A wife's account of her husband's mood disorder
Reprinted from "Seniors" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, 1(15), pp. 19-20
Verne Smithman, 76, of Langley is proof that depression can strike any gender and any age.
In the early 1990s, Verne and his wife of 52 years, Kay, went through a chain of life-changing events that would set the stage for Verne's subsequent depression. First, he retired, albeit reluctantly because he liked his job. The couple also moved from Burnaby to Langley, also a somewhat reluctant decision on Verne's part although he seemed to adjust well to the change, staying active in community life. Then in 1991, Verne suffered a heart attack.
"He had a triple bypass and a valve replacement," says Kay. "He was very, very ill and ended up in the psychiatric ward over that. His nerves were so bad. He was at home here — he'd been a long time in the hospital — but he just couldn't sleep. He was so weak, I'd have to get him into bed and cover him up and before I could get to sit down, he'd be up again. This went on and on and on. So a psychiatrist came from mental health and I was so glad when he put him back into the hospital because I just couldn't handle it any more."
After the hospital stay, Kay says, the depression set in. As she consults the journal chronicling those years, she notes that before the depression, Verne entertained, talked and laughed and took pleasure in small things. Once the depression set in, he lost interest in everything including his two loves: music and reading. His loss of appetite dropped him from 170 lbs to a meagre 148. He couldn't make decisions and had a lot of anxious symptoms like worrying all the time about nothing — even sleeping to avoid worry — and feeling shaky. He also didn't want to go out in company or talk to people; even with one visitor, he wouldn't join in the conversation like he used to.
The Smithmans went to see the family doctor. "I was telling the doctor what he was like and he said to go to mental health," says Kay. "It was there Verne was tested and he was right off the charts."
She realizes, of course, things would be a lot different now if Verne had refused to see his doctor. "The main thing is the men don't want to talk about it and women are usually quite willing to. But I think that's men in general about a lot of things. I was so lucky that he realized his problems and wanted help. He figures the mental health people and the Langley Seniors Centre really saved his life."
It would soon turn out that Verne was experiencing not a unipolar depression, but a bipolar disorder (manic-depression). "When he was manic, that was very much harder to handle," says Kay. "I hate to see him depressed; I wouldn't want that. But the manic phase, I found very hard."
What were Verne's key manic symptoms? They included the characteristic euphoria and racing thoughts. "He had thoughts whirling in his head all the time so he'd be making notes," remembers Kay. "We'd be out in company and he'd be sitting making notes. Also, he'd just sort of turned against me. He was figuring I was holding him back from all these wonderful things he wanted to do."
Shopping sprees were another clue that Verne was experiencing mania. "Oh, he was a shopper alright," says Kay. "At first, shopping just worried the life out of me because we didn't have that much money. But he was a Value Village shopper so it turned out that it didn't amount to much in dollars and cents. We did gather a lot of junk and pictures around though," she laughs.
Getting the bipolar disorder under control has been a steady though gradual process. Kay says it's hard to put a figure to how long the upswing has been because Verne still has rough patches, but for the last couple of years, he's been doing well. Social supports and recreation have been particularly helpful for him.
"He started riding a bike and that's done him a world of good — physically and mentally," she says. "He really looks forward to getting out on his bike and he'll go for a long ways. It's level here and there's a path he can ride on and he can sneak off to Starbucks and have a coffee. He said just recently he's feeling better than he has in a long time. And he flew off to Calgary to visit our son and then took a trip out to Edmonton to visit his brother. He hadn't seen him in years."
Verne is still on lithium to balance out his mood swings and although his wife does say endearingly that he grumbles about taking all his medication — between the prescriptions, vitamins and supplements he's told to take, he takes 11 things a day, for both his physical and mental health — he does recognize how important staying on his lithium has been for him. "We do have a relative who is manic depressive and won't take his medicine," says Kay. "And Verne says ‘God, isn't that awful, isn't that terrible?' We were very lucky that Verne wasn't like that about medicine."
Kay figures it's difficult to care for a spouse going through depression without having depression touch your life as well, however briefly. "Yeah, I guess I was also depressed with thoughts kind of racing through my head," says Kay. "I know at one point, I just went over to my daughter's and I just slept and read and sort of got myself together again — this was when he was bad. I also got a peer counselor from the seniors centre. She didn't come very often but it really perked me up to have someone to talk to. She had sort of been through the same circumstances and she asked questions that got me thinking differently."
Peer support has been one crucial way the local seniors centre has supported the Smithmans. "Seniors centres are a wonderful place for spotting depression," Kay adds. "I know our seniors centre and their outreach department are just wonderful. I think that people who really need it most though don't attend these seniors centres — the ones who sit in their room and don't go anywhere or do anything."
In addition to connecting with community supports like seniors centres, Kay's strongest advice is to fight the stereotype that depression is an inevitable part of growing old and seek help instead.
"Depression is not a normal part of aging. But people think, ‘Well, that's just because they're old' and I think that's a shame, because a lot of help could be got a lot sooner if people just recognized the problem and realized it's not something you have to go through."
"The main thing is to get professional help because you can't do it yourself. That's how I ended up speaking out. It's a hard thing to do, but if it's helpful to anyone, it's worth it. The best advice I can give is to get professional help as soon as possible. The caregiver needs help too."
About the author
Sarah is the Director of Public Education and Communications at the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division