How My Relationships Helped Me Come To Terms With My Depression
Being honest about mental illness with the people you love is hard, living a lie is harder.
I am a liar and so are you and if you say you're not then you're lying. But believe me when I say that I don't condemn that, because there are some lies you can't avoid telling. After all, you can't answer every "How are you?" with unflinching honesty. For the most part, people just want a "Yeah, not bad, you?" not "I have a strong sense of impending doom."
And actually, this in itself isn't necessarily lying; it's choosing to omit certain details to present a version of yourself you're happy with others seeing. Kind of like an Instagram filter IRL.
The lie you can't avoid is a slippery slope down to the lies you could.
The problem is that the lie you can't avoid telling is a slippery slope down to the lies you could avoid telling, if only you weren't afraid of people seeing you #NoFilter.
So, how am I? Well, in an effort to cut the bullshit: I have depression and it's properly fucking crap at times. Especially when it comes to relationships. I have hidden my depression from damn near every girl I've ever dated, and even when I've been open about the existence of the problem, I've kept the daily grind of my feelings to myself.
I was 16 when I got my first proper girlfriend, Susan. At the time, I didn't know I was actually depressed. I suspected I was, but I convinced myself that I didn't have a mental illness; I was just sad. When I couldn't get out of bed, or wanted to sleep through the day, I chalked it up to being lazy, and I attributed all my moodiness to puberty. Now, I was, and still am, both lazy and moody, so in that respect my 16-year-old self was bang-on. But when I look back from an older and marginally wiser perspective, I can see what I suspected, what I hoped, was true after all.
I was depressed.
I know "hope" seems a perverse thing to say. Why would anyone hope they had depression? It wasn't that I wanted to be – that I thought my life was too normal and that I needed to have depression so that the angst-filled lyrics I wrote for my band could have validity. It's just that as time wore on, and I got more and more sad, I needed an explanation. I needed to have a reason to cling to for why I felt worthless, why I felt so desperately alone even though I was surrounded by people who loved me.
I listened to My Chemical Romance and straightened my hair. Who would believe that there was actually something wrong?
Despite their love, I simply couldn't speak to Susan, or any of the rest of them. What if they didn't believe me? Didn't understand? I listened to My Chemical Romance and straightened my hair; who would believe that there was actually something wrong? Wouldn't they assume I was just some whiny emo kid, part of a subculture that glamorised self-harm and misery? How could they take me seriously when being sad was trendy? Even more importantly, I was a man (well, a skulking pubescent creature drowned in Lynx Africa) and men didn't cry. And if you did, you were told not be such a girl. Classic patriarchy.
So I bottled my problems up, and life went on. Eventually the sadness faded and I felt vindicated. There was nothing wrong with me after all; I'd been moody and stupid. I felt glad that I'd not embarrassed myself by telling Susan. A part of me felt guilty for even considering that I might have depression. It's a horrible fucking thing to have and there was me, feeling a little blue, belittling all the people who actually have it. How could my sad possibly be as sad as theirs?
I learnt a valuable lesson: Ignore something long enough and eventually it just goes away.
Now, I don't want to go into all the gory details because quite frankly it gets pretty damn dark (also, I can't look back without quietly singing the first few lines of "The Sound of Silence" to myself), but my last year of university, I learnt another very valuable lesson: Ignore something long enough and it eventually tries to kill you, as I spent most of my energy trying to seem like I was fine while passively looking for a reason to keep on living.
I wanted to be honest, but my anxiety and sadness were so constant.
Then I met Tanya. From the start, she had seen me at my most vulnerable and not run screaming for the hills, but somehow this didn't bring me any comfort. I wanted to be honest, but knew that being completely open would be too much so early, because my anxiety and sadness were so constant. So I got into the terrible habit of hiding how I felt day-to-day. I mastered the art of crying silently next to someone while they slept.
Oh, and I became a total arsehole.
Tanya was the best part of my life. I graduated and we did long distance. While she did her last year of university, I was stuck at home getting worse and worse. I was so desperately lonely and terrified of losing her, this one ray of light in the shit, that I became possessive. I needed to speak to her all the time. In my sadness, I'd cut myself off from all of my friends, and in trying to hide the full extent of how suicidally depressed I was, I was becoming the one thing I didn't want to be: a burden. I was using Tanya as a crutch, so obsessed with my own feelings that I couldn't be there for her. Depression became toxic; I saw only myself. I was paranoid that I was ruining her life by being sad, not realising that it wasn't my sadness that would push her away but the way I was dealing with it.
Still, we soldiered on. I started saving for a ring. And then my depression hit me with a heap of worthlessness. See, when you don't seek real help for what's eating at you, it skews your whole worldview. And here was mine: I was convinced that if we got married, I would spend my entire life being sad for no reason and making her life miserable. So if I truly loved her, it would be better to break her heart, cut myself off from her, from my friends, even from my family, and just end myself. I did the stupid and incredibly selfish thing of making a decision for someone I loved based on what I thought was best for them. I ended things, abruptly and callously, believing that the more she hated me the easier it would be for her to deal with what I planned on doing to myself.
When you don't seek real help for what's eating at you, it skews your whole worldview.
As it happens I was too cowardly to off myself, and ran headlong into another relationship for comfort instead. I told Alex I had depression but hid how bad I was from her until one night I thought, "Fuck it." Exhausted with pretending to be OK, I let the mask drop. The next morning I couldn't move. Alex got me out of bed, dressed me, fed me, and made sure I got to work. I spent the day resenting her for making me face the world, being sad that she didn't ask me to stay, and remembering the fear in her eyes and how scary it must have been to have me suddenly snap. Not long after, she broke up with me – for lots of very logical reasons but also, I remember thinking, the main one was my depression.
After Alex, depressed with no distractions, all I wanted to be was numb. I was drinking, I was hooking up, I was keeping my secret. I was fucked up, and scared, and lying.
At some point in the midst of all that, my friend Cara invited me to a dinner party. So I threw on my least scruffy shirt, drank the bottle of wine I'd bought for the party, and showed up tipsy.
Emma was there, and she was stunning. We'd met before and she was the only other person I knew at the party, so we spent the entire night talking.
At this stage I knew that hiding how I felt and how I am didn't work. So, I did something drastic: I was honest with Emma. I was honest with her because I really liked her and because I'd gotten to the point where I could view depression not as something wrong with me but as something that was part of me. I figured if she couldn't take me for who I was, I didn't need her. (Of course, I really fucking hoped she would.)
Spoiler: She did.
I was lucky enough to spend my time with Emma being vulnerable. Being myself. If I was irrationally scared about something, I felt I could tell her. And because I wasn't expending all my energy trying to be something I wasn't, it meant I could be there for her when her anxieties got the better of her. It was more balanced.
That's not to say it was easy. Sometimes I would still hide how depressed I was and then punish myself for it. There was still an anger toward myself that slipped through the cracks and made me irritable and dissatisfied. When I was like that, I found it hard to say, "I really need a hug" and just expected Emma to be some sort of clairvoyant. I still had the habit of cutting my friends out because Emma, my best friend, was the person I wanted to spend all my time with. I didn't have to be anything other than myself with her. I felt a safety I rarely get with other people.
Obviously this is all past tense.
My relationships have made me grow as a person.
But amid all that shit is something else: proof that my relationships have made me grow as a person, made me look at myself and see how I was dealing with my illness was wrong.
None of these women could become the thing that completed whiny, sensitive me; it would be unfair to ask them to. I'm not looking for some manic pixie dream girl crap. But learning how to navigate depression with my partners has helped me come to terms with my depression and given me perspective.
Now, I am trying my best to be more honest for my own sake in the hope that when I get the hang of it, it will only enrich my future relationships. It's a learning process; trying to actively untangle all the habits so deeply rooted in me is hard. I don't think my opening line on a first date will be: "Hey, I'm Karl and I get depressed. What hobbies do you have?" but it's certainly something I'm not going to hide. And I think in the end, it'll be worth it.