And I don't mean "sucks" in the, "Dude, you got in a car accident? That sucks." sort of way. I mean literally. Depression sucks away life.
I have been living with depression for years. But it's not mine. I live with my husband's.
I feel compelled to start by clarifying that we have a happy marriage. Like all marriages, ours ebbs and flows through times of bright highs and bleak lows. Through it all, we love each other dearly. We respect each other and work continually to ensure that we are taking care of each other. We both geek out regularly and find joy in atrociously dark humor. We encourage each other and take pride in the other's achievements. At times, we have each been the north star for the other, ensuring that life's tribulations do not veer us too far off course. In short, we are in it for life.
However, a while ago, it sucked for a while. Dave was becoming increasingly unhappy at work and disinterested in life at home. He dreaded leaving in the morning, yet he stayed really late at the office, sometimes not arriving back home until 9 or 10 o'clock at night. I would be left alone with one small child, then two, for 15 hours with no relief. I was exhausted. He looked hollow and gray. We argued. We were both frustrated and angry at this awful something that we couldn't name. I was scared. Every time he'd leave on a business trip I slept with the phone by my bed. I knew that eventually I'd get a call from the hotel staff informing me that he'd overdosed and was dead or a cop would be telling me they found Dave's car wrecked and he was dead. Too many nights I finally fell asleep at 2 or 3 am, exhausted from that worry. Though we had never discussed it, intuitively, I knew he was suicidal. I would feel sheer relief when he returned, but the grayness followed him and honestly, it wasn't him anymore. He was this shell of the person I fell in love with. I didn't know him anymore.
I encouraged him to call a therapist. He didn't.
I encouraged him again to call a therapist. He didn't.
I shouted at him to call a fucking therapist so that he could figure out what the fuck was wrong. He said he couldn't. Physically, he couldn't.
So I called. And he went.
Thus began his slow journey back to life. He's been seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist almost weekly for nearly two years.
Dave was diagnosed with depression in November of 2011. He learned that he's probably been suffering from the disease for most of his life. Upon diagnosis, he immediately began trying various antidepressants. For a week he'd be up, then down again, and he'd need to try something new. He landed on one and it sort of worked, but he realized that he was still feeling anxiety (depression and anxiety are kissing cousins, and they are the worst relatives. ever.). Anyway, he was then prescribed something for anxiety. We both felt we were getting closer to the source of the problem, but there was something...else. We couldn't place it, but something was still off. He would have these graceful highs of tremendous productivity, happiness, and excitement, and then within a week, a day or even an hour, he'd crash and need to spend money, be away, and feel totally hopeless at work. These were dramatic, blundering, infuriating lows. After discussing this with his therapist, he was diagnosed with bipolar II. He was prescribed mood stabilizers and again, we feel closer. For this reason, talking therapy is as essential as pharmaceuticals for this type mental illness. He would have still felt "off" if he had given up sessions and just taken his meds. He would have continued to suffer needlessly. The combination of pharmaceuticals and talking therapies is essential for the regulation of chemicals in Dave's brain.
As a spouse, it's really hard sometimes. I feel angry that his brain attacks him. I feel frustrated that I have been robbed of the experience that ideal, freakishly-wrong-but-I-still-
want-it "Leave It To Beaver" family. I have felt resentful at times that I've spent time and energy dancing around his illness, ensuring that nothing happens that will send him spiraling south. I've felt frustrated for my own experience. Sometimes I just don't want to have to deal with it. More often, though, I've been angry FOR HIM. I am angry that his brain has blocked joy, that he has never really felt the instinct to nurture our kids and that he sometimes felt emptiness while holding his babies. I feel angry for him that negative thoughts pervade his thoughts and pollute his joy.
Dave will probably never get better, but he fights every single day to get closer. He is a one man army and most days, he is winning. He will probably be medicated for the rest of his life. This is what he needs to experience joy and to live a full, satisfying life, which he is entitled to. This is essential for Dave to not suffer. This is what he needs to not kill himself. Depression hurts physically and mentally, and it is unnecessary.
Depression is a chemical imbalance like diabetes or hypothyroidism, and we would never expect one to conquer those two conditions without medication. Depression is insidious because it pervades the thought process. It infects even the happiest, most joyful moments and corrupts memories. We all need to talk about that, to get a firm grasp on reality, because what's happening in a depressed brain, what that brain is perceiving about life and experience isn't fucking real. It's a sham, a great fleecing, a royal, outright lie. Life is good and beautiful. It's not perfect all the time. But it's mostly good and everybody deserves feel that joy.
This worked for us: me calling the therapist and Dave going to the therapist. Dave takes his medication because he wants to feel better. He has recently taken control of his illness by finding his own doctors in our new city. This is HUGE. This will not work for everyone. I know of a couple who encouraged each other to get treated and they are now both (wait for it) happy. You can be happy. Your spouse can be happy.
While talking with an old friend last week about Dave, he kind of danced around asking me about Dave's illness by saying, "I hope you don't mind me asking, but...". No, I don't mind. I want you to ask me. This experience with mental illness is tattooed on my soul. I will never not have this experience, and I am not ashamed or embarrassed to live with it. Please ask me about it. Please talk about it. Please release yourself from the stigma of mental illness. There is nothing to be ashamed of. I view Dave's illness as an unwelcome intruder in our lives. Always on the periphery, waiting for the right cue to make a grand entrance and steal the show, Dave and I work together to keep it in the shadows, where it belongs.
I will end this with some final thoughts:
1) Dave's therapist encouraged me to read Andrew Solomon's book The Noonday Demon so that I might understand Dave's experience. I am eternally grateful to her, and I cannot recommend this book enough. I learned so much about him and felt comfortable talking about this age-old illness. This book is practically a handbook for anyone experiencing depression either first- or second-hand. Please order it from the link above and read it. Your view of depression will change for the better. I promise.
2) Dave encourages you to read comedian Rob Delaney's personal account of depression. Dave connected with this piece on a deeply personal level and hopes that other people suffering will also learn they are not alone. They are not alone. He also hopes that others will seek medical help so that they might experience joy again.
3) Never give up on life. Never underestimate the power of kindness and love. Every person deserves to feel joy and happiness. If one drug doesn't work, try something new. But do not give up on the possibility of a bright future. It takes time and work, but anything worth having is worth fighting for. Joy is worth the fight.
P.S. Allie from "Hyperbole and a Half" created a beautiful piece about her journey back from the depths of depression. If you're in for a tear-filled laugh, please read.