Honest reflections about marriage and mission work when dealing with the anxiety and depression

  • Abby Clayton

Releasing the Grip

I wonder if you’ve ever had to grip so hard to something that it hurt? I wonder if you’ve had to carry something for so long that it has left marks on your hands?

I remember shopping as a student without a car and walking back to my house carrying heavy shopping bags, and by the time I got home, my hands ached, my arms ached, my back ached, and the red lines over my hands from where I was holding the bags felt sore. Letting the bag down and unclenching my gripped hands was painful and a relief all at the same time.

When you have been bearing someone else’s burdens for a long time, it can begin to ache. No matter how strong, how resilient, how understanding you are; no matter how hard you work to help the sufferer, or how much you shape life to make it easier all round, eventually, the strain of bearing the burden leaves its mark.

For a while I don’t think I realised the strain I was feeling in living with and supporting Charlie’s anxiety and anger. It was just how things were, and with no real hope of things changing, I just got used to gripping the burden I was carrying. In terms of supporting someone with mental health struggles, I found that gripping the burden was really about taking control. But not just taking it, gripping it.

So often for Charlie, life in his head felt out-of-control and chaotic, and whilst most of this was contained in him, it inevitably spilled over into the atmosphere and ways of functioning in family life and our relationship. Over time, I began to lose the ability to make healthy assumptions about how Charlie might think, feel or respond emotionally in any given situation. I learned about anxiety and depression as best I could, and learn specifically how it impacted Charlie, but this very learning showed me that he would often not be able to filter his clouded thinking so it wouldn’t settle in some way on the rest of us. Anxiety doesn’t compartmentalise. Living on egg shells is a sure sign that chaotic or troubling emotions are not under control, and so in that situation, the best way to cope for me, and for the sake of the emotional well-being of the family, and even for Charlie’s well-being, was to take some control.

And for many years, in many ways, retaining a degree of control over aspects of our life saved us and kept us going. But as the grip tightened in trying to keep life together, the strain naturally increased to an unbearable degree.

When the bag finally broke and the shopping spilled out everywhere, there was distress and relief. Such relief to know that whatever happened, I would not have to carry that heavy bag in the same way again. But interestingly, it has and is taking me a long time to learn to live without the heavy bag. It has taken months for me to relax – physically, emotionally, mentally, even spiritually – and uncoil the grip on life that I held for so long.

What served us well for a long time previously, now is not needed – and if I continued to grip onto control as I had to before, it would now become an issue for our marriage and home life.

As Charlie arrived at a place of healing and continues to live into that, I am also having to adjust and make changes to leave behind old coping strategies and embrace the risk of living without them. It is constant learning and adjustments, constant letting go of old habits and trusting Charlie emotionally in a way that was largely impossible during the years of depression and anger. The uncoiling of a gripped hand leaves it open again to receive. Holding, not gripping, the uncurling is into openness to a more trusting relationship and a more rested way of life.

Distressing at times, even painful, but such a relief and a necessary letting go in the healing of our marriage from the imbalance that the years created.

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