Depression Stole the Girl I Loved; Mental Illness Takes Almost as Big a Toll on Carers as on Victims. Here, One Writer Tells of the Anguish of Watching His Wife's Decline - and the Joy of Her First Steps to Recovery

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

Depression Stole the Girl I Loved; Mental Illness Takes Almost as Big a Toll on Carers as on Victims. Here, One Writer Tells of the Anguish of Watching His Wife's Decline - and the Joy of Her First Steps to Recovery


Byline: Oliver Tims

The Government's publication of a ten-year strategy for dealing with mental health has pushed depression to the top of the health hit-list. Not before time: according to Government research, mental illness accounts for a greater burden of disease than any other condition, and one in six people suffers from depression or anxiety.

The strategy focuses on how to broaden approaches and attitudes to mental health. As someone who has seen the effects of depression close up, I welcome it. If it increases understanding of this devastating illness, life will become a bit easier for sufferers and their carers. And if it makes people more receptive to discussing depression, it will provide people like me with a valuable outlet.

Many people refer to depression as a 'black dog'. But black dogs are appealing, life-enhancing - everything that depression is not. The experience of depression is tough, and not just for the depressed. My wife Anna suffered from severe depression for nearly two years and I suffered it, differently, alongside her. Give me a black labrador any day.

All too often, people in my situation are left to cope as best they can. At the time, I would have welcomed a blunt account of a carer's emotional reaction to their situation to help gauge my own.

So, what is it like, coping as a husband and carer? I never doubted that we would get through it, but back then all I could do was to take each day at a time and do my plodding best. Looking back, I see myself as a jumble of emotions, anxious to do the right thing, be a good husband, but fighting my own feelings of desperation and resentment.

It's painful to watch someone consumed by an invisible burden. It's difficult to keep cheerful and understanding in the face of irrationality and unpredictability. And, hardest of all, it's lonely.

Depression took away the person I knew and replaced her with someone who seemed unreasonable, erratic - maddening. It even changed the way Anna looked. In my low moments, I mourned for the girl I loved: beautiful, warm, keenly intelligent and immensely capable. 'I'm still me,' Anna would say. Yes, but often I couldn't see her or reach her.

Hence the loneliness. And I felt I could not turn to others for help: talking about our situation would have felt grossly disloyal. Family and friends were understanding, but I felt I couldn't express my feelings without insulting my wife. Even now, writing this, those feelings of disloyalty are uncomfortably close.

So I expressed my negative feelings only to myself. Admitting them in all their uncaring pettiness was my coping mechanism; mentally indulging my resentments, frustrations and fears was my emotional outlet.

'Every year more than two million people become carers,' says Alison Cobb, senior policy and campaigns officer for the mental health charity Mind. 'Those looking after people with mental health problems report higher levels of mental distress than other carers. Not only do they have to bear the emotional difficulties of caring for a loved one, but balancing care with a full-time job and coping with financial difficulties can bring their own stress.'

It was small comfort to know that I was not alone. Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK, affecting nearly ten per cent of adults, according to Mind. The World Health Organization predicts that depression will be the secondlargest single cause of ill health by 2020. That means that the number of carers coping with depression is set to soar.

Before Anna's illness, I assumed depression was triggered suddenly by difficult circumstances or traumatic events. And what had we to be depressed about? We were lucky.

We had met at university in 1993, when I was 23 and she 21. We married in 1998 and forged interesting, rewarding careers - mine in arts PR and publications, hers as a diabetes clinical nurse specialist, managing a challenging caseload.

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