On the blog, “Storied Mind,” one of my favorite posts is “The Longing to Leave.” It’s one of the most insightful pieces I’ve ever read about how depression can really mess up a marriage. Because when a person plummets into a depression, his first reaction is to look around himself–at those things that are standing in front of him (wife, boss, kids)–and to blame them for his pain.
Awhile back I had coffee with a girlfriend who was camping out in the Black Hole. She kept on asking me, “Maybe it’s my marriage …”
“Did you have these questions, these concerns, a few months ago when you were feeling more stable?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied.
“Then I wouldn’t analyze your marriage right now, in the middle of a depression. Wait until you feel less emotional to process some of your worries.”
John from Storied Mind says much of the same in this eloquent post.
The longing to leave one’s intimate partner brings out something that isn’t much discussed in descriptions of depression. It is the active face of the illness. We often focus on the passive symptoms, the inactivity, the isolation, sense of worthlessness, disruption of focused thought, lack of will to do anything. But paradoxically the inner loss and need can drive depressed people to frenzied action to fill the great emptiness in the center of their lives. They may long to replace that inadequate self with an imagined new one that makes up for every loss.
My experience with this phase of illness occurred when I had only limited awareness of the hold depression had on me. That may be a key to understanding the dynamic and how to respond to someone in the grip of this drive to turn life upside down. Unhappy without knowing why, I had to find an explanation, and the easiest way to do that was to look outward. I could only see my present life, my wife, my work as holding me back, frustrating my deepest desires. In effect, I was blaming everyone but me for my misery. In that state, I could only focus on the promise of leaving, finding a new mate, new work, new everything.
Every suggestion my wife might make that there was something wrong with me only brought the angriest denial. Every time she said how much she loved me only felt like a demand that I stay stuck in this unfulfilling life and do what she wanted me to do. I knew so clearly that I was not the problem, certainly not sick but for the first time on the verge of escaping into the exciting life I should have been living all along.
There is something very close to the power of addiction in the fantasy of escape. I found it almost impossible to see through the dreams of a new life. It meant so much – my survival as a person seemed to be at stake. Unaware of the full effect of depression, blocking out what my wife and others were trying to tell me, I inflicted a lot of pain on my family, thinking that I had to be brutally honest in order to save myself. Fortunately, as I noted in the last post on this subject, I had been through enough work in therapy to have glimmers of the truth, and that helped me step back from the brink.
I’m not big on offering advice, but the potentially devastating impacts of depressed people on those closest to them leads me to go a bit beyond just reflecting on what I’ve been through.
If you’re trying to deal with the sudden transformation of an intimate partner, get help, starting with friends and family. You’ve likely felt such a deep assault and wound that it would be easy to get lost in the sheer humiliation, hurt and anger of the experience, searching for what you’ve done wrong, what you could do or say to set things right. That’s a trap set for you by the voice of depression. That voice tries to persuade you, just as it has persuaded your loved one, that it’s your fault. Not true. It’s your partner’s illness that’s at the root of it. Those closest to you and your partner have doubtless noticed something strange and may have been hurt as well by new behavior. That will remind you that you’re not alone in this.
And remember that you can’t cure someone else with your words and love. They only backfire. At most, you can help your partner gradually gain awareness. It will take the combined influence of you and many others to get a depressed person to start seeing a different explanation for what’s wrong. Only your partner can do the heavy lifting. Only your partner can experience the inner change of thought and feeling that comes with the recognition that there is an illness to be dealt with.