Living with mental illness: Who cares for the carers?

Fiona Kennedy talks about her unsung hero over the past eight years...

Living with mental illness: Who cares for the carers?

Stock Image | Via: Ben Rosett

Over the last couple of months, I’ve written a lot about what it’s like to directly experience the impact of mental health difficulties – how they can manifest, the lengths we sometimes have to go to to get help, as well as the reality of what that help may look like. In all of this however, there’s been something missing. My husband.

When I’m not well it’s absolutely hellish for me, but it’s also horrendous for him. I think this is something that’s often unintentionally overlooked, but needs to be highlighted.

When it comes to talking about mental health issues, and supporting people who are struggling, I suspect the vast majority find themselves in very unfamiliar territory. Even the language is new, and sometimes off putting – we talk of people suffering from depression, going through a tough time, needing support – but what does that actually mean?

As a nation, we’re slowly coming around to an understanding of how people struggle with their mental health, but as yet, the focus (and as always, I’m writing from my own perspective) is very much on the individual dealing with the difficulties. What about the people supporting them? Is anyone in turn supporting them? Is anyone even aware of how they might be struggling too?

Let me tell you a little bit about my husband. Ten years ago, Ronan and I got married. We were young, quite naïve, and blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. Ronan didn’t marry someone with depression or borderline personality disorder, he married me. However, it didn’t take long for the cracks to appear, and the cracks quickly became gaping chasms.

Stock Image | Via: Freestocks.org

Depression took over, and our relationship almost became a business arrangement – we had to look after the kids, pay the bills, keep the house going – but beyond that? I was completely emotionally unavailable, and certainly not in a position to help him understand what was going on, never mind help him manage it.

In those first couple of years of depression, we were essentially clueless – we didn’t know how to handle it, where to get help, how to manage our relationship through it... I know I was certainly very black and white in my thinking, and felt things would never get better for us. At my worst, I laid the blame for all my difficulties on our marriage.

Looking back at photos, I can see just how much this was impacting on him – he looked exhausted, and absolutely careworn. His health suffered – he was under so much stress he succumbed to swine flu not once, but twice. His mental health suffered too, and I’ve no doubt he experienced periods of depression that likely went unnoticed as I was in such a bad state.

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him over the years, both to watch me struggling over and over again, but also to have to keep himself going.  I’ve not been the easiest to live with. Depression can be messy, selfish, angry, resentful, anxious, sad, withdrawn... not exactly ideal housemates.

I understand now (with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of therapy) that this wasn’t my fault, but the guilt that I felt about the stress I was putting him under amplified every symptom of depression, and so we ended up in a vicious cycle that could have, and occasionally did, put a huge distance between us. There were times when I’m sure he would happily have put entire continents between us, and equally there were times that I couldn’t stand to have him around me. But he never left.

Ronan is the unsung hero of the last eight years. He has stood by me, supported me, put up with me, and yes, occasionally walked away from me, through all of the upheaval I’ve faced. It hasn’t been easy, and it certainly hasn’t been plain sailing, but it has changed our relationship so much for the better. I don’t think either of us would have a whole lot in common with the people we were ten years ago.

We’ve had to learn to be completely honest with each other, to have the conversations that in theory would be much easier to avoid, but in practice would only lead to bigger problems if we ignored them. We’ve learned an awful lot about ourselves, about each other, about compromise, and about the wonderful and often chaotic world of our minds.

Stock Image | Via: Matt Hoffman

It’s learning that we strive to pass on to our kids, in the hope that they will never have to experience what we did.

Don’t get me wrong. We are far from perfect. We still have our disagreements, I still have the capacity to drive him to distraction, but what we do have is the knowledge that we’re bigger than all of that. Now, when things get difficult for me, I tell him (most of the time), whereas a couple of years ago I’d have withdrawn.

That said, he always knows when something is up. While it’s never easy for him to hear that my form is slipping, it’s much, much worse if I shut him out and try to hide it. Always. He has also learned to tell me when he can’t cope, or when he’s not in a position to help me. There are times when we can lean on each other, but there are also times when we have to put ourselves first.

You know the way we’re told to attend to our own needs before helping someone else in the event of a loss of cabin pressure during a flight? This is exactly the same. Sometimes the best thing we can do support someone else is look after ourselves first.

Trying to manage any kind of serious health difficulty – mental, physical or otherwise – can’t but have a far reaching impact. The issues affect the individual, but the fallout of managing it, whatever that may entail, affects the whole family. I’ve no doubt in my mind it’s easier to ask for help when a loved one is physically unwell, because that’s something we’re familiar with. We need to get to the point where it’s just as easy to ask for help because a family member is mentally unwell. The issues are different, but the demands and stresses on everyone are the same.

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Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog sunnyspellsandscatteredshowers.org

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie