Love in a time of sadness

By Lisa Reich

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Image by Samantha Casolari

As the tragic loss of Robin Williams begins to sink in, depression is - rightly - hitting the headlines.

The September issue of ELLE features a poignant memoir by our columnist, Lisa Reich, about the impact depression has had on her search for love.

You can read it in full below.

LOVE IN A TIME OF SADNESS

Could you always tell, then? That I had issues?’ I’m on the phone to Dan From LA – the now-married love of my life, who I speak to more often than his wife would like. He is my dating sounding board.

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As someone who’s been there, done that, as it were, his insights are useful, if often painful. ‘Not at the beginning, no,’ says Dan. ‘But by the third date, I knew there were problems. Because, you were so happy sometimes, then the next minute, so…’

‘…the end of the world is nigh.’

‘Exactly. And then you’d disappear until the other Lisa was back again. As if I was only ever allowed to be with one of you.’

‘And you still wanted to date me? Wow.’

‘I loved you by then. I was waiting for you to explain what was going on in your head. You never did, and it got too tough.’

Dan tells me the ‘me’ I show to prospective lovers isn’t really me, and it makes a relationship almost impossible. ‘Because your depression is such a huge part of you. Don’t slam the phone down, but the fact is, you can’t love someone else till you can love yourself.’

‘Did your life-coach wife teach you that?’ I snap. And slam the phone down.

If what he says is true, I may as well hang up my dating hat now. Because I do not, have not, and never will love myself. Do I like myself? Mostly. Admire? Sometimes, in the mirror. But love myself? No.

‘That’s your depression talking,’ my therapist tells me. I swallow down my distaste. Does she think there’s truth in what Dan said? I already know how she’ll respond. ‘What do you think?’ she asks. I don’t know if any of my many therapists over 20 years, including this one, have ever taken my desire to find a partner seriously. The issue doesn’t get dismissed, exactly, but I am always gently encouraged to ‘think of yourself first’. Last year, at a London Fashion Week party, I got talking to a couple. The perfect couple. Funny, witty, gorgeous, finished each others’ sentences. ‘Where did you find him?’ I asked after he left us to go and charm the room. ‘He’s amazing.’

‘He’s not,’ she snapped. ‘He’s a depressive. This is a good day. Some advice: if you meet a man and he tells you he’s one of them, run. Run as far as you can.’ I am one of them, I admit. ‘Well, I’d tell a man thinking about going out with you the same,’ she said. ‘It’s not that you don’t deserve love. But love has nothing to do with deserving it. Most millionaires don’t deserve to be rich.’ She tells me she loves her partner and wouldn’t swap him for the world. ‘But if I’d have known then what I know now? I would’ve walked. You don’t voluntarily sign up for this. There are three of us: happy him, me, and unhappy him.’ As someone who has really tried the patience of some well-meaning men in my time, I understand her perfectly. While it makes me sad, even a little angry, I think: ‘Yes, why would you want to date a depressed person, given the choice?’

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I call Dan, apologise, and ask him if he feels the same as London Fashion Week girl. He goes quiet, then tells me he thinks that ‘objectively, there’s only a small percentage who would choose a depressed partner over someone who doesn’t have serious mental health issues.’ I hear his wife hiss, ‘Harsh!’ in the background, and like her a little more. I don’t hide my own depression, but nor do I advertise it. If the subject arises, I’m honest and, seven times out of 10, that’s the end of that, relationship-wise. ‘The other three, you’ll ditch anyway, because you think there’s something wrong with them for wanting to date you knowing what they now know,’ my sister tells me. Here’s the main problem. We are a romantic society, which is really terrible for depressed people. We’ve been sucked into believing the power of love can save anything and everybody. But it can’t. Nothing can. Not even a daily 200mg of sertraline and years of therapy.

If I’m having a very bad week, or month, I don’t feel depressed per se: I feel nothing. It’s not, for me, sobbing and rocking in the corner. It’s the pure absence of feeling. My bones feel heavy, my flesh is like a pair of too-loose trousers that keep falling down, and someone keeps putting sacks of sand on my shoulders, making it hard to stand up straight. I can’t sleep, but I’m never truly awake. The only things that can penetrate the inertia are the gentle whines of my dogs asking to go out. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t get up at all.

From my experience, if you’re depressed, either you feel too much or you don’t feel at all. And love, ultimately, is about feeling. During an episode of depression, your heart doesn’t flutter, it doesn’t leap. The butterflies suffocate and die. During these episodes, you still have an intellectual understanding of the love you have for your mother, sister, boyfriend. You just can’t access it.

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I come from a family of actors. They understand my depression, and have taught me how to fake a happy, balanced demeanour when all I want to do is drool into my pillow. To be fair, I think they meant this advice for when I was struggling at work, not trying desperately, but in vain, to keep hold of the man I love.

With Dan, there were times I couldn’t keep my hands off him, when I was so full of feelings for him, they seemed to seep out of every pore. But then they would vanish altogether. One day, I’d be connected to myself and therefore him, too; the next, I wouldn’t feel connected to anything, for days on end. But I’d go through the motions because I didn’t want him to feel bad. All I managed to do was make us feel like strangers. He broke up with me kindly – he’d been offered a job in LA that he couldn’t turn down. So he made the end about his job, not about me. I didn’t hate him for it.

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Nevertheless, I said: ‘I could come with you?’ even though I had no intention of doing so. The way his face drained of colour made me giggle (when you’re a depressive, you take your laughs where you can get them).I’ve tried to date a fellow depressive, but two wrongs did not make a right. It was lovely being with someone who knew exactly how it worked, but we ultimately brought out the worst in each other. Big, horrible, screaming rows with both of us shouting it was ‘my turn to be miserable’, then tears and dents in the wall from things thrown across the room. My last relationship (which lasted three months – merci, match.com) worked better, because he understood depression, even if he didn’t suffer from it. His mother was bipolar, and he learned at a young age that he effectively had two mothers. The warm, loving one, and the brittle, papier-mâché version. ‘An unwelcome stranger behind her face,’ he called the latter.

He could spot the signs in me, and would simply back off when he saw it coming. He’d leave me alone with my non feelings and get on with his own life, not worried he’d done something wrong, or forcing me to ‘talk about it’. He wouldn’t try to cheer me up, or arrange surprises, like Dan did. He wouldn’t initiate sex, because sex with a woman who can’t feel a thing is not erotic. People with depression often experience loss of desire and take longer to orgasm – sex becomes a chore and a charade.

The two things in the small print I used to read first whenever I changed medications (which I have, often) were the parts that inevitably said the drug may make me feel suicidal (made me laugh – I already did) and affect my libido (made me worry). But when you’ve been on medication as long as I have, stopping isn’t an option (I once talked to the foremost expert on the subject, and even he told me to keep popping the pills. My body has been with them so long, taking them away would be like telling me to ditch oxygen).

I wish with Dan, and other men I’ve loved, I’d been honest about my illness, explaining upfront how it works (for me, anyway), instead of impersonating someone ‘normal’. Perhaps if I’d told them sometimes I’d be physically there but emotionally absent, and to please not freak out or take it personally, but just to wait for me, it might have worked. So next time, maybe, that’s what I’ll do. Maybe.

When, or if, I meet Mr Right, or maybe even Mr OK, I will explain to him that I’m a slow burner. I’ll tell him that I’m like a birthday present that, instead of having one layer of gift wrap, has dozens. A bit frustrating, granted, but the fact that it takes longer to get to the gift makes it even more precious. And if he falls for that line, he’ll probably be perfect for me.

For help and information with depression, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393

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