Several years ago, my husband, Holmes, began skipping meals and losing weight, eventually 25 pounds within three months. His laid-back, somewhat pensive temperament turned irritable and moody. Although he typically was quiet about his feelings, Holmes became increasingly withdrawn and didn't seem to enjoy things anymore.
I knew Holmes was encountering tough times as a homebuilder in a flagging economy and a tanking stock market. But I kept hoping he'd perk up if he got another construction job. In the meantime, being ever the encourager, I tried everything I could think of to cheer him up. I pointed out all the positive things he did, such as being a great dad or helping other people. I encouraged Holmes to look ahead to a family trip we'd planned, but that didn't help, either. As the months rolled into years, neither my encouraging words nor my hard work to take up the slack in our income seemed to make a difference.
In 1995, roughly seven years after I first noticed my husband's struggles, our pastor realized from a conversation with Holmes that he was suicidal. He immediately made Holmes an appointment with a doctor who diagnosed him as having clinical depression. The physician told us Holmes probably had been depressed for years. Situational depression caused by the crushing pressures of Holmes's declining building business in the late 1980s, compounded by a genetic predisposition to clinical depression on both sides of his family, had pushed him to the edge. Perhaps if I'd known the clues, Holmes could have gotten help before his depression had become full-blown.
I've discovered I'm not the only woman who's experienced life with a depressed husband. With an unstable economy and corporate meltdowns, depression in males is on the rise. That means countless wives face the challenge of trying to help a spouse who's in emotional turmoil. But depression doesn't have to bring down your entire family. There is help, there is hope, and there are ways you can support your spouse—and yourself.
Caring for Your Husband
If the dark cloud of depression overtakes your spouse, how can you help him?
Recognize the signs. It's important to distinguish between situational depression triggered by something such as a job layoff or demotion, and clinical depression. Situational depression involves some of the same symptoms of clinical depression (see below), but they're of shorter duration and lower intensity. For example, if your husband's depression is caused by discouragement over a job loss, within six months he should regroup, recover his enjoyment of life, and move on. However, according to Michael Navarro, a licensed psychotherapist, clinical depression's symptoms are more pronounced and last far longer. The absence of pleasure in the activities your husband once enjoyed is greater; his malaise, anger, or weight loss more substantial.
If your husband experiences a majority of the symptoms of depression, he needs professional help. Your family physician can determine what's biological and what's psychological; he may make a diagnosis of clinical depression and refer your spouse to a psychologist or psychiatrist for therapy and medication. In Holmes's case, counseling and an antidepressant were helpful short-term, but since we didn't have the money to continue therapy, his recovery process took much longer. (I've since learned many good therapists provide a sliding fee scale depending on your financial condition.)
How would you know if your husband needs to be hospitalized? If he's seeing a doctor, his physician would make that recommendation. But here are other clues that in-patient help is needed to stabilize your spouse: when he repeatedly cancels or doesn't show up for his outpatient/counseling appointments or refuses help; when he digresses into a more nonfunctional state; or if he experiences severe weight loss or sudden gain. And—most important—if he makes statements such as, "I wish I wasn't around," or "I think it's better if you collect my insurance. You and the kids would be better off without me," which indicate suicidal thinking.
Accept and love your spouse. One of the most important things you can do for your struggling mate is to let him know you still love and accept him despite how he feels about himself. "I'm not saying accepting is easy," says psychologist Archibald Hart, author of Dark Clouds, Silver Linings. "But you have to accept the reality of the problem. It's there whether you like it or not, and your responsibility is to communicate love and acceptance in whatever way you possibly can." This could include a loving touch or hug, or gentle encouragement through a card or meaningful gift.
During one of Holmes's darkest days, he said, "We—and I—may never be happy again; you'd be better off leaving." I went in the other room, wept, and prayed for strength and the right response. A short time later, I sat down by Holmes, held his hand, and said, "Even if we're never happy again, it's just not all about happiness; it's about loving each other and being together. I'm committed to you for the rest of our lives. I'm not going anywhere." Although we had huge hills yet to climb, that was a turning point for us. And in that particular response, Holmes felt unconditionally loved and accepted right where he was.
Encourage exercise. While physical exercise can be an extra challenge to those struggling with depression, the endorphins it provides create a natural mood-lifter. So gently encourage your husband to go for a walk with you after dinner as many nights as he's willing, or to work out at a gym or do whatever activity he enjoys most when he feels up to it. When my husband and I took our evening walks, he sometimes would open up. One night as we walked, I asked Holmes to give me a word picture of how he felt.
"I feel like a vine's wrapping itself around me; that it began at my feet and now is almost up to my neck, choking me," he described. It was hard to hear how terrible he felt, but it helped me connect with him and understand a little of what he was going through.
Realize anger often accompanies depression. But don't allow your husband to disrespect or abuse you or your children. Be available to listen, but avoid trying to be his therapist. "A mate's role is primarily one of support. The main therapeutic work needs to be done by a professional," says Hart.
Whether your husband's anger is rooted in grief and loss issues, unresolved childhood issues, failure, or job loss, he needs someone with whom to talk. One counselor I know has her clients list ten things they're angry about when they come in for therapy because she's found that underneath most depression is anger over something.
Encourage fellowship with other men. When Carrie's husband, Jeremy, went through a depressive period after a job loss, a small group of friends met with him weekly over coffee to be his sounding board for his job-hunting. They also kept him in their prayers during the difficult months. Their support was invaluable to his recovery and the new career direction he found.
Avoid using words that make him feel worse. A man in the doldrums of depression doesn't need to hear, "How can you be depressed with all God has done in our lives?" (He's probably already feeling as though no one understands, and this just confirms it.) Avoid preaching: "Just read your Bible more and get right with God, and your depression will go away."
Refrain from belittling him or comparing him to others as in, "You know, Brian took St. John's Wort and he bounced back from his depression in only three months." Also avoid saying, "Look on the bright side. Count yourself lucky and cheer up," which makes him feel guilty. One woman I know purposed to praise her husband for the baby steps he took in learning to trust God in the darkness, and didn't blurt out, "I thought you already knew that!" when he shared insights with her.
Caring for Yourself
I became so emotionally and physically depleted during my husband's depression that I began suffering from severe insomnia. While working overtime, I parented our teens and worried about our financial situation and my husband. Sometimes I felt abandoned by Holmes —emotionally, at least. Eventually I realized I harbored some anger as well. Some sessions with a counselor and later a small support group helped me tremendously.
If you get support and deal with your issues, you'll be healthier emotionally and thus better able to help your husband and children. Here are some ways:
Ask for help. When Brenda's husband, Daryle, needed to be hospitalized for severe depression, she didn't think to ask her brother or pastor to accompany her. She drove Daryle the three hours to the center by herself.
Mile after mile he protested, "I'm going home. I'm not going to the hospital. The bank will pull the loans if I'm gone. The company will go under. We'll lose everything." After Brenda got her husband in the hospital and almost collapsed from exhaustion, she realized she couldn't do everything alone. She found a student teacher to live with her family temporarily to help with her children and take them to school. Brenda learned to ask others for help. In the same way, you may need help from a support group or prayer partners, and assistance with your children.
Consider counseling with your husband's therapist, because frequently the wife feels responsible for her husband's depression. Find one trusted friend with whom you can cry, be real, and pray. Flo Perkins, an elderly friend whose husband had suffered with chronic depression, was my lifesaver. Flo understood, listened, prayed for me, and encouraged me repeatedly. She passed on the comfort with which God had comforted her (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). From her I learned the invaluable truth that I could give the Lord all my troubles and entrust my husband to his care.
Don't keep secrets. When Liz's husband's life crashed around him due to clinical depression, they went from being pillars in their rural community to being under the lowest rock. He lost his profession, his reputation, his earning power, and his hope as he lived for six long years in a state of depression. One of the best things they did was endeavor to keep open communication with each other and their kids. They held family councils and talked over what was happening in age-appropriate ways, praying together during crises and ongoing struggles.
A word of caution: It's best to clear this kind of family meeting first with your husband, perhaps by saying, "You've always been such a loving dad. Could you help me talk to the kids about your depression to let them know it's not their fault, and that we're all going to be healing together?" Avoid saying, "Your depression's hurting our children, messing their lives up, and making life hard," which only will make him feel worse. If he prefers, you could sit down with your children alone and explain the nature of depression and that you'll help them cope with their dad's condition.
Your kids may need to talk to someone such as a youth pastor or counselor who can help them sort through their feelings. They also need to know they always can come to you to talk about the situation.
Remind yourself of God's truth. When Brenda was beset by fears, time after time she told herself the truths that restored her stability: that God would never leave or forsake her (Hebrews 13:5); that he promised her his grace when she was weak (2 Corinthians 12:10); and that God somehow would weave everything—even this depression—into a pattern for good (Romans 8:28).
"So often we try to force our way out of a crisis," Brenda says. "Instead, I began to embrace the situation and say, 'Okay, God, what do you want me to learn in this? How do you want me to change? And what are you going to accomplish in my husband and family through this difficult time?'"
As she focused on God, Brenda saw him working through Daryle's hospitalization, the friends who surrounded Daryle, and the spiritual growth they as a couple experienced. Before, Daryle had been Brenda's rock; through this experience, Brenda learned to depend more on God. And as Daryle recovered, he developed an effective ministry with hurting people and a special sensitivity to those suffering from depression.
Take "mini-vacations." During the six years her husband was depressed, Liz learned to create brief getaways from her family difficulties. Since they were financially challenged, Liz took long walks through the countryside, singing hymns and praise choruses, sometimes crying buckets of tears and other times stopping to journal her feelings. She lit scented candles at home and took bubble baths to relax. She planned fun activities for her children—picnics, outings to the state park, zoo, and movies, and occasional trips to the grandparents—and carried them out without her husband's participation when he couldn't even fake the energy to be involved. These short breaks refueled Liz for the challenges she faced.
Let prayer be your lifeline. "Praying for those we love who are depressed is our best hope," says Gerry Mensch, who not only survived her own depression but her husband's as well. "Antidepressants can help, but some in the grip of depression refuse to seek help. When God begins to work in their hearts, he'll accomplish more than we or medication ever can." If your husband won't go for counseling, start praying he'll wake up and ask for assistance, or that God will put a man in his life to steer him toward help.
Throughout Holmes's depression, my lifeline was praying Scriptures for him such as Joel 2:25, which asks God to restore the wasted years; Colossians 1:9-12, to give my husband direction; Isaiah 61:1-3, to lift his heaviness of despair and replace it with praise and joy; and 1 Peter 4:8, to fill me with the love that covers a multitude of sins.
It took several years for Holmes to recover from depression, and as we prayed together, we experienced God's grace for every situation we faced. Prayer strengthened our marriage when we were weak, and reminded us again and again of God's love. While Holmes's recovery wasn't quick, God always was faithful. Although medication and counseling helped, God's healing power and his Word kept us together.
Today, when I see Holmes smile as he holds one of our five grandchildren, sense his sheer enjoyment of an American history course he recently took at a local university, or experience the fun of strolling on the beach together, I'm grateful for where he is now. I'm thankful for the things we learned and the comfort we received from God and others. I'm also glad we have a chance to share what we learned with others going through depression.
Cheri Fuller is a speaker and author whose latest book is Fearless: Building a Faith That Overcomes Your Fear (Revell). Check out her website at www.cherifuller.com.
Copyright 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.