Depression Has Always Been The Third Wheel In My Relationship

Photographed by Rockie Nolan
"I really want us to be boyfriend and girlfriend." "I have depression," I blurted out. We were sitting next to each other, the white Christmas lights twinkling above us. After a few months of dating, we’d grown close, and this next step only made sense. But something held me back. At 12 years old, I lost my dad. I didn’t know how to cope. I hardly understood what death really meant, and I definitely didn’t know anything about the stages of grief. First, I felt angry — angry that someone had been taken from me. Then, I dealt with all the other steps of reconciling the loss of someone so important. I only saw a psychologist a few brief times after his death, against my will. During my sophomore year in college, I started skipping meals and losing interest in things I usually loved to do. I realized I was fading away, so I went to see a counselor and finally admitted I thought I was depressed. I’ve always compared my depression to standing on the precipice of a cliff: I can see down into the abyss beneath me, and I can also sense the firm ground behind me. Sometimes, I can tell I am about to leap into the abyss; other times, it feels like I am running into it. By the time I started regularly seeing a counselor (thanks to a college resource), I recognized all of my symptoms: loss of appetite, excessive sleeping, sudden energy drops, and a constant inner dialogue that repeated my flaws to me again and again. I rarely cried when I got into these spells. I just sank into a deep, depressive mood, and I didn’t want anyone or anything. But, at the same time, I did want someone. I wanted someone to get me out of that space. I wanted someone to save me and talk me out of jumping into that dark abyss.

I wanted someone to get me out of that space. I wanted someone to save me and talk me out of jumping into that dark abyss.

This tendency naturally affected my social relationships, but it had the biggest impact on my romantic relationships. After losing my dad so young, I grew terrified that anyone important in my life would suddenly be snatched away from me. So I feared getting too close to a significant other. I didn’t want to be caught unawares; I tried not to let myself be too vulnerable. That way, I could protect myself from getting hurt again — at least, that’s what I thought. When I started dating my current partner, our relationship progressed naturally. We bonded over the things that make any relationship solid: common interests, aspirations, and a shared sense of humor. But once it started to get serious, I got scared; it was as if my depression was crowding him out. After he asked me to make our relationship official and I told him about my depression, he just said, "That’s okay." "No," I said. "You don’t understand. I can be really high maintenance. I can be really difficult to deal with sometimes." He told me someone close to him had been battling depression, too, and that he knew a little bit about what to expect. I felt nervous, but I said yes. I was so smitten with him; he was the most genuine, caring, and patient guy I’d ever met. But even as we did all the cute things couples do — telling our parents, changing our Facebook statuses — my uneasiness lingered. Thankfully, at that point, I had made enough progress to start noticing when I was going into depressive moods. I would let him know when I didn’t feel great, and he would be there. Sometimes, I needed to talk, and he would listen as I cried; other times, I just needed him to hold me as we sat in complete silence. Then there were the times when that dark, familiar mood would hit, and I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I would sit alone as my depressive thoughts spiraled out of control, not doing anything to stop them or bothering to call anyone for support. Small arguments or conversations with my partner blew up for no reason. Once, we went to a concert, and I got lost in the crowd behind him as he went to say goodbye to a friend; I was furious with him. I would often get jealous, not telling him what I was mad about until I was deep into my depressive mood. At these times, toxic thoughts would race through my mind: He’ll probably just leave one day. He probably doesn’t love me as much as I love him. He’ll find someone else. I’m not destined to be happy. But when it worked, his comfort was like a crutch for me; it wasn’t fixing the real problem, but it sometimes helped me get through those debilitating, unproductive thoughts. Despite how supportive he was, depression was always a third wheel in our relationship. It showed up to our dates unannounced. It wedged itself between us in restaurant booths, whispering anxious thoughts into my ear, encouraging me to overanalyze every single thing that happened during an otherwise fun night. It lingered at each anniversary celebration, stopping by to remind me not to get too happy. Every time we disagreed, depression would be there to tell me our argument either meant I was destined to be unhappy or that something was wrong with me. Those negative affirmations only made me sink deeper into the abyss. Often, I wouldn’t even have the energy to explain what was wrong; I would just turn away from my partner and let the thoughts take over.

Every time we disagreed, depression would be there to tell me our argument either meant I was destined to be unhappy or that something was wrong with me.

"Please don’t shut me out," he would tell me. "It scares me when you do that." Throughout all of this, both of us have had to work together to maintain our relationship — despite how hard it’s been, we have so much fun together. I feel respected, loved, and appreciated; we don’t yell at each other or call each other hurtful names, and I still maintain that we haven’t gotten into a "real" fight yet. I’m my true self around him, and after three years, I still feel like I can talk to him for hours on end. But toward the end of last year, my depression started to really interfere with my day-to-day activities. After finishing grad school, moving back to my hometown, starting a new job, getting a new apartment, and adjusting to a new lifestyle, I finally broke down. I would burst into tears at random moments, and I wasn’t sleeping well. My anxiety was worsening; I was stress-eating and having horrible stomach problems. I had been working nonstop and taking little time to assess my mental health. I wasn’t seeing a therapist or talking about my feelings, and I eventually crumbled under the weight of my stress and anxiety. It all came to a head after I missed a fitness class with a friend and felt super depressed about it. I got a text from my partner saying someone had cancelled on him for a previous engagement, but that he was now seeing another friend. I felt instantly mad: Didn’t he know I was stranded with nowhere to go now? Why was he always hanging with friends while I struggled to form a good social life? Didn’t he care? I sent him angry texts and ignored the rest of his, even when he pleaded that I tell him where I was so he could pick me up. I refused his help and walked down a few blocks with tears in my eyes before calling an Uber. The whole ride, I wondered if he and everyone else in my life would be better off without me. "I need to see someone," I told him that night. He rubbed my back and kissed me while I cried harder than I had in months. "Please make sure I see someone." But the thing is, the responsibility wasn’t his: Only I could recognize my own depression, and only I could work on healing myself. Depression may have damaged multiple aspects of my life, but I didn’t want it threatening my first serious relationship. So I stopped letting what I saw as fate take its course, and I did something about it: I sought professional help. I’ve been on psychiatric medication for almost six months now, and I see my psychologist once a month. I make sure to practice self-care by paying attention to my stress levels, taking time to unwind, and pushing back against my negative self-talk. We work through it together as best we can. I tell him about each psychologist visit, and he makes sure to take me out to dinner or suggest date nights when he knows I’ve had an especially rough week. He is infinitely patient and tries to understand why I feel the way I do, even in my most insecure moments. I now do my best to be more communicative and self-reflective. I still have a long way to go, but I’m trying to convince myself, slowly, that I do deserve to be happy. My boyfriend continues to validate this and support me, though I know it’s something I need to tackle with or without his help — he can’t "save me" from the abyss of depression. I’m nowhere near where I want to be, and some days are still harder than others, but I’m working on it every day. I don’t expect a perfect fairy-tale ending, but I won’t let my depression write our story anymore.

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