Relationships are stressful. Even though I’m madly in love with my husband, Abel, sometimes he irritates the hell out of me. We’ve been together for thirteen years and we’ve lived a lot of life. Our kids have graduated high school and college. Abel has graduated college. And then graduated again. And again. We’ve shared family deaths, family marriages, financial struggles, and health scares. And we’ve battled depression. Well, my depression. Abel has more serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins running through his body than a baby Border Collie.
Caring for a spouse with depression is exhausting and let’s face it, Ed can be an asshole. Ed takes a perfectly lovely, otherwise stable person and turns them into a raging, ranting, sobbing, sniveling, tantrum-throwing child. Our situation has been no different.
For years, Abel has dealt with my emotional instability and mood swings. He’s come to pull me out of a ball on the bed more times than I can remember. He uses his quick, clever wit to make me laugh. But to be fair, he would have made the same joke if he was alone and laughed just as loudly. He prefers an audience. We both think he’s hysterical.
We operated this way for years until Abel’s resentment began to grow. He realized his co-dependency too often gave me a pass. When he started dealing with his stuff and calling me out, I had to come to terms with the fact that Ed wasn’t the asshole. It was me.
For several years I was unable to deal with confrontation. When depression is active the amygdala is on fire. It sees nearly everything as a threat. The brain adds a steady stream of negative thoughts and self-hatred. Before Abel could call me out, I already felt like a piece of shit.
I usually responded in defensiveness, but not because I disagreed with him. I was defensive because the onslaught of internal attacks was so strong, his words were the only ones I could fight against. I had to build my self-protection dam higher because I was already drowning.
Depression usually subsides when I’m microdosing prescription ketamine. I’m able to see things more clearly and rationally. It turns out it’s true: I have glaring personal flaws. These flaws are unrelated to my feeling of worthlessness. These flaws exist simply because I’m human.
Standing on the outside of depression is a lot like coming up from under the water. I can breathe. The sky is clear and the weather is warm. I’m calm and relaxed. I feel like what I assume a “normal” person feels like. The background noise is gone. When I’m in that disposition, being called out for my faults doesn’t feel like a personal attack, it’s just sobering. Self-loathing isn’t there to cushion the stark reality of how deeply my words, actions, or inactions hurt the person I love the most in this world. Without Ed, it’s just Abel and me.
Abel and I had had a few difficult months. Since he didn’t feel comfortable talking to me directly, he wrote a long email outlining how lonely he’d been. Stress, a part of which was caused by me, was crushing him. He bottled it up, breaking down when he was alone and being called out by co-workers who were concerned by his appearance. The letter was his way of level-setting and saying, “We’re not good. I’m not good.” He confessed that he was nervous about how I’d react because he’s never sure if he’s talking to just me, or me and Ed.
As we talked through his letter, I realized I had a lot of apologizing to do. I hadn’t been emotionally available. I’d made decisions throughout our relationship, and especially in the last few months, that were self-serving. Reasons were irrelevant. Justification wasn’t going to take away his pain. We talked for several hours, going point by point like lawyers getting ready to sign a contract. That’s normally how we roll. But I learned of plans he gave up and dreams that got put on hold for me. And it hurt. I promised to make things right.
I know that confronting the person you love who has depression can feel like you’re beating up a kitten. They can be mentally fragile. To cope, you learn to choose your words wisely or you just don’t say them at all. With no outlet, resentment builds. You don’t feel validated or heard. Maybe you just stop sharing your own emotions, or you find someone else to share your emotions with. Leaving the relationship altogether may also feel like an option.
There’s a reason that most relationships with a mentally ill partner don’t last. Depression in a family is all-consuming. Events are missed, feelings are hurt, and resentment and frustration build. Sometimes mental illness is the direct cause of all the hardship and pain. But not always. Telling the difference between symptoms of the person who suffers from depression is difficult. After all, Ed is narcissistic by nature. How do you know who’s being the asshole?
A difference should exist between the person you love and the disease they exhibit. If you haven’t done so consciously, pay attention to their words and actions. Look for nuances in their behavior. This can be difficult because of their mood swings, so keep notes if necessary.
When the time is right, have an honest conversation about how you feel. Tell them if you’re lonely, feeling abandoned, or want more from the relationship. Tell them exactly what it is you need. I’m not sure if it’s a guy thing or just me, but I don’t get nuance nor social cues. I need everything spelled out. Once I have the information, I can make a change.
Work on building intimacy when the symptoms are in remission. Have regular date nights, even if it’s at home. Make sure the TV is off, cell phones are in the other room, and it’s just you and your partner.
Remember that a relationship with someone who suffers from major depressive or bi-polar disorder is just a regular relationship with an extra challenge. No one should get a free pass for being an asshole.