I went to a wedding once, and the pastor had a simple message for the young couple before him as well as the rest of us packed into a beautiful church. “Marriage is survival,” he began, and the crowd of two hundred answered back in laughing groans of recognition.
That statement is true of any marriage that lasts, and how much harder it is when one of the partners is dealing with major depression. I woke this morning recalling that advice and saddened at the thought of how destructive depression has been to my marriage, as it must be to any sustained intimate relationship. What happens to my wife when I’m lost in an internal struggle? What does she go through? I’ve had all too many chances to find out.
Her feelings and needs disappear from my awareness as I plunge into a maelstrom of self-contempt, obsessive thinking about everything wrong with me, extreme anxiety about each human encounter, hopelessness – and then my own struggle to fight against all that, to regain a firm enough footing in my sense of self-worth that I can face the day and get active. All that consumes energy, attention – it’s preoccupation with self, to be sure, and it’s the almost daily fight just to stay alive. In that state, I can no longer see or hear my wife.
She becomes a player in that internal drama, invested with my projections and fears, when, that is, I can focus on her at all. She doesn’t have a chance to stand in front of me in her own right, pushing herself, her needs into my awareness. And what does she see?
She knows that I’m missing in action, purely inner action, cut off from any connection with who she is. That by itself would be hurtful enough. But it’s not just that I’m cut off – she sees me silent, sullen, irritable at best – and at worst verbally and emotionally abusive. She tries to disturb the inner fight I’m going through to remind me, hey! I’m here too! But she usually doesn’t get very far. Dealing with me in that state imposes on L an exhausting struggle to make sense of what’s happening, to find ways to keep hoping that this nightmare will end.
Then if I can succeed in getting back into my feelings and become alive and responsive again – my old loving self in this relationship – she can’t simply be relieved at the change and welcome me back. Instead she’s angry and confused at my inconsistency. One day I’m gone in spirit but still hulking around and impossible to deal with, the next I’m open and loving. She never knows how long my good moods will last and cannot relax under the threat of this recurring storm. It wears her down.
One day, as my mood was lifting out of a bad spell that had lasted for weeks, I found her lying in bed, looking as weary and pale as I had ever seen her. She said she had no reserves left for dealing with me. She was exhausted, and looked it. She told me how she had been so devastated when I had closed myself to her right after an especially stressful time during my bout with cancer. By some miracle I had stayed upbeat, positive and open to her and everyone trying to help me, and she had been so loving and powerfully focused on helping me come out of that crisis alive. Yet after recovery from the operation, I fell into a dark mess and turned that angry face on her once again. She couldn’t believe it, and now there was nothing left to respond with.
Later that day, we started a slow recovery by working together in the gardens she had nurtured. Good old physical exhaustion from hours of pulling out weeds, hacking through overgrown lilac bushes, carting it all away – and doing it together – helped begin restoring us to each other. Just being with her in those gardens helped with healing. L had created so much beauty in that intricate ordering of new life – as she always does, wherever we live. The gardens grew from the depth of her feeling, and we could share that fullness in reaching into the ground to work with the rich soil – itself an artifact she had built up slowly over time. The inner poison was draining away.
But that was just a first step – hard talking followed, painful for us both. She told me how she felt constantly judged by me and was on pins and needles all the time. I couldn’t appreciate all the love she had for me, or all the nurturing that she gave me and our kids – the thought and care and love that went into getting food, creating a garden, working as an artist to refashion each room of the house we lived in. My promises to work on changing sounded hollow to me, like those of a drunk or a wife-beater. This time she made me promise only one thing – to get back in therapy immediately, to keep getting help and never stop, as I had in the past, repeatedly. Nothing was going to be easy, but it felt better that we were talking again.
That was 12 years ago, and there have been many ups and downs since then. I wish I could say there was some simple happy answer, but there isn’t. We go through my spells together, each suffering in a different way. What we’ve learned a little more about, though, is hope. Hope is a complicated house to build, and living in the midst of construction can really drive you crazy. But we’ve managed to finish a new room just this week.
If you can write about your own experience with your partner, that would be a great help to us all.
Photo: © Platenik Dalibor – Fotolia.com