I feel like I'm dying

I've been married for 14 years to a woman who is clinically depressed. Will the pain ever end?


Cary Tennis
June 3, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I've been married for 14 years and we have two kids, ages 8 and 5. In the month following our marriage my wife became depressed and depression has been an unwelcome guest in our house ever since. In the early '90s she started taking Prozac, which seemed to help some, but after a few years the medicine stopped working and she was switched to another med. In the years that followed this has been a recurring event; switch the medicine over and over, again and again.

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We've both been in therapy throughout the years and have done marriage counseling together. She's an adult child of an alcoholic daughter of an adult child of an alcoholic. My work over the years has been focused on being comfortable in my own skin irrespective of what others say or are doing.

I read the book "Depression Fallout" and it described me in our marriage perfectly. Nothing I do is ever right or good enough. Everything that happens is always my fault. My wife frequently is overwhelmed and reaches out in anger. She's told me she'd rather feel angry than nothing at all. We're able to have fun when we're on vacation, but otherwise it's daily stress. I can't begin to tell you how exhausted I am. I'm introverted by nature and one who desires peace and beauty. There is very little quiet time or aesthetic appreciation in my life. Hour after hour I live in fear of my wife. I fear her anger and her sadness.

Two years ago I began to confide in and have fun with my secretary at work. It felt so good to be loved and alive! But at the same time I feared having an affair. I told my wife I was scared of having an affair and needed her to be more respectful, loving and caring in our relationship. She responded positively and said that she had no idea I felt that way and she would do anything to save our marriage. But in the days, weeks and months that followed she was angrier than ever and pushed me away. She said, "You act like you're some kind of hero for not having an affair." This resulted in -- you guessed it -- an affair with my secretary. I promptly confessed my sin and my wife quickly forgave me, but again, in the weeks and months that followed she was angrier with me than ever.

About a year and a half ago, two days after the funeral for her grandfather (the alcoholic patriarch), my wife had a breakdown in front of her parents and an aunt and told them of my affair. When I got home they confronted me and told me I needed to stop working with my secretary. She is now my former secretary.

We went back to marriage and individual therapy again. My wife worked with a therapist who told her she was justified in her anger and wouldn't get over her depression until she expressed her anger at me and I did penance for my sins. Believe it or not, the therapist wasn't a fundamentalist religious therapist but a liberal atheist fundamentalist -- almost as bad, I think. I told them that telling my wife to express her anger to get better was like telling an alcoholic they needed to drink to get better.

In my individual work with the same therapist we're seeing for our marriage therapy, I discovered that my wife gets depressed when she's afraid I'm going to leave and that I need to work on not withdrawing and constantly staying connected and expressing my love to her. I'm trying, but it takes so much energy for me to be with her, especially when she's angry and sad.

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Things only got worse, however, and two months later my wife was hospitalized for her depression. In addition to her hospitalization and the individual and marriage therapy she did a two-week outpatient program for depression and a year of group therapy.

In her work with psychiatrists, they gave up on all the new Prozac-type SSRIs and in April put her on Imipramine. It took six months of hell to get the dosage up to a therapeutic level but by the end of the summer the levels were where they were supposed to be. They recently added Paxil to her regimen to help with anxiety. It seems to help some, but I wonder for how long. She's able to function at work.

After 14 years and thousands of pills and tens of thousands of dollars of therapy, nothing has changed, let alone me.

So here I am today and I feel like I'm dying day by day. A good day in our relationship is the absence of anger and negativity, not the presence of anything positive. I wish she had killed herself or would die. I would feel so relieved. Every day I fantasize about killing myself or running away. My physical health has started to wear down with chronic conditions (high blood pressure and psoriasis) and acute conditions (shingles and pneumonia). But then again, some days are pretty normal and the only thing bad is my constant fear. I keep telling myself to hang in there and work on myself. I continue to see a therapist who is trying to help me have peace in the midst of my life and also to work toward relative health.

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You're wondering, Why is he still married? I'm here for my kids and I feel their lives are better with us married than separated or divorced. Further, I'm a pastor of a small church and if I were to leave, my wife and/or her family would surely tell of my affair and that would be the end of my career. I also haven't wanted to hurt my congregation.

I'm writing for your perspective, Cary, as an outside observer.

I'm All Right -- Afraid, Lonely, Restless, Introverted, Godforsaken, Helpless and Tired

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Dear Afraid,

I figure if God exists he's no nickel-and-dimer. He doesn't go along to get along. He's not the kind to spend his life nicking away at the scratches and dents, putting another coat of primer on, buying Donna Karan knockoffs and generic cola to save a dollar here and a dollar there, living in fear of somebody else's neurosis and what it says about him and his competence because he's God and he doesn't worry about his competence and he doesn't worry about the blowback either because he can see the blowback a mile away and he's got tornadoes and hurricanes to back him up; he doesn't fear the narrow moral scorn of in-laws and uncles or the pinched nasal disapproval of a constipated congregation. If there is a God, he's no second-tier emo-emulating singer-songwriter with a cousin in marketing who once met Paula Abdul backstage at a Kenny G concert. He's no drug-dispensing charlatan who blames a husband for his wife's depression and believes that anger is like a poison that can be expelled in tantrums. If God exists, he's an angry punk rocker with a black-market flamethrower, headed for the back door of every church in town. If God exists, he's had it the fuck up to here; he's hanging his head out the window shouting, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." If God exists, he's crushed the skulls of Mussolini and Hitler in his callused, grease-stained hands. Surely he knows what to do about your dalliance with a secretary. Surely he can handle some embarrassed churchgoers already down on their knees.

So I suggest you count out all your forward-looking tithings, add up all your prudent investments in humble Our Fathers, empty your pockets of the phone numbers of secretarial interviewees, gather up your remaining sins and the scattered remnants of less-than-perfect humanity, put it all in a cloth laundry bag, haul the bag up to the pulpit on a bright Sunday morning and spill it out all over the church along with your doubts, your guts, your sins and your faith. Spill it in the aisles, throw it to the balcony, kick it across the floor and scatter it over the heads of your sleeping congregation and when they raise their heads from slumbrous prayer in righteous indignation tell them, "Don't look at me! I'm just a man!" Let them pray to God for help accepting it and sorting it out, because you're all in the same desperate condition and as much as you might need each other right now, more than that you all need whatever you've been calling God all this time. Let them call out to God for a change if they're so almighty churchgoing and pure. Let them put their faith to a genuine test for once. It'll do them good to exercise whatever faith they've got left. Let them find out for themselves if they've got a direct line to God or just some second-rate extension that runs through the back office where the new secretary doesn't know their names and numbers yet. Let them take a good look at you, and you take a good look at them, and everybody ask if they truly need each other's help.

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Then go home. Let the church janitor sweep up, or if you don't have a church janitor, let the mess lie there for a few days until your heart quiets down and then get out a broom yourself and tidy it up. Let the congregation think about it for a week. See who comes back the following Sunday. If you've still got a handful, it seems to me you've got the makings of a genuine church, and maybe you can start over right there. Then again, maybe you're already fired; maybe a bigger man of God than you has already told you to clean out your desk and take that picture of your wife and your ex-secretary too. I don't know how they fire men of God, whether they do it like in the big corporations or whether there's some Latin and Greek involved. But anyway, at the end of the week either you're still a working minister or you're a guy with a collar combing the want ads for a storefront and some folding chairs.

Whatever the practical outcome, you've finally gotten your hands dirty, and maybe you've found a renewal of faith down here on the grimy underside of heaven.

You've also got a story to tell.

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Cary Tennis

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