This Valentine’s Day something beautiful and wonderful and marvellous happened in our home – my Mrs. took over Valentine’s Day. I’m not being sarcastic and no I’m not trying to make some masculist statement about gender equality and romantic gestures. Rather, my wife’s efforts nearly brought me to tears as they marked another milestone in her climb out of the dark clouds of clinical depression.
Before clinical depression hit our home, I would have been one of those uninformed people that thought depression and deep sadness were synonyms. I remember saying things like “you’ve got a nice home, a good job, great kids, and a husband that loves you. What is there to be ‘funked’ about?” Being totally vulnerable here, I suspect that one of the reasons I pursued romantic gestures in our relationship so vigorously was that I felt I might be able to make my Mrs. “un-depressed” by providing her with happy moments. In retrospect, that’s a little like thinking I could cure arthritis in a joint by massaging it. My efforts helped with the pain of the symptoms, for a moment, but I had no hope of curing the disease.
Clinical depression is not simply accentuated sadness. Unlike situational depression – deep sadness brought on quickly by a break-up, a death of a loved one, or similar – clinical depression is, at its core, a chemical imbalance in the brain. In my Mrs. case, we can trace the roots of this imbalance to some genetic predisposition, triggered ultimately by preeclampsia and the birth of our children, and accentuated by long term stress in a “life or death” type job.
It snuck up on us. My Mrs. didn’t wake up one morning in tears and unable to cope. Rather, it built slowly over time… the proverbial frog in the boiling pot. Looking back, all the signs were there. At its worst, my Mrs. walked through life feeling disconnected from the family, a black cloud over her life and ability to connect. Even things that once made her happy did little to improve her mood – on the outside she presented less sad; more numb. There was weight gain and “flop on the couch” fatigue. We started losing touch with friends. She would work all day answering the phone and making important decisions, but couldn’t even pick up the phone to order pizza at home. I was not allowed to buy her flowers, as she did not feel worthy. She became irritable over the simplest of things. So yes, the signs were there, but it took us 12 years to recognize those symptoms for what they were.
Looking back at it now, I think we were blessed that our general outlooks on life really meshed even in the tough times. For example, my Mrs. is duty driven and had witnessed a lot as an ER nurse. So, even when she was in the depths of the worst depression, she kept chugging along. Even when she was thinking suicidal thoughts (something I found out about later), she never once considered actually going through with it because of her sense of duty and love for her family. Too many times she had seen the consequences for the “left behind” and knew that, if she committed suicide, she would be increasing the likelihood that our children would also consider suicide in the future. That was not acceptable to her.
For me, I was blessed to be a stay at home dad at the time (consulting from home) and being a dad was something I took/take very seriously. Dad/Husband is still my number one job and because I was at home, I was able to do my best at making sure my Mrs.’ black cloud didn’t affect the kids. (Aside: Apparently it worked. They would later say they had no clue.) For example, I knew that if one thing was out of place when she got home, my Mrs. would lose it and yell at us in anger. So, before she came home we always played the 60 second tidy game. In my gut, I was nervous every time the clock approached quitting time. For the kids, they thought it was all for fun. If something was out of place and there was wrath to be taken, I always made sure I was the target. It was “my fault.”
As strange as it seems, through all of this, I knew in my heart that my Mrs. loved me and I still loved her. We were committed to staying together for life and work through the “for worse” parts of marriage. That did not change. That said, at more than one point I thought of moving out of the house to recharge. Usually at those moments I’d let it all out, cry a little and/or “let her have it.” My Mrs. would then “pull up her socks” again for as long as she could (that duty instinct) and we’d continue chugging along. This cyclone continued like this, building in intensity for about 12 years.
Our bandage approach could not carry on forever. Fortunately, providence would shine on me in the form of a TV ad describing the symptoms of clinical depression. I watched the ad, checking off the symptoms in my head. Armed with this new knowledge, I approached my Mrs. with the possibility that this might relate to her problems. Initially, my words were ignored but the seeds were planted.
Not too long after, things came to a head. One day while driving to church, I “changed lanes wrong” and in the following unsettled state, I stopped at a green. My Mrs. flipped out. At that moment, the light went on for her and she realized… “Hey, why am I so angry. This isn’t normal!” She went to see a psychiatrist shortly thereafter. The effects of the medication were almost immediate. “It’s not like all of a sudden I was happy all the time. Rather, now I was able to be happy at happy times and sad at sad times.”
All of this is now just part of our story. Having identified the monster together, we are stronger for it. I feel no anger, only sadness that my Mrs. spent so many years not feeling part of the family. I also occasionally feel some guilt that I didn’t spot the symptoms earlier.
If any part of this story rings true for you, don’t delay. Take action now. Don’t let the years slip by living in that gray cloud. Seeking treatment is not a sign of failing. Medication is not a sign of weakness. Like diabetes, I believe that clinical depression is something that may initially need to be treated with medication* but know that it can be significantly reduced long term via diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices. Shop around for a professional that is the right fit for you. Seek recommendations from friends. I would try to find a therapist who is OK with meds, but one who also believes strongly in the emerging field of “behavioural activation.” Be vulnerable. Move forward. Don’t give up.
So where are we now? Treating depression does not make it go away overnight, if ever. Each day is a new day to try and risk a little more and take baby steps forward. My Mrs. is still claustrophobic and psuedo-agoraphobic… or more precisely phobic of being around adults… but just this year we hosted adults for board games at our house. It may not seem like much, but it was a huge step forward for my heartmate. Inviting adults into her personal space was a big deal. She also bought runners and socks before Christmas and is now occasionally running with me. As little as a year ago, I would have said that would never happen.
And flowers? During the time she was depressed I wasn’t even allowed to buy flowers for her as she would later say they made her feel unworthy. Now flowers are the one present I am not allowed to purchase for another women because they are that precious to her. And occasionally she’ll buy them for herself.
There is a verse that says “God will not test us beyond what we are able.” We came close a few times, but in staying committed to staying together, it forced us to look for solutions. Some have been very long term, but in the end we conquered together and are a stronger couple for it. Perfect, no. In love? Totally. I can honestly say I love her more today than when we were first married.
So this V Day, when my Mrs. agreed to woo me – the V stood for victory – another small battle won in a war still raging. Her ability to make choices and her obvious care were deeply meaningful reminders that we are winning. And I couldn’t be happier or more in love.
Thank you Mrs. for the ultimate #romancewin.
For more information, see: http://psychcentral.com/disorders/depression/
Depression screening test: http://psychcentral.com/depquiz.htm
* Medication frequently has side-effects. In our case they were very nominal and well worth the minor inconvenience. The potential for suicide puts everything into perspective. In my Mrs.’ case the meds virtually eliminated suicidal thoughts. It should be noted, meds can actually have the opposite effect in some cases, especially in teens. If medication scares you, that is not an excuse to avoid treatment. There are therapists who have had long term success without them. Shop around for what works for you but go into it knowing that every case of depression is different – what worked for someone else, may not work for you. Be willing to find what is right for you.
Update: There is hope! See http://ratedgromance.com/2011/10/23/at-depressions-end/ .