Thursday, September 25, 2014

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Can’t You Just Get Over It: Explaining Depression To My Wife

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Mel and I were in our bedroom chatting about my anxiety and depression problems. The doctor recently increased my depression medication and it had been making me distant.

It was a Saturday evening and the kids were in bed.

“Does this mean you’re getting worse?” she asked. She was changing into a black pair of yoga pants and an old purple t-shirt. I was sitting on the bed in a blue t-shirt and white gym shorts.

“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.”

She backtracked.

“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’d 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 fear and depression.

“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 to 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 chemically 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 menial 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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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter


Jeffrey Giraud said...

A similar lack of understanding added to a divisive attitude about how I should "just be happy" led my divorce after a 20 year marriage. It sounds like your wife really wants to understand. For the sake of both of you and your kids, I suggest that she start going to your therapy and psych appointments. It wasn't until after my divorce that my ex finally decided that she needed to learn about my depression and anxiety (along with PTSD and ADD). She finally understood that I couldn't manage my conditions alone with a month or two between appointments - she could have been my cohort in therapy instead of leaving me to fend for myself. Your wife can be a huge help to you if she knows what to look for and the right things to say (and the things never to say). My new wife and I both have depression but we manage it much better because we deal with it as a team.
We love your blog too. We have 8 children between us and my oldest is 32 and I still don't have a clue.

Lydia Rebecca said...

I battled manic episodes for a long time. I took meds once but they made me feel loopy, foggy, and unfocused. They put me in such a state of oblivion I felt as if I didn't know what was going on around me. I decided to go to a nutritionist. It was the last option and I had read that depression has a ton to do with vitamins and minerals we are lacking. I have been on a regimen of supplements for over a year and no more manic episodes. I know how you feel trying to explain it to a spouse. I would tell my husband, "It's happening again". He would say, "This family doesn't have time for your sickness" or "Your pills are how much?!!?" Statements like that were really the only thing wrong with our relationship but it failed because of those remarks. It was bittersweet when he developed severe anxiety. I thought it'd help him understand. Instead, he'd say, "You don't understand!" I have the strongest mind I know and I can defeat anything but that depression gets you when it gets you. Try a nutritionist and fight it all the way. Meds only mask the problem. I'll pray for you and yours. I need you around. Your blog is hilarious and uplifting.

ShopGirl said...

Well said. Reading this felt like I was reading my own words. I've had to explain my depression and anxiety to so many people over the years and I've gotten really good at the phrase: "It's like when you..." to try and give them something they can relate to. I too feel I have gotten to the point that I can go on as if all is well because of the understanding that the problem is not my life it is just a condition. I've also learned to experience two emotions simultaneously. On one level I can be suffering from excruciating depression but I can also recognize happy feelings coming from my life and whatever I may be currently involved in. It's a strange sensation but it really eases the burden. Props for not letting this evil bitch of a disorder take you down!

Barrie Evans said...

One of the most useful descriptions on why depression and anxiety seem to go together is one I heard from a psychiatrist. He said, "We find that people either have a depressed anxiety or an anxious depression." Thanks for posting this, Clint.