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What I Learned About Love From My Boyfriend's Depression

I know all about depression. I know about it from every angle -- I grew up with it all around me and I've struggled with it myself at times. But when it mattered the most -- when the person I loved fell into it -- all that knowledge availed me of nothing. That's how insidious this thing is.
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We'd lie in bed at night talking about ways we could fight it together, and sometimes when we ran out of ideas I'd turn toward him and put my hand on his chest. "Come back to me," I'd say.

"I want to," he'd reply. "I really do. I just can't." And he really couldn't.

Last spring, my boyfriend fell into a bout of deep clinical depression, and suddenly I found myself alone in my relationship, a far lonelier place to be than simply alone. The man I loved was gone and I had no idea who this listless, melancholy replacement was, and neither one of us knew when he'd be back.

And he did really want to come back, but the lies his brain was telling him were too powerful. The basic building blocks of his life were becoming fluid and slippery -- those assumptions most of us make every day: I have people who love me. I have people whom I love. I am a part of my life and it would matter if I left it. In my boyfriend's sick mind, those statements all turned into questions, which left an uncertainty that no amount of reasoned reflection could assuage. There were no givens anymore for him and, as I would come to find out, that included me.

It wasn't a veil over his eyes, as I've heard depression described as, but rather a thick blanket draped over all of him, so that all he saw was a soft darkness that felt like the only real thing in his life. And against that velvety darkness, I was powerless.

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I know all about depression. I know about it from every angle -- I grew up with it all around me and I've struggled with it myself at times. But when it mattered the most -- when the person I loved fell into it -- all that knowledge availed me of nothing. That's how insidious this thing is -- my struggle to come to terms with my boyfriend's depression was in spite of an intimate understanding of the disease, not in its absence. I knew that my boyfriend's depression was bigger than me, that the idea of nurturing someone out of depression was as ridiculous as trying to nurture him out of diabetes. And yet that's exactly what I tried to do -- I dragged him out of bed and I made him take walks with me and we went to therapy and I called his friends to tell them how worried I was. I was patient and understanding. At some point, without realizing it, I'd made a decision: I couldn't be ok until he was. So I tried to strangle the disease right out of him.

But as the weeks turned into months without much progress, I became angry -- frustrated that we were always focusing on him and my needs weren't being met. I began to take his depression personally -- it became something that he was doing to me. If only he'd try harder, make better choices. If only I could make him happier. I knew better, but fear erases what you know.

One night, after he refused to meet me out with some friends, I called him on my way home demanding to know why he was being so selfish. I screamed at him and he screamed back, searching futilely for some explanation that would satisfy me, until he finally spit out, "What is it that you want from me?"

"I just want you to care about me again -- about my feelings," I cried.

"Well I don't! I don't give a shit about you! I don't care about anything anymore -- don't you get that? I'm sitting here watching TV wishing the ceiling would collapse on top of me -- and you want me to care about your feelings? I can't!"

Sometimes hearing the truth can free you and break your heart at the same time. I finally heard him on the phone that night: His love for me hadn't gone anywhere, he just had no access to it, buried as it was underneath the weight of all of his depression. And it had nothing to do with me, which meant there was nothing I could do to help.

We hung up and I pulled into an empty parking lot, and under the fluorescent light of the street lamps, I wept.

We decided that it was best for me to get my own place. We still went to therapy. We still fought and cried and took turns fearing all the different possibilities. There were moments when I could feel the words we're done in the back of my throat, and the only thing that kept them from coming up was fear.

Slowly, in fits and starts, he began to get better. He switched meds and went for more therapy and talked to friends and pushed himself to be more active. As I put less pressure on him to get better, he was actually able to get better. It looks like we'll make it.

And yet, real damage was done. Things were said that can't ever be unsaid, and the question now for me is how to forgive someone for things he did when he was someone else. When he was somewhere far away, and the best that he could manage was survival. I don't have the answer yet, but I trust that I'll find it. His recovery didn't happen overnight, and neither will mine.

In the meantime, I've come to accept the fact that relationships are not about being anyone's savior. I couldn't save my boyfriend from his depression any more than he could will himself better to save me from my loneliness. Sometimes the best you can do is tell someone you love him, and let him know where you'll be should he ever be ready to come back to you.

An earlier version of this was published on Washington Post's Soloish blog.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.