I Can’t Let You In

Stone Statue of Man's Face
Depression isn’t a one-time disaster in a life relationship. You think you’re through the great crisis, but little by little you feel the weight pressing down again. The stone face that wordlessly says “I can’t let you in” is back.

It kept coming back to me and my wife for decades, and each time it did I became the absent, distant, irritable – or worse – disturbance in the house. I’d resolve that next time I wouldn’t let it get that far, but I kept losing track of who or where I was when it actually hit. We managed to survive, though deeply changed and aware of our losses, but still together. I’m not clear how we came through, but we did.

I’m thinking about this once again late at night on a special anniversary in our lives. It was 40 years ago on this day that we met. Ours was a truly-madly-deeply, total-immersion, body-and-soul-embracing, what-we’d-been-waiting-for, instant-move-in-together kind of moment. It was a now that kept opening up, one that seemed to have no boundaries. Of course, we hit the boundaries and found a lot we’d never imagined, courtesy of recurring depression.

Maybe the worst of it was seeing the illness wear us both down over time. We had to live through all those endless moments when we could plainly see what was happening but couldn’t do anything about it.

I’ve pulled out some journal notes from times like that and have tried to piece them together. These words aren’t exactly coherent and don’t flow by any logic. They give a hint, though, of the inner frustration and damage that depression causes between two people.


When I’m depressed, I hear the words, but they don’t seem to mean much. Sometimes, I don’t hear them at all. I’m looking at your face and see the worry or anger or fear. The feeling is in your tightening eyes that say many things.

I see and hear through filters just now. I see the words you’re aiming at me. But they pop like bubbles before I can make them out. When I try to listen, they’re waxy to my ears.

I see your need to get through to me, but all I can say are the words of regret, the words of shame. I’m sorry but I can’t let you in. I wish I could, but nothing’s coming through. Retreat is the refuge I need. I’m desperate for the aloneness that will let me relax my tense mind, even though I know that being alone won’t help at all.

Everything you say, everything I see in your face tightens around me, and I’m twisting inside while wishing I could open up to you. I can’t move. Your need pulls at the small vital source I’m trying to protect. A crazy voice in my head tells me I have to hide it or I’ll die.

I want to be with you, but I’m splitting with tension. Everything you need comes through only as so many demands that I can’t meet. Demands for feeling, signals of caring, eyes full of loving reassurance.

I do imitations, but I’m not very good. My empty show of being attentive and responsive is an obvious disguise. I’m getting desperate to shut the door, shut you, everyone, out.

I feel like there’s a rip in the center that holds me together. I can almost touch the danger of breaking open. I’m spilling out fear that sounds like anger.

I’m tense with holding on, holding together. Too anxious – it’s all I can handle and I can barely do that.

I say it’s not you who’s doing anything to me, it’s all me, and I’m just desperate. Please, I need to be alone. I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.

I’m full of apologies and sadness at the grief I’m causing. It makes you angry now. It exhausts you, but you know these periods come and go. I’m trying to get back but I’m not there yet.

I know you understand, you get it, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve pulled too far away, too often. I keep coming back, expecting to be whole with you again.

But then I’m gone once more. I’m not a person to hold onto, to count on. Closeness doesn’t get a second chance, a rehearsal for the real thing. Which will it be today? Will I be present, will I be hidden? You’ve been through this so often, you’re exhausted.

Hope survives only so long. It doesn’t die out in despair. It wastes into weariness.

You’re looking so blank now, withdrawn. We’re both unanchored, floating. This graying cloud that hides me is hiding you too. We’re becoming invisible to each other.

I have to hope the feeling and spirit will come back one day and stay. I have to hope we’ll be with each other then, unworried about whether I’ll be me tomorrow or just a shell or perhaps all stone.

If you were to slap me hard now to wake me up and strike warmth into my face, you’d only hurt your hand.

One part of me is torn, another is tightening, I’m nothing but confusion. I’m nothing to you. I’m nothing to me. It hurts. It just hurts.

Right now I can’t let you in, and I know you can’t take any more of this distance.

You can try to talk to me, but I’m disappearing. I don’t have to leave this room to be alone, but it’s more calming when I can.

I’m so bone tired, I just need to lie down and pull a cover over my head. I so need to disappear. I need to sleep, to shut down, and I’m almost there. I can only creep away and leave unanswered your ultimate questions about you and me.

My mind has these words, but they’re only notes to myself. I can’t speak them clearly. You’ll never know what I’m trying to say, but you need to hear the words more than ever, if only to know I’m still there.

We’re coping in our separate ways. You’ve learned to live without my presence, and when I’m this way I’m grateful for that because I know your independence is your survival guide.

You don’t bottle up your feelings, ever. You’ve tried to rouse me with your energy and humor but found long ago how frustrating that is. You keep coming back, you keep on being there. You rage at me, get exhausted, give up on me and turn back to your own life. You have the gift of creative energy and it doesn’t die down for long.

You’re a survivor, and I’m one too. But that’s too lonely, too separate. There’s an “us” here as well as a you and a me. It fades out, but we both seem to know this “us” is still there.

If only I could say that to you now, if only I weren’t so walled away, if only I could really hear what you’re saying and open to the flow of your feelings.

But I can’t let you in right now. I wish I could. There’s nothing but static and TV snow.

I can’t let you in.

Image by visulogik at Flickr

32 Responses to “I Can’t Let You In”

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  1. I always was interested iin this topic and still am, appreciate it for posting.

  2. Mg says:

    I just read this post John, dear god, I can hear my hubby saying the same things, almost the exact words!
    It gives me peace of mind figuring out a bit more what can be going on inside his mind!
    Thanks for sharing your stories John!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Mg –

      I’m glad it gives you some peace of mind but also sorry that you face this kind of withdrawal.


  3. Shelly says:

    thank you so much for sharing what it is like to be in the midst of depression and withdrawl. It certainly helps me to understand what my partner is going thru. We are a long distance relationship so his withdrawl is total..no communication…except when he wants it. I want ot support him in anyway that I can…he is in a very stressful job and in a city with haunting memories and only misery for him. I have told him to come and live with me in my city, that perhaps he needs to think of a career change…that he needs to take care of himself…..

    He is there for some times and when he is, it is wonderful….he never blames me for where he is in life, rather tells me that I am the best thing in his life and that he doesn’t deserve me. He does get accusatory at times and his insecurities are a little hard to take.

    He pulls away and then comes back, but full of self-loathing and insecurities and some mind games…I guess my question to you is….do I send him a link to this website. He knows he is in a dark place but I am not sure he is ready to admit he is depressed. His last message to me was that he needs to get out of the city that he is presently in, it is only misery to him, that he needs more than a long distance relationship to survive and that he needs a permanent home….all to which I answered….you have always had a permanent home here with me…take time off of work and come up so we can discuss your options…

    Any insight or guidance would be much appreciated…..thank you

  4. sarah says:

    thank you so much for sharing this with the universe! Moment to moment, it does often feel like we are all alone, without a shared experience in life, but reading your beautifully-written thoughts has boosted my morale. I am in a relationship that waxes and wanes in a similar way to the way your words almost gasp and sigh……it’s confusing and chaotic and melancholic and beautiful – – everything. The opportunity to read thoughts from that place is useful for me – that’s where he is……. that’s where I sometimes go with him, though I always feel that even when I am there…. I am far from his inner terrain……. far from understanding the helplessness he feels. Love is so complicated, isn’t it? Thank you again John!


    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Sarah –

      I’m glad this post has been helpful. The self-sealing isolation is not something I’d wish on anyone, but it is important to convey that it’s not a state of complete deadness. There’s a lot of twisted feeling and awareness that opening up is important. I hope your friend can break through it soon.


  5. Charlotte says:

    Dear John,

    Thank you for your reassuring words and reminder that I matter too. Which I know, and know very well. One must take care of one’s self and love one’s self, otherwise I don’t see how we can expect anyone else to love us. That echoes a concept speaking from a ‘non-depressed’ being, although I have been casting my memory back to my past and times when I know I felt the things that people on this site are describing. Moreover, I found strategies and still largely use analysis and my own therapeutic relationship to organise these complex feelings and emotions that everybody experiences. With my inner understanding and deep compassion that I feel for my beloved, I’m determined to help us and him (without being too self-effacing!) get through whatever it is that life – past, present and future – reveals. My love runs ways too deep for me to give up and walk away. He deserves more than that, and so do I.

    With respect,

  6. Charlotte says:

    Your post did move me to tears – resonates so strongly with what I’m experiencing with my partner currently. But I know all I can do is be patient, understanding & non-demanding for any of my own needs at the moment. I hope with enough insight on both parts we’ll get through it as wholly as you & your wife.
    Thank ulu for sharing your writing…

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Charlotte –

      It’s so hard to live with someone acting in this way. Your compassion and understanding must be important for your partner. I would add that there is a danger in being too self-effacing. Your needs are equally important, and your partner’s behavior hurts. When my wife and I were going through this, she always let me know how deeply I was affecting her – she couldn’t keep taking it forever and really pushed me back into treatment after I’d resisted it for some time. I know it’s easy to feel you might be pushing your friend too hard or adding to discouragement about himself. None of this is easy – each couple has to discover how to deal with this thing that’s come between them.

      My best to you.


  7. Antony Page says:

    Hello John, i’m currently going through this with myself, yet again. I suffer with this so many times a year and it always affects my ability to have a relationship. My present girlfriend is the one who found this website, she e-mailed me to tell me to look at it. She e-mailed me because i can’t or won’t communicte with he because of my depression. How you have described your depression is identical to mine. Fortunately for me my girlfriend loves me beyond imagination and wants to understand why i’m like it and what is the cause of it. I hate the way i am with her but i cant help myself, it is like i’m looking at the situation from above me, almost looking down at us. I know what i’m doing and how much hurt i’m causing but i cant stop myself from doing it. Then one morning i’ll wake up and i’m back to same old happy ol Antony, as if nothing has happened. I’m not sure at this moment what the answer is for me or how long she will hang around before i completely shut her out and she walks away. My problem is then, i can shut this out and never give it another thought or have any emotion or remorse for my actions. I’ve told her i’m a very cold person when i’m like this, i guess its my answer to what i’m going through.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Antony –

      I’m sorry you’re going through this same thing. You’re so fortunate to have an understanding partner – I hope, though, that you don’t start assuming the worst about the future of this or any relationship. There are many forms of help to get – more like skills to learn to help yourself break through when you’re in bad shape. Do you work with a therapist on this? Holding back emotionally has really deep roots in my life so I’ve needed therapy that probed the past while I was learning cognitive techniques. But there’s no simple or easy way to deal with it. What you say about looking at what you’re doing from above you and not being able to stop gets the feeling quite well. The awareness and desire to stop were the key things in enabling me to turn myself around. Those are two big pluses.

      My best to you.


  8. Jaliya says:

    Hi, Donna-1 … I guess there are no easy answers to those huge questions about our intrinsic goodness and the wounds inflicted upon it over time. I have, lately, been focusing on what I call ‘practical compassion’ –> doing one small, kind thing at a time … kind and practical … I finally accept that my own nature is essentially good … It has been a decades-long ‘rewiring’ of poisonous beliefs that were never mine to begin with. It is long, slow, daily work … and with it comes the realization (again and again) that every choice I make is one either in a direction of goodness or (what I’m calling) cruelty …

  9. Donna-1 says:

    If we are “essentially good” why is it in our nature to make such bad choices and tell ourselves false and negative “stories”? What corrupts our “essential goodness”? How is it that the individual is essentially good and society’s influence is essentially bad? But I do agree with Welwood’s statement that depression can be the result of life’s transitions, whether transitions in lifestyle, age, point of view, etc. I tend to cling to sameness and avoid change. So when change is necessary and often not a result of choice, I balk at the change. My spirit fights against it, and then I find myself depressed for a period of time, until I can adjust.

  10. Jaliya says:

    “Heartening” … yes 🙂 I’ve come to think of sanity, in part, as being a ‘heartened’ person, one who is heartening myself … You write here in this piece of a place I was in about 2.5 years ago … So harrowing, still so close in memory. Will I further harrow, or hearten? … Years ago I read an essay called “Depression as a Loss of Heart” by John Welwood — those words made immediate sense to me … Here’s a link to the article, published in 1987 … http://bit.ly/o1l9bJ

  11. Jaliya says:

    John … Here is the power, the empathy, of the written word; thank you. You speak so eloquently of our capacity to feel … and of how horrific it is to lose when we are in the darkest of dark nights …

  12. MK says:

    Oh my, the blame game was what totally shocked me in the beginning, because in 25 years together we were not that kind of couple. The weird part was how Dave projected his feelings onto me. I had plenty of feelings of my own, but to be accused of attitudes and behaviors I didn’t have was surreal. It was such a help to find you and your writings to clarify what was going on, along with other sites and therapy for me and my son. I am much more at peace knowing things are not my fault. I still get angry and confused and flummoxed, but not as often. It’s wonderful that you and your wife have hung in there with all you have both experienced. Your patience paid off and you are in a better place together after all your struggles. Bravo!

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, MK –

      I’ve had people attribute all sorts of feelings and motives to me that weren’t there – and see their shadows in my personality. They were trying to manipulate me into playing a certain role in their lives, and manipulation makes you feel weird. You know something’s not right when it’s subtle. When it’s like a beating over the head, it’s more overtly hurtful and baffling. God knows, I’ve done it enough to other people. Experiencing it myself made me see what my own behavior was often like. I’m sorry your ex could see what he was doing.


  13. MK says:

    Wish my estranged husband would read this and realize he is not alone in having these feelings, as well as identifying what he is experiencing is depression. Experiencing what you describe is bad enough, but denying the origin makes everything so much harder. I didn’t need to be released from the marriage. I do appreciate you expressing your internal struggle, John. It helps me keep trying to understand and not be angry with Dave.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, MK –

      The worst part about denying, at least for me, was that I shifted the problem onto others, especially my wife and children. Blaming them, and everything in my life, was the only thing to do. By the way, I would just offer my two cents that it’s OK to be angry with Dave, even as you understand what’s happening. The injury is real, no matter the cause or intention. I can tell you that my wife often blew up at me and let me know exactly what I was doing. She shoved me back to a doctor to get help when I was resisting treatment. I guess everyone handles it their own way.


  14. Donna-1 says:

    I know exactly what you are talking about, John. There have been times when I was simply beyond doing anything about my depression. But I knew that until the depression was resolved, nothing else in my life was going to work. Sometimes I have to simply wait it out and just do the best I can from moment to moment. I’m beginning to realize, too, that other people will probably never understand. Too often it seems like their depression is not the same as my depression — not the mind-blowing, completely hollowed-out, shell-shocked kind. Although I consider myself recovered, there are still days when I can’t do anything but lie in bed with my face to the wall and try to keep breathing. I’m sure it makes absolutely no sense to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves. I’m sure it doesn’t make sense (to them) when I don’t want to get outside and walk around the block and listen to the birds sing. I’m sure it makes no sense (to them)that I can’t simply will myself into a better frame of mind. I’m sure it made no sense (to them) when all I wanted to do was die when (to them) it seemed I had to much to live for. In fact, it makes no sense to me. But I honestly believe everyone goes through times when life makes absolutely no sense at all; and trying harder makes absolutely no difference.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      It’s a big help in a period of recovery to know that bad days pass and the aliveness you describe comes back. In the earlier time in my life that I describe in this post I had no such belief. I was still trapped inside depression and my silence and had no sense of an end point. When I was deeply depressed, I couldn’t imagine feeling differently. After I came out of it and was all energy and responsiveness to my wife, I couldn’t imagine what it had been like to be depressed. I was all in or all out. Now, thank God, bad days are few and far between, and I know it’s just something to go through. I’ve got ways and means to deal with it. But you’re right. There’s no sense to it.


  15. Donna-1 says:

    I admire you for sharing this. What grabs me is your knowledge that there is an “us” and that the “us” is often the most important thing…except for the depression. Unfortunately sometimes it seems there is either one or the other, not both at the same time. Your words express some of the pathos I no longer feel about my marital relationship (it ended in divorce) but that I still feel in other close relationships. I can’t explain to others why I need to be separate and alone in order to deal with what’s going on inside, yet it is the ONLY path I know that brings some peace. Relationships just heighten anxiety and anger and frustration. And when I am all tangled up in those feelings, it is neither possible to heal the relationship nor to heal myself. In a way, it is great selfishness on my part; but it seems to be the nature of the beast.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      It is the nature of the beast, as you say, not selfishness. There are a couple of therapies that emphasize the self-damage of avoiding situations that cause stress or anxiety. ACT, for example, tells you avoidance doesn’t solve anything and only helps you spiral inward, deeper into your illness. It’s true that “avoiding” my wife in situations like this hurts the relationship and doesn’t help me deal with the troubles – and doesn’t heal me. But this isn’t a choice. I know that “I can’t” sounds lame if you use it for avoiding every difficult situation – and it can be fear and caution rather than inability that stops you. But what I’m describing is more like having a high fever – you have to let it subside before you can relate to someone the way you want to.


  16. liz says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us. It is, by far, the most authentic insight you have given to me regarding what it’s like when someone involved in an intimate relationship is in the middle of a deep and dark episode. This part specifically resonated with me “Everything you need comes through only as so many demands that I can’t meet. Demands for feeling, signals of caring, eyes full of loving reassurance”. I am mindful of that every single day with my partner. He is in a very good place for a while now but I see an occasional glimpse of depression trying to fight its way to the surface. It scares me and I know that I shouldn’t put my needs on the back burner but I understand how my needs may come across as demands that he knows he can’t meet. Like you, we have been through hell and back. We are on a good stretch even though history proves it may not last. Like I’ve said in a few posts here on this site, we focus on each moment and hope that those moments will add up to a lifetime together. Thanks John.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Liz –

      I’m glad this gives you some helpful insight. I think one of the damaging things about depression is the fear of its return. It never fully goes away – the fear is a kind of scar left by long experience. I tended to obsess on this fear and turned it into a firm expectation – really, an inner certainty that before long I’d be in the middle of depression all over again. That was crippling, and I’m glad I’m finally finished with the fear, whatever may happen in the future.

      My best to you —


  17. Judy says:

    John, all I can say is Wow! I have never seen/heard such a complete description of the shutting down of depression as this. I could really feel it. And I’ve been there, too. The weariness of it all, the fear. Did you ever show this to your wife? I’m thinking something like this might help a spouse – when you’re at the place where you know what’s happening, that you’re shutting people out and desperately wish for it to be different. I don’t think we have that sense of the hurt we’re both feeling and causing others in the beginning.

    Thank you so much for sharing this, it was beautiful.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Judy –

      It would have been so helpful to have understood all this from the beginning, but I certainly didn’t. I was more likely to blame the victim than look at myself. I hope this post does help the partners who try to get through to people in this condition. Awareness always helps, though it can’t undo the damage of blocking someone out.


  18. larry drain says:

    I have been there. Thanks for sharing

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Larry –

      Thanks for commenting. I hope you were lucky enough to get out and stay out of “there.”


  19. Liz says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It is so moving. I’m on the verge of tears right now. I’m the other half in the couple you described – the one attempting to enter, to help, to encourage to get better. Reading this helped me understand what my ex was and still is going through.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thank you, Liz –

      I’m glad you could relate to this post but so sorry that you had to endure this sort of shut-down from your ex.


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