Love is patient, and love is kind. Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love, according to every book, every movie, every song, and just about every person I have ever met, is the most powerful force in the world, capable of overcoming anything. Anything, that is, except maybe depression.
When you have depression, everything — even being in love — is different.
I have suffered from depression since I was a teenager, and for a long time, I avoided acknowledging its existence. I was comfortable letting it sit inside of me like a dirty little secret I thought only I was in on. My family, on both of my parents’ sides, has a long and complicated history with mental illness — so the possibility of it manifesting in me is something I have been hyper aware of since childhood. I heard the stories about family members who were born and died before me, and I saw the effects of mental illness on those closest to me. But I always told myself, No, that’s not for you.
That’s the funny thing about depression, though.
It doesn’t care what narrative you tell yourself or what story you try and live out for others. When it rears its ugly head and sets its sights on you, everything in your life, including your love life, changes.
While it’s true that depression affects everyone differently, I can report suffering from the most common symptoms of the disorder. I’ve spent the last decade on a pendulum, swinging between episodes of overwhelming loneliness and detachment, debilitating exhaustion and hopelessness, and violent anger and frustration. No matter where I was, what I was doing, or who I was with, those feelings were there, too. They still are.
Every awkward day of high school, my depression hitched a ride in my backpack and sat in on every class I took. When I moved into my dorm room at college, I unpacked my clothes, my books, and my pictures only to find out my depression had come along, too. After graduation, when I moved to New York City to start my career and a very new and exciting chapter of my life, I left a lot of things behind — but not my depression, which was by my side at every job interview, department meeting, and performance review.
Even now, after moving back to Massachusetts to follow another dream and to live with my loving partner, I find we aren’t building our future alone. Every brick in the relationship foundation we’re laying together comes with a crack: my depression.
It seems like, everything I touch, it touches, too. It’s not an innocent bystander just watching things unfold, either. It’s an active participant in my life.
See, my depression isn’t just a lens in which I see the world through, its a prism that distorts all of my experiences, even — and especially — love.
When it comes to falling in love, my depression turns an exhilarating experience into an exercise in second guessing myself. It’s excruciating. It transforms butterflies in my stomach into tiny fire-breathing dragons, determined to rip apart the pit of my belly. It takes the warm-and-fuzzies and converts them into a toxic mix of guilt, anger, and fear — ready to explode at any moment.
As a result of my depression, I constantly wonder if I am good enough for my partner. I worry that, at any moment, he could realize I am not and leave. When we argue, even if it’s a normal relationship argument, I get sad and hopeless and angry and anxious that this fight will be our end. When he’s sweet and sincere, I question his motivations and get paranoid that something else is going on.
But most of all, whether things are good or great or we’ve hit a rough patch, my depression turns my love into guilt: guilt that I’m not enough, guilt that my mental illness is too much.
Being in love, being loved back, and having depression is like being in a relationship with three people: you, your significant other, and a third character.
It’s a character who will remind you of your flaws, question your partner’s motivations, fuel your paranoia, and throw blame and self-doubt around like confetti.
It’s hard for my partner.
We’ve been together for over six years, and he’s never complained about my mental health issues — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt him, too.
I can see it in his face, how scared he can be when I’m at my lowest of lows. I can feel how frustrated he gets when he remembers there is no “snapping out of it,” not for me. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t imagine how much easier his life would be without me in it. Sometimes I wonder, why do I even try?
But then there are those days when love wins. Days when depression takes a backseat.
Even though it’s still there watching, it stays quiet for a little while, letting me enjoy loving someone who loves me back.
They say that no one can learn to love you until you love yourself — but does that mean you have to love your depression, too? Do you have to love the darkest, hardest parts of yourself first, and then convince someone else to love those same things?
I think loving someone when you have depression, or loving someone who has depression, means simply accepting its existence in your relationship. You don’t need to give it a seat at the dinner table, or a spot between you in bed — but you can’t hide it behind a locked closet door, either. You have to acknowledge its presence in yourself and in your love life, recognize the ways it shapes your relationships, and openly and honestly talk about it.
When it’s out in the open, you have the power — not your depression.
The truth is, there’s no leaving depression behind. You can’t hide it away, you can’t run from it, you can’t ignore it. You can accept it as a part of your life and your relationship, and only then can you start to shape the way it affects you. You can make it less potent, a smaller influence on you and your partner.
Only then can you make room for the really, really good days. And I promise, those days exist.