It is a Sunday in March. The weather is mixed, sunny with blustery showers and not too cold – the perfect day for a walk along the river. It was on the way back after stopping off at the local pub for some lunch that I turned to my partner and asked: “How are you feeling?” We’d both been lost in our own thoughts for most of the walk – nothing unusual; we are both quiet, reflective walkers. The difference today is that my partner has been struggling with her mood for the last few weeks.
“I was just thinking how easy it would be for me to just climb over the railing and jump off this bridge”.
My heart sank. This was the second time in the last few weeks my partner had intimated that she had been thinking about taking her own life.
This is a feature of her being depressed. It’s a sign that she is struggling to cope with her mood. Her thoughts of worthlessness and being a burden are completely unfounded, but the deception of the illness is real and strong at times like this. The worry for me isn’t just that she is drifting into a distant, messed up version of reality, unable to see how much she is valued, respected and loved, but it is also that the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol is too much to resist. She’d had a glass of wine with her lunch. Perhaps not enough to impact on her thoughts too much, but the effects of alcohol are strongly linked to impulsive behaviour and… suicide.
I know a lot about suicide and how to help. You’d think that what my partner just said wouldn’t impact so much. It did, and it does – every time.
I feel useless - a fraud even. The fact that she wants to die and leave me, her family, friends and colleagues is upsetting. I say nothing for a long moment not knowing what to say, and trying not to say what I know is unhelpful. I can see how easy it is to immediately react and say something that is nothing more than a projection of how I am feeling. I can’t remember what I said to break the silence. It was supportive and calm even, though inside I felt anxious, sad, and… helpless.
Helpless… It is comforting and hopeful to know that when you interact, engage and connect with someone, thoughts of suicide dissipate. The problem is depression. That doesn’t dissipate so easily. The worry I feel will be constant until my partner recovers - and that could be weeks or months. I may have averted the worst this time, but what about next time?
Support and honesty is how we cope with this. There are tell tale signs that alert us to the depression returning, and we are learning to spot these sooner (with life so unpredictable, we are always learning). We are also more able to talk about (di)stress and identifying things that could trigger the illness if not dealt with. I say ‘we’ because the journey through depression to recovery is a collaboration between the both of us - we ‘look out’ for each other, a fundamental part of our relationship.
Looking out for my partner is how I would also describe my relationship to her depression. It is a very different position to that of ‘carer’, the accepted term for someone who supports a loved one with an illness or disability. I love and ‘care’ very much for my partner, but not in a caring role way. My partner is quite capable of looking after herself, even in depression. She just wants to be understood with time and support to recover. I ‘look out’ for her by being there when she needs me to help her through the dark moments.
My partner looks out for me by being honest about how she is feeling and what she is thinking. It’s tough to hear her talk about how depression distorts her world and it is devastating when I hear the words “I want to end my life”. Just knowing what she is thinking and how she is feeling, however, helps me to have a sense of control over a faceless, intangible entity. I feel more able to support her, and recovery it seems is quicker because we’ve dealt with it early on.
Depression is likely to visit us again in the future, but together we will be ready to ensure it doesn’t stay too long.