Published on June 12th, 2013 | by Jen Sparks
Surviving Your Partner’s Depression
I died a little inside, every day, for 6 years.
I have no idea how I held it all together that long.
Sometime in 2000, two years before we married, the kind and funny Adam I had fallen in love with began to disappear. It started slowly, and, much like the way we had fallen in love, we were in the middle of it before we knew it had begun. Three years later, the transformation was complete, and he was a mean, edgy, distant, passive-aggressive, hair-triggered stranger.
I would wake up in the morning, hardly breathing, and before I even opened my eyes, I wondered what mood I would need to be in that day. Everything revolved around how Adam woke up. Our world was constructed out of eggshells, and the smallest misstep would shatter it for days.
I learned that at any given time, the longest we would have with good-mood Adam was three days. Bad moods ran about the same.
Falling apart myself was simply not an option. I lost myself in the effort to hold myself and him together and keep him alive.
If I collapsed, I told myself, Adam would probably kill himself. If I had an “issue,” then he would say, “See…you are the problem, not me.” If I admitted to being overwhelmed, then I would have no grounds to continue insisting that Adam get professional help.
I feared that if I fell over, there would be no one to look after our three children, and they would be taken away from us.
I felt that it was up to me to keep everything afloat. I told myself I must remain even and calm and nice at all times, never asking a wrong question or making flippant remarks, because as soon as the balance tipped, everything flew out of control.
Adam was never physically reactive. When he was in a “mood,” he was contentious, sulky, and obnoxious. He was the quintessential passive aggressive, and so often he would nitpick at me until I exploded, which would then, having given voice to his inner frustrations, cause him to snap out of his angst and ask me what my problem was.
I lost count of the number of times I cried in the night. I learnt how to sob without shaking and wail without uttering a sound. And when I was alone, when Adam’s night shift at work gave me a moment to be honest with God, I would scream into my pillow and inform God that I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Toward the end of 2004, I became so tired, so exhausted, that it turned into a fight or flight situation. Worn out from fighting, I chose flight.
One afternoon, in the middle of yet another screaming argument, where Adam tried again to make me be the one to end it, I did. Surprising to me, it shocked him. I don’t think he genuinely thought I would leave.
Not wanting to displace the children from their home, I calmly told him that I thought it would be best if he left. I got in my car and informed him that I wanted him to be gone by the time I got back.
I don’t remember where I went.
All I was sure about was that I knew if things stayed the way they were, it would destroy us both and our children along with us. The eggshells had been smashed to the point where there was not enough solidity left to piece them back together.
Finally, with the cracked walls gone, I could breathe.
But I was completely broken. I was too emotionally exhausted to go to counseling, even though I needed to. I could not handle the thought of talking to anyone. I was too tired to argue with Adam, to talk civilly with him, to think about us, to think about what was going on with our relationship, what I wanted or what I felt. Occasionally, he would ask me what I was thinking, and I would answer, “I don’t.”
After he finally went to a doctor, Adam was officially diagnosed with depression and anxiety. He eventually decided to go to therapy of his own accord, even though I had been begging him to go for years. It was the first step toward healing for both of us…a realization that there was something very, very wrong, and it needed to be fixed. When he told me he had an appointment with a counselor, I wept. I was so happy and furious all at the same time: why couldn’t he have gone before we arrived at this point?
Adam and I remained separated for six months. At first, I had no intention of returning to our marriage, and I sought legal counsel for a divorce. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing left to build on.
But then my heart and perspective began to shift. Once Adam entered counselling and the process of finding the right medication to help him began, we were able to have conversations that did not spiral down into accusations. He constantly, actively pursued becoming well.
Inviting Adam to come home was a trust move on my behalf. I was petrified of what it might entail, but I felt that Adam had learned his lessons, I had learned mine, and I had hope. I was able to decide to reinvest in our marriage, because we both turned to God to mend what was broken in our relationship.
Adam’s depression and crippling anxiety would last for another two years. It did not get better right away, and in some respects, it got worse. It would take another year or so for him to find a medication that didn’t numb him to the point of emotional catatonia or make him want to chew through his wrists. There was more pain and more hurt, and I did not always react well.
We began counseling together in January 2006, six years after the onset of Adam’s first symptoms. We are now nine years on and three more children from that horrible time. Adam is doing so much better. We both are. Our relationship is fun and loving, and we’re free to be ourselves with no hesitance around each other. Our once-shattered foundation is now firm.
If you are in the heartbreaking situation of surviving your partner’s mental illness, and you’re at the point where you need to choose between staying or leaving, be kind to yourself. Yes, he or she has depression. No, that is not an excuse to treat you badly.
Under no circumstances am I suggesting you remain in or return to an abusive relationship. If you are removing yourself from such a situation, and you belong to the Church, I strongly urge you not to listen to those who tell you it is God’s will that you stay in abuse.
I understand the tug-of-war that can happen when you consider the part of your marriage vows that say “in sickness and in health.” Your spouse is sick. But if that sickness is putting you in danger in any way, you may need to create a safe distance until your spouse becomes a safe person again.
I hope for both of you that you get the help and support you need. Continue to make the appropriate steps towards healing, for both yourself and your partner, keep the communication open, and leave room for grace.
Photo by Ashley Speights for Wyn Magazine.