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.

Love

Love. That little four-letter word which apparently makes the world go ‘round.

When you think about love, what does it mean to you? Does it conjure up a warm fuzzy feeling or is it something which makes your top lip curl in cynicism? I often think about the potential links between psychotherapy and love, and wonder whether the crux of any therapeutic success is really down to the love that’s shared between the client and the counsellor.

I’m certainly not talking about an erotic love here – the special boundaried connection between a client and a therapist must never be sexualized, romanticized or even physical. Moreover I’m talking about the kind of love you might feel for a really close friend – deeply appropriate and platonic by nature.

When we look at some of the reasons people enter into therapy, for many it’s due to something going wrong with love. Perhaps they didn’t feel loved growing up, they’ve experienced a bad relationship, they’ve only ever received conditional love etc… When I meet clients who are struggling with issues relating to depression, anxiety, identity, loneliness or general unhappiness often we discover that the root issue is that they’re carrying some kind of love wound which needs to be healed.

There’s something incredibly profound to feel truly accepted at the core of your being by another person. All too often we limit ourselves – being too afraid to communicate our truth or needs in case we are ridiculed or rejected.

We hide behind a safe screen of what we consider to be ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of others.  

Throughout my training I studied many psychotherapy models, techniques and approaches but fundamentally recognise that in essence they’re all just helpful theories. The mind is too complex a beast and there’s no such thing as a perfect therapy algorithm to resolve client problems in the way you might fix a broken car! Even manualised therapies with a vast range of empirical results cannot definitively prove which ‘bit’ of therapy ‘works’.

Carl Rogers, the father of person-centred therapy, talked about something called ‘unconditional positive regard’ in his approach. He suggests that therapists adopt this personal attribute when working with clients – that is, prizing the person by being genuine, warm, respectful and compassionate so that the client feels it (and doesn’t perceive it as a cosy fake façade).

Is this just science-speak for offering love?

For all the complexities of delivering therapy, I personally tend to see it as something far simpler and yet greater than it is possible to effectively quantify. For the person who comes into counselling feeling incongruent about some aspect of themselves (they dislike this or that part of their lives or personality) then I guess it could make sense that to bring it into the counselling space and have someone else accept that ‘un-acceptable’ part of themselves may just dilute and potentially eradicate those feeling of self-hatred (hey, this person accepts me warts and all – maybe I’m not so bad!).

Self worth

As I was out shopping last week I noticed a little boy who looked extremely worried when mother told him he was, ‘a naughty boy and wouldn’t get any chocolate if he didn’t do as he was told.’ Fairly innocuous, right?

If you consider for a moment that everything we do is largely dependent on our conditioned responses (you’re only reading this from left to right because you once learned to…) it makes sense that some part of the little boy’s psyche will create a generalisation: if I am to gain approval from mother (be worthy), I must be compliant. And hey presto, here we have the foundations of conditional love!

But before all parents start to panic (!!) just remember that a caregiver who is mostly attuned to their child’s needs will help to create a healthy balanced emotional environment where the child can learn to express itself without fear of invalidation. Childhood is about curiosity and exploration – there is no right or wrong to a child. Worms in the garden aren’t ‘bad things to eat’ they are simply wriggling objects to be studied and stored in our memories as experience!

At my last clinical supervision my fantastic supervisor asked me what I ‘did’ with a particular client. I immediately felt a puzzled expression form on my face and noticed my silence fill the air. She let out a hearty warm laugh and said: Steph, it wasn’t meant to be a trick question! In that moment I had hit upon one of my own vulnerabilities and it reminded me of the time when my primary school teacher asked me to stand up and solve a maths question in front of the class! After I realised she wasn’t trying to trip me up (nor get me to recall every subject I had studied during six years of University!) I found my genuine answer:

I’m just me and I provide a space where my clients can just be.  

It felt so simple and childish to say – but it’s the truth! Theoretically I could dissect a session into a list of offered interventions, core conditions, propositions, introjects, conditions of worth, examples of incongruence etc… (you get the picture) but really, didn’t I just offer love to someone, who in turn felt it, and started to feel better about themselves?

Did the process spontaneously help my client to learn how to love themselves because they’d never been taught how to do it?

So whatever you choose to call it – a therapeutic alliance, unconditional positive regard, intrapsychic or interpersonal connection, transference/ counter-transference… for me, it all boils down to that four-letter word. Love. And in a letter to Jung, Freud did once famously write:

“Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love”.