As Charlie gradually accepted that he suffered with depression and anxiety, we began to talk more about his experience, the particular challenges he faced, how we were going to tackle it together, and what sort of support he felt he needed.
Naturally, increasing amounts of our conversation and relationship and lifestyle became focused on these issues.
Whilst obviously concerned, upset to watch him struggle so much, and committed to helping him reach a place of greater wholeness, the weight of his struggles naturally began to bear down on me. Working together increased this – taking on extra responsibilities, extra shifts in the West End and holding the fort when he needed to retreat.
Having kids only added to this dynamic, and the weight of responsibility for their care would overwhelmingly fall to me. Initially, these added practical tasks were easily absorbed into the treadmill of the day, but over time, I began to accrue a sense of exhaustion. I never felt I could have an ‘off day’ – I dreaded being ill or needing to take time for anything outside of family life, as needing to rely on Charlie for childcare lasting more than a few hours brought anxiety for me in terms of how he would manage them, and feel in himself, at the end of it.
Emotionally, it was trickier to navigate. About four years ago, when Charlie was in one of his most prolonged periods of darkness, (blog can be found here) it felt like I was surrounded by his negative thinking all the time. Each time he came home, he would offload however he felt, and whilst wanting to listen and be supportive, I was beginning to feel angry and tired of being the black hole who absorbed all of his negativity. I spoke to my supervisor (who I had for work and was a lifeline), and she told me straight up to put in some boundaries and tell him he had to find someone else to offload to.
It felt like a risky but liberating move…I remember saying exactly that to Charlie the next time he came in the flat and began to offload. He looked at me, shocked, a bit upset, but clearly understood that I was serious. And for me, I felt empowered in managing my level of engagement. I also realised that if I was going to be genuinely supportive, I had to work out and put in some effective boundaries to keep me safe and well, and to keep Charlie’s depression, anxiety and anger, exactly that – Charlie’s!!
Being able to internally and externally clarify what was Charlie’s issue and what was mine, what was his responsibility and what was mine, has been really challenging, and really helpful. Knowing that I can’t control Charlie but I can control my life, and my engagement in his challenges, helped to stop being drawn into his dark and worried thinking. It was finally putting an ultimate boundary in that brought his issues to a head, and prised open the opportunity for real change.
Boundaries are healthy but can be scary, because it involves acknowledging that you cannot control the other person, which is often the most attractive route. But control is not love, and does not produce change…it only heightens the feelings of anxiety and anger they feel. Whilst refusing to get drawn into their thinking patterns, and refusing to accept damaging behaviour as a result of their struggles, may feel unloving, uncaring, cold or distant to them, I think it’s the most loving, appropriate and kind response in maintaining a marriage, a friendship, an affection in the middle of struggle.
This is so hard to do in any relationship, but in a marriage it feels particularly difficult, and I often didn’t manage it very well. A book that really helped me was Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend, for anyone interested in reading more along these lines. Liberating, empowering and wise counsel for all relationships, whether or not mental and emotional health issues are part of the picture.