“YOU’RE on eggshells all the time,” says Ruth.
And so she tiptoes, veering away from the things that might crack her husband’s fragile peace, carefully nudging him toward distractions.
Being the carer for someone with a mental illness is, she admits, draining, but when you’ve been married for 27 years it’s just part of the “sickness and health” vow.
Ruth and John (not their names) have a beautiful 10-year-old daughter, good friends and a home in Wodonga.
They have dealt with his depression and anxiety for years but, about a year ago, he had his major breakdown.
When he’s stressed, John goes driving to clear his head.
That’s what he did in August last year.
He drove to Canberra where he spent a week in hospital before returning and spending six weeks at Karinya Clinic at the Albury Private Hospital.
He took off again in October, carrying a small kitchen knife.
Luckily he realised “I’m not well” and drove to the Albury base hospital’s emergency department.
He’d been cutting himself — superficial cuts on his forearms, small stabs to his chest.
The Albury Wodonga Health mental health team assessed him and let him drive home three hours later, a fresh box of meds in hand.
The doctors said they’d check “tomorrow” but, to this day, tomorrow hasn’t come.
“In his state, the emotions he was going through, he wasn’t fit to be in charge of a car,” Ruth said.
There was not follow-up to John’s visit to the Wodonga emergency department in January, either. Or his most recent assessment in May.
“The system is a big mess, and I think,” she said. “That’s what frightens people from getting help.”
“It’s bloody frustrating. You want to get someone fixed, or at least get the tools in place to help that person help themselves.
“He’s never gone to the extent of suicide but its a very fine line.
“My concern is while doing that, he’ll accidentally cut too deep or in the wrong area.
“How do you explain that to a 10-year-old?”
Ruth said their daughter was more mature than a 10-year-old girl should be.
“It’s not her job but she takes a carer’s role too,” she said. “She picks up on when dad’s not good.”
Their daughter has sought advice from Kids Helpline a service Ruth said she couldn’t value highly enough.
Ruth’s father also had mental illness so she can relate to her child on her level: “She needs to be exposed to it, although I wish she didn’t have to be”.
It’s draining at times for Ruth as she cares for John and their daughter, pays the bills, keeps the house and goes to work herself.
“I go to carers’ meetings. You know there are others out there dealing with the same things, but to put a face to them helps,” she said.
“It’s the same for the person with mental illness, to share the experience of the same problem goes a long way.”
Ruth believes more could be done to make life easier for both people with mental illness and their carers.
“You hear of so many relationships that have broken down because of mental health issues,” she said.
“Sometimes a person doesn’t want support and sometimes that support’s just not there.
“He’d say to me: ‘You don’t know what it’s like’ and, in ways, I’m thankful I don’t know.
“What is needed is some more support for people like John so they can have access to people who have had similar experience and support each other.”