In a recent blog post, my fiancé talked about what it is like for him to be living with depression. It was a powerful piece about the highs and lows, about some triggers that he deals with on a daily basis, and about the eventual acceptance that he went through. (You can find it here. I highly recommend you go read it first, don’t worry, I’ll wait…)
The Struggle Is Real
Depression isn’t something that just happens. And it isn’t something new to my life. I have certainly had my own ups and downs throughout my time on this earth, as have other friends and family members (though for some I wouldn’t know to what extent for a long time).
Growing up, my father was the light in any room. He was a joker, a prankster even. Whether it was a one liner, a joke that took several minutes to set up or even sticking a wet lollipop to your skin, he would do just about anything for a laugh. I even remember finding a joy buzzer, a plastic ice cube with a fly in the centre, a whoppie cushion, and other gags in his drawer once.
One time, while at a family dinner hosted by my maternal grandmother, he quietly untied my great-aunt’s apron strings and retied them… around the chair she was sitting in, which effectively tied her to the chair. I don’t remember that day, but I have heard the story so many times that I feel as though I do. When she went to stand up, only to find that she couldn’t, a common ‘curse’ was uttered: “Robert!!”
Dad joked once that Robert always got in trouble. Bobbie had all the fun, but Robert got in trouble. I still recall his examples: “Robert, go to the principal’s office… Robert, how do you plead?… Robert, say I do” (he just had to make everything into a joke! haha).
However, under the joking prankster facade, there was a man in deep pain. Pain that my younger self was sheltered from because how could someone who brings laughter and joy to everyone around him possibly be sad? It wasn’t until years later, in my early twenties, that I realized how broken he truly was.
Always The Jokester
Throughout my younger years, as mentioned, dad was always the jokester. Even when my mom and he split up we would visit, and he always had the funnest plans for us. We went to movies, and across the border to Detroit to shop (we grew up in Windsor, ON and it was a quick trip across the bridge or the tunnel). His first apartment had a big indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, and everything else you could possibly imagine, which was perfect for us because we were all like fish in the water.
I vividly remember being in that apartment (and again in subsequent apartments he would live in) and him “stealing” my favourite stuffed toy from me. A bright orange dog with floppy ears that my crush had given to me for my seventh birthday, his name was Paul — both the boy and the toy. Dad would take Paul and twist his ears up over his head, then throw him in the air and tell me he was a helicopter.
This of course infuriated me, but my dad, brother and sister always laughed at my plight. Then came the day that he threw Paul off the balcony… from 15 stories up. Thinking about it now, the peals of laughter still ring in my ears. This became almost like an initiation ceremony to christen each new apartment. Poor Paul.
Long Distance Parenting
The year that I turned ten was the year that my mom moved us to Alberta, some 3000 kms away. In retrospect, that had to have been crushing to him. Now that I have kids of my own I am devastated each week when they go to their dad’s, and he lives in the same city as I do. I can’t imagine having them half a country away!
Dad made the best of it, calling at least once a week and visiting as often as he could. Most summers he would make the drive to Alberta by himself and then take my brother and I back to Ontario with him to spend the summer. At the end of the summer, he would then put us on a plane to send us back to Mom. Then at Christmas, Mom and my Step-Dad would load us all into a big van and drive straight through the night to get to Ontario for the holidays. Sometimes, Dad would also fly out for Easter or Thanksgiving, and he came for my graduation from High School too.
He never let on the toll that it was taking on him.
When my older sister was about eighteen, she moved to live with Dad. She has some fond memories of that time, and laughs when she tells them. The one thing she never mentioned until recently, was that he told her then that he intended to kill himself. As a result, for the next 24 years she was waiting for him to go through with it. He never did, thankfully, but he did pass last year after a short illness that ended in a heart attack.
A few years after she lived with him, my brother and I moved in with him. By this time, my sister had a little girl, and the two of them were living in Alberta with our mom and step-dad. My brother wanted to finish his last year of high school in Ontario, and I had just broken up with a guy after nearly 2 years of dating, so I needed a change.
My Eyes Were Opened
Living with Dad full time, my eyes were definitely opened. Now that I was of age (I had just turned 20 a month before moving and the legal drinking age in Ontario is 19) Dad and I spent a lot of time partying. We would go out on my nights off if he was off, or he would come into the bar that I worked in at the time. Remember the TV sitcomCheers? Well, that bar was a lot like that show. The main customer base were all mid-thirty to sixty-plus, everyone knew everyone and there was a genuine camaraderie to be had. Dad, of course, was one of my regulars.
It was while working at this bar late one night that I discovered just how depressed he really was. It was a mid-week night with few customers all night long. By closing time just Dad, myself and one other customer. After I closed out the bar and cleaned up I sat to have a couple of drinks with the two of them. I forget how the conversation got steered where it did, but Dad reached into his pocket and pulled out a little baggie, proudly showing off that he had a small supply of cocaine on him.
I had never seen cocaine before, much less used it (nor did I have any desire to then or now!) but I was instantly upset by this tiny unassuming baggie. I asked to see it, out of genuine curiosity. I wanted to know what the consistency was. Was it more granular like salt? Or softer and powdery like confectioners sugar? (It’s the latter if anyone is curious). And I was so mad at him for having this. I was mad about how casual he was with it. I was furious that he was standing there telling me this was his favourite thing in the world because it made him not care. It made him feel like everything was amazing in his life. It made him forget the pain and the sadness and the darkness.
I remember taking that baggie and running to the ladies room. I was going to flush it. I have never wanted anything more in my life. But then I thought of the way his eyes had looked. I thought of how much it must have cost him, trying to remember what the movies said about the value. I was hurt and upset and here I held his “most precious” thing in my hand… and I couldn’t do it.
I slowly walked back out to the bar to find that he was in a rage. I have never seen him so angry. Not even the time I used a balloon stick (basically a long, hard straw) to shoot a toothpick like a blow dart into his newspaper. In a cartoon, flames would have danced in his eyes and smoke billow from his ears. For the first time I was truly afraid of him. He yelled and screamed and I glazed over. I do not even remember what he said as he stood there yelling at me. I slowly went back behind the bar, cleared the remaining glasses and informed him and the other customer that I was locking up, it was time to go.
That night, back in our apartment, we had a screaming match to end all screaming matches. It was the first and only time I told him (or any of my parents) to “____ off” in no uncertain terms. I mean, I had told him that jokingly when we were partying, but I had never meant it before. By morning, he was back to his “normal” jovial self.
Years later, after I had moved back to Alberta, he retired after over 30 years in an automobile manufacturing plant. Shortly after that he moved to Alberta as well to put distance between himself and the friends that were into drugs. He said, he couldn’t be around it without doing it as well.
A few years after that he got a tattoo on his left inner forearm that gave the ultimate insight. Spanning majority of the space, the tattoo featured a clown. A performance mask was painted in bright colours, with a big smile clearly working on getting laughs from everyone he came into contact with. The mask was being lifted away from his face, and underneath the man was crying, tears streaking down his face. When I asked him why he chose that he replied “it’s me. I’m the clown.”
Over the past few years, especially after he passed, my mom shared some of his history with me that explained where his depression stemmed from. His dad died when he was only 6 or 7, his mom remarried a mean drunk who also died. She then dated another alcoholic who was just as mean. These weren’t the only factors, of course, but were some big events during some formative times in his life. Even on the night of wedding rehearsal, his mother was so controlling that she ended up making him late for rehearsal. Then my parents split up, and to the day he died he swore it came out of nowhere (even though she says she told him several times to straighten up or she was leaving)… and then we moved away.
Not The Only One
In my life, Dad was not the only person that was depressed. To this day I swear my ex-husband is deeply depressed. He grew up in as (in his words) the black sheep of the black sheep’s family. His mother left on April Fools Day when he was merely 13. He was teased all through school and medicated when he was about 11/12 for a year that he doesn’t remember due to the fog the pills put him in. He swears he was sexually abused in grade 2 when a kid gave him a “ball tap” (If you haven’t heard this term before, apparently it means the other kid walked by and gave him a quick jab in the testicles). His mother didn’t even come to his high school graduation (which he never forgave her for and hasn’t spoken to her since. In fact, he once told me that he would divorce me if I even set out to meet her and introduce our children to her). I found him to be a negative person who thought the world was out to get him. In his words “It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.” Needless to say, it didn’t work out between us, and he is still in denial. I am sure there will be several posts in my future about him and my failed marriage.
Love Of My Life
One day I will get into the long story of how my fiancé and I got back together (we actually dated back in high school) but suffice it to say that we have been best friends for decades and when our respective marriages failed within a few months of each other, we tried to help each other through it and ended up realizing how deeply we have loved each other all along.
As you read in his blog, he deals with depression on a daily basis. He wrote about the night that he called everyone important to him and told them goodbye. I remember parts of that day in vivid clarity. Other parts, my memory seems to have glazed over. After he posted his blog, we talked about it and I swore he hadn’t actually called. But the more he described it, the more it came back.
I had spent the day in a city about 45 minutes away with my mom shopping. We were all shopped out (after putting a big dent in our Christmas shopping) and picked a restaurant to have dinner at. Shortly after being seated and ordering my phone rang, so I went to the vestibule at the entrance and took the call. We chatted for a bit, basic chit chat about how the shopping trip had gone. Then he told me he loved me, and he told me goodbye. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember the ice that seeped into my blood. I recall the feeling of cold dread wrapping itself around every cell of my being. My breath coming in short erratic bursts and my heart see-sawing between hammering against my ribs trying to break free and skipping several beats at a time.
It was a time in my life where I was already feeling vulnerable (having split up with my husband of ten years only a few months earlier) so I tried to convince myself that I was reading too much into the call. I knew that he had been going through some rough times with his kids and his ex and I knew how awful they were being to him, so I tried to chalk it up to him having a rough day. I composed myself enough to return to the table and finish my meal (which had thankfully arrived while I was on the phone). Throughout dinner, I texted him several times because the feeling refused to release me completely. I knew in my whole being that something was wrong.
He never responded to those texts. And he didn’t respond to any of the texts I sent him on the long drive home. That is, until I FINALLY I got a text. It said that it was his number, but the words were not his at all. It said something along the lines of “Hi Brandi, this is _______, I found him. He was about to kill himself. I’ve checked him into the psych ward.”
The next couple of days were some of the worst of my life. This friend that had his phone gave me a few updates but told me he didn’t want to see me. One day she called me and even told me it was my fault that he was in there. MY FAULT. He tried to kill himself because of me. (He later quashed that and told me I had nothing to do with it).
As he mentioned, it was a long process to get his meds right so now he generally has good, bright days with a few bad, dark days here and there. The dark days usually happen because of a big event, such as one of his kids’ birthdays, or another big holiday like Christmas. As he has learned to manage and accept it, I too have had to learn.
I had lived with both my dad and my ex-husband and their depressions, but this is different. With dad, he was the parent, 20 year old kids don’t know how to take care of their parents like that. Especially not one that hid it so well behind all his jokes and pranks. To this day, every time I look at my shopping list I half expect him to have written “A Life” on my list of things to buy.
Then with my ex, he was in denial about being depressed. He had, in my untrained opinion, never dealt with his mom leaving, her boyfriend breaking his arm, growing up poor, childhood bullying and so much more. We tried couples counselling once. Through our discussion with the counsellor the counsellor (a trained mental health practitioner) focused on some of these issues, trying to help him work through them, so we could work through us. He was furious on the way home, and we never went back.
Now, however, I am with the love of my life, and I would do and give anything to help him. While he was hospitalized, he did eventually let me come see him. He also would call me. He was only allowed 10 minutes on the phone and would say “I’ll call you before X o’clock”. I would wait anxiously for that call, nearly crying at the sound of his voice. I was a complete basket case.
Today, he still has his good days and his bad. On his dark days, as he calls them, it can be a minute to minute struggle. There will be times when he doesn’t get out of bed all day and will only crawl out from under the covers when I essentially order him to or he has another commitment that can’t be blown off. I used to try to give him his space these days. To allow him to work through whatever needed working through.
I’ve learned that doesn’t work, and in fact often makes things worse. Now I try getting him to do small things. I’ll remind him he wanted to sand the walls in the new bathroom (which is still a work in progress of its own!) or ask him to run out and pick something up for me. I try to avoid putting on movies or a show that might make things worse (on dark days we don’t watch anything with babies, or family issues, and we never watch anything that was his “thing” with one of his kids). I also try very hard to never say anything negative about his dark days because even on a good day, that can be all the trigger a dark day needs.
Sometimes we struggle. I find it hard to burden him with my own bad days. He has enough on his plate he doesn’t need me to complain and add to the weight that sometimes crashed down on him. Sometimes we even fight, but always seem to talk it through because we know that what we have is worth fighting and compromising for. We are here for each other no matter what, because after both being in unhappy marriages we know what we want, how to ask for it and how to make it a reality for each other and for us. His dark days will always be a part of our life, but that isn’t the worst thing in the world. In fact, it is one more thing that makes us stronger together.
Living with someone living with depression can be hard. Whether that someone is a parent, a spouse in an unhappy marriage, the love of your life or anyone else. But remember, they have survived 100% of their bad days, and so have you. If they seem to be having an off day, talk to them (even when they push you away). Ask if they are okay. Ask what you can do (they will probably tell you nothing, and this is true, besides being there for them, there is nothing you can do). Involve them, even if they have canceled your plans the last 10 minutes, ask them to dinner, or for a walk, to watch a movie… anything. Just be there for them.