“And it felt like a winter machine that you go through and then/ you catch your breath and winter starts again/ and everyone else is spring-bound”
That’s Dar Williams’ song “After All,” and those lyrics are about her own battle with depression. I want to talk about living inside that winter machine (and for all of you who watched General Hospital back in the 80’s, relax. This has nothing to do with Mikkos Cassadine. I promise.) What it’s about is what it’s really like to live with a depressed person. It’s easy, when someone you love dies, to gloss over the hard parts and idolize them. I want to speak truth about Tony, because he deserves that. I want to speak truth, because I deserve it. I need to speak it, because someone does and because so few people talk honestly about mental illness and what it’s like. I loved Tony. I will always love him. But the truth is that there were many times that living with him just felt like hard, heartbreaking work.
I think Dar’s description is such a good one. I lived with Tony for almost ten years, and during that time I watched him go into that winter machine, come out, and go right back in again. Good things — fun times with friends, watching a great movie, screenwriting successes, holidays, play time with the cats, a beautiful day outdoors – slipped through his fingers like air. The bad things stuck.
It often felt to me that the things that he spent the most energy being upset about were those that seemed minor to me. Really big events, things that anybody would react badly to, didn’t get to him in the same way. We were in a car accident once. He was upset, yes, but it didn’t seem to pull him down the way other things did. In some ways it brought out his better qualities. He was protective of me, efficient with the other driver and the insurance company and the body shop. His mom got sick. Yes, he was sad and scared and all of the things that any of us would be, but he still seemed able to function. His emotions were something he could control in those situations. But if the car door got closed the wrong way, or a neighbor made a loud noise while he was doing something that he needed to concentrate on, he would lose all rationality. He would want to talk about it over and over, for days on end. I would start off patient and understanding, and we would have the same conversation 99 times. The hundredth time (or sometimes, to be honest, the thirtieth time, or the tenth) I would let my frustration, my helplessness, and yes, my anger at the situation, show. At those times he felt I was his enemy. If only I could be the type of person who would say X, Y or Z (not coincidentally, the things I DID say the first 99 times) then he would be fine; but no, I didn’t do that, I got mad and that was just mean. I couldn’t understand the storm inside his head, and he didn’t have the words to explain it to me.
I wanted to help him. I felt like it was my job to help him. Part of that is my own issue to deal with, why I feel that I need to take on such burdens, that I need to fix other people’s problems for them. But part of it is also that he wanted me to help him. He wanted me to be wife, friend, writing partner, nurse, psychiatrist, and priest. He wanted me to know the right thing to say or do, and he wanted to believe that if only I did know it, all would be well. Trying to get my arms around his anger and his fear and his needs? Well, it was like trying to hug a dinosaur. It was slippery and had claws and teeth and it didn’t want to be soothed, dammit, except when it did.
Loving someone who’s depressed is scary. It’s like walking a tightrope suspended over eggshells suspended over the Grand Canyon. As the non-depressed person, you try to balance, struggle to keep everything in line and calm and even. You try to be compassionate and understanding, all the while pushing your own needs to the side because that other person? Their needs are HUGE. Their needs are all-encompassing, and in the end, does it really matter if you’ve taken care of yourself if they fall off the cliff? I used to lie awake nights, afraid that if I closed my eyes and slept I would waken to horror. I’m not only talking suicide – although that, of course, was the BIG bad fear that I carried around – I’m just talking about going to sleep with things in balance, and waking up with them out of balance. About having to get out of bed, square my shoulders and figure out how to get through this day. One more hard winter day in an endless string of them.
Here, where I am now, the days are lengthening. Flowers and leaves are making their first shy steps into the world while birds and tree frogs sing a full-throated chorus of welcome. I have yearned for spring such a long time, yet I’m not ready to say goodbye to winter. I lived there with someone I loved.