Several of you have made the request over the years that I share my perspectives on living with someone who has chronic depression. I’ve been reluctant to share for many reasons. The first reason I haven’t is that part of living with someone who can spiral downward and inward means that I have to be careful about what I say and do. The second and bigger reason is that I did a really bad job of it over 2009 and it seems like a waste of time to share a year of failures. A week or so Wendy asked me to write some things down about this year as she was struggling to do it and she wanted to read my perspective. Wendy has been really open about her struggle with depression and her past. Since I was working on this series of blog posts, I agreed to see what I could write. As the post grew to almost 4000 words, I had Wendy review it a couple of times to make sure she was comfortable with what I had written. She has written about much of this herself before but she did make some changes to some of it.
2009 Was the Year I Lost Control and Gave Up
Wendy has struggled with depression for years. She has said she has seen it in her family for years and while I am not close to any of them, when Wendy is struggling, she acts like they do. Her depression has had good days and bad days but over the last five years she has taken medication to deal with anxiety and mild depression. On top of that she is a victim of being sexually abused growing up which complicates things tremendously. Is it her depression that is causing the problem or is it the issues that come from being molested? After Oliver was born, her depression got worse, a lot worse. She started doing things that endangered her and the boys, little lies turned to compulsive lies, she would regularly take self-destructive actions, was paranoid, and often lived in an alternative reality. The doctor’s tried increasing her medication and for a while things would slightly improve but never get 100% better. For that matter, they never ever got even 25% better.
Things were not going well and by this summer Wendy’s behavior was more and more erratic and self-destructive She was lying to me constantly, making really, really odd decisions and was pretty horrible to be around. I used to walk to and from work just so I could spend 80 minutes more away from her and the house. It also let me psych myself up for being at home as I didn’t know what to expect. Working at the shelter where I dealt with mental health clients all day and the coming home to Wendy and her issues made for some long days. Even a change of scenery didn’t help. She took my reluctance to be around as a variety of things, mostly work related stress and therefore not her fault.
During our time at the lake this summer, Wendy shared several things with me that were just devastatingly hurtful and then would go and make a salad like nothing had happened. Something was wrong. She went to get her medication adjusted but things still were bad. In early fall Wendy just started lying compulsively about everything, she was even more miserable to be around, money was missing from accounts that should have been there, and there was lots of other things going on. She stopped taking her medication and hid that fact from me. She talked about how much she hated living with me and how much she wanted a divorce several times a week. Each time she was confronted about anything, she would tell me it wouldn’t happen again and it got to the point where it would happen the very next day and it was everyone else’s but her fault. For our entire marriage I had struggled to keep it in check. By doing that I meant that I would pick up the pieces but finally I couldn’t do it anymore. I just didn’t know what to do anymore. I was talking with someone this summer who was giving me some really good advice and I wanted to yell at the top of my lungs, “I’ve tried this. I’ve tried the opposite. I’ve tried the middle ground. IT ISN’T WORKING ANYMORE.”
Finally I just said that this isn’t working anymore to Wendy. She called the Reimer’s and spent the night with them with the intention of leaving the boys and I behind and moving out. I went to bed that night and I realized that at that point, I didn’t care if she came back. I had listened to her go on about wanting a divorce and I was pretty okay with it. If she hated me that much, that was fine. I slept better that night that I had in months but I woke up the next morning with the knowledge that it was her depression that was making her do this or at least I hoped it was the depression. When she came back home, she was angrier and more erratic than ever. I tried to get her to see a therapist but that was out of the question to her. During this time I found out that she would make appointments with her doctor, cancel them and then tell me she saw her. She was telling me that her medication would be adjusted but it never happened. By this time some friends of the family knew that things were seriously wrong. They were at a loss on how to get Wendy to see a therapist and doctor and those that knew more about the situation were strongly suggesting that I consider divorcing Wendy for mine and the boys well being. Outside of a couple of horrific days, I knew we would get through this but by the summer I had given up hope on ever having a happy marriage again. I had just resigned myself to this and quite honestly figured Wendy didn’t care and would make good on her threats to leave. The good news is that I lost a fair amount of weight this summer.
Out of the blue one day, she said, “I made an appointment with my doctor. I need to get new medication.” She came back from the doctor with a prescription for a significantly more powerful anti-depressant . After being slowly off her old medication over a couple of weeks, she started the new medication and four days later, I noticed that she was a whole lot more normal again. Four freaking days was all it took to see a rapid improvement in her depression. Within weeks she was much more alive and at peace than she had been in a decade. Wendy had always been able to put forward a happy face in public, she has a public job and knows how to act. In private was another matter. All of a sudden she wasn’t so angry at home and was actually fun again. I noticed a difference in Mark and how they related. We actually seemed like a family again.
While I was thrilled that Wendy was doing better, I was really angry and hurt by some of the things she said and transgressions she did to our relationship. We have talked it through for hours and hours and I don’t think we made a lot of progress. One of the reasons that Wendy was comfortable with me telling this story here is that she doesn’t remember most of it clearly and instances she does, she can’t get her head around it. Like she says, “On one hand I was telling you I wish I had never married you and then I was frustrated because you wouldn’t chat with me while I made a salad.” It makes no sense to her either.
My struggle with moving on is that it didn’t make any sense to me. As a thinker (and an underdeveloped feeler), I really, really need things to make sense. Depression doesn’t make sense and when Wendy explained to me what she was thinking, the dots don’t connect at all. I don’t even think those dots are in the same book. In the end I had to just let some of the things go and realize that I was never going to know what made Wendy do some of the things she did or why she shut me out. I think I am okay with that.
Anyways, here is what I learned.
Wendy handles stress very differently than most people I know. She is a strong introvert (an INTP) who introverts more under stress. When she is under stress and doing this, Mark, Oliver, and I do not exist. She makes all decisions based on just what she is thinking and if the dots are not connecting properly, the result is chaos and mayhem. This has been a huge problem in our family. Her sickness brought a distance between her and all of us. During that time Mark, Oliver and I developed our own family patterns which Wendy was totally oblivious to. She would act and never takes other family members views or opinions or schedules into consideration. While for some things it is just inconvenient or annoying, unilateral decisions on other things has big consequences for how we interact and operate as a family.
During those times of stress, Wendy won’t be honest with me and getting to the bottom of an issue is extremely difficult. We have been married for twelve years and I can tell by her body language and how she breathes that there is a much larger inner storm raging. I’ll usually try to get a place when just the two of us can talk and I’ll have to ask her about five or six times if something is wrong or if she needs to talk. This worked well for years but over the last year I underestimated the complexity of the problems Wendy was struggling with and the extent of the lies she would tell to cover them up. I also underestimated the desire to self-destruct. This caused me to start fixing things before the problem would really be dealt with. I was thinking we were making progress while the entire time Wendy was struggling even more because she knew she made the problem worse. Over the last year the problems have been 10-20 layers deep and when they all came out, it was overwhelming. Wendy couldn’t process it and I felt lied to and betrayed by Wendy. Also in those cases, Wendy often just decides to end the relationship and lashes out angrily. Part of what I am learning now is how much more complex her problems are and that takes a lot more listening. The other thing is that I learned is that Wendy is going to need ongoing counseling to back up the gains that she makes with her depression for years and years.
At work I see a lot of medication. Homeless shelters and mental health issues go together. Despite all the medication I see, I still have one question, “Why do people who need their medication, stop taking it as soon as something goes wrong?” Wendy doesn’t know the answer either. She struggles taking her medication as do some other friends who have depression. This year I suggested to Wendy she get her medication bubble packed. That didn’t go over well and there was some choice words offered up my way. Later that week when she realized that she had three extra pills left over (out of seven), she agreed that this would be a positive step. It made a difference for a while but then this year Wendy started to actively deceive me in taking her medication. I couldn’t imagine she would do this but in the end she was acting like a lot of the clients at work. It made for some long days at home.
As part of intense stress periods, I always have to ask, sometimes repeatedly, about medication levels and if she is taking them and when she is taking them. The professionals who treat Wendy can prescribe a drug to Wendy but I need to help her stay on those meds and help her assess whether or not they are working or not.
There are good days around the prescription discussion and not so good days. There have been several instances where I’ve noticed a higher state of anxiety and a certain tone in conversation, a withdrawal or unusual comment from Wendy where I know that something is wrong and I need to get to the bottom of it.
After going through this with her, I would also say that I learned that I needed to be a lot more aggressive with her medication. Depression isn’t like being pregnant. You can be a little bit depressed which means that the medication might not be the right one. That was one of my biggest failings of 2009. I should have taken more charge in saying, “something’s not right and it hasn’t been for a while.” Instead I waited and waited until the next dosage increase would come along and say, “hopefully this works”. It’s hard to invite yourself along for Wendy’s doctor’s appointment to contradict Wendy telling her doctor something but I should have done it. It’s a mistake that I won’t make again. Wendy’s doctor has been amazing and I am sure she would tell me to get out if she was tired of what I was saying. Now that Wendy is feeling better, she just asks me if there is anything she should bring up with her doctor. She is seeing her doctor tomorrow and we just took a second to come up with a couple of things to bring up, most have to do with some physical health questions Wendy has (like some sore ribs she has right now).
For years we tried to treat things as just a medical problem. Every time Wendy would struggle, she would blame her medication and to be honest, the medication was a big issue. The anti-depressants could be a crutch but also something to hide behind when things went badly. What she was hiding was the struggles that come from the molestation. This year was the first year that I said, “this isn’t about your medication” at times. It wasn’t an easy call to make. The hard part is trying to figure out whether the issue that we are having is because of the chemical depression, being molested, the problems that come from living with me, job stress, being overtired, being sick, or just being a jerk (hey, we are all at some time). This will be an ongoing struggle for the rest of her life. While the medication (or lack thereof) is a big part of the problem/solution, blaming everything on it wasn’t accomplishing anything either.
Impact on the Family
The stress on me during these times builds and builds. I have to be careful in how I release that stress. I also have to make time for me. I generally tend to walk the 40 minutes to and from work and I often get Mark out of the house as I learn that when Wendy is off her game, their relationship deteriorates quickly as well. I have had to learn that most of what is bothering Wendy has nothing to do with me or our relationship. It has to do with her depression and how she sees herself which affects with how she deals with life when it gets overwhelming. Of course she doesn’t see it like that when she is depressed which makes it more complicated. To be sure, there are those times when I’ve done something wrong or I’m not doing enough or I’m caught up in a project and it causes friction. Just like every other relationship.
Our life is such that we must become adept at crisis management. Home ownership, parenthood and the nature of my work means that things are going to happen, sometimes all at once. There is nothing worse than having her being self-destructive and then getting called into cover a night shift when we are short handed at work or have a major appliance die. I have to be in a good place to have a clear head to deal with whatever life is going to throw at me. This is not easy. This disease has also changed my approach to money. Having money in the bank to handle emergencies takes a lot of the stress out of the family and gives us some freedom to maneuver in a crisis.
I have to have a good amount of sleep to face the next day. Getting enough sleep makes it so much easier to listen and/or take over if Wendy can’t function or starts to dysfunction.
The other thing that I learned was that I needed a professional to talk to. I am an INTJ which mean that I am an undeveloped feeler. I don’t process feelings well at all and I tend just to shut down emotionally because I’d simply rather not deal with what I am feeling. That is what I did with Wendy later this summer. I needed to some help figuring out the complex and complicated feelings I was dealing with and I realize that I was not going to learn the skills in time for me to be useful to Wendy and the boys. Several friends told me that while I need to be there for Wendy, I need to be there for Mark as well. He sees his mom being sick but doesn’t understand it. Helping him to understand what is going on is really important as is helping Wendy understand what Mark is feeling and then working through their issues in a good way.
Despite having the cabin, I never used it to refresh this year. Instead it was a flashpoint for a lot of pain. To be honest, I didn’t want to go to the cabin for Thanksgiving because I was nervous over something else bad was going to happen after this summer. Luckily by that time Wendy was feeling much better and it was a wonderful weekend. I needed to spending more time up there by myself and with the boys. What’s the point of having a retreat when you never go to it. At the same time I was so worried about Wendy… I plan to get better at this in 2010.
One of the biggest and most detrimental side effects to being a partner of someone with a mental illness is that it changes the nature of the relationship. The medication and the therapy continue to help, but the disease is always there. There are days where the agenda is totally controlled by the depression. Actually let’s be honest, there are months where the agenda is totally controlled by the depression. This adds a burden to any relationship and ours is no different. One of the hardest things to write, is that Wendy’s illness means that sometimes she can’t be there for me when I need her. It just makes life lonely which is perhaps on of the reasons why I have become more of an introvert over the last five years, on the bad days it dominates every aspect of the day. It is just a side affect of the disease. It’s not Wendy being mean or ignorant, it’s that the disease is all-consuming and some days it kick’s her ass.
With Wendy back on medication that was working and seeing a counselor, I had to ask myself if I wanted to rebuild our marriage. I did make a vow to her and before our friends, family and God that I would stick together and that kept me from leaving but I also realized that I needed to figure out whether or not I wanted to keep building a relationship together or just resign myself to going through the motions of a marriage. That was a bigger decision than I thought as I had lost hope that it was going to get better. Complicating the decision is that Wendy default is to “live a loveless marriage” so part of moving forward was taking the huge risk that Wendy wanted to move forward and fix what is broke.
The easy route would have been just to go through the motions. Walking through a lot of the past has not been a lot of fun for either one of us. Living with someone who has depression is hard but on top of that finding out a lot more of her struggles with the sex abuse and the actions that came from that was horrible on both of us. It was tough on me but horrific on Wendy as he had to confront and then relive things she hadn’t told anyone and was deeply ashamed of. Coincidently enough during this time, Theo Fleury came out about what Graham James did to him. Some of the pundits who were criticizing Fleury for keeping his story secret were the saying the same things that Wendy heard for years.
In the end the last several years have not been a lot of fun. Finally getting to the point where Wendy is functioning in the house again has been excellent for all of us. Wendy’s and mine relationship has changed for the better and so has Wendy’s and Mark’s. If I didn’t care about Wendy, or wasn’t willing to do the work that a relationship demands, I’d be worse off in my life. Living with Wendy is worth it. Being a family is worth it. Since Wendy’s medication has stabilized her, it has been a lot easier. I am not met at the door with a request for a divorce and a question about what kind of pizza I want in the same breath nearly as much. Also, Wendy has been struggling with her depression for so long that having her back to her own self again is very different. I joke with her that is like having a mistress that my wife is okay with.
The Challenge of Finding Help
The most frustrating part of this was to find help for Wendy. At work I have a lot of resources at my disposal through the Salvation Army and other agencies. The reality is that there was little help available for Wendy because she wasn’t homeless, violent, or suicidal. Her doctor referred her initially to a psychiatrist and that took over
a year 18 months to hear from back from them. While Wendy and I have good Employee Assistance Programs, finding someone for her to talk to wasn’t that easy. Some of the firms recommended were not ones that I had confidence in. So we tracked down a highly respected therapist in Saskatoon and despite Wendy being finally open to see someone after years of refusing to do it, we were told it was a three month wait. She asked me at that point, what she should do and I just said, “It’s been a bad ten years of marriage, what’s another three months?” It was a hard search to find help.
In some cases one would be able to turn to one’s family for help. In our case that isn’t an option which is just a reality we have to accept. Some families can help and others will make it worse. If you have family who can be part of the solution, it is a wonderful gift. If the family is part of the problem, then you have to do what you have to do. In our case, Wendy doesn’t have anything to do with them anymore.
To the people out there who scoff at mental health awareness and treatment; You aren’t helping and you don’t know what you are talking about. (I’m talking to you Tom Cruise as well) By telling your loved one, partner, child or co-worker that they need to “get over it” you are making the problem worse and making it harder for them. They won’t get over it until you encourage them to seek help and treatment. There are many different approaches and ways to treat mental diseases and conditions and it is a hard path to take even with the support and help of families.