I think my boyfriend had an episode of major depression

He spent a couple of years listless, sleepless and unhappy -- but says he wasn't depressed.

By Cary Tennis
April 24, 2006 12:30PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I have a wonderful boyfriend: He is smart, caring and fun to be around. We've been together for four years and for the most part, we've been very happy with each other and our relationship. The only problem is that he is not very happy with himself, and I don't know how to make him feel better.


My boyfriend had a pretty rough childhood. His mother is a very sweet woman, but his father can be quite intimidating, and I believe my boyfriend and his two brothers were always kind of fearful of him. Now it seems to me that my boyfriend survived his childhood by simply shutting up and avoiding all confrontations with his father. According to what I know, he has always avoided uncomfortable situations and conflicts -- even when he was little, he used to run away from school if he got into fights with his classmates or with a teacher. As I see it, this has hindered his ability to deal with other problems and conflicts in his life.

When we met he was in graduate school and working at the same time. He was constantly busy, working hard, and seemed to have everything under control. Then he graduated, became unemployed -- and went into some kind of daze. I've read quite a lot about depression and he had all the classic symptoms: He was constantly tired and irritable, couldn't sleep at nights, wouldn't get out of bed in the mornings. For about a year and a half, he only applied for a handful of jobs. I really tried to push him to seek help, to do fun things, to become more active, but I just couldn't get through to him. He constantly blamed his situation on people around him, or things that were out of his control. This, of course, put a huge strain on our relationship -- we even took a break for a few months. Finally, we got back together and he found an interesting job in his field, but even when he got what he said he wanted -- a great job, a new apartment and a steady income -- it took about six months before he got out of his depressive state.

Now, a few months later, everything looks better and brighter. He has made some new friends, he seems to enjoy his job and we are even able to make plans for our future together. But still, I'm afraid that something might go wrong and that he might become depressed again. I believe he needs to seek professional help to talk about what has happened.


But he still can't admit that he has ever had a problem. Even now, when we discuss the past, it seems as if he believes that those two years were just a normal adjustment period, that everybody goes through a rough patch like that. When I try to (calmly) tell him that I think he went through a depression, that he might need some help so he can avoid falling into that downward spiral in the future, he acts totally shocked, like I've just accused him of something terrible. We can talk about almost everything -- just not about what triggered his apathy during those two years. Is there anything I can do? I love him and want to be able to look forward to a future with him.


Dear M,


He is probably frightened to consider that he might have an actual mental illness. But that's what depression is. It has to be treated. There's no way around that. If it is untreated he probably will have more episodes. The next ones may be worse. It can make it impossible to work and to carry on a relationship. Depression can lead to suicide. He has to do something.

But while thinking about this, let's remember how useful, indeed how lifesaving, denial can sometimes be; let's acknowledge just how well his coping strategy is working. Conversely, consider how terrifying it might be for him to give it up before he is ready.


So he's probably doing the smart thing by completely denying it. This is working for him.

But it probably won't work forever. And it certainly isn't working to mollify you.

I would say that two things work in your favor. One, since you are contemplating a future with him, you more or less are obligated to satisfy your curiosity. It would be foolish and wrong to marry a man who has a mental illness that he refuses to treat.


Two, since he doesn't think that what he had was a depressive episode, then what's the harm in getting an expert opinion? Having attained a graduate degree, he ought to respect the pursuit of knowledge. He ought to agree at least, on empirical grounds, to be evaluated by a competent expert. If he does not want to make a personal appearance, would he at least agree to submit a description of that episode for review?

And let's not prejudge. You and I shouldn't be smug. It's possible that he really does not have depression and that what he had was not a depressive episode. You and I aren't clinicians. We can't presume to know.

The important thing is that if you are considering marrying him, then you have to know to your own satisfaction what a future with him might be like. If he refuses to take reasonable steps to protect his own health, that is a serious impediment to marriage.


I don't know how much friction this may introduce into your relationship, but that is how I would approach it: As an important matter that two intelligent people simply ought to know about if they might be getting married one day.

Good luck!

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