Some of the comments on the last post in this series hit hard on two issues. First is the question of personal choice: is a man supposed to escape responsibility for destructive behavior by attributing everything to depression? The answer is no! Depression is never an excuse for inflicting pain and loss, breaking up families, violent rages or destructive behavior of any kind. The other compelling question that is asked over and over again, often in desperation, is: What can I do?
I’ll try here to deal with both of these issues here rather than put them off to the end of the series, as I had originally planned.
Whatever might roil me internally in the midst of this condition doesn’t change or lessen my responsibility for the harm my behavior is causing. My wife hasn’t kept silent but has confronted me whenever she needed to about what I was doing to our relationship and everything I was putting at risk. Hearing that from her was not enough by itself to shatter the power of denial, but it was essential to be confronted with the facts of her feelings. That truth needs to get through the layers of depressive self-absorption and isolation in order for recovery to begin, but it is knowledge that has to be put to use by me. I had to decide to take responsibility for my own recovery.
I could not make that inner choice, however, so long as I was looking for an external cure. The last post tried to bring out the twisted thinking, rooted in denial, that led me for a time to look to something or someone other than me as the cause of an inner despair and emptiness. Convinced that the cause was external, it made sense in this phony logic to look for a cure by changing location, jobs, family. That would be the path to fulfillment. Fortunately, I could never fully believe that was true.
I thought I was doing everything I could to get better by using a series of treatments. I took medication, spent countless hours with therapists of many persuasions to undo patterns from the past, got counseling with my wife, changed diet, ran a lot, meditated, tried to change destructive ways of thinking, and more than that. The problem was that I kept waiting for one of these or all in combination to do the trick and rid me of this destructive condition.
None of them ever seemed to work for long because in a sense I was still looking for an external cure. Only when I had to deal with cancer did it dawn on me that I had to take charge of my treatment in a way I hadn’t done before. To doctors I was a statistic with a certain probability of survival after five years, ten years. I had to make an inner determination not only to use the available tools but to strengthen my will to change and approach that illness with the spirit of an activist. I wasn’t going to let it kill me. It might come to that but not without a hell of a fight from me.
That’s what has to happen in depression. As with substance abuse and addiction, no one and no thing could do it for me. Recovery had to begin with my inner belief that I could make it happen.
2. What Can a Woman Do?
I can speak only from my experience so there’s an obvious limit to how much I can say about what a woman can do. But I’ve talk to my wife – her medium is visual not verbal – and can summarize what she has done.
First, here’s part of what I said in the Longing to Leave series over a year ago.
I’m not big on offering advice, but the potentially devastating impacts of depressed people on those closest to them leads me to go a bit beyond just reflecting on what I’ve been through.
If you’re trying to deal with the sudden transformation of an intimate partner, get help, starting with friends and family. You’ve likely felt such a deep assault and wound that it would be easy to get lost in the sheer humiliation, hurt and anger of the experience, searching for what you’ve done wrong, what you could do or say to set things right. That’s a trap … Those closest to you and your partner have doubtless noticed something strange and may have been hurt as well by new behavior. That will remind you that you’re not alone in this.
And remember that you can’t cure someone else with your words and love. They only backfire. At most, you can help your partner gradually gain awareness. …
What my wife did was to confront me with I was doing to her and demand I get treatment before I destroyed our marriage. Having dealt with the danger of alcoholism in her own experience, she knew about codependence. She knew she couldn’t take care of me by blaming herself and putting my feelings ahead of her own. I got that message loud and clear.
She has told me that at first she experienced only the anger and the hurt it caused. We did couples therapy in two separate periods. Both helped. The second led to a breakthrough that re-established the basic bond between us. Slowly but surely, though, I took many steps backward.
As time went on, she felt the impact of other types of behavior besides anger and aggressive emotional abuse, but they all had the same effect – she was cut off from the love and support she needed from the relationship. That was devastating, and she had to deal with it over and over again. As she tells it. the most important realization for her was that all this grew out of severe and chronic depression and that it was unrelated to anything she had done. She knew I was the one who had to turn it around.
She was sympathetic and loving but repeatedly forced me to see the horrible impact of my behavior on her. No matter the cause, that was real, and it had to stop. And I had better do something about it if anything was to be salvaged.
That was what she could do at the time – be honest with me and try to take care of herself.
Our experience doesn’t cover everything, of course, but this is what we can offer. I hope you can feel free to talk here about what you feel you can do – or have already done – to deal with a depressed partner.