When Jaimie and I got married, she had been clinically depressed for at least six months; perhaps even as far back as the beginning of our ten and a half month engagement. (I was aware of this; she was in denial.) Four months after we got back from our honeymoon, she confessed to me that she no longer wanted be alive. The two and a half years since then have been a bumpy road, but by the grace of God we’re still here and doing well. Things are better now—not perfect, but better.
There are some resources out there—not enough, but some—for people walking through depression. There are far fewer for the people walking alongside them: a role that is, in many ways, just as difficult. To watch as a beloved family member—especially a spouse—deals with depression is incredibly painful and difficult. There is an enormous sense of powerlessness and frustration. We are often at a loss for words, for deeds, for any response at all. We desperately want to help, and most often find there is nothing we can do but pray. It is hard, and lonely, and people will sympathize with you even less than they do with your spouse.
So perhaps some of what I learned about walking alongside your spouse when he or she is struggling with depression will help others.
You are not the hero of this story. Jesus is. The sooner you get that, the sooner you’ll have any chance at all of really helping your spouse in this time.
The hard reality—and the good reality—is that, much as we want to, we cannot fix our spouse’s depression. No words, no encouragement, no number of chores taken up on their behalf will do the trick. There is no switch to flip, no magic incantation to take away the darkness. That doesn’t make those things meaningless. Your spouse needs every bit of help you can give. But operate with no illusions: you will not make your husband or wife better with those actions.
This is freeing, really. You can simply do your best every moment, and trust that God is bigger and greater and capable of doing all you cannot do. You can’t carry her; don’t try. Do what you can do.
Love unconditionally—really unconditionally. Pray like crazy, and all the time. Remind your spouse of the gospel: all that God has done on her behalf, all that he is doing in the world, all that he will do in the end. Remind him of God’s incredible love, poured out on his behalf. Remind her that he made her, that he delights in her, that she reflects his glory, that she is precious in his sight. Remind him that Jesus died on his behalf and now lives on his behalf, always praying for him.
You might notice a theme: it’s the gospel. There is no other message your spouse needs more. He or she may not seem like she hears it, and you will be frustrated that your words don’t seem to be getting through. Remember: you don’t change anyone’s heart, you can’t restore anyone’s brain chemistry, and you can’t save your spouse. Only God can do that. It’s no less true of depression than of any other consequence of the fall.
And here’s the real trick: you need the gospel in the midst of this just as badly as your spouse does. He or she is too great a burden for you to bear, and you will find yourself creaking and eventually breaking under the strain if you do not daily cast yourself on the mercies of God in Christ Jesus. Your sin will come rearing up, fierce and ugly, and you must gut it with the bright sword of a deeper affection for Jesus. Our culture says you need to love yourself, and that’s a load of nonsense; but you do need to make sure that you are seeking God for yourself. If you don’t, you will not have anything to give to your spouse.
You must come to a point where you see God himself as better than anything else, because otherwise you will go crazy. If you set your identity in your marriage, you will break under the strain. If you set it in your job or your hobbies, you will fail your spouse in the moment when she needs you most. God alone is great enough to satisfy your soul.
Day to day
The fact that the day-to-day things won’t get your spouse out of depression don’t make them unimportant. My role, I discovered, was oriented less around providing solutions to problems than to removing obstacles from Jaimie’s path so she could focus on getting better. Small tasks, however trivial for a mentally healthy person, can become enormous in the eyes of a person struggling with depression. When Jaimie was in the darkest points of her depressions, she never did the dishes. The thought overwhelmed her. So I did them, every night, regardless of who made dinner.
The particulars will vary immensely. Maybe it’s dusting; maybe it’s changing the baby’s diapers. Maybe it’s just getting out of the house on a regular basis. Maybe it’s having the freedom to go hang out with a few friends while someone else takes care of the errands. Maybe it’s having company instead of running errands alone. I have no idea what your spouse needs, and he or she may not either.
You’re going to have to learn to pay even more attention to your spouse. What stresses him? What relaxes her? What encourages him? What recharges her? Find ways to make those things happen, at great cost to yourself if need be. Jesus died to show us his love; we now get to die to show our spouses his love.
I haven’t the space to make a robust defense of the notion that medication for mental health is a biblical option. For now, suffice it to say I have no doubts on the matter. It is true that secular approaches sometimes medicate without addressing the real issue; but we might say much the same about secular “talk therapy.” Medication is not a silver bullet, and it does not always address the issues.
On the other hand, a stubborn unwillingness to deal with physiological contributions is just stupid. We are not souls that simply inhabit bodies; we are our bodies. (The view that we are our souls, and simply inhabit and use our bodies like tools is called instrumentalism, and I think it thoroughly wrong. Lengthy tomes have been written on this; I will sum up with a single, provocative question: If we are merely inhabiting our bodies but are actually spiritual, why did Christ keep his resurrection body, and why we will be raised physically from the dead?)
So, then, our spiritual health can affect our bodies and our physical health can affect us spiritually. Many Christians (especially many well-intended pastors) make the mistake of attributing all depression to spiritual causes. If we could just get at the sin issue at the bottom of this, such Christians think, the depression would be healed. Alas: it is not so simple. Sin is at the bottom of depression, it is true, but often not in the specific ways this approach things. Many times, sin is at the root of depression in the same way that it is at the root of the flu.
In Jaimie’s life, depression highlighted sin issues that existed, but it was not triggered by sin issues. Rather, it was brought on by a combination of circumstances and a biological predisposition—a particularly rough year her sophomore year of college, and a family history of depression and other mental illnesses. Within a month or so of getting on an anti-depressant, Jaimie went from thinking daily about how she didn’t want to be alive to simply being very, very down. Thoughts of suicide ended. Within six months, she was clearly on an upward trajectory. After a year, the good days outnumbered the bad. After 18 months, days of depression were not rare, but not typical either. After two years, depressive days were a major annoyance that cropped up every few weeks.
Was she dealing with her heart along the way? Definitely. But she was also on good medication, with few side effects, that made an enormous difference. It didn’t heal her. But it gave her the ground she needed to be able to heal. Think of medication like leg braces during a lengthy rehabilitation: hopefully they go away, but you might need them for a while just to get back on your feet.
Don’t walk alone
You need friends to get through this. I mean it. You cannot do this alone. Your spouse needs friends to support her and encourage her and just be there for her. You need friends who are outside of the situation and to whom you can simply vent, who will understand that it is hard even if they cannot perfectly empathize.
You both need help. Neither of you is strong enough or big enougho carry the weight of depression with other believers to help you. Find a good local church, and dive in, deep. If you have close friends out of town, call them, Skype with them, text them, do whatever it takes to stay in contact. If need be move across the country to be with them. That sounds crazy, but real Christian fellowship is, in the end, far more important than whatever care opportunity or living situation you currently have.
Think hard about seeing a good, Godly counselor. Christians who understand the spiritual and physical components of depression can be real life-savers (and I mean that literally in this case). They can help tease out the roots of the depression if they are spiritual, and they can help identify when the problem is primarily physiological. They can offer great insight into changing our thoughts and emotional habits (and we can do more to influence than we often realize).
Set your eyes not only on the cross of Christ, but on his resurrection. The years of darkness that lie behind us forced me to dig deeper on this fundamental truth of our faith: this is not all that is, not all that is meant to be. We look forward to these bodies no longer being subject to the Fall and the Curse. We look forward to brains that no longer suffer broken chemistry, to hormonally-driven emotions that no longer surge and overwhelm the truth. We look forward to resurrection in glorified bodies that shine with the light of Christ. Jesus has gone before us, enduring the suffering of death but now seated, triumphant, in resurrected, perfected flesh.
I look forward to the day Jaimie and I stand before the throne of God worshipping together, all this dark road only one more picture of God’s all-sufficient love, overwhelming grace, and supreme value.
This post, even at some 2000 words, is hardly exhaustive. It is barely an introduction to the lessons I have learned in the last two years. I will probably come back to the topic at various times in the future, because this is a hard thing, and it is far more common than people know. In the meantime, however, if you are a guy walking through this with your wife and just need to talk or need to hear the gospel preached to you right where you are or just have someone understand, I invite you to send me an email (chris at chriskrycho dot com). I’ll pray for you, I’ll correspond with you as much as time allows, and I’ll try to help point you to good resources. (Ladies, if I find someone who would be willing to do the same for you, I’ll put you in touch with them; you’ll understand if I’m not up for an extended email conversation with someone of the opposite sex in an emotionally difficult position in her marriage.)