Coping, If You Will: Depression and Relationships

Q. I’m struggling to solve things with my boyfriend. He is an amazing person with whom I hope to spend my life. But lately I have been suffering from depression. It has negatively affected his life, since we live together, and we are trying now to work through it. Part of the source of this problem is the feeling that I can’t complain or be “negative” in any way around him. When I need to talk to him about something sad or difficult (which has been a lot these last few weeks), he often distances himself from me afterward (at the exact moment when I feel relieved and intimate!) He never comes to me with any problems; it seems like he just hates to ever have to deal with something unhappy. My anxiety about this perpetuates the cycle of not wanting to talk to him. We just finished a conversation wherein I expressed my belief that I am beginning to recover well, after which he said he needed space. I am happy to give him the space to process, but I feel like I’m not effectively communicating to him that I need him to change his behavior, too. I don’t want to live in fear of anything “negative” throwing him into detachment mode. The irony, of course, is I’m the one who has admitted that I need to develop better coping mechanisms right now. Unfortunately we do not have access to affordable counseling in our current location. We both feel as though we need space from each other but again, unfortunately, neither of us has anywhere to go but to our shared home after work. Can you give me any concrete advice for how to improve the situation? I have so much respect and love for my partner, and I just feel like our relationship is disintegrating around me.

A. Sweetness, it sounds like you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Or rather, he is the rock and you are the hard place.

I don’t wish depression and anxiety on anyone, certainly not my worst enemies. A deadly combo, depression and anxiety are a tag team that have no interest in who you are, what you look like, or where you come from. They are only intent on fucking you up, royal hand style. I think Wil Wheaton described the draining beasts the best:

It’s like I was in a loud room for so long, I didn’t know how loud it was. And all I have now is the ringing in my ears.

Depression makes everything feel like an overwhelming sound wave, but at the same time, everything is muted grey. The volume has all of the sudden been turned up to thirty and it is all you can do to not completely shut down, and yet, you can’t actually hear anything. Everything is just “stuck,” even as life still rapidly moves on beside you, and all you can see is what lies directly in front of you, courtesy of your blinders. A short-sighted perspective is in turn taken for concrete evidence of your failure. Even if depression is well-managed and you can feel yourself crawling out the muck, the echoes of depression always remain — really. Your brain cells have been physically changed; old synapses have died and new synapses that connect depression to a survivalist state have grown in their place. The new maps now point much more easily to the old roads of no return where all that internal muck happens to lay.

Oh, and did I also mention that depression, like being fat or chronically ill, is not only something that people tend to fear and revile, but think could never, ever, ever happen to them? As if such situations are the made up parts of a clever imagination, doused with attention seeking or an excuse for something or other. It’s either not real, or maybe you are just being lazy. Perhaps you can just get over it. Or really, can you stop just being so negative? Oh, the negativity — that old trap. This is a familiar song and dance, mostly because anyone with depression has not only heard all of these, but if you are someone with depression in close proximity with another human being, you have most likely been told, “You’re being negative.” It’s a sharp little pain that tends to hurt quite deeply, this comment of trivial misunderstanding, but even as I say this, I’d like to pitch for the other corner for a moment. Follow me, if you will.

Think of depression as if you happened to be wearing twenty sweaters in the middle of summer. It is hot. Too hot. Why is it you have on twenty sweaters? Honestly, you might be better off not asking why, because it doesn’t change the situation at hand. Enter your partner, emotional support platform and cheerleader. So you ask them to take a sweater off so you can not feel so hot. Your partner puts the sweater on, and while you feel lighter already, your partner now has the added sweater, adding to their own temperature. Add some more sweaters, and well, that is what depression can feel like for a partner. Is it fair? No. Is it what your situation is? Yes.

This doesn’t mean that your partner shouldn’t be willing to take a sweater every now and then, but you can’t shed your sweaters all on your partner, which is what seems to be happening. You might be reading this right now and thinking, “Hey, that’s blaming! You don’t know what I’m dealing with.” ” It’s his fault for being so uncaring!” These things may all be true, but none of these things solve your problem. Your problem might be that you have a partner that is isolating right now and that you both need space, but your real problem? The problem that deserves help above all things? It’s dealing with your depression.

Coping is good, but coping is not the answer. Like ringing in the ears, depression never gets “cured” and neither will yours by looking for ways to just improve the current scenario. Even at your best, depression always lives in the back of your heart and head, waiting for the moment when it can quietly slip its fingers into the corners of your mind, slowly, but surely camouflaging its way back into your life. It waits for the day at the supermarket when you are feeling stressed out and tired, and the cashier was so rude to you and it must be for a reason right? Or could it be that you were passed over for that thing you really wanted so, so badly and you didn’t get it because you aren’t good enough, right? Your relationship isn’t going well, so therefore you have failed as a person, therefore, you need to meditate on why you are such a bad person. Depression is not interested in going anywhere, my love. Unlike your partner, who may or may not stay, depression is married to you, whether you like it or not.

However, this doesn’t mean the end. It just means that you need to find a way to crawl out of the language of depression and speak your own. Depression clouds your vision and makes the worst outcome seem like the only answer. In my own depression, nothing ever seemed possible and my own mole hills, which I normally could find a solution to, grew into The Nanga Parbat. Located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan, Nanga Parbat is the ninth largest mountain in the world, with a summit elevation of 26,660 ft. It cuts through the normally flat landscape with an immense, dramatic peak, sticking out of the surrounding terrain like a sore thumb. The Nanga Parbat is one of the most notorious and difficult climbs, with tender souls whose deaths litter the peaks. Instead of keeping up with numbers, the famed spot has instead given way to the nickname “killer mountain.” The Nanga Parbat is not gentle and does not care to leave survivors. Like depression, it is indifferent to all those who come in contact with it, not caring any which way whether or not one survives or dies upon it alone.

You could say that my depression, my own Nanga Parbat, that metaphorical mountain of sadness, was what represented everything that my depression told me I couldn’t do or wasn’t feasible or put barriers in my pathway. It had no interest in whether or not I stayed alive or died. If it could speak, I’m sure it would have echoed something like this: “You cannot afford this. You cannot do this. You have no options. Just go lay down and die. You deserve it. You deserve nothing.” It was, if you will, an impenetrable climb. But translate the actual language, and you will find that Nanga Parbat does not actually mean killer mountain, but Naked Mountain. That mountain that you are staring at so desperately, the one with no options and the, “Can’t, can’t, can’t” ? You have to look at it for what it is, naked and all. Don’t let the height get in the way.

You say you both need space, but you imply that you have nowhere to go. Do you really have nowhere to go or does your depression say you have nowhere to go? Remember, depression chips away at your perspective, and mole hills really do become mountains, and understandably so. You talk about improving the situation, but the only control you have over anything here? The only thing that connects you to your big, overwhelming, naked mountain and getting across it? That would be you. Forget about space. Forget about what he needs to do and what you don’t, can’t, aren’t able to do. If you wanna change anything about the state of your home and your life you have got to start climbing — alone. It isn’t gonna be easy. And it certainly won’t be pleasant. But it is the only thing you have control over right now.

Climb the mountain. You won’t be able to move forward if you don’t.

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