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‘I’m Depressed and I Want to Leave My Perfectly Good Husband’

Photo: Gavyn Stalley/Getty Images/EyeEm

Dear Polly,

I love my husband, and I think he’s the best person by far I’ve ever been involved with. I certainly never liked anyone enough to want to marry them before. He’s smart and kind and funny and handsome and he laughs at soooooo many of my jokes and we have great chemistry. He puts up with my obnoxious dogs and gets along with my friends. He has a good and admirable job. He tells me I’m smart and beautiful, and it seems like he means it.

But the entire time I’ve been with him, I’ve stayed a mess. I met him at a time when my life was fraying, and he was doing very badly as well (he was living with his mom), and I’ve just kept going down. I had a not-so-good but admirable job at the time I met him, which I later lost. Since then, I’ve drifted. I barely do anything these days. I take jobs and do them halfheartedly and then quit. In the time we’ve been together, I’ve tried antidepressants and therapy, but nothing has changed. In the time we’ve been together, he’s gone from being unemployed, living at his mom’s house, and doing way too many drugs to graduating from law school, staying off hard drugs, and landing his impressive job. He’s not a dick — he tries to suggest that I go back on antidepressants, look for work, whatever, but lately I’ve been feeling like maybe the thing that’s keeping my life fucked up is being in a relationship with him.

I love him so much and I believe he loves me and that feels good, but I was better off in nearly every way when I was in unsatisfying relationships or single, even though my life was by no means perfect or even happy a lot of the time. I know if we divorced it would throw my life into serious chaos. We don’t have any savings. I’m not working, like I mentioned. My credit sucks. I have those bad dogs, which would make finding a place of my own even harder. I’m not getting any younger, and I’m definitely not getting any more dateable (I’m 38).

But I have to wonder if chaos is what I need, because nothing else — going to therapy, taking prescribed medication, writing in a goddamn journal, MICRODOSING lol — seems to be knocking me out of this sad, ghostlike existence. Writing it out sounds so bitchy, like I’m blaming him for my unhappiness, which I’m not. I just feel like, how can this relationship possibly be good for me when I feel so bad and function so little all the time? People always compare mental illness to cancer and other physical ailments, and when I think of it like that, I know he’s not necessarily causing my problems, but he’s also okay being married to someone who’s slowly dying and doesn’t seem capable of getting the medical attention necessary to treat it.

I don’t know why I’m like this. I don’t know why it feels safer to do less and less than to keep trying to get better, but I know I’ve created this situation where I can be with someone who will put up with that and make sure we have food and shelter. I have a lot of good friends who care about me and I know they know I’m struggling and I know I make it extremely difficult for anyone to help me because I just shut them out if they try to bring up things that make me uncomfortable. Maybe the reason I’ve behaved this way for so long is that the only friend who could ever tell me anything moved away shortly before my husband and I started dating.


Dear Stuck,

You don’t want to look closely at yourself. You don’t want to talk about uncomfortable things or feel uncomfortable feelings or have a difficult conversation with your husband about how unhappy you are. You don’t want to tell him, “You’re pretending that I’m okay, but I’m not okay so I need you to stop pretending.” You don’t want him to stop pretending. You don’t want to talk about difficult things, like the fact that you’re falling apart, nothing is getting better, your house is caving in.

You steadfastly refuse to talk about your crumbling house. So instead, you’re fixated on what’s wrong with the yard. You’re saying it must be the weather, the traffic, the government. It’s the lack of oxygen in the air, it’s gravity. You need different weather, different atmospheric conditions. But here is your husband, making you look bad. He didn’t need better weather, less traffic, more oxygen, less gravity. He’s thriving and he still thinks you’re great. He’s patient with you because he’s been there.

His empathy makes you hate yourself even more. There must be something wrong with him, that he still loves you. There must be something sick about him, that he pretends when you tell him to pretend, that he’s loyal to you, that he laughs at your jokes, that he tolerates your bad dogs.

You must not need love. You must require chaos. You need to lose your food and shelter. You need to hit rock bottom.

You think you’re going to feel better, once you walk away from everything that’s currently propping you up. The oxygen is different across town. The weather is different across the country. But mostly what you’ll lose is this witness, who sees how sick you are, who knows how broken you are, who makes things uncomfortable day after day after day. You want to shut out this last witness, who embodies your failure. You want to crumble all by yourself. He’s doing too well. He triggers your shame.

You think that if there aren’t any witnesses, there won’t be any shame, either. You’re wrong about that. The shame is coming from inside the house. The shame is coming from inside of you.

You need a real connection based on honesty. Right now, you’ve convinced your husband to live inside your lies, to pretend with you, to let you avoid uncomfortable conversations, to let you fall apart without recrimination. You need to tell him the whole truth instead. The whole truth goes beyond “I still feel terrible” and it goes beyond “Microdosing isn’t working” and “I don’t care about anything” and “Maybe I need new medication” (maybe you do, but that’s only one part of the picture). The whole truth digs down into places like “I hate myself” and “I hate you for loving me” and “I feel embarrassed about how good you still are to me” and “I feel envious of you” and “I am ashamed of everything I do and say” and “I feel worthless” and “I feel nothing for you sometimes” and “I want to be alone” and “I hate everything.”

I’m going to guess that you haven’t said these things out loud, in a vulnerable way, to your husband. You haven’t acknowledged what you carry around inside every day, even to yourself. You haven’t talked to a therapist, repeatedly, about how deep your self-hatred goes, and how much you fear, and how angry you are. You haven’t written your most shameful thoughts down when you journaled. You haven’t allowed yourself to be vulnerable to the truth.

Being vulnerable and admitting how confused and sick and angry and ashamed you are is like stripping out the mold and the rotted boards from your house. And when you dare to let someone else into that kind of deep sadness, when you dare to tell someone else, out loud, in words, “I am against you, I am against myself, I hate myself every minute of every day,” you’re daring to try on a different kind of love that no one sings about. You’re daring to align yourself with someone in a real way, maybe for the first time. You’re showing them everything. You’re taking the biggest leap, for yourself and for them, because you know, in your heart, that they love you enough to try it.

You’re taking a real risk for the first time. You’re refusing to pretend for another day. You’re resolving to live in reality. And you’re refusing to do what you always do, which is run away, shut down, withhold, hide, and stop connecting. Right now, you’re hiding. If you want to find a way out of this depression, you have to stop hiding and dare to connect in an honest way, with your husband, with yourself, with the WHOLE truth.

Lots of people don’t have a true, real, honest connection with their spouses. But it sounds to me like you’ve found someone who’s strong enough to handle it. So instead of kicking out the best, most loyal person you’ve ever known simply because you hate yourself that much and believe, in your heart, that he’s too good for you, and his goodness is part of what’s making you look bad and feel bad, it’s time for you to work with what you have. You have something precious. I believe that you were meant to start from this love, to build from here.

Will it be hard? Will you be uncomfortable? Will you feel more afraid than you’ve ever been before? Will you hate telling the truth? Will you hate feeling vulnerable?

Yes, yes, yes.

You’re sure that you’re codependent, and maybe you’re not wrong about that. But codependence is all about living inside a lie with someone else. Once you tell your husband the whole, uncomfortable truth, it’ll be easier to make some space for yourself, to live on your own terms. Because you won’t be pretending anymore. You’ll be saying, “I am not malleable. I am a sharp and pointy object and I’m going to need some things, outside of what we have together.” The more you make your uncomfortable realities known, the easier it will be to serve your own needs within the relationship.

You don’t need to hit rock bottom, all alone. Obviously you can choose that, if you want to. You can believe that old myth, that cutting yourself off and falling to pieces is more heroic, somehow, than being vulnerable and staying connected to the people who love you. You can live the way you feel you deserve to live: destitute, abandoned, penniless, loveless. You can shut out the last good person in your life. You can refuse connection, refuse to look at yourself, refuse to dig for the whole truth and instead blame the trees, blame the sky, blame the sun.

But that’s part of what landed you here. It wasn’t the wrong drugs, not entirely. It wasn’t the wrong therapist. It wasn’t the ineffectiveness of journaling or microdosing. What got you here was your refusal to make a real connection, to tell the truth, to accept and embrace the truth about who you are and how angry and scared and ashamed you feel.

You wrote the truest thing in your whole letter at the very end: “Maybe the reason I’ve behaved this way for so long is that the only friend who could ever tell me anything moved away.”

But even that isn’t the whole truth. What you didn’t write was: She moved away and I didn’t stay in touch. I let her go. I forgot about her. I shut her out.

What you meant with that last line was this: Maybe I should stop shutting people out.

It is exceptionally difficult to make progress with your depression when you don’t tell anyone (including yourself) the whole truth, when you shut people out and refuse to connect, when you tell people to drop it the second they want to talk about something real. You need to look at the truth now: You hate it when people see you clearly. You’d rather disappear.

It’s time to do the hardest thing: to make real, deep connections based on honesty. It’s no coincidence that THIS is how people recover from hitting rock bottom, too — after they try suicide, after they destroy all of their relationships and wind up in AA: They see that they have nothing, so they might as well tell the truth. What else is there? Might as well admit how much they hate themselves. Might as well admit how invisible they feel.

Maybe some part of you is romanticizing the idea of losing everything. Then you’ll either die or you’ll have an excuse to be truly vulnerable. Your interest in the word “chaos” seems telling. You think vulnerability is shameful. Only desperation and madness and chaos can excuse it.

I know you’re hurting a lot, and I’m so sorry that you’ve been in such a dark place for so long. Don’t confuse anything I’ve written here with blame. I don’t blame you for feeling terrible. I spent decades of my life being controlled by shame. Even though I was never totally immobilized, the levels of self-hatred and rage and embarrassment and sadness I’ve waded through are off the charts. It has taken me a long time to be unashamed enough to look at the truth about how disordered I’ve been for decades. It’s very hard to do, even for me, a person who’s always treated psychoanalysis as a super-fun leisure activity. I imagine that these things are almost unbearable for you.

But I want to stop you from making an enormous mistake. I don’t think you should give away everything you have just so you can finally tell the truth. I think you should experiment with telling the truth right now, where you are. If you’re getting defensive, if you’re thinking “I’ve done that already!,” recognize that it’s just you, doing what you do: Protecting yourself. Withdrawing instead of looking more closely at the chaos INSIDE OF YOU.

You are incredibly afraid of feeling your emotions. But once you embrace your feelings instead of hiding from them (and low-level, overcast-skies depression can be a manifestation of hiding from stronger, less acceptable emotions like shame and anger), you’ll finally see that being broken and scared is beautiful. Hiding and shutting people out is what’s ugly. Letting your friend move away and never thanking her for telling you the truth is ugly. Confusing real love with quicksand is ugly.

Feeling unfixable and saying so, out loud, is beautiful. Saying “I feel small” is beautiful. Saying “I need you” is beautiful. Saying “I have been hating you,” and crying, and knowing how much you care, feeling that, for the first time in years? There’s not much in this world is more beautiful than that.

In that moment, you feel exhausted and erased and scared and crumpled and hideous, but you can also see, through your tears, that you are loved. You are a razed house, a pile of bricks and splintered lumber, and the sky is bright blue and the air is clear and bracing and you are loved, loved, loved. You can feel that instead of just recognizing it intellectually. Even when you can’t see yourself at all, even when you are blind, he can still see you. And he’s not going anywhere.

You will feel grateful for him, once you dare to look at yourself, once you dare to let yourself truly fall apart, once you dare to say, out loud, “I have been hiding.”


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I’m Depressed and Want to Leave My Perfectly Good Husband’