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Published On September 22, 2008

CLINICAL RESEARCH

Imperiled Partners

In depression, family members are helpless spectators looking on.

These days, you can scarcely watch TV without seeing an ad for an antidepressant. They all seem to be shot from the same script: dimly lit room, unkempt actor. Cue the dolorous music. If there’s a family member in the frame, he or she is a helpless spectator looking on.

The scene is all too accurate. My husband is clinically depressed, and for more than a decade, I’ve been the onlooker. If he’d had any other disease, I would have sat in the doctor’s office beside him when the diagnosis was made and treatment plans were discussed. But depression is different. It’s a lonely, anonymous battle—so much so that I can’t use my real name here for fear of violating my husband’s privacy.

My husband’s depression was first diagnosed 13 years ago. A salesperson for a tobacco company, he was the proverbial glad-hander: ready with a joke, asking after his customers’ families. But at home he was a different man. He spoke to me in grunts, if at all. His penchant for a beer after work escalated into a full-blown drinking problem. Soon I started to ask myself why I was in the marriage at all. We went to a counselor, who suspected, quite rightly, that something else was wrong and referred my husband to a psychiatrist.

I felt, as Walt Whitman wrote, “both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” My husband came home with a prescription for Paxil, which he said would take about two weeks to “activate.” I wish his psychiatrist had bothered to prepare me for what that meant.One sunny Saturday morning, I returned from the grocery store to find my husband pacing the living room, wild-eyed, fists clenched and teeth gnashing. “Oh my God, I can’t settle down,” he said. I was terrified. The dosage was tapered back, and after a day or so, my husband returned to normal—whatever that was.

He stayed on the medication for 18 months. But he was never comfortable with the idea of a booster pill for his personality. So, with the help of his psychiatrist, he cut the dose and eventually stopped taking the drug. The depression abated, as can often happen, and I hoped that would be the end of it.

But it wasn’t. Ten years later, it returned full force. This time around, experience had taught me that I couldn’t control what was happening to him, but I could try to help myself.

Browsing the Internet, I found a support group that included sufferers of depression and their family members. At the first meeting, a beautiful woman spoke in a monotone while looking at the floor. Another talked about how everyone at her job seemed out to get her. When my turn came to introduce myself, I burst into tears. Were these people what my husband would become? I fled and never returned.

It’s ironic I found so little relief, because I live 30 miles from New York, a city that should be crawling with resources. I ended up having to consult a psychiatrist of my own, at $150 an hour, to stop blaming myself for what was going on. The sessions taught me that depression is the same as any other biological disease: It isn’t my fault, or my husband’s.

If I’ve learned anything else from the experience, it’s that he will not some day be miraculously cured. In a better world, we could both talk openly about his condition, the same way our close friend with cancer did to rally loved ones around her. I watch for signs that the dark cloud might be descending. On days that it isn’t, that seems victory enough.

 

First Person originates at the other end of the stethoscope, presenting essays and commentary from patients, consumers and other medical outsiders. Proto invites your contributions; please send ideas to the editor.

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