I was the one that kept him fighting.
No, that's unfair. He fought every single day. He was, and continues to be, one of the strongest men I know.
His fight within was simply to survive. I kept pushing him to thrive. The problem was, I was unable to fully understand that wasn't possible for him, not as he was. I had hoped that unburdening himself of his past and his father's death would release something inside of him, that that was the closure he needed to grow out of the depression.
But that only happens in the movies. What we've been shown in movies and TV is a far cry to the reality of living with mental illness, or of loving someone with it. There is no magic bullet for depression, no miraculous epiphany to be reached that would change everything, no turning point. And, the thing that hurt the most: No matter how much I loved him, it wasn't enough to make him happy.
I tried to understand, every day I tried. But how could I, really? There is no way to understand true, clinical depression, anxiety, schizotypal disorder, unless you've lived them.
I got frustrated. Couldn't you just-- I wondered. But no, he couldn't just. He couldn't even begin to. And then the second, deeper hurt started to twist its tendrils into my heart: While I'd accepted my love wouldn't be enough to heal him, I at least thought his love for me would be enough to make him take a step, any step, toward climbing toward the light again.
"Allie," he asked me one day as we sat on the bed talking. "You do realize that this could be terminal, right?"
"What?" I asked.
"Has it ever occurred to you," he said calmly, "that depression might be terminal?"
"What are you saying?" I asked him, grappling with the fear rising up within, trying to choke me.
"I'm saying," he continued in that same matter-of-fact, tired voice, as if he were talking to a child who couldn't understand, "that I have fought this all my life. I have been on every medication. I have seen countless doctors. I have exercised. I have meditated. I have tried everything. And I just keep getting worse. I don't see a way out of this."
"Except for one."
He motioned to the nightstand where he had a handgun tucked away.
I mutely started shaking my head. No, no, no, no, nonononononono.
He shrugged bleakly. "No one understands, Allie. Because no one can see it. If I had a heart condition and couldn't do physical activity because of it, people would understand. If I had a broken leg and couldn't run, people would understand. If I had cancer and felt so awful and weak that I couldn't get out of bed for days at a time, people would understand. But depression is what the eye never sees. No one can see this. No one."
"I see it every day," I said softly, looking down at the bedspread.
He squeezed my hand. "No," he said gently. "You really don't."
About a week later was the first time I came home from work to find him sitting on the bed, staring at the gun in his hand. I rushed over, my heart in my throat, in my head, exploded in fear.
"Whatareyoudoing?" I asked him, so frantic it came out as one word.
"I'm fine, Allie," he said, letting go of the gun with one hand and holding out arm to pull me close. "I know it will sound weird - and probably scare you - but sometimes, when I'm having a really bad day, it actually makes me feel better to hold it. Just to know that there's an out, if I ever truly needed it."
I stared at the gun in his hand, mute, while so many thoughts swirled through my head. What was there to say? What could I say? Scold him and tell him to promise never to do something to hurt himself? If he really wanted to do it, it would have been an empty promise and we both knew it. Tell him how much I loved him? He knew that, too. Just that morning, we'd hidden little love notes to each other in the house before I left for work. Tell him I understood? But I couldn't say that, not ever, saying that would have been to tell him it was okay, that he had my blessing, that I'd given up the fight. And I never would.
I settled for pulling the gun out of his hand silently and setting it on the nightstand, then climbing into his lap and nuzzling my nose and lips into his neck, breathing him in, letting him know I was there, that I loved him, that I would always love him.
But the thing nobody ever tells you is that sometimes, love just isn't enough.
After that day, I carefully brought up the idea of, if he ever hit rock bottom, having him committed. "Just--just to--to get you help. To--until you're...okay again..." I trailed off lamely. We both knew "okay" was a relative term for him.
He looked me dead in the eye. "One of the few things I have left is my freedom. Without that, I have nothing. If you ever make the call to have me committed, I will kill myself before they can take me away."
I didn't bother to point out that he had me. It hurt too much that it hadn't even been a consideration.
I pondered taking the guns away from him. But going to the range was one of the few activities he still could bring himself to do and still enjoyed, liberal as he was. Even as depressed as he was, he was the most responsible gun owner I'd ever known. And I knew that if I took his guns away, took away one of the last few pleasures he had in his life, that would be the end of us. If I tried to have him committed, that would be the end of us.
And at the moment, I was the only one who was there for him every single day. His mother, while loving and desperate to help, lived a few counties over. His best friend lived even further away.
I'm not sure I can describe, exactly, what it feels like to pause before you walk into your apartment after work, forehead leaning on the door, hand resting on the knob, swallowing your fear, your nerves, working up your courage to walk inside. To pause because you genuinely aren't sure what you'll find. If he'll be there, safe...or if you'll find a goodbye note. To have a moment where the thought crosses your mind: I'm not actually positive when I come home anymore whether or not I'll find my boyfriend alive. I'm not sure I can describe the helpless, hopeless, how-did-we-get-so-trapped-and-how-did-we-get-here feeling at that moment as your head rests against the wood and you think, just for a split second, about leaving. And then the overwhelming guilt.
I don't know exactly when it was, but I spoke with a friend, a nurse who worked in the mental health field, about NAMI and finding him help. She gently suggested that I, too, seek counseling.
"But I don't need counseling!" I was surprised.
"Most people don't understand how much of a toll it takes on them to be a caregiver. Whether it's a terminal illness, or a clinical mental illness, it sometimes takes almost as much of a toll on the partner as it does on the sufferer."
"I--I'll think about it." I said. But I already knew I wouldn't seek help. I was supposed to be the strong one. I was supposed to be the one who had it together for the both of us. He was to be the churning sea, me, the steady rock upon which he broke. I could not not handle handling him. It was not about me; it had to be about him, because his issues, his illness, eclipsed all.
But if I were being honest with myself just then, I'd have admitted that some cracks had started to chip away at my armor. I was a little less bright, a lot less joyful, much more dim. I was hesitant and insecure in some ways that I had never been, his constant, unintentional undermining of my self-worth happening in such gradual, incremental amounts that I didn't even recognize it for what it was. Neither of us did.
I wasn't perfect, either. Far from it. As the burden of trying to hold both of us up and frantically patch our holes got heavier and ever harder to bear, I started lashing out. Never directly, but I found myself getting passive-aggressive with him, or losing my patience when we had the same conversation for what felt like the 876th time and he still refused to try.
We chipped away at each other until we loved one another more than we ever had, but underneath that love was something rotten and resentful and bitter as copper pennies. He loved me, but he was slowly killing me inside. I loved him, but my resentment burned him through. Mental illness is toxic. It's acid. It corrodes everything it touches, given enough time and proximity.
I got a job offer that involved me going to Berlin for a while. It was a dream job, the opportunity of a lifetime. I really, really wanted to say yes. But I asked him, first. He wasn't comfortable or thrilled with the idea, but he didn't forbid me.
So I said yes. It was indeed a dream job, but deep-down, I also was relieved to be getting away from him. From the oppressive sadness and silence, from the way that silence was filled with all the things we could no longer say to one another. I hoped that some time apart would help each of us to grow, to be better, stronger, to find ourselves. I saw it as a good opportunity for both of us, both as individuals and as a couple.
He, however, did not. I found out after the fact that he hated the idea of me leaving, that he hated that I said yes, that he hated being apart, that he hated the thought of a long-distance relationship, that he hated the thought of having to deal with his demons alone, that he hated feeling like I'd run out on us.
And maybe I hated me a bit for running out on us, too. And maybe he never told me these things because the only way he could truly show how much he loved me, how much he understood, was to let me go.
We stayed together through the distance and came back to each other. We were ecstatic to be together again; we promised that it would be different, that we'd start anew, that we'd talk things out. And it worked for a while, really, it did.
But again, mental illness doesn't behave like it does in the movies. His depression wasn't gone; it had just gotten temporarily overshadowed by our happiness at being back together. If anything, his demons had an even stronger hold on him than before. And so did my resentment. It lasted only four months after I returned.
Eventually, our foundation, eaten through, gave way.
After months of being separated by half a world, months of me having a 2-hour daily commute each way, eating into our time together, of the three and a half years of hurts and illness and desperation, it came to a head. We had a blowout fight late one Thursday night, and he said the thing, the one thing of all the things he'd said over the years, that I couldn't get past.
"We were a mistake," he finally snapped, rounding on me to look at me for the first time since we'd started fighting.
I stopped mid-sentence, the wind gone completely out of my sails. "A mistake?" I asked, stunned. "Three and a half years and I was a mistake?"
"Yes." His jaw ground in the way it did when a particularly bad headache was coming on, when he was saying something he was loathe to voice. "You...were a mistake."
"I see..." I whispered. I felt a yawning chasm open somewhere inside me between us. This is the thing I can't get past; this is the thing he can never unsay; this is the thing I can never unhear.
"And," he continued, on a roll now, "I've been doing an awful lot of thinking about why I'm not getting better. Why this depression has lasted longer than any of my other depressive spells. And the only thing I can possibly think of is that it's you. You make me worse. You're the reason I can't get better."
Something inside me broke and gave way then. I made a noise that had no name. It was the best I could manage, suddenly being without breath.
You make me worse.
He stared at me as soon as the words came out of his mouth, surprise and anger all over his face. That handsome, exotically carved face that broke my heart.
You're the reason I can't get better.
That night, long after he had shut himself in the bedroom and gone to sleep, I sat on the couch, catatonic with grief. I didn't sleep. I didn't move. I didn't even cry. I barely even blinked. I just sat there through the night, staring and still as a stone, locked so tightly in my shock and grief that I was rigid. He doesn't love me anymore he doesn't love me anymore he doesn't love me anymore he doesn't love me anymore echoed over and over again in my head, the soundtrack to the longest, most miserable night I've ever spent.
But that's the thing I learned, after some time and some distance: He had loved me. Deeply and fiercely, he had loved me. He had still loved me even when he was saying the words that broke us. But he didn't have the capacity to keep showing me that love in the way I needed, he didn't have the strength to put himself back together again while worrying about me.
I don't know how he is. We've not spoken since I moved out well over a year ago. I tried to contact him, twice - he never responded. I don't know if he's gotten better. I hope he has. He deserves to be happy. He deserves to be whole. The world deserves for him to be.
But I simply don't know. Because that's what mental illness does. It gives no answers, only takes. I've had to forge my own answers. And there are a few things I know now:
One, if you're ever in a relationship with someone suffering from a mental illness, it will affect you just as much as it affects them. Have a support system. Talk to a professional. Don't shoulder the burden alone and without the right tools to deal.
Two, people who commit suicide are not selfish. They are not weak. On the contrary, they are, quietly, probably some of the strongest people you've ever known, because they've been fighting against their head going under the water for months, if not years. Sometimes, they make it to the other shore. Sometimes, they drown. And you can't blame them for it any more than you can blame a swimmer's lungs for giving out or their muscles for not being able to make one more stroke.
Three, our mental health care system is appalling. There's just too much we don't know, too much confusion about how and where to find support, too hard to get financial help, too hard to be taken seriously, too many people who will look at someone silently drowning and say, "You don't look like you're sick."
Four, you may not believe in depression or certain other mental illnesses. That's fine. You don't have to. They exist with or without your belief. But for someone not waving, but drowning, telling them the problem is all in their head and not real is the worst thing you can say. So please, do them and yourself a favor and just shut up. Really.
Five, someone suffering mental illness, however, is not an excuse for you to put up with being treated badly. It is, of course, always up to each of us to determine what we will and will not stand for, but if the relationship is bringing you more misery than joy, it's time to get out. And you shouldn't feel guilty for it.
Six, and this is important. Learn to forgive. Forgive them, and forgive yourself. You could be bitter and hate. Choose instead to love and grow.
Because if you can learn that and accept it after losing yourself, eventually, you'll find your way back again.