If I'm so Happy, How Come I'm so Depressed?
Eight years ago, I sat across from my therapist in a puddle of tears, then heaving sobs. The despair that had been weighing me down for months had only escalated, leaving me frightened and inconsolable. “Do you think this has anything to do with Bobby?” my therapist asked. “Absolutely not,” I said, blowing my nose. “The relationship is perfect.” I remember him hesitating a moment, watching me. Although I had trusted my therapist with my life for the past twenty years, back then I couldn't have known what he suspected, what I refused to see.
Up until then I had never experienced one symptom of depression. I did have panic attacks in college but dismissed them as homesickness and being an overly-anxious kid. I was anxious because I grew up with two parents who suffered from undiagnosed, untreated mental illnesses and spent most of my childhood attending to their needs. But that was decades ago. I was now in my mid-forties, financially independent, with great friends and hobbies and living with a man I adored. What could I possibly be depressed about?
My dating life had always been disappointing. Although I had a few long-term relationships, I never found someone I could actually picture myself marrying. My dad could be very kind, even loving, but he was emotionally abusive to my mother and watching her constant suffering made me wary of men. Still, I considered myself less than complete without a partner. I craved the conventional wedding hoopla I witnessed my friends experiencing: the ring, the dress, the ceremony, but mostly the promise of unconditional love, comfort and security, something I had never experienced growing up.
Several months after my father died I met Bobby, a divorced man who was smart, engaging and funny. We shared our love of fiction,1960's music and Netflix mysteries. He bought my friend daisies after her cat went missing, prepared tuna and olive sandwiches for our picnic at Walden Pond, found the perfect B&B for our trip to Jacob's Pillow. Our eleven-year age difference didn't phase me, nor did his uncanny physical resemblance to my dad. I felt loved, protected and safe. This is the real deal, I thought. Marriage material. So after two years of dating I did something I never did before. I persuaded Bobby to move in with me.
At first cohabitation was exhilarating. We spent hours decorating the house and preparing meals together. But soon a nagging voice entered my thoughts. Why is he still in touch with his old girlfriends? Because he's so loyal. Why won't he talk about his childhood? He grew up in a Catholic home. Why did he go into a rage when we missed the turnpike exit? Well, it doesn't happen all the time.Each time a negative thought entered my mind I immediately dismissed it. I focused solely on his generosity, his helpfulness, how great a fit we were. I dodged any potential conflict by attending to his needs, encouraging him to feel at ease in my home.
Bobby was full of new ideas: what kind of laptop I should buy, what credit card was best, how to reorganized our kitchen. I willingly gave up my home office for his man cave, my living room for Sunday afternoon football. I insisted on paying for most of our expenses. I didn't want to add to the burden of his credit card debt. Deep down I believed I owed him something for agreeing to live with me, for not abandoning me the way my parents did. If I ever felt a twinge of resentment, I swallowed that feeling. I didn't know then that every time I swallowed my resentment, I also gulped down a small chunk of my autonomy, my independence, my identity.
Had I known then I would lose three years of my life to major depression, I would be stunned. Three long foggy years I'll never get back or remember fully. I slept constantly, awakening with a sick dread and feeling of worthlessness. My body felt heavy, as if I wore a weighted jacket. Showering, preparing breakfast, dressing for work was actually painful. As I sat at my cubicle, waves of anxiety flooded my system like electrical currents. When I wasn't busy enough, I had the sensation of jumping out of my own skin. I offered to help everyone on my floor, anything to block the onslaught of fearful, ruminating thoughts swirling in my brain. This is what crazy feels like, I thought. Fearing I might have a full blown panic attack in front of my co-workers, I struggled to maintain the facade of normal, glancing at the clock every hour, counting the minutes to escape. It was only when I reached my car when I could finally let go, sobbing the forty-minute ride home in private relief.
My friends called and visited and although I desperately needed their support, I felt a weird paralysis, a numb dissociation around everyone. It was as if I was standing outside myself, watching my reactions through a pane of frosted glass. The tears fell non-stop, sometimes in the middle of the street, in public bathrooms, at the gym. I remember staring at my face in the bathroom mirror, astonished that my reflection bore no sign of the invisible torment I was experiencing. Each night I secretly imagined the relief of not waking from sleep and each morning the shame and guilt at entertaining that fantasy.
Bobby responded with the male, solution-oriented approach. He bought me self-help books, insisted I go on cardio walks with him, cooked and cleaned without asking. He even bought me a depression light box, both of us praying these attempts would cure me. Bobby could not or would not actually talk to me about my pain and for that reason I believed he blamed me for it. My fear of burdening him caused me to sink deeper into my rabbit hole of shame. I couldn't bear him witnessing my complete decline, so I spent my weekends sucking it up, forcing myself to be “normal,” going out to dinner or to a movie he liked, or engaging with his friends and family.
My psychopharmacologist treated me with over ten different drugs but was continually stumped by my lack of progress. I lost interest in playwriting and dance, two of my favorite passions. I spent every spare second lying in bed or on the couch, checking every hour to make sure Bobby wasn't monitoring me or planning his exit. The drugs numbed my perceptions, increasing the dissociation and the sensation of moving in slow motion. I starting seeing my therapist twice a week, collapsing on his couch in exhaustion and hopelessness. I tried a partial hospital program but nothing worked. By now I had stopped believing in myself. My only thought was not losing Bobby, who I had become dependent on to help me function.
I can't remember the moment when I broke down, when I finally allowed myself to listen to my therapist's wisdom. Looking back now I realize I wasn't able to hear the truth about my relationship with Bobby because I wasn't ready to believe the truth about my relationship with my family, my father, in particular.
When I was a little girl I adored my father. He was kind and loving to me but his moods could change instantly. I didn't know then he was suffering from severe OCD with psychotic delusions or that my mother had Depression and Dependent Personality Disorder. Mental illness was never talked about in the 1970's. All I knew was that I was expected to do the “crazy” things my father insisted I do and comfort my mother who was too weak to protect me.
Although my therapist had diagnosed me years before with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I always minimized that diagnosis. I blamed myself instead. My parents were kind people who did strange things, I thought. It was my job to hide their mental illnesses. Meanwhile their shameful secrets made me feel defective, unworthy, desperate for love and attention.
My father's control over me was all-consuming. I was terrified of his frightening irrational rages, so I learned how to be the quiet, good little girl, doing whatever he asked to gain his approval. Bobby's control and manipulations were much more subtle but he did occasionally explode into similar rages, replicating my childhood experience. My therapist spelled out the truth for me. Living with Bobby was causing me to regress into a young child state. I was unconsciously reliving a dangerous father/daughter power dynamic. Bobby's control over me unleashed my unexpressed rage at my father. And every time I suppressed my anger at Bobby, my rage would turn inward, manifesting in deep sadness/depression.
The link between suppressed anger and depression opened my eyes. Yes, it's possible I inherited my mother's depression and my father's ruminating thoughts, but I never dreamed suppressing anger could cause such intense sadness. I started to wonder if all my childhood illnesses, including my many trips to the hospital for staph infections, were a result of constantly suppressing my anger at my father, my body's way of protesting what my voice could not.
Years ago I had a strange obsession with the Disney movie, The Little Mermaid. In the animated film, the young girl, Ariel, makes a conscious choice to give up her voice to win her man. I now know why I identified so strongly with that movie. I had been watching my mother suppress her angry voice for years. I can't remember one instance growing up where she refused my father or spoke out against his abuse, even when it affected her own children. I had become my mother. I had become Ariel, giving up my voice to please my man.
It took all my courage to ask Bobby to move out. But within two weeks my depression began to lift. I slowly started to regain my independence, each day reminding myself of the woman I was three years prior. I missed Bobby terribly but having my own space back felt like being let out of prison after years of solitary confinement. I awoke each day without dread or exhaustion. The dissociation evaporated as did the tears. I was still lonely and a bit anxious but what I mostly felt was complete and absolute relief.
Of course I was terrified to dip my toe in the dating pool again, fearing every new relationship would cause me to spiral into a depression. But I took a chance and opened my heart and am now two years into a loving relationship. Unlike the other men in my life he is emotionally available and we talk constantly about how we feel. And when those old triggers surface (and they do), whenever I am reticent about speaking my mind, whenever I feel a sudden surge of anger, I stop and ask myself, “what do I need to say right now?”
It sounds strange but I don't regret Bobby or my depression. If anything it's taught me first-hand compassion for what depression feels like for those living decades with this terrible illness. Over the last few years I have spoken publicly as a woman living with C-PTSD, about my family's silent shame around mental illness and its effect on me. When I speak I often wear a Lapis crystal necklace a dear friend made for me. The crystal symbolizes the throat chakra, our ability to speak our truth. It's a constant reminder to myself that I have a voice, and that voice is powerful and deserves to be heard. I still love The Little Mermaid. I just wish I could go back and tell Ariel the truth.
Phyllis Rittner is a NAMI In Our Own Voice presenter, where she speaks publicly about her experiences to schools, corporations, providers and families. Watch Phyllis' PTSD story at This is My Brave Boston. She is the creator of Broadway Seated Dance, a music and dance program for seniors with mental and physical challenges. She is also an actor, playwright and belly dancer.