Mel and I were in our bedroom chatting about my anxiety and depression problems. It was evening, and our three kids were in bed.
The doctor recently increased my depression medication and it had been making me distant.
“Does this mean you’re getting worse?” she asked. She was changing into her pajamas. I was sitting on the bed.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so. He upped my depression meds hoping that I would stop taking as much anxiety medication. That stuff is addictive.”
“I just don’t understand,” she said. “Can’t you just get over it?”
I gave her a serious look. One that said, “Please don’t talk like that. I need you to be understanding.”
“Sorry,” she said, “That’s not what I meant. I just don’t get it. I understood why you needed it in college. Especially graduate school. That was really stressful. But things are good now. I don’t see any reason you should be having these problems. Is it me? Am I not making you happy?”
I’ve been suffering with depression and anxiety for most of my life, but it got particularly bad in my late teens. I started developing obsessive-compulsive disorder. I lost a lot of weight, over 40 pounds. Honestly, I was a mess. I dropped out of college and thought a lot about suicide. For the most part, now, I live a really normal life. But like many with depression and anxiety problems, it’s a constant struggle, with moments that are good, and moments that are bad, and every time the doctor changes up my meds it means feeling strange, detached, for several weeks.
Although Mel has been really supportive over our 10 years of marriage, I don’t think she has ever really gotten it. She’s one of the happiest people I know. She smiles more than she doesn’t. In so many ways her default setting is happy, while mine… well… mine is anxiety and sorrow.
“It’s not like, that,” I said. “There really is no reasoning behind it. When I first started having trouble with anxiety, I assumed that something outside of myself was causing it. I thought that it was because of my father and his drug addiction. I blamed it on my parents’ messy divorce. But honestly, I think that has little to do with it.” I went on, telling her about the handful of pills I used to take every day to keep from having panic attacks. I told her how a doctor told me to start exercising because it would help, and somehow that caused me to assume I wasn’t exercising enough, and if I exercised more, I wouldn’t be so anxious. Then that caused me to have anxiety when I didn’t exercise. Suddenly I was vigorously exercising 4-8 hours a day and having trouble with my kidneys.
“It was completely illogical,” I said. “It felt like I was trying to run away from something that wasn’t there.”
Trying to attach meaning to depression and anxiety is like trying to attach a tail to an invisible donkey.
I went on, telling her that trying to find meaning in all of it is why depressed people do crazy things, like leave their spouses for no real reason. They aren’t happy, and in trying to find a reason for that unhappiness, they assume it’s their wife or husband, when in fact their spouse might be a wonderful person. They are just unstable.
“I think the best thing I ever did was to realize that I was depressed. I was the problem. And to step back and look at my life logically,” I said.
Mel was brushing her short brown hair now in the bathroom. She turned away from the mirror to look at me. She placed one hand on her hip.
“I just want you to be happy, you know,” she said. “And I want to think that I help make you happy.”
“I am happy,” I said. “I love you. I love the kids. But I have a problem that’s never going to go away, so I’m doing what I can to manage it.”
I told her that she needs to understand that I run through a range of emotions during the day. They change rapidly for no apparent reason. One moment I’m ecstatic, and the next I’m fearful. None of these shifts really has a trigger. Rarely does anything spark it. Sometimes I simply feel like an actor trying to portray myself as normal and happy. It takes a lot of mental energy for me to remind myself that what I’m dealing with is me. It’s my problem, not anything else. For some reason that helps me to step back, look at myself, and find control.
“I’ve gotten good at it over the years,” I said. “Good enough that I don’t think most people know that I have a problem.”
Mel thought about what I said and nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “For the most part you seem fine. I didn’t realize that you had to try so hard. Most of the time you seem fine.”
“I am fine. As fine as I can be. For me, compared to the way I was, I’m awesome,” I said. “But suggesting that I just get over it, that’s not going to happen. And it doesn’t help me feel like I’m doing a good job of living a normal life. I’m doing everything I can to keep myself in check. I don’t know if I will get better at managing my emotions with time, but what I do know is that it isn’t going away. I’ll probably have this problem for the rest of my life. I hope you can still love me.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d ever tried to explain my depression and anxiety to Mel, but it was the first time that I thought I’d done a decent job. I often tell people how hard it is to explain mental illness to someone who doesn’t have it, but honestly, sometimes it’s difficult to explain it to myself. Very little of it makes sense, and yet it’s very real, and very challenging.
By now Mel was done brushing her hair. She was sitting next to me on the bed.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” I asked. “Does any of this make sense?”
Mel looked me in the eyes, and said something that I think all people with depression and anxiety long to hear.
“Yes, it does.”
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