We usually don't talk about it, even though we know it's happening.
One recent night, though, things come to a head, and the situation couldn't be ignored.
"I'll bet you feel that things are blowing up in your face," my husband said to me. "You wanted to talk about one pretty simple thing, and all this bigger stuff came out."
Yep. He pretty much nailed it.
The past three years have strongly challenged Eric's and my resolve to live into two of our wedding vows: for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Burnout, depression, and anxiety severed me from my vocation in 2010 and whipped our marriage and family into a tailspin. Until recently, I thought my husband was being strong so I could heal and our children could prosper. When one partner in a marriage is ill, it's imperative that the other keep things going.
"While you've been healing, I've been crashing," Eric said recently.
"Uh oh," I responded.
I'm much better, yes. But my depression is chronic. Thankfully, my waves are more infrequent and less dramatic, but they still come.
Eric's lot is different but similar. Depression runs in his blood. Both his mother and maternal grandmother suffered greatly from depression and other mental illness. It doesn't help that he places heavy pressure on himself as our family's breadwinner. The fact that he earns his living via sales commissions only drags him down further.
Once close to gym rat status, neither of us exercise anymore. When there is a rare break in our busy family schedule, all Eric and I want to do is sleep. Laughter used to fill our home, and while it's still most welcome, the sound fills our cups only about one-third of the way. Most of our conversations are operational—what's the weekend schedule, what's for dinner, how are our finances, etc. And neither of us can remember when we last went on a date.
What about our daughters? God bless them!
One evening our youngest wanted a cup of water. She knows the rules of our home: once you're put to bed, you don't come out of your room. Standing at the threshold of her room, she asked both Eric and me for water.
"Mama? Would you get me some water, please?"
Sigh . . . silence.
"I need a rest from being Mommy, Baby," I said. "Ask your Daddy."
"Daddy? Would you get some water for me?"
Eric said nothing.
Minutes passed, and Zoe eventually took matters into her own hands. Only 7 years old, she had to climb onto the counter to get her cup, and stand on her tippy-toes to turn on the water faucet to fill it. She skipped the ice because no one was there to help her.
"Every marriage has its challenges, but the issues multiply when one spouse has depression," wrote Sharon Anne Waldrop for the Emagazine Esparanza, a publication about depression and anxiety. "A study of 774 married couples, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in October 2004, found a strong correlation between depression (and to a lesser extent, anxiety) in one spouse and marital satisfaction for both spouses. The more severe the depression, the less satisfied both partners were with the marriage."
Yes, this and 100 percent more when both wife and husband suffer from depression.
The pastors who married Eric and me presented to us the hackneyed metaphor of a three-legged stool. Both of us had heard it so many times, we rolled our eyes and laughed.
Yeah, we get it. Angie is one leg, Eric is another leg, and God is the third leg. Blah, blah, blah…
As our chuckling ceased, one of the pastors got serious. Commanding our eye contact, she said, "God will only be as much a part of your marriage as you allow. Your 'stool' will either stand strong or topple over with the slightest breeze."
As Eric and I spoke on that recent night, we realized that our respective "stool legs" were perhaps the weakest they'd ever been in almost 14 years of marriage. Neither of us has the wherewithal nor emotional energy to step up for the other. What does this mean for our marriage and family? Neither of us want either to fall apart.
We needed help, and we finally admitted it. Truth be told, the legs of our marriage stool currently resemble one tree stump (God's leg) and two waffling sticks of kindling (Eric's and my legs). God is holding strong as Eric and I reach to intertwine once more.
Waldrop wrote, "In discussing the results of the above-mentioned study, Mark A. Whisman, PhD, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, drew a strong connection between seeking mental health services and survival of the marriage." This, of course, is a crucial first step. Partners may need individual and couples counseling. Each situation is unique.
"Trust [me] from the bottom of your heart; don't try to figure out everything on your own," spoke God, the third stool leg of our marriage, from Scripture. "Listen for [my] voice in everything you do, everywhere you go," God continued. "[I'm] the one who will keep you on track" (Proverbs 3:5-6, The Message).
Contrary to the isolation that our respective depressions desire, the Spirit impressed upon Eric and me the importance of coming together and digging deeper within ourselves for the healing of our marriage and ourselves. We communicate our emotional struggles with one another as best we can, which is often no small feat. We band together with greater purpose to enjoy and nurture our children.
On my darker days, Eric pushes through his own cloudiness to support me and love on our girls, and the same is true in reverse.
And, in what is probably the biggest blessing of all, we extend each other wider empathy than we ever have. Suffering depression together, ironically, has helped us better to understand one another and extend each other grace.
When Eric and I married, we had no idea that both of us were bringing depression into our new family unit. We live with its effects every day of our lives. Some days it's an accomplishment simply to get out of bed and shower.
But our life together, with its ever-present murkiness, is no less bright and blessed. Perhaps when a marriage and family are accustomed to shades of grey, the slightest ray of sunshine brings much joy.
Rev. Angie Mabry-Nauta is a writer, speaker, and ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. She is the creator of "Can a Mother Forget?," which is a Christian workshop that brings hope to strained mother/adult child relationships. Angie contributes regularly to Gifted for Leadership and is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Follow Angie at www.angiemn.com, on Twitter @RevAngieMN, and Facebook.