It’s been a few months since I’ve posted. In the meantime I’ve had a whirlwhind romance with a woman named Sophie; the beginnings of several new friendships, some of which have been sexual or romantic; several dates with two people that ended with a mutual, cheerful decision to move on; a major depressive episode; and a breakup with Sophie.
Today I want to talk about my depression.
Like many people, I’ve struggled with depression for years. In my case, medication does usually help, but eventually the side effects (anorgasmia, anyone? Ugh.) provide a compelling argument for weaning myself off them, and the truth is a lot of the time my depressive symptoms can be managed without medication.
A lot of the time. Not always, unfortunately.
Over the winter I eased into a deep depression so slowly that I was the last to notice. I legitimately thought everything was fine. And it was — when things were going fantastic. I was in love, and the woman I loved was happy to spend a lot of time with me. We went on fun adventures and stayed up all night talking and kissing. We carved out a week to just spend time together doing fun things, without work interfering. It was amazing, and she was amazing. When we were together, I felt good. Mostly.
My depression has historically presented itself as mental and emotional exhaustion, with that deep numbness those of you who’ve been depressed know all too well. This was different. Instead of only blankness, it was also sadness. Maybe that was why I didn’t recognise it right away.
Things were going really well with Sophie. But I couldn’t stop second-guessing everything. I became insecure. I became that which I hate most — clingy. If I felt we hadn’t seen each other in a slightly longer interval than was usual for us, I panicked and overanalysed why. The entire time, Rational!Leah was standing behind me with an arched eyebrow, saying, “Seriously?” But she couldn’t seem to stop EmotionallyUnbalanced!Leah from freaking out.
I tried to hide the worst of my freakout from Sophie, but she could tell something was wrong. I was ashamed. I didn’t want her to see that I’d begun to feel possessive of her time. I didn’t want her to realise that I was clinging to her as a lifeline out of all the sad feelings that had begun to grow in me so quietly and gradually that it didn’t even occur to me to question their source. “Maybe I’m monogamous after all,” I thought during one particularly wretched night when I had literally turned down the opportunity to spend the night with her so I could go home and cry about how I wanted all her time and couldn’t have it, and about my absolute certainty that my sadness would end our relationship.
My body had failed to produce a sufficient volume of serotonin, and it turned me into a crazy person.
It wore on Sophie. She’s a great person, a wonderful friend, and she was a fantastic partner to me, but there’s only so much you can do for an unmedicated, clinically depressed lover who refuses to admit anything is wrong even when she’s crying next to you in the dark. She just held me patiently, and worried.
My other friends had begun to notice, too. I was irritable, impatient, and not the most awesome person ever to be around. Somewhere along the way I’d lost my spark of fun. I needed to constantly be around people in order to ward off the creeping horror of loneliness, but I had no creativity or energy or even interest in doing the things that I normally did with the people that I loved.
In the midst of this came the breakup.
It was inevitable, really. Sophie had been working at a less-than-ideal job for a long time, and the entire time we’d known each other she had been searching for something more suited to her abilities and her degrees. One week she drove six hours to interview for her dream job, and six hours back to tell me that she’d gotten it. That night, we went to a nice restaurant and drank a little too much champagne and came home and loved each other thoroughly.
Afterward, in the soft glow of the streetlights shining through her bedroom curtains, a wave of sadness hit me so hard that it was physically painful. I had been depending very heavily on Sophie to hold a light up to the shadows of sadness that seemed to devour me when I was alone. We’d always said that if she got that dream job we’d find a way to make it work long-distance, but lying there stroking her hair, I didn’t believe it at all. And even if I could have believed it, the bottom would still have fallen out of my stomach, because even if we kept dating, she wouldn’t be here. She wouldn’t be able to hold a lifeline for me anymore.
There were about three weeks between that night and the day she moved. I helped her pack, feigning cheerfulness and trying to muster the excitement I knew I’d normally feel for her as she set out for new opportunities. I tried to be emotionally supportive when she stressed out about the major changes she’d be experiencing, to reassure her when she wondered if she’d made the right choice.
I think I failed.
We grew more and more distant as the big day approached. Our physical relationship all but vanished. Overnights became rare. I told myself she needed space, that I’d been smothering her, and that she was going through a major life change and I needed to be respectful. Meanwhile, my depression grew. I cried a lot, and as someone who very rarely feels the need to weep, I found that very overwhelming. Twice I called a friend for some physical comfort and was unable to share sex because I was so sad. It was a bad time. I tried not to over-message Sophie. I failed.
A few days before the move, the breakup happened. Sophie clearly felt terrible about it, but the great physical distance would make many things impractical, and she felt that making the attempt to countinue our relationship despite the distance would be a mistake. We’d both raised concerns about the distance before, but had dismissed rather than addressed them. Now Sophie had taken a good, long look at her feelings and decided that dating someone so far away wasn’t something she was ready to do. I had to respect that. We both wanted to remain friends, but Sophie wanted time without contact to help her adjust to the transition from lover to friend. I had to respect that, too.
I had made Sophie my anchor to reality while my mind was flooded with distorted ideas. Now cut adrift, I began to drown in them. I was miserable, but not really because of the breakup. I hadn’t even begun to process that. No, in my wretched state I was selfishly obsessed with my own loneliness. I went underground in response and barely spoke to anyone for about a week. I binged an entire season of truly terrible television and slept as much as I could. My work suffered. I avoided leaving the flat as much as possible, even to the point of skipping meals so I wouldn’t have to go to the supermarket so soon. It was bad.
Somewhere in the midst of this, as I slowly regained contact with the outside world but felt no less miserable, I was on the phone with a friend. “I think I might be depressed,” I told her.
“No shit,” she said. “You have been for months.”
Everyone else I talked to told me the same thing. I had been blaming the symptoms of my depression on short-term things, everything from PMS and sleep deprivation to the imminent move, or, later, the breakup. But my friends all said my depression became noticeable back when things were going really well in my relationship with Sophie. When they pointed it out, I remembered how low I’d felt whenever we parted. She was so amazing that being around her had kept the demons at bay– but only at bay. They had been waiting for me whenever she left. If I was really honest, they had sometimes gotten in while she was there, too.
Finally, like the genius I am, I went to the doctor and got on some fucking meds.
Looking back, I regret that my last few months with Sophie were tainted by my brain failing me. She’s brilliant and unique and I will never again know anyone quite like her, and I wish I had done a better job of cherishing our time together.
Instead, in the midst of my depression I treated her as a mere comfort dispenser, my favourite escape from the crushing loneliness that enveloped me. I became utterly self-absorbed and failed to be supportive when she needed it. I became possessive, and tried to make her responsible for meeting my needs.
I put her in an unhappy position, and I’ll always regret that.
Depression in any relationship is a hard thing to deal with. Depressed people aren’t great friends or lovers or what have you. When your brain is out of whack, it’s hard to be loving and thoughtful and reasonable. And loving someone who’s numb or sad all the time can be draining and unrewarding. It’s hard sometimes to draw the line – being supportive of the ones you love is important, but so is protecting yourself from relationships that have become unhealthy.
If the depression lasts a long time, it’s hard to know when or if to cut your losses. It’s frustrating to remember how someone was when you fell in love with them and to wonder whether they’ll find that person again before the darkness inside them poisons your relationship.
I don’t know whether or not my behaviour while I was depressed influenced Sophie’s decision to change our relationship from lovers to friends. If it did, though, that influence was justified. We all want to be there for the people we care about through the good times and the bad, but it’s important to set limits on the negative influence that someone else’s mental health problems can have on your life. It was never Sophie’s responsibility to ward off the symptoms of my depression. It wouldn’t have been even if we were monogamous, even if we’d made a permanent commitment to each other.
My friends and family, Sophie included, are integral parts of my support system. They have all made my world a brighter place to live in, and helped me when I’ve needed it. But there is a limit to the help they can provide. My doctor can prescribe medication – but only if I make the appointment. My therapist can talk me through some negative thought processes – but only if I make the appointment, and am honest with her. My lovers can hold me – but only when I ask, and only when I am not actively hurting them. My friends can keep me company – but only if they actually want to. Sophie, and others, helped to ward away the darkness in my head, but in the process I treated them poorly, and that was not okay.
What strikes me now, as Medicated!Leah and PostBreakup!Leah, is that all of the drama and worry that I put my loved ones through as Depressed!Leah was really not necessary. If I had paid closer attention to my sinking mood, my lack of energy, etc., I might have gotten treatment much sooner and averted a month or more of unhappy silences, snappish afternoons with friends, and sleepless nights where I kept Sophie awake as well with my overwhelming sadness. None of that was remotely useful, and none of it had to happen.
Those of us with mental illnesses – at least those of us who are able to do so – are responsible for getting our own needs met just as anyone else is. We’re responsible for seeking diagnosis and treatment, and for being aware of and minimising as much as possible the negative effects our illness has on others. We’re responsible for recognising in ourselves the warning signs that something isn’t right, and finding ways to address it in a healthy way.
Those of us who are in relationships of any kind with people with mental illnesses are also responsible for getting our own needs met. We’re responsible for prioritising our own emotional stability and recognising which demands on us are reasonable and which are unreasonable.
Being in a relationship means being supportive when someone in the relationship is having a rough time. Occasionally that requires sacrifices, but it’s important for each individual involved to recognise what sacrifices are or aren’t healthy for us to make.
When someone I loved developed an alcohol problem, I gently expressed my concern, cleaned out my freezer when she visited, offered to attend therapy or support groups with her as moral support, and helped her find rides home when she was drunk. I spent hours upon hour comforting her and trying to help her sort out various alcohol-fuelled disasters. I sat with her in the hospital after she wrapped her car around a tree driving at twice the legal blood alcohol limit. I hoped desperately that the accident would help her recognise how out of control things had gotten, but when she used alcohol to cope with her accident, too, I reached a point where I realised she was not ready to get better.
I realised that my relationship with her was costing me more, emotionally, than I could afford, and I distanced myself from her. It was very painful to go from very close to rarely speaking to one another, but when I wasn’t overtaxed with taking care of her, I was able to resume some of my own responsibilities that I had been neglecting.
Mental illness sucks for everyone affected by it – not just the person who’s sick, but everyone in their lives. It’s not a get-out-of-responsibility card for the person who has it. In the case of my alcoholic friend, I didn’t really blame her for her addiction or its effects, and I’m sure Sophie didn’t blame me for being sad all the time. But both my alcoholic friend and I are the only ones who can battle our own personal demons, and it’s our responsibility to do so. No one else can, and trying would just suck you dry.
How has mental illness in you or a loved one affected your relationships? Do you feel able to express concerns about the behaviours of loved ones who are struggling with a mental illness? Do you feel able to end or distance yourself from a relationship out of self-preservation when you don’t blame the other person for the strain they are putting on you?