Sarah Graham | Contributing Writer | Monday, 6 July 2015

So, What Do You Do When Your Boyfriend Has Depression?

So, What Do You Do When Your Boyfriend Has Depression?

The Debrief: Bryony Kimmings had been going out with her boyfriend Tim for six months when she discovered his secret stash of antidepressants. Eighteen months later, and they've written a play about it...

Prozac probably isn't the P-word you'd expect to find hidden away in your boyfriend's bedside drawers like some kind of shameful secret. But depression is something many guys keep shut away out of sight, and performance artist Bryony Kimmings is keen to break the silence.

Bryony had been going out with her boyfriend Tim for six months when she discovered his secret stash of antidepressants. Eighteen months later, they're now engaged, expecting their first baby, and touring a show they co-produced about their seriously personal experiences with his not-so-secret-anymore mental health issues.

We spoke to her about how to handle finding out your boyfriend has depression, and how to stop it screwing up your love life.

What kind of impact has Tim's depression had on you as a couple?

He didn't sit me down and tell me, I discovered his tablets, so it was a shock for both of us – it totally spun me out. He'd been keeping this secret for eight years, so for both of us it was like our worlds had exploded. After that though, it brought us really close together very quickly. We really quickly became experts in it, so there was a very intimate part of our relationship that was about tooling up and understanding his depression.

Have there been any really difficult bits?

There was a moment when we'd decided he should come off tablets in quite a gung-ho way, thinking love will see us through. He had a huge breakdown while I was in Australia, so I was on the other side of the planet and he was suicidal. That was very difficult – for him, because he had to accept he was still ill underneath the tablets, and for me it was a realisation that this is someone who sometimes in our life is going to need quite extreme care.

Has it got easier?

I think now he understands that he needs to be able to communicate, so as soon as anything starts to feel difficult, we talk about it between us. We do a very good job of keeping our sex life and the fun we have separate from his depression, so it doesn't define him. There will always be difficult times, but I think the good thing about understanding that's the case is that you relinquish control – you can't fail if you already know there'll sometimes be really shitty times. 

What tips would you give other women whose boyfriends are affected?

If you're in a relationship with someone who has depression, you'll basically know how to deal with it because you know him and he'll give you the answer. I get braver and braver at saying to Tim 'you're going to have a breakdown, and I know that because you've done this and you've done that'. Often someone who has mental health problems can't see because they're in the middle of it, so becoming identifying when they're showing all the signs can be a really good way of helping them. Patient.co.uk has a really comprehensive list of the symptoms of depression, because it isn't necessarily just what you think it is, so become an expert that way too. Approaching the subject is very difficult, and often embarrassing for a man, so step slowly and carefully. I'm sometimes very frustrated with Tim and say 'why can't you just say that's how you feel?' but it's because, for his whole life, he was told he wasn't allowed to say how he felt.

How can you deal with the way it affects you personally?

A lot of women feel like they don't have the right to feel sad about it, but you do. I have someone I can talk to as well – it can often be that you take on your boyfriend's burden but don't have an outlet for that. I'd also say find a very good GP and go together, get your boyfriend a good therapist, and find ways of talking together. At the same time, if he's not helping himself, and you've tried and tried, at some point you have to say this doesn't work for me, this affects my mental health. You don't need to mother him; he has complete responsibility for his own mental health, you're just there if he needs extra help.

So you should treat him pretty much like you did before?

Yeah, of course – guys with depression are just ill, they're not idiots! Somewhere in there is the man you love, but between you and him is this terrible disease, and it's at those moments you're really needed.

How can you avoid messing up or saying the wrong thing?

Remember that it's absolutely nothing to do with anything logical, so remove logic from your brain – things like: 'Pull yourself together' or 'Do some exercise, it will make you feel better'. That's not how depression works.

Fake it 'til you Make it by Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn is on at the Southbank Centre from 10-18 July, before going to Latitude and then Edinburgh Fringe. Bryony describes the show as 'light entertainment about a big subject' and says both she and the audience usually end up 'fucking blubbing', so don't forget your tissues.

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Follow Sarah on Twitter: @SarahGraham7

Picture: Sophie Davidson

Tags: Mental health