even if they're not dealing with mental illness you're still not flat-out entitled to jack shit). But how do you know the right amount to ask? I've said outright - how much do you think you can realistically do? He never does even that much. I know he wants to please me - he wants to think that he'll do better - but saying you'll do something and then not doing it is still lying. I'm not the only person who has had these conversations with a depressed spouse. I'm not the only one who felt disappointed, resentful, sad, and also guilty after a conversation like this.
It's hard to parse out what is pure selfishness on my part, what is laziness on his part, and what is both of us doing our best with a bad situation. We suffer from the stigma of mental illness: he because he doesn't get the recognition he needs of how much he's struggling; I because spouses of the mentally ill are asked to pretend nothing is wrong (because according to most of society nothing is wrong); both of us because we've internalized those feelings and know that no matter what we do it won't be good enough. He'll never be sick enough to me to understand that he's really doing his best. I'll never be brave enough for him to know that I really am trying to be supportive.
When we talk about doing a better job discussing and dealing with mental illness, we need to expand our scope. We need to decide how to talk to the spouses and partners of depressed people, we need to ask what they need, too.