A letter from Dolly Powell (Terry’s wife) to a friend who sought her input.
You asked me how I deal with my husband’s depression.
I’m happy to share my thoughts and experiences, but I’ll say right from the start that one’s God-given temperament may dramatically affect how she handles a depressed husband. If I were melancholy and highly sensitive like Terry, it would probably be a lot harder for me, as well as for him. But God blessed me with a phlegmatic temperament and I seldom get too high or too low emotionally. Turk (that’s my nickname for him) says that I am more of a thermostat than a thermometer. A thermometer merely registers or reflects the temperature in the house, whereas a thermostat controls or regulates it. I’m grateful to God that I don’t get “down” when he does, nor anxious when he tends to be. He says that my optimistic and cheerful spirit helps to maintain a positive atmosphere in our home, especially on those days when he’s despondent. But I think the tips I’ll give don’t depend on having any particular temperament. Of course, I’ve learned these suggestions the hard way, and I apply them better now than I did at first.
- Realize that a depressed spouse often needs more help than his married partner can give. That shouldn’t discourage you; it’s just realism. Years ago, when I feared Terry was suicidal, I called our pastor and another close friend of Terry’s for an intervention. They both met with him the next day, at different times. The pastor pleaded with him to seek medical intervention, and Terry heeded his counsel when my suggestion to do so had been unsuccessful. The antidepressant he began taking brought several years of dramatic improvement. The other friend sat by Terry’s side for two hours and assured him of his love for and commitment to him. I could tell that their coming alongside him boosted Terry’s spirit and instilled hope within him.
- Take any mention of suicide seriously. When Terry first said he wanted to die, I didn’t hesitate to get others involved. Though Terry didn’t get upset that I’d asked two friends to intervene, even if he had been angry with me, it would have still been the right thing to do. I’d rather he get upset at me than to lose him!
- Don’t feel guilty or responsible for his depression. Depression is a complex problem for which there isn’t always a simple explanation. Terry often can’t identify a reason for a depressive episode. Depression and severe anxiety run in Terry’s family line, so there’s likely a genetic component. I’m secure in the fact that nothing I have said or done causes it, so I don’t add the weight of false guilt to my load, nor should you.
- I don’t say or do anything that causes him to feel shame or unspiritual because of his depression. I view my husband as a spiritually mature man who lives out his faith in Christ well. He’d be the first to admit that dark moods negatively affect his relationships and his self-image at times, but he is a generous person who perseveres in his ministry of teaching and writing. In his case, I believe that victorious Christian living is seen in how he battles depression with God’s Word, prayer and fellowship with good friends. His faith means he doesn’t stop fighting dark moods, and he keeps serving others no matter how he feels on any given day. Terry’s faith hasn’t ended his depression, but it certainly sustains him through it.
- Remind your husband of positive traits you see in him and ways in which he is contributing to you, your children and to others through any ministry that he has. Depression breeds negative thinking, and in many cases self-condemnation. I try to counter that in Terry by reminding him of the letters he gets from former students who are using his training, and of the gratitude expressed by readers of his books and blog. I remind him of how our grandson adores him, and how Tate will always remember the times his Papaw played ball in the park with him despite severe back pain. I tell him why I would miss him if he weren’t around and thank him for the “day dates” he began taking with me. I say that I admire him for persevering through depression and not giving up.
- I make myself available when he needs to talk. Terry keeps a lot inside, so when he does open up, I stop cooking, playing the piano or scrolling on Facebook and go sit beside him. I don’t usually say much, but I do hold him when he weeps.
- I don’t offer him superficial solutions for overcoming depression. I don’t glibly quote Bible verses to him about joy or faith. He already knows and has often memorized any verse I could quote him, anyway. I don’t say “Cheer up! You’ll feel better tomorrow!” because I’m not sure he will feel better tomorrow. Sometimes his bleak episodes last for days.
- I pray for him, asking God to give some relief and to strengthen him for his teaching and writing opportunities. Occasionally, I’ll text him to let him know that I prayed for him that morning.
- I don’t let Terry get away with disrespectful behavior toward me or using a harsh tone of voice when speaking to me. When he’s depressed, and especially when it’s accompanied by fatigue, he has a tendency to be edgy and impatient with me. He may complain because I didn’t have time to walk our dog, or because I’m later than usual with supper. When that happens, I confront him on the spot. I don’t raise my voice, but I say something like, “You owe me an apology. I realize that you’re having a rough day, but there’s no excuse for speaking to me that way.” When I do, he’s quick to apologize, but it is a dangerous pattern if I “let the sun go down on my anger” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Keeping my frustration inside would spawn resentment and cause me to overreact to him about a different matter the next day.
- If your husband hasn’t had a complete physical, including a full blood panel, I’d encourage it. Unless there is a long history of depression in him or his family, a downward mood spiral can be caused by physical conditions, such as thyroid problems or diabetes. And if he hasn’t seen a Christian counselor who specializes in treating depression, I’d recommend that, too. If he’s hesitant, offer to go with him. As I mentioned earlier, Terry sought medical intervention as well as counseling only when his pastor strongly encouraged it. Our pastor urged him to get help as a way to show love to me and to our two young boys. Do you know a friend or leader who your husband respects who could encourage him to get similar help?
- I stay busy with my own work, ministry and friendships so my life doesn’t revolve totally around Terry. As church pianist, I practice every day. I strive to keep growing spiritually by attending a weekly Bible study for women that requires daily homework. I regularly meet friends for lunch. And I stay busy by doing all the grocery shopping and most of the housework (though Terry often washes the dishes after supper). If I don’t stay spiritually healthy and balanced, I probably couldn’t cope as well as I do with Terry’s depression.
Ellen, I’m sure I don’t apply perfectly all the tips I mentioned, but I hope something I said helps you. I know that God can help us both love our husbands better and more intelligently if we lean on Him. I promise to pray for you and your husband.
With love and prayers, Dolly
If you are a wife or husband whose spouse suffers with depression, what will you do differently as a result of reading this letter? Which tip should you apply without delay?
Do you know someone whose spouse wrestles with depression? Will you route this letter to her or to him today?
This post is a revised version of an article that first appeared in 2018 in Just Between Us, a Christian women’s periodical. JBU is an outstanding Bible-based magazine with articles and stories to help women reach their potential as Christ-followers.