Depression in men is now openly talked about, but less visible are the partners of sufferers, who endure corresponding lows and challenges. GRACE O’NEILL shares her personal story
When your partner has depression.
Irecently tweeted to my modest following that “Men know so much about politics and sport so they have something to talk about that isn’t Their Feelings”. It was an attempt to curate my “witty journalist” online persona, but also I’m convinced it’s true. During the past four years with my boyfriend, Zach, I have become intimately acquainted with the fallout of men’s inability to talk to one another with real depth. Zach and I moved in the same social circles for years, but we actually met at a frat party at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).WE were both studying there on exchange: me, film; him, mathematics.we fell for each other quickly; Zach remains one of funniest, kindest and most intelligent people I’ve met.
We spent the next month holed up in our dorms drinking Napa Valley wine out of red college cups or rifling for vintage designer clothes at Silver Lake flea market. It was one of those whirlwind romances you feel won’t translate to real life, but our first two years together back in Sydney were pleasantly simple.when Zach was offered a graduate position at an investment bank in Hong Kong after we’d been discussing where to go next, he signed the contract and we began planning the move.
Looking back, signs were creeping in that things weren’t wholly OK. Sometimes Zach would spend entire days in bed for no apparent reason or go days without eating properly, and party much harder and more often than any of his friends.but everything could be chalked up to something. He stayed in bed for days because he’d partied all weekend; he wasn’t eating because banking jobs are stressful.when he started making big mistakes at work and becoming increasingly apathetic about the move to Hong Kong, it just felt as if he was realising the life of a high-flying investment banker isn’t actually all it’s cracked up to be.
On my recommendation, Zach went to see a psychologist, who referred him on to a psychiatrist.to our genuine surprise, Zach was diagnosed with clinical depression, recommended a
three-session-a-week therapy program and told the move to Hong Kong needed to be cancelled immediately.
If you were to ask me five years ago how I’d cope with a partner with depression, I’d have told you I’d excel at it. I’m from generation #woke, after all. We understand the pitfalls of toxic masculinity and the worrying statistics on male suicide (three times higher than for women in Australia). We’re the generation who created “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, the ones turning the world exasperatingly PC!
I really did want to be the beacon of emotional support Zach needed at that time, but the reality is, living with someone with depression is very difficult.there’s a big misconception that depression equals sadness. Zach wants me to emphasise in this piece that depression isn’t only sadness.at times it is, and at other times it’s the absence of feeling altogether — a dogged lack of emotion that leaves you unmotivated, disengaged and apathetic.the reality of living with someone with this condition is that, as much as you want to be patient and sympathetic, there are only so many times you can hear this person you care about bemoan the lack of anything good in their life and anything to look forward to, and that nothing good ever happens to them, without feeling a little … offended.
Seeing someone not want to get out of bed in the morning or spend days playing video games in their pyjamas is concerning at first, but you soon become exhausted by it. For me, it started to seem a little self-indulgent, like, We all find life hard; what gives you the right to be treated with a giant “FRAGILE” sticker?
Depression can also make people mean. Zach became uncharacteristically unkind at times, as if he was trying to confirm he was intrinsically unloveable by isolating himself from everyone who cared about him. It requires the patience of a saint (or, at least, a parent) to have someone actively push you away and be unkind to you and to still forgive them over and over again — especially when they’re not asking for forgiveness.
While Zach was focused on therapy and an intense amount of introspection, I was festering with resentment. I was angry the Hong Kong move had been abruptly cancelled without any acknowledgement of how it would impact my career; I was jealous that Zach had the money at his disposal to spend thousands of dollars a week on therapy; and, if I’m being brutally honest, I felt he didn’t have anything to be depressed about — he came from a privileged upbringing in a mansion in Sydney’s Rose Bay and went to the best private school in the country.there was a giant chip on my shoulder and it was turning me into the exact opposite of what he needed.
I’m not proud that I felt any of these things. I know depression doesn’t discriminate based on how wealthy you are and I’m angry that I was so selfish at the one time I should have been selfless. It felt inevitable that we would break up, and by the time we did I felt like a failure.
In the months after the break-up, I became aware of how lucky I am to have a network of girlfriends who are always available to take my crying phone calls or take me out for margaritas when I’m feeling low. I realised that, while Zach had a huge network of male friends, they never spent any time talking about anything deeper than the latest NRL game or the US political climate. I wasn’t convinced any of them even knew he had depression. Selfishly, I wondered if this presented me with a ‘get out of jail free’ card of sorts. Maybe I had been so terrible at supporting Zach through his depression because it was simply too much for one person to handle. Maybe the inability men have to talk among themselves means women are often the sole providers of emotional support. And maybe trying to be all things to one person is a fool’s errand.
I posed this question to Sydney-based psychologist Dr Emmanuella Murray:“do women bear the brunt of men’s emotional baggage because men can’t talk to one another?”
“That’s a little harsh,” she replies with a laugh. “It absolutely benefits females that they are able to be emotionally vulnerable with each other, and I think it’s true that with men, their friendships tend to provide less emotional support and less self-disclosure. But we want our romantic partners to be emotionally connected to us, and we want them to communicate their emotions, whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant — it’s one of the only ways to maintain sound mental health.”
In terms of medically diagnosed depression specifically, however, Murray is aware of how difficult it can be for the partner. “Depression interferes with how someone sees themselves, their lives and their relationships, which can mess with a couple’s connection and make the [sufferer] emotionally unavailable,” she explains. “It often leaves a partner feeling confused and helpless, because we all want to feel like we have a partner who values us.”
Murray says a substantial proportion of her clients are couples in which one partner suffers from depression, often with that partner seeing a different psychologist for individual therapy. The best way to tackle the situation, in her experience, is to make sure they’re facing the problem head on.“when I see couples, the first thing I do is put the depression down on the table so there’s no way to ignore it. There are many ways to tackle a problem, but if you don’t acknowledge the depression is there, the depression gets worse.”
On a cold night last August, in a dimly lit pizza bar in Paddington in Sydney, Zach and I got back together. No pomp and circumstance, no Bridget Jones-esque declarations of love, just two people who had each grown significantly and felt ready to give their relationship a more mature second chapter.
Having spent the past six months living with Zach, I’m aware depression isn’t something you’re ever ‘cured’ of. It ebbs and flows on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis; it’s a condition managed only when both parties are patient and compassionate. In this Trump era, and nearly 12 months post-weinstein revelations, it’s tempting to vilify men, and it can feel counterintuitive to ask women to be more empathetic to our male counterparts. But, although she wasn’t speaking about depression specifically, a line from Emma Watson’s divisive UN speech keeps niggling at me.“if men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive.” Maybe there is something in that. Readers affected by depression, either their own or that of a loved one, are encouraged to seek support at beyondblue.org.au.
“It requires the patience of a saint (or, at least, a parent) to have someone push you away and be unkind to you and to still forgive them over and over again — especially when they’re not asking for forgiveness.”