Anyone who's ever been married knows that making a relationship last is hard. When two people marry, they try to build a life together that often involves differences of opinion on living habits, money trouble, kids, and so on. Even something as simple as sharing a toothpaste tube can make a relationship difficult. (Just ask my wife about the importance of squeezing from the bottom of the tube.) But throw depression into the mix and it transforms the level of marital difficulty from the this is pretty hard category into oh sh*t, this is nearly impossible.
My wife, Casey, and I have been married for 13 years. Like most long-lasting relationships, our marriage has been hard and we’ve faced our share of difficulties and near-misses. Making it to our 13th anniversary (the unlucky 13th anniversary, as my wife would say) wouldn’t have been possible had I not tried really hard to understand and deal with my wife’s severe depression.
The first time I experienced my wife's depression (yes, helping someone through their depression can really only be described as an "experience") was a few weeks after we met. She came over to my apartment late at night, and without much warning or reason, burst into tears. She cried "ugly tears," as we called them, with every bit of energy within her. I pulled my soon-to-be wife into my arms and we sat together on the couch (while she sobbed) until we both fell asleep.
At the time, I didn’t know what depression was. I had no clue that depression was even a disease, a disease that can take complete control of someone’s mind and wreak havoc. I believed that a person could simply choose to be happy, and I assumed my wife, too, could choose to be happy if she wanted to - and yet, for some unexplainable reason, she was choosing to be sad.
The beginning of our marriage included many tear-filled episodes. Throughout the entire second year, my wife stayed home (voluntarily: she was not fired or unable to get a job) mostly because of her depression. Getting out of the house to do anything was too much for her, and most of her days were filled with tears and sadness. Four years in, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, I came home from work and found her basically unconscious with empty pill bottles on the bed. She tried to commit suicide while pregnant with our child. I rushed her to the hospital and she spent the next week in a psych ward trying to deal with her depression.
I don’t know when the light bulb finally came on. When I look back now, I can't pinpoint the moment when I finally began to understand the disease. There was no Oprah ah-ha moment. I didn't go to a class on depression and I didn't read any books on depression. Instead, I started to recognize the signs of my wife's different stages of the disease, and through trial and error, started to notice which actions actually helped and which ones made her depression worse. We also started talking more about depression and how she felt when struggling with it. Eventually, I began to understand what depression does to a person and that my wife's actions while going through it weren't her fault.
Now, I approach my wife’s depression as if it isn’t part of our marriage. I view it as a disease that takes control of my wife’s brain and renders her temporarily incapacitated. Does a son blame his dad who suffers from Alzheimer’s from forgetting who he is? No. Similarly, the woman who sleeps through the day and sobs through the night isn’t really my wife. My wife is in there somewhere, but the hurt and the struggle and pain that affects both of us isn’t caused by my wife. Her inability to do things like dress the kids, go to the grocery store, or even something as simple as showing love isn’t her fault and it isn’t her choice. She isn’t choosing to feel the way she feels, and allowing something that she can't control damage our marriage is unfair to both of us.
Living with (and raising kids with) someone who struggles with depression is difficult. There are weeks at a time where my wife will struggle just to get out of bed, leaving me as a single parent of two kids. Also, when the stresses of everyday life hit me, I can't go to my wife with my struggles because she can't mentally help me cope with them. A few years ago, as a criminal defense attorney, I represented an individual who had been accused of molesting a child. The stresses that came with that case were immense. Because of the nature of the crime he was accused of, they weren't typical courtroom-related stresses, they were very dark and emotional feelings that impacted my mood and my quality of life. I often found myself awake for hours in the middle of the night worrying about the case. When I tried to get help from my wife, it was too much for her. She mentally couldn't handle it. I needed her more at that time than I had at any other time in our marriage, and it just wasn't possible for her to be there for me.
The most painful part of being married to Casey, however, is her complete lack of affection when she is depressed. When she's suffering, there are no I love you's and no hugs goodbye or kisses hello. Depression sucks the love out of her life and it's hard not to take that personally. I still struggle sometimes to know if her lack of affection is coming from the depression or if she has just fallen out of love with me.
Viewing depression in an objective manner has saved my marriage. Managing the family and life without my wife's help at times is very difficult and stressful. And it isn't always easy to take an objective view of my wife's depression, but understanding her disease has allowed us to work through the episodes and come out of them without much marital damage. And although I think the approach we take has helped us eliminate most of the damage depression can do to our family, our two young daughters don't always understand why their mom stays in bed all day and isn't interested in seeing them in those moments. Helping our kids understand depression the way I have is our next step, and I know we'll get through it like we always do.
Editorial note: My wife has been struggling with depression for the majority of her life. Her episodes of depression vary and (aside from the gloomy Indiana winters) there are no patterns as to when they come and go. She can go 6 months at a time without suffering any effects from depression, and when she has an episode, it can last anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks. Because this article glosses over 13 years of marriage, it would be easy to assume that my wife is constantly in a depressive state, which would not be an accurate assumption. My wife also receives help from doctors and she has been on medication throughout our marriage, but depression doesn't come with a magic on/off switch. So, although she receives medicinal and medical help, there are still times when we have to deal with this disease in our marriage.