World Mental Health Day 2018: how husband helped wife fight severe depression
Enoch Li was diagnosed with depression in 2009. Husband Tim Coghlan tells how, with his help and through therapy, she overcame it and the relapses that followed, and the impact her illness had on him
Caring for a depressed person proved to be more challenging than expected for concerned husband Tim Coghlan, but he hopes his story can be a source of inspiration on World Mental Health Day, which falls on Wednesday.
Coghlan is married to social entrepreneur and writer Enoch Li, who suffers from severe depression. Not only is he her husband, but he also acted as her main carer.
It was not unusual for Coghlan, who had a career advising the world’s top luxury brands on their China entry and expansion strategies, to have to leave a work event suddenly because his wife needed him. He would rush home to find her semi-conscious, confused and in need of immediate hospital care because of her illness.
The couple met in Tokyo in 2008 and decided to move to Beijing after Li was offered a job there. Her first migraine came days after the move. In the beginning, the couple put it down to stress, culture shock and environmental factors, such as the high summer temperatures and poor air quality.
But the headaches persisted throughout the autumn and Li consulted several specialists. As further symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, vertigo, frequent colds, tunnel vision and claustrophobia manifested themselves, doctors were able to diagnose Li in November 2009 – she was suffering from a major depressive disorder.
“Getting the diagnosis was a relief,” Coghlan recalls. “I felt we could finally start to treat the illness properly. I did not have any problems with her having depression – for me it was just a sickness like having the flu.”
But caring for a depressed person proved to be more challenging than expected. There were days where Li could not get out of bed. She had severe mood swings and would frequently burst into tears.
“I tried to say the right things, but it hardly ever helped. Then I would get frustrated and sometimes lose my temper and become angry. I’m a positive person and the worst part of all for me was that Enoch would bring my mood down,” Coghlan says. “I would get up and be excited about the day ahead – but she just wanted to die. This was very hard for me to reconcile.”
With the responsibility and desire to be hands-on and supportive came moments of resentfulness, and Coghlan soon found he had no social life. He started a new job two months after Li was diagnosed, and caring for her while focusing on his career was difficult. He often had to leave meetings and events early, and recalls missing a flight, and an important business trip, because he was needed urgently at home.
“When I’m sick, I want to be alone but Enoch needed both my emotional support and physical presence,” he says.
Apart from the emotional impact, Li’s suicidal thoughts had practical implications on Coghlan’s life too.
He had to make sure that she had access to only one sleeping pill a day. He hid all knives, razor blades and scissors, and after he came home one day to find her sitting on the windowsill, he had to install locks on all the windows of their sixth floor apartment. “It was like child-proofing our home, although we had no children at the time,” he says.
Thankfully, Li got better. Her therapist had predicted that it would take her a year and that was exactly how long it took before she could get up in the morning with a positive outlook. It was at that stage that she decided to turn her life and career around by talking about burnout and depression and helping others.
Li has not been spared relapses, however. The first one occurred in 2013, and when the couple’s daughter was born in 2014, she got postnatal anxiety.
“It put our relationship to the test once again,” Coghlan recalls. He had become a father for the first time and that alone had turned his life upside down. At the same time, Li was struggling and sadly, suicidal thoughts again began to resurface. “I often found myself having to choose between caring for Enoch and caring for the baby,” says Coghlan.
Through the relapses that have followed (the latest was in January), the couple have become better at accepting life’s emotional ups and downs and better at dealing with them. They have received individual therapy as well as couples therapy, and although Coghlan does not go around fearing relapses on a daily basis, he has learned to sense when they are coming.
“As a partner and primary carer, you have to accept that depression may be part of your life forever. But people tend to see it only as a sad thing. We tend to be afraid of negative emotions and I think that is wrong. If you get professional help, that will provide you with the right tools so that you are better prepared and resilient,” he says.
He has come to the conclusion that caring for a depressed person gave him a sense of responsibility that ultimately helped him grow up.
“I had lived alone since I was 16 years old when my parents moved abroad. I only had to think about myself and putting my own desires on hold certainly took practice,” he says.
During the whole ordeal, he took it one day at a time and was confident that the carefree, beautiful and fun person he had fallen in love with would overcome her struggles. It’s been a long haul for the pair, but their resilience has paid off.
Li has put her experiences to good use by founding “Bearapy” to help reduce workplace burnout through the psychology of playfulness, after learning this method to cope with her own debilitating depression.
She is a speaker and a published writer; her newest book, Stress In the City: Playing My Way Out of Depression was recently released in the United Kingdom and United States, and is available in bookstores in Hong Kong and China.
After some time off being a stay-at-home dad and blogger under the name “Kangaroo Daddy”, Coghlan is now re-embarking on his career facilitating cross-border business dealing between China and other countries.