In my family, not talking about one’s personal struggles is a form of humility.
We cope alone until we can’t cope anymore and need to enlist help, by which time a bad situation has generally gotten much worse.
That’s why, for a long time, my parents knew nothing about depression felling me almost as soon as I landed in the US and still don’t know all that much about my life stateside.
Some of it — like being unable to access health care due to lack of means — is unfathomable to them. In France, when you get sick, you go to the doctor’s. If your primary care physician can’t help, they refer you to a specialist who can.
By EU standards, I should have been in therapy a long time ago. As a result, I’d likely be back on my feet now, a staffer somewhere, and earning a wage commensurate with my skills and experience. Instead, I was left to hold my own hand for five years until I could figure out how to bootstrap a way to become functional again.
Bluntly put, the only help I received was room and board.
Because I am married.
In sickness and in health, right?
Right. At least until your ill health become a festering source of resentment and kills the cat. The death of Buddy, my husband’s feline companion of 21 years, made me fear for my life. The cat died in pain for lack of a vet visit we couldn’t afford, and to this day I still don’t understand why we never thought of asking for help. Some vets offer payment plans; others do pro-bono work.
When does going it alone stop being a point of pride and become irresponsible?
Alas, Buddy the opinionated feline is no longer around to vocalize his outrage.
However, his picture and the small urn containing his ashes take pride of place on our mantelpiece, a constant reminder to do and be better.
I still feel personally responsible for Buddy’s demise.
Because I failed him. For the longest time, guilt made it impossible for me to see or understand I wasn’t the only one who failed him. When the truth hit home, it was a brutal awakening that forced me to reassess everything.
So I set out to try and identify the genesis of this paralyzing depression, I started asking myself which of depression or marriage came first. The two aren’t unrelated but I flat out refused to see this because doing so would have gone against my personal convictions. Being the fiercely loyal type for whom love is both the universal balm to all problems and a life force, I continue to believe that two people are always stronger than one.
Alas, two people can also drag each other down.
While my collapsing has a lot to do with years of peripatetic living mired in all kinds of abuse, I had always managed to keep going somehow.
So why did I let myself down when depression struck?
The answer still isn’t clear.
After managing on my own for my entire adult life — including during a traumatic first marriage many years ago — I thought I would no longer have to.
This turned out to be a grave mistake, one that lost me five years and put an inordinate amount of pressure on my husband.
My depression has come to mean I have failed him. When pressure overwhelms him he even says as much. Most of the time it’s implied. Little does he realize that the person I have failed most of all is myself.
Never assume you know what another human is going through.
But we both did exactly that.
I can’t speak for him but I made assumptions I never should have; I concealed my illness; I tried to shield him from it; I didn’t explain what it was.
Worse, I expected him to try and understand it. In the digital age, was it unreasonable?
Even when communication is your job, depression makes it difficult if not impossible to share what’s going on.
You don’t want to disappoint, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, you don’t want to appear “lesser” somehow. Hence my initial reluctance to let anyone into my head.
Although I eventually opened up and clearly stated that I needed help, I soon realized there was no way we could afford the insurance co-pays so I shut up. Harping on about therapy wasn’t going to make it appear any more than whining we still lacked furniture two years after moving in would have conjured it up.
Complaining is like a rocking chair, it doesn’t get you anywhere.
But it’s extraordinary what the human mind will do to keep you alive. You learn to live on very little just as you learn to live in a permanently distressed state.
There’s a downside though.
All this stress and denial wrecks you physically and gnaws away at your self-esteem until you become convinced a temporary situation is likely permanent and an accurate reflection of your worth as a human being.
On the darkest days, this led me to ask myself whether there was a place in this world for me or if I was just an inconvenience to all. This is depressive propaganda at its fiercest, easy identifiable by its monotone and lackluster syntax.
Somehow, I can’t shake off the fact I may have unwittingly become an inconvenience to at least one person, the one I married. This doesn’t make for a harmonious home life. To mitigate this, I make sure not to burden my husband with my “stuff” and now that I’m in Europe by my family’s side, I still don’t.
Communication isn’t a habit anymore, just something we do when we remember to.
Equating marriage with being and having a personal savior on hand 24/7 was probably shortsighted of me.
It doesn’t work that way, at least not in my household, not in America, not in this capitalist monsterhood that passes for culture.
A thought occurs to me, so plausible yet so abhorrent: What if marriage were just another business arrangement based on combined earning potential? Can you apply capitalism to matters of the heart?
I got married for love and companionship, high on the hope we’d encourage each other to learn, grow, and create to become our best selves, day after day.
Illness and hardship have foiled those plans.
Instead of incubating mutual self-actualization, our marriage has incubated resentment, anger, and dread. Our daily life is a ménage à trois with depression, whose presence is as destructive as it is unwelcome. What’s more, we live in perpetual fear of something going wrong, wronger.
Now that my stepmom has been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and I dropped everything to come back to Europe at the end of December 2018, there’s no choice but to step up and deal.
Right now, the urgent need is for me to be there for my parents, meaning I get to dig deep into my head and heart for solutions as I re-activate my former resourceful self.
Magical thinking, daydreaming, and fear of failure are out. When you live in a constant state of emergency, you no longer have the luxury of second-guessing yourself, or worrying about how you come across.
This is why I’ve spent the last year examining issues I had long set aside. It is necessary work, in every possible sense of the phrase.
A lot of life is down to happenstance, finding the right words, being in the right place, coming into contact with the right people at the right time. And a lot of life is also down to forging ahead regardless of perceived hindrances and obstacles.
After all, you can only do your best and continue to improve a little more every day, hoping it turns out to be good enough. And if you need help, there’s zero shame in asking for it, regardless of what gender you identify with.
What if we forgot all stereotypes and admitted that we humans are always at our best when we lift one another up?
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.