How do you support your partner when you both have mental health issues?

Contrary to what some might have you believe being a registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist doesn’t make you any less vulnerable to human suffering than anybody else. I’ve been very vocal about my recovery journey from complex PTSD which I see as something I will need to manage long-term as opposed to eradicate completely (wishful but unhelpful thinking!).

Whilst I’m now much more adept at managing my difficult periods and taking immediate action (self care, reducing commitments, listening to my needs, reaching out) what happens if your usually supportive partner is also dealing with some heavy stuff?

Depressive and anxious episodes in others can sometimes feel triggering if you already have a sensitivity towards experiencing those states. Trying to be an anchor for your loved one when you’re in a dark space yourself can feel frightening and overwhelming. Here’s my top-five tips for riding out the storm together.

1. Be there for yourself

Whilst this might sound counter-intuitive in helping your partner, trust me, it’s not. As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ and it’s essential that you find healthy ways of getting your own needs met without depending on your partner. Draw up a list of good friends you can talk to, reach out to a group, a wider mental health community or therapist if you can afford it. This will help you in the long-run by allowing you to hone your recovery independence skills and help prevent your relationship from falling into co-dependent habits.

2. Set reasonable expectations

When you can hardly get out of bed in the morning it’s fairly unlikely that you’ll have the energy to invest in your shared responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, shopping or planning. When both of you are struggling it can help to co-write a list of key essential tasks that need doing and mutually agree responsibilities, essentially playing to your strengths as a team. But never expect more from your partner than you’d be able to give yourself. If neither of you can manage your responsibilities think creatively – shop online, ask a friend to help with chores, contact a volunteer or caring centre, ask a neighbour to walk your dog. Every. Little. Helps.

3. Show up for your partner

Although you might not have the energy to speak or even think clearly, you can still show up. Cuddles, hand-holding, a surprise cup of coffee, running a bath, hair-stroking – these are all non-verbal ways to show you care and that they’re still in your heart. Sometimes simply being quiet together can be just what the other person needs – no stressful conversations, no trying to ‘fix’ things, just being present.

4. Team Black Dog

Feeling at rock bottom can seem like the loneliest place in the world. Being at rock bottom together means that you already have someone to empathise and share your experience with. Try taking conversations in turns using this active listening technique:

  • Person A shares what’s going on for them
  • Person B listens and clarifies what they’ve heard
  • Person A responds to person B’s interpretation (making it even clearer), and finally –
  • Person B clarifies again and asks how you might work through this together.

Then swap over and repeat the exercise.

This method can really help to deepen an empathic connection and perhaps even allow you to come up with some positive solutions.

5. Remember, This Too Shall Pass

When you’re in the thick of it it’s difficult to keep perspective and remember a time when the relationship wasn’t as hard. You might even find yourself questioning your partner or blaming them for your unhappiness. Remember that their current negative feelings aren’t who they are. Write down the things you value about them the most. Own your own emotions (it’s OK to be hurting) without judgement and try to hold on to the fact that this period will pass – it isn’t how it is, it’s just how it is now.

@StephJonesMBACP

What love feels like to someone with depression

Written at the worst of my struggles and something I’d like to share with you now- Steph, August 2018.

As I Google my way around the internet searching for conclusive answers, my anxiety increases tenfold. How do I know if I love my partner? Strangers posing such desperate questions are answered by other strangers as though they are the gospel according to factual truth.

For the record my boyfriend is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

He is gorgeous, kind, sweet, 100% there for me and contributes an incredible amount to our relationship. I on the other hand am really struggling with depression and fairly fucking useless. If I’m not raging at him for not taking the bins out, or crying like a mad woman in the kitchen because his innocuous supportive comments feel like the end of the world, I am predominantly numb and incapable of feeling joy.

Yesterday whilst searching the internet (it has a lot to answer for) I came across Byron Katie’s ‘The Works’ which is a strategy based upon self-enquiry. I watched a session in which the client had incredible revelations and seemed lighter – lifted – clean. It only made sense to try this out with other aspects of my befuddled life so I asked myself a question – do I love my boyfriend?

The first question of the process is – is thistrue? My stomach dropped and I felt confused. How can you know if you love someone? The second question, do you absolutely know that to be true? felt like maybe I didn’t know at all. If I couldn’t answer the first part how the fuck could I answer an incomprehensible question at greater depth?

You see, the thing with depression is that it robs you of all positive feelings. You feel numb, ghost-like and can’t trust anything you experience with your five senses. Thankfully he understands just how much it hurts me not to be able to answer this kind of philosophical existential musing in my current state and doesn’t seem to take it personally.

As the question crashed its way through my skull it unleashed my pure-OCD (based upon relationships, confession and reassurance) which has been lying dormant for some time. It’s a bit like two fairground mirrors facing opposite each other, their reflections bouncing and stretching into infinity – do I, don’t I, do I, don’t I….?

I get lost in the concept of what love even is. What is it? If it is a feeling and you can’t feel do you have it?

The thoughts that arise when I ponder this question fill me with feelings of dread, sorrow, guilt and confusion. Suddenly my brain comes to a complete stand-still. It’s like my mind has literally jammed with trying to compute this impossible equation. No. More. Storage.

Only one internet stranger flung a logical inflatable rubber ring into the sea of my neurosis – if you didn’t love him you wouldn’t care.

In relaying all this to him I realise that he can still see me even when I hold a completely distorted view of myself and reality. He reminds me that only yesterday we were happy but that’s a world away from me now as I plummet down the eternal mind helter-skelter exhausted with rumination.

If I had asked the questions: who do I want to be with in another 50-years, whose arms would I like to die in, who offers the best and most healthy relationship I’ve ever had, who is your soulmate, who do you fancy the arse off? – the answers would all be unequivocally HIM.

But the absence of reliable feelings unnerves me and puts even the strongest of connections under intense scrutiny.

My only experiences of ‘love’ have been around longing, pain, drama, obsession, infatuation and loss. I can feel all of those things – a bit like my microphone doesn’t really pick up noise until it’s over-the-top intense.

The intrusive thoughts battle against any firm arguments to support my belief that I do. In fact, the gremlin on my shoulder is telling me that it’s all just a complex lie and that this entire article itself is a bullshit self-denial.

The result of this daily mind ping-pong? It makes me want to push him away – for both of us. On one hand I don’t want him to have to put up with me when he deserves someone who can freely experience and give love. And for myself, I have a core belief that I am destined to be alone, not right for anyone and incapable of healing or experiencing positive feelings. And to not be with him would surely mean freedom from all the questioning?

And these are the stories that depression and anxiety feeds us.

That we’re not good enough, not worthy, genius manipulators and all the other bunch of crap it throws at you on a daily basis.

Although to talk this kind of difficult stuff through with your partner might feel like the worst thing in the world, it might help them to better understand where you’re coming from and enable them to separate out you from the depression.

No one asks to feel depressed and living with the guilt of not being able to feel love when you can’t feel any form of happiness or pleasure is not a bundle of picnics. My advice when you want to ask the question? Don’t.

If you’re not in a healthy place, it’s very unlikely that your insight is going to be a reliable witness (unless of course your partner is a complete tool).

Asking existential questions about the meaning of love whilst struggling with a mental health condition is as futile as asking what the colour four is, and unless you’ve got Synesthesia or are tripping on acid you’re only likely to go further down the rabbit hole.