Loving someone who battles depression is like loving two people who are engaged in a constant struggle with each other.
When I was a little girl, I had a crush on the Incredible Hulk. An actual crush. On the big green guy. Most girls at the time had a crush on Shaun Cassidy, but really, his feathered hair, satin jacket and syrupy assurances of the magic of love just did nothing for me. I liked Bruce Banner, with his brilliant mind, his dark soul, and what would later appear to be a form of depression that turned him into someone else. Someone he fought to avoid, to shed, but who was every bit as much a part of him as his brilliant mind. I loved them both, Bruce and The Hulk.
Now that I know the adult version of me, it all seems so obvious. I am drawn to brilliant men, men who can save the world in their own way, but often struggle to save themselves from the greatest enemy of all; themselves.
I have no propensity for depression. None. My ex-husband and I used to joke that you could stand us both in a sunny field of flowers with a nuclear reactor on the horizon and I would only see the flowers, he would only see impending death and destruction. I would remark on how great the sun felt on my shoulders, he would ache with how horrible it will be when the sun goes away.
I will never stop loving him. I will never stop seeing the amazing man that he is. I sometimes forget that he battles with mental health issues that paralyze him. To some extent it’s because we don’t live together any more. But it’s also because it is so easy for me to see that he is brilliant, kind, generous, funny, creative and one of the most amazing men I’ve ever known.
That’s not what he sees.
I see Bruce Banner. He sees the Hulk.
And I am afraid that the Hulk will kill him.
We don’t talk about men and mental health much. Instead, we focus mostly on the heroic aspects of masculinity. We continue to define “a real man” as someone who is strong, tough, independent, a good provider, the kind of person who rescues you from a storm and makes everything better.
And, of course, we never really teach boys that things like fear, anxiety, uncertainty and the need to feel intimacy are human needs. While we let little girls have feelings and express them, we tell little boys to “man up” and get on with it.
It’s bad enough, really, that these people we love, these humans, have to deal with the soul-decaying reality of depression and anxiety and all they bring with them, but it is the shame that I believe ultimately kills them.
Depression can be, after all, a fatal disease.
Those of us who have been tossed in its throes know that it is a disease. You can watch it eat someone alive, just like cancer. You can watch their skin go pale, their eyes deaden, their dreams disappear or turn into nightmares. You watch them lose weight, or gain weight. They just change, when it gets them.
I call it “Cancer of the Soul.”
But we still live in a world that likes to think it’s a choice. Someone can just buck up, man up, stand up and get on with it.
A choice? Why on earth would anyone choose this?
Depression ends marriages, loses jobs, destroys bodies and minds. No one would choose this. No one in their right mind, anyway. I know that sometimes it looks like people are choosing it, addiction looks that way, right? But no, no one in their right mind would choose that. They are not in their right mind.
But all this judging adds shame to the equation. And shame brings with it the confirmation that you aren’t good enough, are pretty much worthless, may as well quit because this is as good as it gets, and this is awful.
Shame is louder than love. All of my soothing reassurances don’t dim the din of depression’s rage, and shame’s cackling cacophony. I get mad. I get mad at “him.” Because even I can’t yell directly at a disease, I don’t know where its ears are.
And my anger makes it worse. My anger becomes proof that he is bad. Even though I am angry because he can’t see how good he is.
Shame is an excuse not to get help – it’s all your fault anyway. Shame is an excuse not to get better – what’s the point, you’re worthless anyway. Shame is a way to blame other people, rather than the disease, after all, no one shames someone with cancer, or diabetes, so depression must not be a real disease, if people are shaming you for it.
It’s sick. It’s sick what we do to people with depression.
It is November. Almost Thanksgiving.
My ex-husband is very sick. And I still love him very much. He is also the father of my daughter, and she loves him very much. But he is sick again. He is out of remission. The cancer is eating his soul again.
My daughter is downstairs eating Mac-n-Cheese. When she came up and asked if we could go to the store to get some, her eyes were red. How was I going to say “no?” She knows I don’t believe in Mac-n-Cheese. She also knows that these are special times.
My daughter, who has my general disposition, remarked that it was too bad we’d already worked out today, because her first impulse was to work it out in the gym. Mac-n-Cheese was the second. (Note to self: she does not exhibit her father’s propensity for addiction, seeing as she recognized that working out again was excessive.) (Note to self: at some point, you have to stop watching her every move and wondering if she is developing his disease. Her DNA is only half his, the rest is you.)
I am used to handling things. Good at it, even. It is when my optimism is the most useful, manifesting as practical things that pave the path to tomorrow. As it clicks in, I notice the things I do more carefully in crisis than in regular times.
- Keep my phone plugged in so I have battery life to deal.
- Eat, so I have energy to deal, which is in stark contrast to regular stress, during which I can’t eat.
- Switch from coffee to tea, I need to not be manic and flighty, just in case.
- Shower in the morning, in case it’s a while before I get a chance again.
- Pay attention to the time, in case it matters.
- Check other people’s schedules, in case I need help.
Things are so clear. So linear. Do this. Then this. Then this. There is a sense of progress and accomplishment in simply making it to the next moment.
This time, it will work. I am excited. This is it. Things will get better from here.
I know it.
It is February. Almost Superbowl time.
Months have passed, now. Things are different now. Big things. I have seen real changes, real progress. Things I believed possible, but at times, I was the only one who believed.
It’s a pattern I know well. It goes back to childhood. I know how to believe it will get better.
Looking back at the men I have loved, not a single one of them was without demons. Not one. I don’t know if this dates back to my girlhood crush on The Hulk, and that shaped my “type.” Or maybe it’s true what they say, that creative genius is often coupled with dark demons. I know that I value brains and creativity of spirit above almost all else. Well, that and kindness, which seems inextricably paired with a sensitive soul.
Or maybe all men are like this. Or can be? Is my sample skewed, or do people just open up to me?
The Seahawks won the Superbowl yesterday, and we were all together. My dad. My husband, my ex-husband and a collection of guys who are so close they may as well be family. We yelled and screamed and cheered and high-fived. And I looked at these men, all of them. They are what I love: brilliant, kind, creative, generous, adventurous, sensitive. They all have demons.
And I am happy. Because we have each other.
This is normal. And right. And real. So much of the shame around depression is the belief that everyone else is happy, is having an easier time of it, is comfortable and getting what they want.
So much of happiness is knowing that’s not true.
Happily ever after is a myth. Happy with right now is a skill.
I don’t know if he looked around the room the same way I did. And thought “these people love me, this is my life, there is abundance.” But I hope so.
It is not easy to love someone with cancer of the soul. But it is worth it. It is not simple. It is not predictable. I have had to learn that “I will love you forever” is not the same as “I will be married to you forever.” I have had to learn to take care of myself so that I have the energy to care for others. I have done things to protect myself that may seem selfish to others, but I have learned the value of taking care of myself. It is why I can care for others.
I have been given some of the greatest gifts of my life from him and his depression. And I will, forever, think it is worth my energy to love and care for him.
And I still totally have a crush on The Hulk.
* Note: I did run this piece past my ex-husband before publishing it, and he loved it. I hope that courtesy would be obvious, but I’m stating it, just in case.