Mel and I were in the kitchen, our three children watching a movie in the living room, when I told her that I felt like I was failing. Mel was in jeans and button-up blue and white checkered shirt, her hair straight brown and shoulder length. She folded her arms like she always does when I say that I’m failing and looked me in the eyes and said, “How could you be failing?”
I leaned against the counter, looked at the ground, and said, “I just feel like I am. I feel like I’m doing something wrong.”
As usual, I couldn’t describe how I was failing. I just felt it deep inside my gut, a hopeless feeling that is often my default. I get this way more often than I’d like to admit. It’s par for the course with me. I’ve been suffering from depression and anxiety for most of my life, but it got particularly bad in my late teens. I started developing obsessive-compulsive disorder. I lost a lot of weight, over 40 pounds. Honestly, I was a mess. I dropped out of college and thought a lot about suicide.
For the most part, now, I live a really normal life. But like many with depression and anxiety problems, it’s a constant struggle. There are moments that are good and moments that are bad, and every once in a while I tell my wife that I am failing, and she talks me out of it like some negotiator talking someone off the edge of a building.
She walked a little closer and asked if things were going well at work. I told her that it had been stressful lately, but I was managing. Then she asked me how I felt about the kids, and I mentioned the usual things. I said I thought our middle daughter was lippy but sweet, and I thought that our son needed to get out more, but he’d figure it out. I said our youngest was basically like living with a wild raccoon, but she made me laugh.
“I feel like I work too much though. I feel like I’m not the father I want to be because of that.”
“I think you are doing great,” she said.
Then we started to list the things that were going well. She reminded me of my plans to take Norah camping next week, and how I surprised Tristan the new Harry Potter book and he was in love with it. She told me that she loved me, and I started to feel better.
I started to feel like less of a failure. There is something about my wife asking me simple questions and giving me encouragement that pulls me out just enough for me to get a handle on it.
“Do you feel better?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “A little. Thank you.”
“Good,” she said. “Can I ask you a question?”
I told her yes, and she said, “Am I not making you happy?”
Although Mel has been really supportive over our 12 years of marriage, I don’t think she has ever really gotten it. She’s one of the happiest people I know. She smiles more than she doesn’t. In so many ways, her default setting is happy, and I think that’s why I was so drawn to her.
I put up my hands, “No! No!” I said. “You help keep me sane.” I thought about my next words carefully.
“There really is no reasoning behind it. When I first started having trouble with anxiety, I assumed that something outside of myself was causing it. I thought that it was because of my father and his drug addiction. I blamed it on my parents’ messy divorce. But honestly, I think that has little to do with it.”
I went on, telling her about the handful of pills I used to take every day to keep from having panic attacks. I told her how a doctor told me to start exercising because it would help, and somehow that caused me to assume I wasn’t exercising enough and if I exercised more, I wouldn’t be so anxious. Then that caused me to have anxiety when I didn’t exercise. Suddenly I was vigorously exercising 4 to 8 hours a day and having trouble with my kidneys.
“It was completely illogical,” I said. “It felt like I was trying to run away from something that wasn’t there.”
Trying to attach meaning to depression and anxiety is like trying to attach a tail to an invisible donkey.
I went on, telling her that trying to find meaning in all of it is why depressed people do crazy things, like leave their spouses for no real reason. They aren’t happy, and in trying to find a reason for that unhappiness, they assume it’s their wife or husband, when in fact their spouse might be a wonderful person. They are just unstable.
“I think the best thing I ever did was to realize that I was depressed. I was the problem. And to step back and look at my life logically,” I said.
Mel gave me a straight-faced look, and I said, “When you help me examine that I have no reason to feel like I’m failing as a father and husband, you are helping me more than anyone else ever has, more than I can on my own. So to answer your question, yes, you do make me happy. But it’s complicated.”
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” I asked. “Does any of this make sense?”
Mel looked me in the eyes, and said something that I think all people with depression and anxiety long to hear.
“Yes, it does.”
I often tell people how hard it is to explain mental illness to someone who doesn’t have it, but honestly, sometimes it’s difficult to explain it to myself. Very little of it makes sense, and yet it’s very real and very challenging. And I think that’s what makes it particularly hard to be the depressed and anxious parent in a relationship. You worry about things that may not be a reality, and you lean on your partner to help you make sense of that.
But I suppose that really is the reality of marriage regardless of mental illness. Marriage means leaning on each other for support and guidance, like the two sides of an archway, and being there when the person you love needs you.