We’re in a Relationship With Depression – Here’s What No-One is Talking About

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There’s something we want to share about our relationship. Something raw and uncomfortable to expose, yet important to talk about.

We’re actually in a three-way relationship:

 Reece, Jodie, and an uninvited but no less present third. We’re in a relationship with depression.

It’s something we’ve been dealing with since the start of our relationship, and it’s no doubt something we will continue to manage into the future.

And we know we’re not the only ones.

Depression and anxiety will affect most relationships at some point, with almost half of all Australians experiencing some kind of mental illness in their lifetime.

But a relationship with depression is not something we talk openly about enough.

woman on phone at night
While there is plenty of amazing tips, support and advice out there, we want to share something a little more personal.

Instead of writing a ‘how to overcome depression’ article, we decided to interview each other about our relationship with Depression.

This is a deeply personal insight into our experience, what our challenges have been, and how we’re moving through them. Together.

It’s a glimpse into what it’s like for someone with depression, and the person who loves them.

If you’re in a relationship with Depression, may this give you hope, or perhaps recognition, or perhaps courage.

At the very least, may you know you’re not alone.

Q. What are some of the challenges of being in a relationship with Depression?

Reece: To be honest it’s difficult to write about because it feels like depression happens to someone else – I become a totally different person when depression hits. There’s the normal everyday me. Then there’s this ‘other’ me.

Normally I like to think of myself as a capable, well-adjusted guy. Of course I experience day-to-day challenges and struggles, but on the whole I look after myself. I’m deeply passionate about the work I do and I love the life I’m constantly creating.

What scares me is that no matter how healthy I am, sometimes I can wake up in the morning and things are just ‘wrong’.

There’s an anxious, sinking feeling in my belly. I become incredibly self-conscious. Not self-conscious in a ‘what will people think of me?’ kind of way, rather ‘I’m too aware of myself, my thoughts, my emotions, my responses’. And they’re not good.

I feel out of alignment with myself. Like I no longer ‘fit’ – a superfluous extra piece of an already-completed jigsaw puzzle.

There’s a claustrophobic feeling of the walls closing in. There’s nothing I can do except feel overwhelmed and retreat in to myself.

And that would be OK if ‘inside myself’ was a safe place.

But it’s not.

It’s bare and lonely and feels just as alien and foreign as the outside world has now become. I find myself falling into a deep, dark pit where no matter how much I want to, I just cannot find comfort or solace with myself or others.

This obviously has a huge impact on my relationship and ability to relate with Jodie.

I know I’m disconnecting, but I feel powerless to stop it.

I want to open and be my normal, loving self. But that feels beyond me.

One of the biggest challenges is having no control over becoming this foreign person who is incapable of being intimate. A person that I do not enjoy being. The loss of connection and closeness is jarring and extreme.

I’m left with the heart-breaking sense of “I don’t want this to be happening!”, yet it is.

Jodie: I find it hard knowing the ‘right’ thing to do. How should I approach Reece? What kinds of things should I say or not say? What’s the best way to support him right now, and how can I best help? Is it OK to initiate sex or talk about my desire to connect, or will that put too much pressure on him?

Thinking and overthinking these things exhausts me. I become tense in my body, and I feel like I’m walking on eggshells. I get snappy and unpleasant. It erodes our sense of connection, which is already strained under the circumstances.

It’s a real challenge, but one I’ve come to handle with increasing grace. 

It might sound so painfully simple, but I’ve learnt that the best thing I can do is simply ask:

Ask for how he would like me to support him, and then just go about being my most natural self.

It requires me to be OK with uncomfortable situations such as awkwardness and frustration, but accepting what ‘is’ (as opposed to resisting it) has really helped me to stop being so worried and on edge.

Early dating days riding the New Relationship High at Wide Open Space Festival. Australia 2013.

Side-note: I believe this is possible because of the deep inner work Reece has done over his lifetime. He has the skills and personal development knowledge to face what he’s going through in a pretty grounded and balanced way.

What I mean by that is he doesn’t become aggressive or negative towards me, and he doesn’t drink or turn to recreational drugs to cope. For couples in a relationship with depression, these kinds of behaviours can create a very real danger to the relationship and the people in it. This is when seeking professional help becomes urgent, before any of the other intimacy work can happen.

Q. What’s it like for you when things are really dark?

Reece: As intense as this is to admit – there honestly is no relationship when I’m in depression. It swallows me and consumes my total attention. All that exists is the vast, oppressive blackness. There’s barely any room for me, let alone another.

What’s difficult is that in normal everyday life, I’m deeply sensitive to my own needs, wants and desires, and Jodie’s too. It’s not an effort for me to be considerate and compassionate with both myself and her. But this ability abandons me during depression.

I see and feel how deeply it affects Jodie. I feel her confusion – “Where did my amazing man and relationship go?” I feel her frustration at not knowing how to interact and engage with me and her subsequent withdrawal of love and affection.

And that disconnection and loss of intimacy makes me feel even more isolated.

Once again it’s the frustration of witnessing how I am, the effect I’m having on others, and feeling totally powerless to be anything else.

When I’m in it, I feel guilty. I feel like my depression ‘infects’ our relationship. That if it wasn’t for me and this shit that hangs over me, our relationship would be so much more healthy.

Things can get so disjointed and strained between us that I feel responsible for ‘breaking’ us. I can’t help but think “I should be better than this” and the feelings of deep shame that accompany that thought pull me even deeper.

Jodie: One of the scariest and most toxic questions that has come up for me: “Is this what I really want for myself? Will I be able to have the happy life I’ve always pictured if I’m in a relationship with Depression? What about our future children – will they have the stable family life that I want for them?”

Yeah, that’s me at my darkest.

The hardest part was that I never felt I could share this with Reece, for fear of deeply hurting him. I really judged myself for having these kinds of thoughts – I felt like a horrible, selfish, unloving partner, and so I kept it inside.

But I’d get stuck on it – this same fear going around and around in my head. It made it hard to connect with Reece, and made me doubt our future even more.

The first step in shifting it was accepting that my fears and struggles were human. That they didn’t make me a ‘bad’ person.

The next step was speaking it out loud with Reece – which was excruciating at the time, and required LOTS of coaxing from him. But it really helped me to own my shit.

I realised that I was putting some really toxic expectations around not just our relationship, but how my life ‘should’ look.

 It was perhaps one of the most powerful self-realisations I’ve ever had.

I’m working to let go of creating the ‘perfect life’ and trying to cultivate gratitude for my incredible blessings instead. That includes being in relationship with a deeply loving, emotionally complex and multifaceted man. A real person – not some fairy tale prince from my childhood fantasies.

And that is so much more enriching, beautiful and interesting. Even if it does come with its occasional challenges.

Q. How can relationship be a support for you in those dark times?

Reece: What I really need and want while I’m in depression is to just be loved and accepted. To be held, nurtured and treated in a normal everyday way. To not have attention drawn to how strange and different I’m behaving (I’m already PAINFULLY aware of it). To not be treated any differently than I normally am.

Please keep being you. Keep doing the things you would normally do. Keep showing me love and affection. Keep smooching me in bed. Keep snuggling in to me on the couch.

Even when I don’t respond. Even when I can’t respond.

Please don’t react to me or get drawn in to my negativity vortex. Do what ever you need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Understand that any problems or issues that I bring up while in this state are being perceived through ‘poo goggles’. Poo goggles have the dubious superpower of making everything I see turn to shit.

So when I make broad, sweeping, negative generalisations, please try to remember it’s mostly the poo goggles talking. Know that underneath the despondency, there is something truly good I’m wanting. Please try to find the positive outcome I’m ultimately aiming for but can’t find the words for.

I understand what an immense ask all this is. I understand it may come across as ‘don’t be human and have reactions’. I can only imagine how difficult it is for you. But your loving radiance is forever inspiring. Please don’t dim it when I’m in that place.

The intensity and extremes of India sent Reece into a long depression. Coupled with both of us getting really sick, it was a challenging (and also incredible) time.

Jodie: Sometimes I can feel like I’m holding everything together – keeping up the routines, the practicalities of life, being the emotional rock in our relationship – but that I have to do it alone.

At times I’ve felt like screaming, “But what about me? Don’t you realise how hard this is for ME?”

But the truth is I don’t have to do it alone. For a long time I believed I had to, but letting go of that belief has been deeply liberating.

But it does require me to LET my relationship be a support for me. 

I still get support from outside our relationship, but increasingly I’ve been asking for support (or at the very least, sharing what I’m going through) within our relationship as well.

This is a bit radical, yes, and maybe not what everyone advises under the circumstances, but it has worked for us much better than me trying to hold it all in.

Because it goes both ways – if I want Reece to speak up and ask for support when he’s struggling, I have to be willing to do the same.

And just as I need to know my limits and share when I can’t be the support he needs, I need to respect that he will have his limits too.

But closing up and deciding that he can’t be there for me goes against what we’ve agreed to in our Relationship Agreements.

Q. What’s one thing you really want each other to know in the hard times?

Reece: Even though it’s so fucking hard for me to show it or express it, I love you and I appreciate you. I know this is challenging for you. Please be patient with me and remember I’m doing my best.

And please don’t ever forget how awesome I am at most other times 😉

Jodie: That I love you. And I’m trying my best. Be patient with me while this brings all of my old wounds and insecurities and neuroses to the surface.

I believe in you. Even in your darkest moments, you still inspire me.

And, I know we’ll get through this. I’m not going anywhere. 
(OK that was three things)

Q. How has being in a relationship with depression grown you?

Reece: I’ve learnt that depression doesn’t define me. But it has taught me a deeper appreciation for myself and my life. I take responsibility for what I most want and pursue it relentlessly. I’ve learnt to really champion and celebrate myself and I now recognise my gifts and strengths, while forgiving my ‘weaknesses’.

I’ve discovered just how poorly I’ve treated myself in the past (and by ‘poorly’, I mean ‘fucking atrociously’). The damaging stories I’ve told myself. The derogatory tone I’ve taken inside my own mind. The intense condemnation and how I’ve constantly put myself down.

Recognising this has enabled me to create real and positive change.

I’ve become highly skilled at learning how to really love myself:

To be both gentle, nurturing and supportive, AND focused, committed, and disciplined. Not from a place of being hard on myself, but rather ‘I’m worth fighting for’.

Ultimately my experience of depression is nothing like it used to be. There were significant periods of my life where it was a constant – from full-blown suicidal, to at the very least being a constant background noise that affected me daily.

Practicing Tai Chi together – one of our many practices to help us stay grounded

And that proved to be massive motivation to ‘sort my shit out’. To deeply commit to 20+ years of a mind-boggling array of different therapeutic and healing modalities. To get serious about living a life I’m proud of.

There’s still the everyday ups and downs, but I can honestly say ‘I love who I am’.

Jodie: It’s taught me more about unconditional love than I ever thought possible. To catch myself when I fall into patterns of trying to fix or problem solve, and to just love. Whole heartedly, without conditions.

It’s taught me how to give love in the way that I want to receive it – without boundaries, without expectations, without judgements. And that’s an incredibly beautiful, heart-expanding thing to experience.

Jodie Milton & Reece Stockhausen, Relationship & Intimacy Coaches @ practicalintimacy.com

Reece Stockhausen & Jodie Milton have made improving people’s lives and relationships both their passion, and their career. With over 25 years experience in the Personal Development industry, and a decade coaching singles and couples, their no-BS advice has been featured in Today, The New York Times, Yahoo!, Insider, Cosmopolitan, and Men's Health.

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