Real Story: Partner with depression

Davina, 42, is married to Doug, 43. They have three sons 11, 9 and 5. They both now work as teachers.

I first met Doug at a barbecue in Balham and, six months later, we went on our first date. I haven’t thought about that meeting for  years, but now it’s made me wonder whether I would have changed anything if I’d known how profoundly Doug’s depression was going to affect our relationship, our families, our friends, our social lives, our careers and our children.

Eighteen months after that date, Doug moved into my flat in Clapham and soon after I witnessed his first episode of depression. We were planning to buy our first place together, Doug had been made redundant so was doing temporary work and was preparing to be best man for a close friend. All this triggered such a morose, tearful and negative state of mind that I realised it was more serious than anything I’d seen before. People say ‘We all have our down days’, but this was in a different league.

He eventually went to the GP who referred him for counselling, while I made a call to Doug’s brother, a doctor, who promised to contact him. By the time he called, Doug had news of a permanent job, the depression had lifted and our lives quickly bounced back to the daily commute, the pub garden and friends’ weddings. Looking back, I think we must have buried the memory as it seemed inconceivable that people could suffer from this regularly.

As our relationship became more long-term it was punctuated with dramatic mood swings and vicious arguments. This worried me during the build-up to our own wedding but I put it down to us both having explosive tempers and, at that stage, I always remembered the gentle, hilarious man I’d met 5 years before.

I’d always wanted three children and Doug was such a great uncle that I knew he was going to be a fantastic father. But as we approached the end of my first pregnancy and we moved into a new house, he was hit by another episode. A new-born baby was my idea of heaven but it seemed to be Doug’s very own hell.

This was one of those defining moments people talk about – I became angry and resentful about him spoiling this special time and have never really got over that. The stress of a new house, witnessing a 32-hour labour and coping with a screaming baby with an undiagnosed tongue-tie deepened his depression. Looking back, Doug’s mum recognised he was having problems but he wouldn’t talk openly to her for fear of being told to pull himself together and get on with it.

I wanted to be able to cope but I couldn’t, and I wanted to ask for help but wasn’t sure whether, as a family, we were ill enough to deserve it. Midwives and health visitors don’t spend too much time with middle-class parents who have large extended families. We’ve got degrees and qualifications and we’re all supposed to be achieving more than our parents.

Falling victim to a mind-altering, personality-changing condition wasn’t part of the deal, particularly when all around  us, our peers were fulfilling expectations. We’d all turn up to dinner parties with tiny babies in car seats and congratulate each other on surviving parenthood. And this is what everyone believed was true for us, because mental health has always been so heavily stigmatised, misunderstood and locked away.

By the time Doug’s mum died in her sleep 3 months later, Doug had emerged from his state of hopelessness. He was very sad but surprisingly calm about her death, and he had started to enjoy being a dad. It made us realise that the depression would lift in only a few days, just as quickly as it descended.

Our second son arrived with the onslaught of more doom, desperation, tears and frustration. Such an episode would be characterised by: Doug going to sleep with the boys by 8pm while I watched TV on my own every evening; Doug waking in the early hours and having a near-panic attack before leaving for work each morning;  at the weekend, Doug rocking backwards and forwards on the sofa in disbelief and fear.

I would cancel our social calendar or go to events on my own or, on the rare occasion we tried to have people over, he’d often disappear to bed before they had gone. After about three months, Doug would emerge from the literal darkness (he describes it as seeing everything leeched of  colour) and expect his immediate elation to be shared by the rest of us.

I had a delayed reaction to my father’s death which fuelled even more anger and resentment between the two of us as I was miserable and Doug wanted to grab every bit of happiness when he could.  Unfortunately our boys have borne witness to many rows triggered by my anger and Doug’s denial of the illness.

When Doug made the decision to re-train as a primary school teacher, we both thought the illness would become a bad memory. It seemed to make complete sense that he should leave the office jobs he hated and find his true vocation. But the high stress levels of teaching, an undiagnosed mental illness and inadequate medication prompted yet more periods of illness. During all these roller-coaster years, Doug had only taken one week of sick leave.

The beginning of the new school year saw the onset of Doug’s complete mental breakdown, which included 8 months as an in-patient in NHS psychiatric wards and an 18-month absence from work. Finally, in 2011, Doug was given a diagnosis of Bipolar II and now takes 10 tablets a day including 2 anti-depressants and lithium.

During Doug’s breakdown, I looked after our 3 boys, organised their counselling, visited Doug in hospital, attended his weekly consultant-led meetings, sought medical second opinions and turned up every day at my new job. It wasn’t until very recently that I have had time to ask for my own professional help.

Over the years, I have relied on a close network of local friends, constant phone calls and visits from family and supportive messages from friends further afield. In fact, I was hugely relieved that we had never moved out of London as we planned – Doug’s illness had persuaded us to stay put as I needed to be near people I could talk to when he was unwell.

In hindsight, we needed more professional intervention at a much earlier stage and for too many years we didn’t shout honestly or loudly enough. My growing resentment left Doug on his own with his illness when I should have gone with him to all doctors’ appointments.

While I was caring for him in a practical way, we stopped being a couple and tried to fight the effects of the illness from different perspectives. I should have found counselling for myself, but instead I wanted to prove my strength and ability to cope. Friends were a great comfort but professional advice would have given me confidence and hope.

Maybe something as simple as an open chat with his mum just after our first son was born could have confirmed our suspicion of his illness because his father suffered with similar symptoms. Hereditary and genes are believed to be a possible cause and knowledge of this may have influenced Doug’s early treatment. But his parents were part of the generation who would never speak of such things.

On the BBC news this morning, I saw a grieving father say that some health authorities won’t treat anorexia until the person has gone down to a specific weight. Mental health seems to work along the same lines – you have to be in a truly desperate and unsafe situation to receive appropriate specialist care. And yet no-one would tolerate cancer sufferers being treated at such a late stage.

I wouldn’t change anything about my first meeting with Doug or our marriage and our sons. If I was given that time again, I would have made a massive nuisance of myself with the medical profession and been unashamedly clear that depression is a family affair.

For now, Doug is well, back in his full-time teaching role (with different responsibilities) and our family seems to be in remission – long may it last.