Today is July 1st. On this day in 2006, just over a month after I graduated from high school, I married my boyfriend of a year and a half, Andrew. I moved to Nebraska to live with him and start our life together. I was 18 years old, and he was 19. We both had full-time jobs, and we had a cute little one bedroom apartment in the heart of a gorgeous historic neighborhood in the capital city of Lincoln. Life was pretty okay. We were so young, and so naive, but we were happy. And that’s what mattered.
Deeper, though. Deeper than what was on Facebook, and deeper than what we would let our families know, was that we had struggles like any other couple. Ours tended to center mostly around things that most newlyweds worry about — money, how to split family time, and just the newness of living with another human being. But our speed bumps were magnified, it seemed, by the fact that each little hiccup was seen through the screen of depression. I didn’t know how to handle it, honestly. The man I married was a fun, hilarious guy most of the time! He joked along with everyone and made up ridiculous lyrics to popular songs that were playing on the radio (a skill of his that truly was well-honed and always spot on). But there were these moments…these dark, confusing moments where he wouldn’t be himself. And I just wouldn’t know where my husband went. He was always there physically, of course, but it wasn’t him. Years later, he would go on to tell me that these dark periods were somewhat of an out-of-body experience for him. That his inner monologue would say, “Why are you saying these hurtful things to your wife? You love her!” But the scathing words that would come out of his mouth would never reflect what he would later say were his innermost feelings.
(In case you’re needing a visual right now, this is the point where I am sitting here typing, and I absolutely lose it. The rest of this is very stream-of-consciousness, so stay with me here.)
Life kind of went on like this for the next 8.75 years, with periods of absolute despair, but also periods of absolute joy. Our terrible times were terrible, and our good times are how I hope to remember Andrew. I saw this man, who I truly loved, fight this battle with depression every single day. I watched him go through something so impossibly difficult that I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Selfishly, it was difficult to be married to Andrew because I couldn’t fix it. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get inside his brain and make him suddenly be cured of depression. It didn’t stop me from trying, of course. I tried to be the wife Andrew needed — the wife that I thought would fix him. I would try so hard to make him better, in any way possible. I’d try to keep things even keeled and under control. He would have an episode before a family event, and I’d cover for his absence. Blame the weather, or say the babies weren’t cooperating, or that he wasn’t feeling well.
I know that some people are probably thinking, “Who does this girl think she is? Her husband is the one who is dealing with difficult things! He’s struggling with mental illness, and here she is crying about how hard it was to be married to him.” That’s fine, honestly. You see, those things used to be what molded my decision-making. “What will they say about this? Will people think less of me if I do XYZ?” I have been serving a belief that I need to live up to the standards of other people; that my job was to keep other people happy and sacrifice my own happiness in order to do so. Because of this, I’ve lived in the shadows of depression for a very, very long time.
Here is my truth: I did not live in a way that I would consider to be authentic when I was married to Andrew. I lived in a way that made it my entire goal to keep him happy. To keep a lid on his depression. To keep him from killing himself. Clearly, it is impossible to control others’ thoughts. Even if I was the most perfect, supportive wife, I could not impact or sway my husband’s actions. I recognize that it wasn’t fair to Andrew; that I was being inauthentic in order to try to keep him in a good place.
Eventually, after years and years of the daily struggle of trying to keep Andrew in a good place, I had emotionally shut down. I had slowly fallen out of romantic love with Andrew. The dark periods of his depression seemed to cycle every three months or so, and each time, they’d linger longer and longer. We tried therapy, but it didn’t go well at all and ended with Andrew leaving the sessions early, leaving me crying on the therapist’s couch. My heart was, and is, absolutely shattered for this man. Depression had made him into someone who had the light taken from his eyes. I know that this wasn’t him. This cold, hurtful person was just the actions of a man who was seeing the world through a screen of self-doubt and unworthiness.
The Monday before Andrew died, I told him I wanted to divorce.
I’ll give people a second to jump to conclusions and blame me for his suicide. Don’t worry, folks. I deal with enough of that self-imposed guilt, however valid or invalid it may be, and I’m working through it with my therapist continuously. I hope to one day not feel responsible for Andrew’s death. Some days I can confidently say that I am not responsible — that people get divorced all the time, and they don’t all take their own life. I didn’t hand Andrew a death sentence the day I told him how I felt. The way that he internalized my decision was out of my control. But other days, I just can’t pull myself out of the cycle of guilt. Small steps.
Not that I owe it to anyone, but here’s why I came to the conclusion to separate: I was unhappy. I had tried and tried to help him cope the best way that I knew how, and it had absolutely worn me thin. I wasn’t able to keep doing it. I couldn’t carry the weight of it anymore. I couldn’t keep trying to make sure he stayed healthy, while he, up until two weeks prior to his death, refused to get help. I had been what I thought I needed me to be for so long, that I didn’t know who I was anymore. Confused yet? Me, too.
My greatest gift that I’ve received through this whole traumatic event is this: I can be real, and it doesn’t matter if people don’t like it or need it or want it. I do not get my value from others’ opinions of me. I can live in a way I can be proud of. I am proud of myself, and I don’t need other people to be proud of me in order to validate that feeling. I cannot determine if people are happy or not, regardless of how I act.
So today. My would-be anniversary doesn’t seem so much like a would-be anniversary. If Andrew were still here, it wouldn’t have been a day of celebration. It would have still been sad, but only because of the loss of a marriage. Now it’s sad because this great person who lived deep down under the thick, scaly layers of depression, is gone. I am overwhelmingly sad at times because this person that I cared for so immensely lost his battle with mental illness. I’m not sad over the loss of my husband, because I lost my husband years and years ago to this awful, insidious illness. He was still in there, though. Deep down inside of him was the Andrew I married. That’s who I am sad for.