I was thinking about leaving

Dear Bloggers,

As I read through the web for conversations, questions, ideas about depression, I am struck by how many people who write to forums and blogs are desperately asking for help not for their own depression but for that of their spouses, partners, loved ones. So often, they report bewilderment. They feel stunned to find anger and rejection in place of love. How can it be that the person I have known so well is suddenly different, alien, hostile and wants to break out of the relationship that is so precious? 

What is this longing to leave that so many depressed people feel? I have no simple answer to that, but I can describe my own tortured experience with an almost irresistible drive to break out and start a new life.
I spent many years feeling deeply unsettled and unhappy in ways I could not understand. Flaring up in anger at my wife and two great young girls became a common occurrence. I’d carry around resentments about being held back and unsatisfied with my life, fantasizing about other places, other women, other lives I could and should be leading. 

My usual mode was to bottle up my deepest feelings, making it all the more likely that when they surfaced it would be in weird and destructive ways. I’d seethe with barely suppressed anger, lash out in rage and, of course, deny angrily that anything was wrong when confronted by my wife.

I was often living on the edge, but there were two threads of awareness I could hold onto that restrained me invisibly. One was the inner sense that until I faced and dealt with whatever was boiling inside me, I would only transplant that misery to a new place, a new life and a new lover. However exciting I might imagine it would be to walk into that new world, I knew in my heart that it would only be a matter of time before the same problems re-emerged.
The other was a question I kept asking myself : “What is it that I am leaving for? ” What was this great future and life that I would be stepping into? Could I even see it clearly? More often than not, the fantasy portrayed a level of excitement I was missing. Crazy thoughts or a very lively fantasy I would call it now.

Some buried part of me knew that a life based on getting high on non-stop brain-blowing excitement wasn’t a life at all. Maybe it wasn’t alcohol or drugs that lured me, but it was surely the promise of intense and thrilling experiences, the opening scene of an adventure film without the need to wait for the complicated plot to unravel. There was no real alternative woman out there waiting for me, only a series of fantasies with easy gratification, never the hard part of dealing with a complicated human being in a sustained relationship. And inwardly I knew, I would still face the fears, depression and paralysis of will that had plagued me for so long.

That bit of consciousness kept me from breaking everything up and leaving the wonderful family that I’m blessed with.

So just imagine what my wife was going through. She had to face the rejection of my anger at the deepest levels. At the worst of it, she had to hear me telling her she wasn’t enough for me, that I needed more than she could give. And the tension and pain between us, the frequent rage that I felt, spilled into the lives of my children in ways that slowly and painfully were to emerge over time. 

That is the hardest part of talking about this now, to grasp how my closest loved ones disappeared from awareness into the haze of my own self-hatred, my own feeling of emptiness that I was desperately trying to fill. I had no idea how my behavior spread in its impact, like widening circles in water, to touch so many around me I’ll continue with this theme and try to get at what can be done or said to someone possessed of a longing to leave.

The longing to leave one’s intimate partner brings out something that isn’t much discussed in descriptions of depression. It is the active face of the illness. We often focus on the passive symptoms, the inactivity, the isolation, sense of worthlessness, disruption of focused thought, lack of will to do anything. But paradoxically the inner loss and need can drive depressed people to frenzied action to fill the great emptiness in the center of their lives. They may long to replace that inadequate self with an imagined new one that makes up for every loss. 

My experience with this phase of illness occurred when I had only limited awareness of the hold depression had on me. That may be a key to understanding the dynamic and how to respond to someone in the grip of this drive to turn life upside down. Unhappy without knowing why, I had to find an explanation, and the easiest way to do that was to look outward. I could only see my present life, my wife, my work as holding me back, frustrating my deepest desires. In effect, I was blaming everyone but me for my misery. In that state, I could only focus on the promise of leaving, finding a new mate, new work, new everything.

Every suggestion my wife might make that there was something wrong with me only brought the angriest denial. Every time she said how much she loved me only felt like a demand that I stay stuck in this unfulfilling life and do what she wanted me to do. I knew so clearly that I was not the problem, certainly not sick but for the first time on the verge of escaping into the exciting life I should have been living all along.

There is something very close to the power of addiction in the fantasy of escape. I found it almost impossible to see through the dreams of a new life. It meant so much – my survival as a person seemed to be at stake. Unaware of the full effect of depression, blocking out what my wife and others were trying to tell me, I inflicted a lot of pain on my family, thinking that I had to be brutally honest in order to save myself. Fortunately, as I noted in the last post on this subject, I had been through enough work in therapy to have glimmers of the truth, and that helped me step back from the brink.

I’m big on offering advice, but the potentially devastating impacts of depressed people on those closest to them leads me to go a bit beyond just reflecting on what I’ve been through. I see it different now my wife is stuck in a similar situation that has caused a burn out due to her boss.

If you’re trying to deal with the sudden transformation of an intimate partner, get help, starting with friends and family. You’ve likely felt such a deep assault and wound that it would be easy to get lost in the sheer humiliation, hurt and anger of the experience, searching for what you’ve done wrong, what you could do or say to set things right. That’s a trap set for you by the voice of depression. That voice tries to persuade you, just as it has persuaded your loved one, that it’s your fault. Not true. It’s your partner’s illness that’s at the root of it. 

Those closest to you and your partner have doubtless noticed something strange and may have been hurt as well by new behavior. That will remind you that you’re not alone in this. And remember that you can’t cure someone else with your words and love. They only backfire. At most, you can help your partner gradually gain awareness. It will take the combined influence of you and many others to get a depressed person to start seeing a different explanation for what’s wrong. Only your partner can do the heavy lifting. Only your partner can experience the inner change of thought and feeling that comes with the recognition that there is an illness to be dealt with.

I realize how different everyone’s experience is about the impact of depression on their marriage, and how desperately hard everyone works to reach what is for them the right answer about staying married or not. For me, though, it was a fantasy born of depression. I often wonder how it is, given where I began in my struggle to build a loving relationship with another human being, that my wife and I have stayed married for so long. “Marriage is survival,” I once heard someone say at a wedding, and the uncomfortable laughter in his large audience confirmed the truth of it. Despite all our struggles, we’ve managed to survive the worst of times.

For so many years, though, and long beyond adolescent dreams, I was searching obsessively not for the real work of two people always learning about each other. Depressed and full of shame at who I was, I searched desperately for someone who would make up what was missing, gifting me the worth I felt I lacked, so that I could feel like a whole person at last. I simply imagined I was falling in love. 

It would start with an attraction that soon became obsessive for a woman whose spirit and warmth I reached for instinctively to take in as my own. This was falling in love in a strangely one-sided way. I needed the responsiveness of the other person, to be sure, but only to a certain point. I can try to explain with a story, really a moment when something began to get through to my isolated mind.

I had, or imagined I had, an intense bond with K for nearly a year in my late teens. Her loving me meant everything. She was beautiful, talented and lively, and deep down I felt not just proud that she was part of my life, I felt alive and justified because of her presence. More than that, I projected into the minds of everyone I met the love of my live because such a woman loved me. That was the reality of what I needed from her, the sense of self-worth that I lacked on my own. I ignored what was clearly happening so desperate was I to believe that we would be together forever. After all, I was nothing without her. Our relationship came to end and I have been sick for days. My life was over. I promised myself not to start a relation again but to enjoy life

I was home, and we were up early, getting dressed and ready to get up for breakfast. I was avoiding deep talk. The windows were open to a fine Dutch winter morning. I was dousing my face with cold water in the bathroom as I had great hangover when suddenly I was startled by a beautiful singing voice floating in coming from the bedroom. It was a woman’s voice pouring a haunting melody into the air. It seemed to surround me, and the feeling and the sheer beauty of the tone put everything else out of my mind. I relaxed into its flow for a few still moments, and then I started to move. I had to find out where my future would start again. It seemed that I was ready for life again and I opened my heart and started a relationship again with the woman that I now call my wife. When I snapped out of my memories, I walked back to the bedroom and found my wife quietly sweeping a brush through her long blond hair.

Did you hear that?” I asked.
Hear what?”
That incredible singing – it was the most beautiful thing. Where could it have come from?”
Oh,” she laughed, “that was just the alarm clock.”
Just now? Just right now? I mean, it stopped a few seconds ago.”
She nodded slowly, still brushing.
I mean … I never heard that song before.”
She smiled into the mirror. “Well… now you have.”
She finished brushing her hair. We got our clothes on and left the room. 

To say I crashed when she left is putting it mildly. What could happen when my sense of who I was and what I was worth in the world walked away? Gone! There was nothing left! I would start drinking heavily, fall into complete depression, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work, crying a lot, burned with the obsession of having to get her back. For the second time in my life, I don't think I will survive and end up at a psychiatrist. To heal enough so that I could function. Then I’d be able to resume my obsessive quest for a woman to make me feel whole again!

And so the pattern continues for years. When I met my wife and we got married, things seemed so different. But as soon as we got past the intense early years into the time when the relationship gets real or gets broken, I picked up again the habit of obsessing over that shortcut to fulfillment. I could dream of other women, other places, other careers that would end the inner fear, emptiness and pain. It was the sort of dreaming that would always keep me from hearing the song close by. The dreams gave me a way out instead of opening up and talking to the woman who loved me about the real crisis I was in. There was always a fantasy person elsewhere who wouldn’t need all that talking and honesty!

It took me many years, but finally the escape artist in me called it quits. Those fantasies came in such abundance that I just couldn’t take them seriously anymore. Only then could I get on with the work of recovery and the work of marriage.

I understand now when my wife says to me: “Are you still in love with me and if you don't than you should leave.” I guess that she is having a hard time now.

The Old Sailor,


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