On a steamy July afternoon in 2012 my husband received a phone call that would change our lives forever. A mole he had gotten removed a week earlier turned out to be cancerous. The cells had already begun multiplying and spreading. Every test revealed their migration farther and farther into his body.
My husband thought he was dying. His mind was plagued with thoughts of not seeing our children grow, not walking our daughter down the aisle, and the chance that his cancer would come back and ravage his body. He would wonder whether his general infirmity wasn’t the result of the treatments, but a sign that maybe the cancer was coming back.
Cancer was tough on us as a couple. My husband slipped into depression; I slipped into survival mode. As he was slowly sinking inward, I focused on the outward things I could control like maintaining our household. My capacity was maxed out by two young children and the extreme demands of his treatment; I didn’t know how to deal with a depressed husband.
Six murky months later, he was given a clean bill of health. It was a difficult milestone to celebrate. It’s hard to celebrate anything when you’re convinced you’re dying, depressed, and exhausted to the bones. The 70 percent recurrence rate didn’t help much either.
Our life was supposed to go on, but it didn’t. Even after my husband had received a clean bill of health, the threat of recurrence was always around the corner for him, and depression had left him a shell of the man I married. He was there, but he wasn’t. Depression doesn’t listen to oncologists and radiologists the way we’d like it to. I now had a half alive, depressed husband.
I wish I could tell you I funneled my energy into loving him well, like helping him find and get the help he needed. But that’s not how things went down. If cancer was the villain in our lives, then depression was it’s sidekick, threatening our quality of life long after the doctor’s appointments and scans came to an end.
I tried everything I knew to support him: Acting like everything was fine, trying to talk about his feelings, and suggesting he hang out with his guy friends. Nothing worked. I grew frustrated, and I gave up. I began leaving him out of the equation when it came to managing our household and making decisions for our family because he wasn’t in a state to make many day-to-day decisions. I continued to manage the household, including making many decisions about our family as if he wasn’t there. After my misguided attempts to “fix” him, I abandoned him.
It felt like cancer and depression had stolen my husband. I didn’t know how to get him back. So I started Googling “how to care for your depressed spouse” and talking with friends who experienced depression themselves and had come out on the other side. Slowly—very, very slowly—I began to get a better understanding about what my husband was going through. I stopped pushing him to “get it together.” I let him move toward healing at his own pace.
It’s been seven years since he was first diagnosed and his 70 percent recurrence rate has almost disappeared. But it’s only been in the last year that I’ve fully realized that I am not responsible for other people. I am responsible to them.
There is a huge distance between the “to” and “for.” I wish I could go back and share that nugget of wisdom with my twenty-nine-year-old self. I could not have fixed my husband’s depression, no matter how hard I tried. It was not mine to fix. I wish I could tell myself that I was only responsible to my husband—to being a caring wife, to supporting him in the midst of depression, to loving him well—I was not responsible for him. But I suppose those are the kinds of things most people don’t learn before their thirtieth birthdays. It’s ok though, we both survived and marriage provides plenty of practice.