My Pet Demon, Part Three: Collateral Damage

I know the feeling.

It's not easy loving a person who's living with depression. In the throes of an attack by the shadow demon, depressed people become irrational, spiraling down into a bottomless pit of despair. No lifeline is long enough to haul them out, and they may even turn angrily upon those who would try to ease their minds by talking some common sense about the fears they're expressing. Sometimes it becomes apparent the depression victim just needs to be alone, but communicating that truth can be perceived as rejection, a terrifying feeling to have when you're already convinced of your own worthlessness.

Now imagine being married to that person.

I've been in relationships with people who suffered from depression, both situational and clinical, and it's no picnic. But that's not why I'm writing this today. If you've read either of the previous parts of this series, you know I've had an off-and-on relationship not just with depressed people, but with depression. And I feel the need to make some amends.

The depression I experienced was concentrated in the years between my fifteenth and fortieth birthdays. Lest you think I was always in a depressed state, I'll be more specific: my most depressed years were 1976-78, 1982, 1985-88, 1991-93, and 1999-2000. If you really know my history, you know that this timeline actually excludes the year my first marriage came apart. Bear that in mind as I continue.

Depression for me was an intellectual-emotional vortex. I would perceive myself to be victimized or rejected, which would lead to negative self-statements and a gloomy attitude which, in turn, made me far less attractive to people whose approval or affection I desired. That was followed by more feelings of rejection, making me even less interesting to be around, and so I would sink into a pit of self-fulfilling prophecies. The stimulus for these attacks could be interpersonal or professional. For example, after three different girls said "no" to my prom proposal, my self-esteem was so shattered that I didn't make any further attempts at dating until grad school. Not having a dating life, I felt lonely and unfulfilled. College friendships and parties helped salve that loneliness, but still I couldn't help wondering what was wrong with me that I was now in my 20s and had never had a girlfriend--without, ironically, putting two and two together and realizing it was my own damn fault for not taking the initiative to shop around for someone else to date, suffer through awkward dates that didn't work, and finally find someone I was truly compatible with. That's the positive, constructive approach to not having a social life. Instead, I opted for feeling helplessness and being depressed, railing against the unfairness of living in a culture where men had to do all the asking out.

Now, honestly: if you were a female friend of mine in 1982, and I unloaded this nonsense on you, would you be even remotely interested in going out with me? No, I thought not. You'd be much more likely (I hope) to do as one such friend did, and strongly encourage me to head over to the health center and find myself a counselor.

That's not what I did, though. Mostly through college and grad school, I was content with my life, especially when the group of friends I made my freshman year, and kept all the way through graduation and beyond, were together. We constituted an intimate, supportive community, one that I still miss. In grad school, mostly cut off from that community, I had to find my own way, which I did, beginning some friendships which, unfortunately, never had the time to mature: I was only in Urbana-Champaign for nine months. Had it taken me another year to earn that degree, I might well have emerged a far more confident young adult.

Instead, I plunged into the adult world still inadequately prepared both to be a teacher and to function as a bachelor. I had a disastrous year that drove me away from education and back to the academy, and started seminary at the age of 24 with still less dating experience than most 16-year-olds, still nursing the wounds of being rejected by a profession I'd spent five years of university education training for, thousands of miles from home in a hectic city that didn't speak English the same way I did.

Two months of sinking as deeply into the pit as I'd ever been finally convinced me to take that advice I'd been given three years earlier: I started counseling. Unfortunately--and this is part of the intellectual-emotional side of my demon--I wasn't being honest with either the therapist or myself about why I was there. I never mentioned the word "depression." Rather, I talked about feeling like I was never going to have a relationship. The counselor took me at my word, and began coaxing me toward dating casually, going out to a movie, a concert, dinner. He suggested I date someone a few years older than myself, with experience. I had a couple of awkward dates with fellow students, but nothing was clicking yet.

And then I stumbled into my first relationship: two weeks with a study partner who, frustrated at my cluelessness at her interest in me, made the first move.

As I said, it only lasted two weeks. But it was a breakthrough. Stung by the breakup, I moped for a week or two, then was invited to watch a movie with another fellow student. I found this woman much easier to talk to, and she seemed to feel the same way about me: our conversations got longer and longer. Finally I asked her to a movie. Then another. And then it took off.

This was my first really passionate romance. After two months, I found myself worrying about whether it could last. I certainly didn't want it to end. So I proposed.

We were both young and inexperienced in the ways of romance. We are also both seminary students. And while I was insecure and nervous about all things romantic, I had no doubts at all about my abilities as an academic. Since I was so at ease in this one area that dominated so much of the lives we were both living, I came across as confident, strong, and virile: a real catch. She accepted my proposal, and despite some rough spots, we had a very solid first six months of marriage.

And then we went on internship in rural Illinois, and the bottom fell out.

I was lonely, needy, insecure. My awkwardness in social settings was a liability. My anxiety around making phone calls and home visits really, if I was being honest with myself, disqualified me for the work of pastoral ministry. And I was honest with myself: I wrote long process notes about experiences I'd had that questioned whether what I was doing was effective or legitimate, leading my supervising minister to worry that I was psychologically unfit. The demon that had been in hiding during the first, endorphin-flushed year of our relationship burst out into the open, and I had no counselor to talk to.

Instead, I dumped it all on my young wife. Like me, she had no previous relationships save that of her parents to compare our marriage to. She did what she could to be supportive, but she was completely out of her depth, especially when I would insist on talking out my fears and frustrations until 1 and 2 in the morning. Eventually, I worked my way out of the pit, pushing the demon back into its closet where it remained, except for a few brief episodes, until our last year of seminary.

But the damage had already been done. Worse than that, patterns had been established: when the demon came back in full force, I would turn to my wife more than anyone else for support. She had issues of her own that she put off dealing with to help carry my load. Over time, she grew angry, bitter, distant; sensing the gulf growing between us, I became more anxious about our relationship, which fueled the depressive cycle I was already in. Add to that a series of traumas we experienced singly and together: a dysfunctional first year of ministry with a triangulating senior pastor who was, himself, in deep denial about his own depression; the birth trauma that nearly took our second child from us before he'd drawn his first breath, and kept him in intensive care for two weeks before we could finally bring him home, perpetually worried whether he could survive; taking in a troubled (and depressed!) teenager we were not competent to care for; my father's first heart attack; finding myself, though free of that senior pastor in a new appointment, under the scrutiny of a superintendent who made a mission out of getting me to leave the ministry; and it's no wonder I found myself wrestling with the demon day after day. One morning in January, 1993, I sat down with a new therapist and finally owned the demon for what it was: depression. That was a turning point for me. By the end of that year, I was in a much better place.

But it was too late for the marriage. I'd leaned on my wife for too long. One more trauma hit us--the death of her sister in a car accident--and it was, finally, too much for her to bear. Our last year of marriage was a steady downhill slide, until, finally, she pulled the plug the day before our eighth anniversary.

The months that followed were a time of madness for me. Oddly enough, I wasn't ever really depressed during this time. I grieved, I raged, I burned out the ears of siblings, friends, and mentors, anyone who would listen, but I was always completely in touch with my thoughts and feelings. I fought her on this decision, tried to reason with her, argued with her, tried to convince her to give our marriage another try--until the moment she told me, "I had to do it. I thought I was going to die."

That's when I stopped resisting. And it's why, despite everything that happened then and in the 23 years since, I don't blame her.

The truth is, I poured out more emotional garbage on her than anyone should have to bear. And she was only 24 when it started. We were brand new not just at marriage, but at being in any kind of relationship at all. I demanded far too much from her. And she gave it. Of course it took a toll on her, and of course that had consequences for our marriage.

It's taken me most of my life to understand this, to own my role in the failure of that marriage. I spent decades oblivious to the damage my demon did to the people around me. All I knew was that bad things were happening in my life, it made me sad, and rather than understand, people were making things worse by rejecting me in my time of need. It's a vicious cycle that I was only able to arrest when I finally realized the collateral damage being done to people I loved--and that realization came too late to save my marriage.

It's a lethal dynamic, the damage depression does to those who love one of its victims. The compassion they feel, the empathy they practice, can drag them into the vortex until they, too, find themselves saddled with demons of their own. Finding the right balance of compassion and caution is a tricky thing, especially for the young and inexperienced.

But it doesn't have to be. Relationships with depressed persons, whether they're familiar, marital, or platonic need not end in estrangement or divorce. In part four, I'll write about living alongside, but not in the clutches of, the demon of someone you love.


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