Depression and divorce: when ‘happy birthday’ seemed to be the hardest words

Over the five years since I was diagnosed with clinical (or severe) depression I have gained a self-awareness that is both liberating and confronting.

In that time I have written about my depression, and the ongoing treatment for it, in part as a means of catharsis, partly in the hope of providing my sons with an honest account of my inadequacies as a father and husband and my efforts at remediation, but also, with that mixture of humility and arrogance unique to journalists, in the hope of shedding light on matters that favour the anonymity of the dark.

Depression is truly awful. It never really stops being awful but it is at its most crippling when it goes undiagnosed and untreated. My depression went undiagnosed from my early teens to the year my marriage disintegrated in January 2014.

From childhood onwards depression has been like carrying the deadweight of my broken self on my shoulders. One broken self, many demons: melancholia, self-loathing, self-doubt, simmering anger, anxiety, fear of being exposed as a fraud, negativity, mood swings and an aversion to the new or unfamiliar.

Undiagnosed depression did not mean I was impervious to my inner turmoils. I managed to function. Consciously and otherwise, and to varying degrees of success, I found the means to keep the demons at bay.

My greatest fortune prior to marrying was to fulfil my ambition to be a journalist. Whether as a reporter, staff writer, columnist or editor I buried myself in my work. If my employment did not fill enough hours I would take on every scrap of freelance work that came my way, which I would do on company premises. And when work did not occupy me, I would close the day with an hour or three at my local, my preferred home from home. Indeed, my preference to home. Home, where I lived alone, was usually where everything came crashing down. Or in the car if I drove straight from work to home, too tired to contemplate a night out.

When I married I maintained the relentless pace of work; the pub thing not so much. Losing myself in my work had become second nature; I loved the work, but it was also a means of protection and validation. It never occurred to me that I could lose myself (much less find myself) in my marriage.

The fallacy of coping

Undiagnosed depressives convince themselves that they can live with and control their unravelling selves. Why? I don’t know. The tears, the anguish, the fear, the constant thoughts of suicide, the sheer exhaustion of being…why would you not seek help? For me, it was a case of, “this is who I am and I just have to live with it”.

Except that when I got married it was no longer just me. I’m sure there was more dancing on eggshells for my wife than I’d care to admit, which is unfair for a partner to have to bear. The fallacy of coping starts to break down when others are involved.

My wife and I never discussed my depression, other than an occasional, towards the end of our marriage, “maybe you should see someone”, and even that was a way to touch on the subject without actually confronting it. It shouldn’t be up to the long-suffering spouse to break down the barriers. It was for me to open up, to explain how I felt, to give her insight into my life-long battle, to reveal when it was getting worse, to admit that I wasn’t coping and that I was in danger of being overwhelmed.

Even as I convinced myself that I was keeping things together, the fact was that my depression did intrude on our marriage from day one.

Understanding how it began

My relationship with my parents, well-meaning and generous though they were, was corrosive from my early teens. My mother was Sicilian-born and my father was born in Australia of Sicilian migrants and was more Sicilian than Sicilians. Their desire, and in particular my father’s desire, that their first-born son should be perfect, proved a crushing burden.

Now, it doesn’t follow that anyone in my situation would end up with depression. Many, probably most, boys from migrant backgrounds in circumstances that mirrored mine, went on to live lives without debilitating mental anguish.

By whatever combination of biological and psychological trauma, my brain, my mind, responded in a way that would shape the rest of my life, including the relationship with my parents. (“Maybe the day will come when I forgive my father,” I said hopefully to my psychotherapist a few years ago. “You will never forgive your father,” he replied chillingly.) And including my marriage.

At some point in my teens I rejected the celebration of my birthday. I didn’t want it marked or acknowledged in any way by my parents.

My parents found such an idea unthinkable and disturbing. They heatedly urged me to see a psychiatrist, a rebuke intended to insult rather than revealing parental sensitivity. No matter that I would greet birthday presents with a stony face the presents continued. (When at the age of 15 or 16 I announced that I wanted a typewriter for my birthday, this was greeted with astonishment. “Typewriters are for girls,” my father insisted. I persisted and they relented; I got my typewriter.)

But that tactical gambit aside, my aversion to birthdays remained. As an adult, I did not and do not celebrate my birthday. It was always a matter of some pride that when asked my age – and it’s amazing how often people do – I would have to pause to calculate my age (which my wife, not unreasonably, always thought an affectation). Others’ birthdays and the fuss made over them were likewise a source of bemusement. (There was one exception to my aversion to birthdays and that was in the case of children.)

A few years ago I sought to correct this anti-social attitude to birthdays by posting birthday greetings to Facebook friends, but I felt like a phoney. I stopped the birthday wishes and removed the birthday setting from my own Facebook profile.

The birthday thing resurfaces

Last week, I saw my psychiatrist for our monthly visit. I had mostly good things to report. I had steady work coming in, I was meeting deadlines, my interviews were satisfying and editors were happy with my work. The only thing amiss was that I was crying a lot, for reasons I could not discern and without any obvious pattern or stimulus.

Psychiatrists are forensic interviewers. They are measured and precise in their questions, not handing over obvious answers or lines of thinking on a platter, forcing their patients to dig deep. They are also masters at joining the dots, taking seemingly disparate pieces of information to identify significant narratives. They also do not believe in coincidences.

Before long the conversation, its flow interrupted only by my flowing tears, turned to birthdays: the rejection of my own birthday, my indifference to others’ birthdays, my inability and/or refusal to observe birthdays as a social ritual, even when it came to my wife’s birthday, which, it transpired, was only days away.

And then I recounted two “mongrel acts” that I continued to feel enormous and unresolved guilt over.

Mongrel  Act #1: “I told you…”

My wife knew, as a bare fact, that I didn’t “do” birthdays. As a right-thinking person she was entitled to believe that my aversion to celebrating my birthday was an exaggeration and in any case that as a customary rite between husband and wife an exception was in order.

It was early in our marriage and my wife presented me with a thoughtful gift (I no longer recall what it was), so thoughtful that surely previous protestations would be set aside. As she presented my gift, my fury was visceral and I could feel my face turning to stone. I cast her a withering look as I seethed, “I told you I don’t want my birthday observed”.

She was firstly shocked and then visibly hurt. I may have apologised later and there would be birthday presents in subsequent years, accepted without demur, but as she would state on the occasion of another birthday gone horribly wrong, the hurt never went away.

Mongrel Act #2: “Not so happy birthday…”

That occasion was my wife’s fiftieth birthday, October 2010. I did not keep track of her age, but I did observe her birthday every year. In fact, I enjoyed doing so because it involved a family tradition I adored, which was taking my boys shopping for Mum’s birthday present.

“Pick whatever you want,” I would tell them. Sometimes we would do the rounds of Southland in an hour, other times several hours, sustained by plenty of ice-creams, fizzy drinks and milkshakes. Despite no dollar limit they never took advantage of that and each put great care into choosing the perfect gift and they understood that was the measure of its value. They didn’t inspect price tags and so it was that one boy might happily choose a $10 gift and another opt for something priced $110. I enjoyed watching the boys joyfully and proudly presenting Mum with their carefully chosen gifts. (Yes, I’m very proud of my boys, all of whom are young adults now.)

Around September 2010, my wife announced that she had booked a week’s holiday on Hamilton Island for the family to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. I was immediately worried because the black dog, or more accurately, a pack of black dogs, had had me in their clutches for some time.

The end of 2010 marked the beginning of the lowest point of my undiagnosed depression. Over the next three years spells of depression were occurring more frequently, lasting longer and plunging me into deeper and deeper pits of despair. Over this time the uncertainty of Fairfax’s future intensified: retrenchments, voluntary redundancy packages, cutbacks, constant rumours, new editorial systems, feckless management flitting from one strategy to the next…and don’t get me started on hot-desking.

Work was no longer sustaining me, even though I was producing some of my best work for BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review. If I may suspend modesty for a moment in order to make my point: at BRW I was the most-read columnist, had the highest unprompted name recognition in marketing surveys, generated more letters than anyone else and featured regularly on digital Fairfax’s daily top-five most-read list. I should have been dancing on air, but I was, pure and simple, miserable at work and at home.

At the end of 2013, accepting I could not go on, and against my wife’s express wishes, I took voluntary redundancy from Fairfax, dealing myself out of the mainstream media.

When my wife announced her milestone-birthday idyll I was at the beginning of my downward spiral. All I could do was inwardly panic. I didn’t think I could rise to the occasion of a week’s birthday celebrations. I could see what the right thing to do was but I could not rouse myself to greet the news with excitement and anticipation. Fortunately, the boys made up for whatever my insipid response was.

I just hoped that I could snap out of it in time. In the meantime, on the Friday night before departure, I took the boys gift shopping, but after an inconclusive hour or so, my head swirling in the noisy and crowded shopping centre, I suggested we resume shopping the next day. Which we did not. This was not looking good.

I really did not want to go on this trip; I considered pulling out, but thought that would be just as awful as any other eventuality. Zombified, no presents in the kitbag, my only hope, ludicrously, was that it would all work out somehow, even as I stared impending disaster in the face. I wasn’t even able to take the boys shopping on Hamilton Island.

As best she could my wife sought to make a special occasion of the week away but I dragged the whole thing down. On her birthday, my sorry failure to organise the boys’ shopping (including my own), coupled with my near-comatose demeanour, prompted a much deserved (and rare) bollocking from my wife. That’s when she mentioned the hurt of Mongrel Act #1. Eventually she decided to plan the rest of the week around me.

And then, in the last couple of days, the fog lifted and, while much too late, managed to restore some semblance of family occasion. It was an awful, awful time and words cannot begin to describe the sorrow and guilt I have carried.

Not seeking forgiveness

When I say these were mongrel acts it suggests that they were wilful acts on my part. They weren’t, but from my wife’s perspective, particularly as I did not take her into my confidence, there was only one way to view these (and other) instances.

I would be mortified if this were to be seen as an exercise in seeking forgiveness. There can be no forgiving hurts that run so deep.

Hopefully, I have allowed some understanding of the incomprehensible, a glimpse into the inner maelstrom that is depression.

Depression is itself unforgiving. It ravages everything in its path. It burrows so deep that it becomes an intrinsic part of who you are even as you desperately wish you could banish it from your person and your life.

My regrets, apart from the hurt I have caused to those who have loved me, is that I did not openly and candidly communicate with my wife about how I was feeling, and that I did not seek help when my body ached for it.

And I wish I had made more of my wife’s birthday, even if it was to say “Happy birthday”. Two simple words that weighed so heavily on me.

Well, on that score, forgive my indulgence, but: Happy Birthday, Jag.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is less introspective on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

Marriage is a collection of things said and not said…and you can quote me on that

Marriage is, among other things, a collection of things said and not said; things that could have been better said, things that should not have been said at all; things whose meaning changed over time; things that were never said yet were; things that go without saying and things that do not; and things that cannot be unsaid.

The following six vignettes began as midnight ruminations, plucked from 25 years of marriage. Twenty-five years is a big slice of life. Perhaps it can be said that divorce is a life instalment retracted, or as our American friends might say, a life misspoken. For me, life is material. I hope I’ve chosen well:

01 My wife believed in the sanctity of the parent-teacher interview. I did not.

Parent-teacher interviews are a bit like performance reviews: there is nothing to say but everyone plays along to see if that nothing can be stretched out to a respectable five minutes. Well, mostly everyone. My view is: if there is nothing to be said what are we doing here?

When our kids were going to school my wife was a public servant (she is still the latter, but not the former) so naturally took the view that any meeting is a good meeting. That means lots of engagement, exposition and eye contact whereas I would prefer to leave, or better still, not be there in the first place.

Unfortunately, not believing in parent-teacher interviews and actually saying so is treated with the same gravity as advertising the children on Gumtree.

The advice here is not to think better of parent-teacher interviews but to look upon them as an opportunity to brush up on your social skills.

02 In marriage small talk is a big deal

I’ve never had the gift of small talk, which is not helpful in a marriage, or parent-teacher interviews.

At times when I have felt that I really needed to say something in a particular social or professional situation my brain is so shocked by instructions to pronounce on the weather or the football that it assumes it’s been hacked and the words that emerge from my mouth have been encrypted for my own protection – at least that’s what it must sound like to anyone listening.

I get that small talk has a purpose. I really do. I’ve written columns about small talk; I’ve even talked to my therapist about my inability to engage in small talk.

I used to watch my in-laws do small-talk with each other and it would always be the same script: pater-in-law would kick off with something about the weather, usually involving northerly winds. Back and forth, back and forth until something takes and a conversation would begin.

Pater-in-law would kick off with something about the weather, usually involving northerly winds.

My mother-in-law in particular placed great reliance on small talk (and presumably still does). She abhors silence between two or more people. Even the millifraction of silence between crisply enunciated words is a challenge. The result could be a panicked non sequitur on embalming techniques in ancient Egypt or a selection of her great aunt’s favourite soup recipes. Not infrequently she would muddle competing gambits and the result would be either transfixing or fathomless, and sometimes both.

My wife was of the “it’s only weather but it would be impolite not to discuss it” school. Which is to say, if two people, particularly two people married to each other, are sitting in silence, why not break the ice with a commentary on the prevailing humidity or the El Niño effect.

I was and remain of the “if you have nothing to say don’t say it” academy. This made for some very quiet moments in the marital bathroom, over breakfast and in any situation involving unavoidable proximity. Unfortunately, no small talk tended to mean no big talk, which in a marriage can be a problem if only one of you is into companionable silence.

 03 Did I say that? Actually, no, I didn’t

It was a parent-teacher interview that gave rise to a risible canard (by which I do not mean a corgi).

Sitting with my son before his English teacher, apropos of an essay that my boy had written to less than popular acclaim, I suddenly found myself being lectured on the secrets of successful writing. Hoping this was a passing reference I merely smiled at the advice that ranked somewhere between clueless and clichéd. But on she went, and on.

Was the teacher aware that I was a man of letters (which should have been evident from the freshly stamped mail I was holding) and that I was going to miss the 6 o’clock collection? But that’s an aside. I wondered if she knew that I was a journalist, in which case her twee lecture on the “power of words” was surely superfluous. Or did she not know? Don’t teachers make it their business to know what their students’ parents do? Or did she in fact know and was trying to make some barbed point about journalism today?

These are the kinds of rumination I reported back to my wife that evening, whereupon the legend was born that I had thundered to the harried teacher, “Don’t you know who I am!” I could think of few things that would embarrass me more than people believing I had said such a wanky thing.

I’m thinking of having a t-shirt made that says: “What do you mean you don’t know who I am?”

04 When yesterday’s banter becomes tomorrow’s fighting talk

As the delicate flower of marriage withers the grapes of grievance grow with unseemly vigour.

By the time separation occurs the prosecuting partner has such an exhaustive catalogue of faults that not only does one struggle with the specific cause of the breakdown but one has to justify to friends why the marriage ever took place at all.

Fortunately, friends understand and will generously confide that “we never did like him/her” by way of support. Let’s not be shy, “him”.

No wonder divorcees seldom reconcile. By the time a divorce has been granted the warring parties are frothing at the mouth and/or organising divorce parties.

“No wonder divorcees seldom reconcile.”

An indicator of a failing marriage is that observations once greeted as markers of wisdom, intellect or comedy genius suddenly become grating reminders of everything you hate about your once adored partner. One doesn’t see these transitions in real time and by the time one does one realises he has been hoist with his own petard; no matter that your petard had until recently been much admired.

I could cite many instances of finding myself in this situation, but I shall reflect on a particular favourite.

When I would return home from a speaking engagement my wife would ask how the engagement went. I would remark that it was “a triumph” and she would laugh at my immodesty and I was happy to be part of the gag. At some uncharted point my wife came to hate my declaration of triumph even though it was a self-deprecating boast. (Although, as the old saying goes, “many a true word is spoken in jest”.)

Initially I thought it was simply a change in the routine. And then another dynamic came into play. When I realised that she really did hate me saying my speaking gig had been a triumph, that it made her angry with me for being boastful and arrogant, rather than change the routine (say, by having a real conversation) I wilfully scratched the blackboard.

05 Silence is not golden, but some things should be left unsaid

Spouses have to exercise some discretion when it comes to unflattering observations or assessments about their mate. In a successful marriage, or even just a plain old fashioned enduring one, some things are best left unsaid.

If, for illustrative purposes only, telling your spouse that one ear is bigger than the other is unlikely to prove endearing, is it really worth it? If your deliberations include the words “I’m going to say it anyway” or “what’s the most he/she can say?” stop your mouth now.

There will be times of abandon when a spouse may think it’s worth the roll of the dice. One might be angry about something else, or just bored, or just not thinking straight, or just thinking about Declan and/or Daiquiri in Accounts, but bugger it, this has to be said: “You know, I’ve never liked your cooking.” Or, “I don’t like it when you put your hand on my knee when I’m driving.”

Alas, I received both of these not so glad tidings, in situ as it were. The former was said on a belated “need to know” basis and was taken without (prolonged) offence; the latter was intended to wound and did.

06 A brief tale about middle-aged men in Speedos

One of my long-time peeves is middle- and codger-aged men in speedos. It is an abiding distaste which I have tapped into on several occasions in my columns, from warnings to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott that a politician who lives by his little red speedos will surely die by them, to horrified recollections of the boss who decided to wear speedos (once seen, never unseen) at his staff pool party. For the cantankerous humorist speedos are the eyesore that keep on giving.

My family generally spent our annual summer holiday in Merimbula, on the coast of southern NSW, where as a Fairfax employee I had access to a wonderful beachside apartment at very agreeable rates. Most years my in-laws joined us, they taking a separate apartment in the same resort. (My marriage broke down in the first week of January, one week before our scheduled Merimbula holiday. My wife and kids and her parents went anyway: discuss.)

“My wife must have heard my lip curl”

One afternoon, me, my wife and my father-in-law (a sweet and gentle man) were sitting on a mostly deserted stretch of beach when in the distance a solitary figure, a man in his 50s or 60s wearing speedos, appeared. My wife must have heard my lip curl because she was moved to remark on my disdain for middle-aged men in speedos, which I dutifully took as my cue to expound on the subject, borrowing liberally and at length from my own columns.

My father-in-law, who did not read my work, must have thought me quite obsessed on the matter and made do with the terse rejoinder that it was fortunate he decided to wear his board shorts to the beach. Later that afternoon I was volunteered to collect our clothes from the communal clothes lines.

The few items of clothes belonging to my in-laws included a pair of speedos.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Diary of a divorced man: the long, hard road to single-mindedness

When I used to tell people I was separated their response would be sympathetic and consoling; now, when I say that I am divorced I might as well be announcing that I like my toast buttered.

Someone who is separated is accorded a sense of loss and hurt, of a life disturbed with uncertainty ahead, an understanding that the upheaval is recent and emotions are still raw. But with divorce, it is assumed that time has done its work and it is a case of “join the club”.

My own broken marriage of 25 years has taken this familiar path. For a year or so I felt the deepest grief. With crystal clarity I could see the marriage from my wife’s perspective. After living with an undiagnosed depressive for so long, my wife simply had enough. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, a condition that had been present since my boyhood, she simply wished me well with the rigorous treatment that lay ahead. This was now my battle to be fought alone.

At first it was my wife that I missed dearly. My flowers and plaintive letters only strengthened her resolve. “This has to stop,” she demanded in one letter. “It’s over.”

But the overwhelming and lasting pain came with the loss of my family – our three boys – and the knowledge that I would not get a second chance to be the husband and father I had ceased to be in those last few years, a time when my depression plumbed to its deepest, darkest depths.

My remorse, growing self-awareness and greater control over my depression (with therapy and medication) would have no part to play in reprising my role as husband and father.

In those early days of treatment my psychoanalyst insisted that I had to be my first priority.

“You are no good to anyone, your wife, your children, least of all yourself until you regain your strength and confidence,” he stated bluntly.

“Now is not the time to concern yourself with reconciliation, and I can’t tell you if there ever will be a reconciliation, but I can tell you it will not happen until you are strong again.”

This was easier said than done, of course. I was overwhelmed by the knowledge of what I would be missing, the things I would no longer be able to celebrate as a family – the birthdays, the school events, the graduations. The milestones that one might normally take for granted. But I understood what he was saying.

There is nothing nuanced about a failed marriage

Occasionally one will hear of divorced couples that remarry after some years apart. It’s a happy outcome that speaks to an idealistic hope that wrongs can be set right, lessons hard won can be activated and corrosive behaviours of the past can be exorcised. It’s also a reassuring hope that time cannot erase the good in a relationship that is inevitably overshadowed by the heightened emotions and catalogue of hurts that invariably crashes a decaying marriage against the wall of no-return.

The worst of the trauma of divorce is felt by whomever is not the willing party when it is not a mutual decision, or when the mutuality gives way and at the eleventh hour only one of you is determined that the marriage must end.

There is nothing nuanced about a failed marriage. By the time the final act plays to its torrid and bloody conclusion, there is no room for forgiveness, doubt or sentiment. Every fault is magnified a thousand times, slights previously overlooked coalesce into a damning tsunami of recrimination and the patience of the angels gives way to an unbending determination to endure no more.

Marriages end for many reasons but the end usually comes when one of the partners finally decides ‘enough’. By the time that point is reached, the anger, bitterness and possibly even hatred is all-consuming. Tearful entreaties for another chance will fall on closed hearts. Perhaps the angry and unforgiving brick wall is necessary for protagonists to maintain their resolve.

As a married man, it always struck me as odd, not to say insane, when there was rare news of an estranged couple remarrying. How could a couple step back into the fire of a flawed union?

From my new vantage point of being single after 25 years of marriage my perspective on that is much mellowed. Not because it gives me hope in my own situation – my (ex-) wife seems positively energised by her liberation from me – but because I stand in awe of the power of forgiveness, the supremacy of love and the optimism of spirit that such a reconciliation denotes. (For those who come back together as a matter of convenience, without resolution of the original breaking points, they are very likely buying into a resumed hell on earth.)

Resilience after a long period of fragility

There are men capable of swapping one marriage for another, much as one would return a faulty toaster, but even after four years of separation from my wife this is an alien prospect.

On one occasion, some time ago and to my own surprise, I attempted to initiate a romantic relationship, a venture that was politely declined. And recently I did ask someone I met at a dinner party to lunch, with romantic intent, but that invitation was also declined. Fortunately, in neither case did I find this a crushing experience, which speaks well of my resilience after a long period of fragility.

For those who viscerally feel the pangs of divorce there are various strands of emotional hurt but the overwhelming feeling of rejection looms especially large; doubly so in the case of pleas for reconciliation (or for that matter forgiveness) that are flatly denied. So, I’m rather pleased with myself that having dipped my toe in the waters of romantic possibilities I did not lose a leg to a ravenous shark.

Life does go on; maybe not the life you had envisaged for yourself, and maybe with more ebbs and flows than you would like, but a life of new beginnings, fresh prospects and good friends nonetheless.

I live in the country (Macedon, Victoria), a one-hour train trip from Melbourne, surrounded by gum trees, a spectacular array of bird life and occasional visits by a family of kangaroos. I am occupied with writing a novel (admittedly taking longer than expected, but now five chapters in) and a memoir (which is not the act of vanity that might suggest). Meanwhile, I sustain myself materially with a portfolio of freelance work, some of which is professionally fulfilling, much of which is tosh.

In more ways than one I find myself single-minded. And it’s okay.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is a columnist with The New Daily and is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher