By Esther Mann, LCSW
I come from a family that is pretty even-keeled. We are not moody people. For most of my life, I didn’t even understand what it meant to be moody. Of course, my parents, siblings, and I had our moments. We didn’t exactly walk around all day, every day, with tremendous smiles on our faces, but we never got into a funk that lasted for any significant amount of time.
When I look back to when I was dating Ariella, my wife, I can now recognize the fact that she had serious mood swings going on. Honestly, at the time, I kind of didn’t know what was flying with her. Usually, she was wonderful to be around and everything was good. But there were times when she’d break a date at the last minute, claiming she wasn’t feeling well, but there were no actual physical symptoms to talk about.
I think that back then I didn’t read into things very deeply. I took things at face value and didn’t look too closely to understand what was really going on. So if Ariella said she was under the weather and couldn’t see me for a few days, I just wished her a refuah sheleimah and looked forward to when we could see each other again.
Now that we’re married for a couple of years, I understand that Ariella is an extremely moody person, and though I’m no professional, I’m starting to admit to myself that she is depressed a lot. When she’s feeling good, I couldn’t ask for anything more. She’s a great wife and mother to our 10-month-old daughter. But when she gets into these moods, I hardly recognize her. Some days she can barely get out of bed, and if these moods fall over the weekend, she’ll stay in bed all day, and the responsibilities for our daughter and home all fall on my shoulders. I don’t mind taking over the physical responsibilities when I have to, but I worry about our daughter and how it might be affecting her—and how it will affect her even more as she grows older. Also, I find myself having to make excuses for Ariella when she’s unable to show up for friends and relatives in general. I sometimes feel like I’ve become her defense attorney, defending her actions to others, sometimes making up stories to cover for her, which I don’t feel good about.
My biggest problem with all of this—and the reason for this letter—is that I find myself getting sucked into her moods. When she’s in a good mood, I’m the happiest man alive. I feel positive, hopeful, and filled with happiness. But when she is in a dark place, I feel dark also, like I’m stuck in quicksand and will never be able to get out. For me, this is totally out of character, since I was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy until I married Ariella.
My question to you is: how can I be there for Ariella and our daughter and still keep my own identity intact and remain my normal cheerful self, rather than get pulled into her mood? I don’t want to feel I’m “going down” just because Ariella is “going down.” For our daughter’s sake, though I wish she had two happy parents, I want her to have at least one consistently happy parent.
I’m sure you’re wondering whether Ariella has ever done anything to help herself. I know that she has a therapist she sees on and off. For some reason, she doesn’t seem to want to go consistently. She’ll only call him for an appointment when she feels things are overwhelming her. Mind you, if she waits until things are really bad, then she doesn’t even have any desire or energy to make an appointment. And yes, as I’ve started looking into these matters, I have asked her about the possibility of taking medication and whether she feels it would help. She finally told me that years ago she tried anti-depressants and found she put on weight, so she is not interested in doing that again.
I know she has to figure things out for herself and get the proper help she needs, but in the meantime, how do I keep myself happy? How do I help Ariella take on more of my traits rather than find myself taking on her miserable traits?
Dear Almost Depressed,
As you’ve discovered the hard way, it’s hard to live with a depressed individual—whether it’s a spouse, a child, or a parent. When someone is suffering in this way, the energy it creates is so powerful that it easily infuses itself into everyone who gets too close. The same can be said for many other emotional challenges, like anxiety, neuroses, and phobias. They seem to take on a life of their own and can insidiously wrap themselves around the people closest to them. Not that it’s the fault of the individual who is suffering with his or her particular malady. They aren’t intentionally trying to bring others down with them. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Your experience of living with a depressed wife does not surprise me. All in all, you sound like a supportive, wonderful husband who is rolling with the punches and picking up the slack when Ariella is unable to function properly. She’s lucky to have married such a terrific guy! On the other hand, you recognize that it is taking a toll on you and you’re finding your very own nature at risk of absorbing the depression that emanates from Ariella.
Though clearly Ariella should be going to therapy consistently (and if her present therapist is not the right one for her, she needs to keep searching until she does find someone she wants to see consistently), you need to find a therapist of your own. Your work is to learn how to create a protective bubble around yourself so that you no longer absorb Ariella’s pain and darkness. This is tricky business and not something that’s easily doable on your own.
While you want to continue to be there for Ariella and not check out emotionally—which I’m sure is often tempting—you need to learn how to feel compassion for her while still creating a space between the two of you so that you are able to maintain the integrity of your true nature. As you explore this process, no doubt many emotions will arise—for instance, feelings of guilt. You may feel guilty being happy while your wife is so miserable. Or you may be feeling angry, as you think about how Ariella is affecting everyone in the family, despite the fact that it’s out of her control. You may be engaging in a pity party, wondering how you missed the red flags and wound up living with someone who is so often hard to live with.
There must be a lot going on with you and that’s why I urge you to get the help you need to work through these emotions and find a way to be present for Ariella, yet protected. Both are definitely possible goals to work towards and achieve.
Meanwhile, though it sounds like you’ve had the important conversations with Ariella about therapy and medication, don’t be afraid to bring it up again. You don’t want to be a nag, but you should still be the voice of reason, explaining to her that not all therapists are the same and that sometimes it takes a little shopping around to find the one she can truly connect with. Have these conversations when Ariella is in a good place. If you wait until she’s down in the dumps, your words will fall on deaf ears.
As you’ve noted in regard to your young daughter, this is a family issue, as most issues tend to be. So do your part in improving your own reactions and you’ll definitely see some improvement in the entire family system.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.