Loving a man with depression

Alix O’Neill, 33, met her husband Matt* at university. They’ve been together for 13 years and were married in 2012. She shares her experience of a complicated love

We’d been looking forward to our friends’ engagement party all week. But as I breezed into the kitchen, my lips newly rouged with Chanel Pirate, I realised with a sinking dread that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that evening.

My husband was pacing the room, hands wringing, his features distorted by fear. He was so, so sorry, but he couldn’t face all those people. He didn’t want to ruin my night – please go without him, he said, there’s nothing to worry about. I felt deflated; it was the second time he’d done it that month.

I used to believe him when he told me everything was fine. Perhaps I convinced myself that it was, because – and here’s the unpalatable truth – depression is a pretty damn depressing thing to accept and I never truly understood the depth of his pain.

Matt has been suffering from mental illness since the suicide of a close friend 13 years ago, shortly before we started going out. He’s part of a tight-knit group and comes from a large, loving family, though neither are demonstrative. As a result, he has always been skilled at putting on a brave face. In the early days of our relationship, he masked the severity of his symptoms behind a sybaritic existence of extravagant nights out and big romantic gestures. He briefly talked about his darker periods, but it was hard to reconcile my charming new boyfriend – the last to leave the party –with the established image of depression. I thought that  depressives were introverts who stayed in all day. In contrast, Matt carried a  silver hip flask and wore jaunty Paul Smith socks. He loved food and culture and history – and me. Every day with Matt was an adventure and I didn’t want the good times to end.

However, when we moved in together, it became harder for Matt to hide the extent of his illness. There were days when he’d struggle to get out of bed, yet still managed to crack a joke and throw me a compliment before I left for work. Later, he admitted it was physically exhausting trying to keep up the pretence that all was well. Shamefully, I was frustrated by his lethargy. If he knew exercise made him feel better, why didn’t he just go to the gym? I thought a positive attitude would fix him, that he could will himself back to happiness. I’ve long since realised you can’t Pollyanna your way out of depression.

Two years ago, Matt went through a particularly bad episode and was struggling to get help on the NHS. He told me for the first time about his black days, the ones where he lingers at the edge of the Tube platform or spends hours staring at the kitchen knives while I sleep, thinking, ‘I could end it here.’

Those five words changed us, they changed me. Somehow, I had reached my early thirties with all the trappings of adulthood – a marriage, mortgage and a steady job – and yet, I never felt fully-grown up. Until that point, Matt had supported me through my childhood hang-ups and emotional crises. Now, it was my turn. It’s a huge responsibility being the strong one, making the person you love feel safe, reassuring them that everything is going to be OK when all you have are doubts.

Things have been better lately. Matt has found a great therapist, he exercises regularly, we eat more oily fish, he has one of those SAD lamps. Most importantly, we talk. Every day. He knows we’re feeling our way for the light switch together. We’d like to have a baby soon, yet Matt worries he’ll be unable to step up to the challenge. Sometimes, he wishes he could remove his brain and wash it out. But to me, the darkness is just a small part of that big, beautiful brain. Matt’s strength of character, his bravery, his infuriating knack for telling stories better than his wife who writes for a living – that’s the stuff that will shine through as a parent.

Life is less carefree than it used to be. Sometimes, it’s really sad. But I wouldn’t go back to the way things were before. We appreciate the good times more these days. The adventure hasn’t stopped – the ride’s just a little bumpier.

*name has been changed

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