Spotlight on Women's Health
An Interview About Being With Someone Through Depression: Anne Wheaton
May 31, 2014
Studies have found that depression is more common in women than men. But we don't know whether depression is really less common in men. It may be that men experience depression differently than women and are less likely to recognize and seek help for depression. Men are more likely to feel empty, physically tired, and uninterested in things they used to enjoy. They also may become frustrated, irritable, discouraged, and angry. Because these symptoms are not what we commonly think of as “depression,” men may not always get help when they need it.
For three years, Anne Wheaton watched her husband, Wil Wheaton, struggle with anger, self-doubt, sadness, and hopelessness. He didn't know why he was experiencing these feelings — feelings that affected not only his life, but Anne's, too. For Men's Health Month, read on to learn how Anne's husband's depression affected their relationship and why he decided to get help.
Anne Wheaton lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two cats, and three dogs. She is a member of the Board of Directors for the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA, a nonprofit organization. She blogs at annewheaton.com and is on Twitter @AnneWheaton.
Q: How long have you been with your husband?
A: Wil and I have been married for 15 years, together for 18.
Q: What were his first symptoms of depression and how did they progress?
A: When Wil and I first met, he was 23 and I was 26. When Wil was 27, we met with a therapist because he was feeling sad. We were about to get married, so we wanted to talk with someone to make sure these feelings weren't a result of something in our relationship. We decided that they weren't, but the therapist was concerned that it might be depression. Wil figured the feelings would pass, which they mostly did. But by the time he was 33, the feelings of sadness turned into insecurity and self-doubt about his life, his career, and his ability to be a good parent to our boys and a good partner in our marriage. He also developed irrational anger toward the most random things: the computer not working right, sitting in traffic, even driving over a pothole. He would never, ever yell at me, our kids, or our pets. It was always at things that seemed irrational to be mad at. When it escalated to the point that he didn't want to leave our house, I knew something was really wrong.
Q: Can you explain how the changes in your husband's behavior affected you and your relationship?
A: As Wil's depression got worse, I felt like I couldn't say or do much to help him. He stopped wanting to visit friends, because he didn't want to deal with sitting in traffic. Eventually, I started visiting them without him, because I missed them and missed going out after so many times of choosing to stay home with Wil instead. When Wil would get really angry at whatever inanimate thing upset him, I would ask him not to yell, partly because I didn't want him to scare our pets, but more importantly, I didn't want our kids to grow up thinking this was acceptable behavior. I began to feel like my desire to help him was turning into enabling. It really upset me to see Wil slowly become this sad, anxious, angry person instead of someone enjoying his life.
Q: When did you realize your husband needed to get help?
A: About five years ago, Wil was set to perform at sold-out shows in Minneapolis and Chicago with our friends, Paul and Storm, in a sort of nerd vaudeville-style show called “w00tstock.” When we arrived at the airport, the airline check-in area was packed with people. Wil was so anxious about making our flight on time that he asked an attendant how long the wait would be. The attendant was really rude and dismissive and told him there was no way we'd make our flight, so we should just reschedule. Wil was so full of anxiety and frustration that he just wanted to go home. As often as I caved to this behavior with Wil, I knew this was not an option this time. And honestly, I was so tired of missing out on things because of his feeling this way. I walked him over to a bench, sat him down, and told him I would call customer service to get us new flights. But the minute we got home from our trip, he needed to talk to someone to get help, because neither one of us could live with his behavior anymore. He completely agreed, and while I was on the phone with customer service in the airport, he actually called to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist for the following week.
Q: How did he react when you suggested he visit a health care professional?
A: Wil was aware of his anxiety, anger, and his feelings of sadness and insecurity. But I think we both had gotten so used to me handling everything that we didn't realize how bad he was feeling and how negatively it was affecting me. We talked about it a lot over the next few days while we were traveling, so he was looking forward to getting home and seeing the psychiatrist (and, later, to talk to a psychologist) to get to the root of the problem.
Q: What changes did you notice following your husband's diagnosis?
A: During his first visit with the psychiatrist, Wil was very surprised to hear that his symptoms were signs of depression. Neither one of us had considered depression, since we assumed depression meant deep sadness and the inability to get out of bed every day. He learned that depression affects people in different ways, and so does medication to treat it. The psychiatrist wanted him to take medication and to talk to me about how he was feeling in between visits with the doctor, because some medications could make symptoms worse. He told Wil that it would take about three weeks for the medication to get into his system and for him to fully feel the effects, but that he should start noticing a difference in a few days. After only three days on the medication, Wil could really tell it was helping. Over that first week, he told me countless times that he had no idea how awful he felt until he began to feel better after starting the medication. It was the best thing for him, and for us.
Q: How does he manage his symptoms?
A: About a year ago, after several stressful weeks of work commitments and not sleeping well, those old symptoms Wil used to have started to re-emerge. He felt like the medication wasn't working for him anymore, so he went back to the psychiatrist, who increased the dosage he was taking. It helped for a few months, but he was still feeling like something wasn't quite right, so he went back to the doctor. This time, the doctor added a new medication to what Wil was already taking. The doctor said the combination of the two work really well together, and he was right. He explained to Wil that the brain is a complicated organ and that medication adjustments may be necessary throughout his life.
Q: Since your husband started receiving treatment, how has your life together changed?
A: Ever since Wil got on medication and spent some time talking with a therapist, our life together has been so much better. Even though we've been together for 18 years, we feel closer now than when we first started dating. Our kids are now grown and out on their own, so we travel together all the time for work and for fun, little vacations. Wil occasionally has a day here or there when the depression gets bad and he has overwhelming feelings of self-doubt or lacks motivation. When that happens, we go for a long walk together and make sure he eats well and gets good sleep, and it passes.
Q: Your husband is a well-known actor and writer who has been very open about his depression. Why do you think it's important he shares his story with others?
A: For so long, depression seemed to be a thing that was more common in women than men. I don't know if that was because more women were talking about it than men, or if it was because what we perceive as telltale signs of depression are only a small fraction of how many different symptoms there actually are. It seems that depression can affect men much differently than women, so Wil wanted to talk about it openly because he knows first-hand how much better he feels as a result of just asking for help. He wants to remove the unnecessary and dangerous stigma our society seems to have when it comes to talking about and treating mental illness. When more people share their symptoms and what they did to get help, the more it will help others see in themselves what they may not have otherwise known was a problem and talk to their doctor about it.
Q: What advice would you give to other women who may be living with someone struggling with symptoms of depression?
A: It is never easy to see a loved one struggle, especially when it comes to depression or any other mental illness. If we had only known Wil was suffering from depression all those years, I would have encouraged him to see a doctor long before he finally did. If your loved one were diabetic or had a heart problem, they'd seek medical help immediately. The brain is just another organ that, for some people, may need a little help to function properly. Getting help for depression is nothing to be ashamed of or to feel too prideful to do. You get one life, so you should do anything and everything you can to live it to its full potential.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
A: I wrote a blog post about being married to a person with depression, because people asked me all the time what it was like for me. After I published the post, I had so many people either tell me they had the same symptoms as Wil but didn't know it was depression, or people who said they showed the post to their loved one to help them see that they needed to get help. The best thing was when Wil's own sister told me she read my post and realized that she had the exact same symptoms as Wil. She immediately saw a doctor who put her on the same medication as Wil, and she feels so much better. I am so grateful that Wil and I are able to share our experiences both as a person who has depression and as someone who is married to a person with depression, so others will know that they're not alone in the fight against depression and other mental illnesses.
The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.