Mental illness, marriage, dependency and divorce

crutchWritten by: Dave

“Well, I’ve been afraid of changing – ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you” ~ Landslide – Stevie Nicks

Even before the collapse of my marriage, this line carried some weight for me. In the past several months it has become both a trigger and a resounding call to truth.

A Difficult Start

My wife and I married the summer before our senior year in high school. Five months later our daughter was born. This brought with it an unsurmountable amount of stress and pressure. It was rough. I had always been prone to bouts of anxiety, and to some depression at times. I was insecure, but this marriage brought security in the form of a partner. I was never popular, never outgoing, and becoming a father and a husband felt right. It also removed me from a dysfunctional family life that I had resented since I was a young boy. We lived in subsidized housing. We were on Food Stamps. We both worked. We graduated high school, I went onto to college to get a degree in graphic design.

I did not know I had anxiety at the time. I only knew I worried, a lot. About everything. All the time. I did not do well in social situations. My brain was constantly spinning, worrying, wondering. I also kept very high expectations of myself. From the standpoint of a father, a husband, an employee and a student. I was always trying to do better, faster, more efficiently.

Within the first few years at my first job with an ad agency, I began to burnout. My wife began going back to school. We also decided to have another child. This was about seven-years into our marriage. I think we were both looking for something that would somehow tie us back together. We had enough in common, we did love each other – but we were about to suffer the fallout of a couple that had married too young.

Struggling With Anxiety

It was during this time I began to research my anxiety. A trip to the emergency room for a potassium deficiency resulted in a prescription for some anti-anxiety medication. I began reading up on symptoms. I tried to discuss this with my wife, but I was afraid. Things were not right with us. We didn’t know what to do. We decided a change of locale, closer to our parents and friends, would be a chance to reestablish ourselves. I would take a slightly less-stressful corporate gig in a marketing communications group, she would continue school and pick up some work in accounting.

Still my mental struggles plagued me. I ignored or avoided them. It’s only in hindsight do I realize the toll my peculiarities would wreak on my relationship. For example, I could not go into a restaurant and ask for a table. I was horrified of this. I always let her do the talking. Nor could I meet a service man at our house. Every vehicle we owned, she negotiated with the salesman, while I sat there, shy, introverted, afraid to speak. She paid every bill, managed every aspect financially – she was my crutch. I couldn’t make appointments over the phone for my kids, and was deathly scared of attending any and every kind of social event alone. As long as my wife was there, I would do okay. Even though it exhausted me, or made me a nervous wreck, I could put myself out there if I absolutely had too, as long as I had her.

The Downward Spiral

Within two years of landing my corporate gig, I was laid off. This began the downward spiral. At the deepest, darkest depths of the depression I plunged into after losing my job, she contacted behavioural health services for me. She made my appointment, she drove me to my first therapy session. That was over ten years ago. I’m fairly certain that I would not be here today without her help.

Over the course of our twenty-four year relationship she has weathered, with me, the suicide of my biological father when I was 16, the passing of my closest family – an aunt, my grandfather, his mother (my great-grandmother) – culminating with the death of my mom from cancer when I was 33. My wife was there – we took care of my mom as she wasted away. My wife was my rock when I had lost everyone else close to me.

Now, therapy and medication have woven themselves into the fabric of my being. As much as I wanted her to understand what I was going through. She couldn’t. Once during a conversation after our separation I told her that if she had been sick, I would’ve done everything to help her. I would’ve researched her illness to discover what she needed from me. I had the same expectation of her, one that she was unwilling or unable to fulfill. I tried to encourage her involvement, she just seemed disinterested. As a result I reached a plateau. I was not well. Yet, I was not doing all that bad. I was not a happy person, but I was not on the verge of suicide, at least not very often. I was functional, but had not recovered from my depression or my bouts with social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder. We lived in this not quite good / not quite bad place for the next ten years.

My mental health contributed to the overall issues that have brought down my marriage. I felt we were managing well enough. I thought we had a certain balance, a yin-yang to our relationship, an ability to play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Not only was it too much for her to bear, but now I understand, my reliance on her support was doing more to enable my behaviour than to help me recover from it. I had unrealistic expectations of her ability to cope and manage with my mental issues.

The fallout of the separation was severe for me. Not in an ugly, uncivil kind of way. In many respects, our marriage is dissolving rather smoothly. We don’t fight. We never fought. We are still, for the most part, best friends.

The Turning Point

The depression has been severe at times. This was twenty-years of my life going down the drain. This one person, my constant rock, was leaving me. There was a dark place where I had to make that sink or swim decision. I was suicidal, but now this was different. This was the defining moment. Death seemed like a warm friend, ready to admonish all my despair and pain in a single swoop. But, I could not leave my kids. This has become the cornerstone for my vigilant efforts to overcome this tragedy and to share with as many people as possible that there is always a new day.

Despite the depression, the isolation, the loneliness, I know that things can be better. [Tweet this quote!]

I now know, as the years went on, my wife began to feel trapped. She was worried I would fall apart without her. She yearned to be someone that she didn’t feel she could be for me. At the same time, I willingly leaned on her not just for support, but as a crutch that prevented me from taking the healthy approach to recovery that I should have. Now, I am in the process of taking responsibility for my own mental health.

My divorce will be final next month. I’ve weathered the rough waters so far. I’m still here through the help of my psychologist, my friends, support groups, and of course my children. Yet, I’m keenly aware that there is no such thing as lasting security. Life goes on and inevitably springs change upon us when we least expect it. While all manners of support can be helpful, those of us who can muster the courage and strength would do well to draw a distinction between support and an unhealthy dependence that could enable the very behaviours we’re trying so hard to adjust. More often than not, if something isn’t helping us, it’s hurting us, which is why we must not be afraid of change.


Image credit:  tantrum_dan


DaveDave is passionate about good design, typography, neurosciences, mental health, parenting, friends, books and food. In his spare time he enjoys playing guitar and contemplating the irrationalities of being creative and analytical at the same time, while chasing that ever elusive feeling of Zen.  You can find the occasional rambling on matters of mental health at his blog, Life, Love, Mental Illness and Redemption (



Editor’s questions… I would really love to hear from YOU:

  1. Do you have any feedback on Dave’s post?  Please leave a comment below.
  2. The MHT community becomes really valuable and helpful to others when we write of our own experiences in the comments.  So I would also love to hear from you about how your experience with mental health issues has affected your marriage/relationships.

Thank you, Trish

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  • Neurotic Nelly

    Hi, first off let me say I am glad you are doing better. I expierenced a similar issue with my first husband. I leaned on him for support when my mental illness became unmanageable. Unfortunately, he was unwilling to help me or worse yet started to resent me for not being less complicated. I had to learn to help myself when our marriage ended, which although for me it was soul crushingly painful, turned out to be the best thing for me. Unlike your situation my relationship was toxic and not just because of my mental illness. Sometimes the ending of a relationship forces us to become independent and makes us strive to get better. It does not take away the feeling of loss over the relationship. I was able to get better and I do believe that had my first marriage continued, that would not have been the case. I have also found much like you, that my children make me try harder to be the best I can be. Children are amazing motavators. Just wanted to say that although our stories have differences, I totally understand where you are coming from.

    • Dave Burney

      Thanks Nelly… I definitely think this divorce is forcing me to look at all the things I’ve been running from for so long. For better or worse. It’s been a struggle to learn to live without always having that person right by your side. And I understand that, for anyone, this would be a difficult time. But it has been extremely overwhelming for me. Fortunately, I’m doing better now than in the past few months. And my children to motivate me to be better. I do not want to let them down. But I also try to remember to not make them the sole reason for my recovery – I have to do this for myself.

  • Earla

    loved the Stevie Nicks quote – that was me. I too am separated from my husband. When I married him I was a completely different person than the one I am today after dealing with my anxiety and depression. Thanks for writing this Dave – it is so very hard to leave a marriage. I thought doing my work with cognitive behaviour therapy was the hardest thing I had to do, but leaving my husband was.

    • Dave Burney

      Accepting that my wife had pretty much just tossed me to the curb was excruciating. And it has taken a while for me to come to terms with how this can be a good thing. Instead of groveling and begging and pleading for her, I realized that she had made a choice. She needed something I couldn’t give her, and if I had convinced her to stay, then what? Neither of us were happy – we were comfortable. As comfortable as I could be without actively addressing my issues. That loss of security was frightening. It’s still frightening. I can’t describe it – but there’s still this piece I’m waiting to just be fully free from. It may not happen. It may be a connection we always share. And it has eased over the last few months. But there are still times where it feels like a part of me is being torn from myself. I know it is mostly grief at the loss I’m going through. It’s more painful than the loss of my mom, or any relative for that matter. It’s like a twin part of me is being stolen away a chunk at a time. I can physically feel it in my gut and my chest. The butterflies, the tugging, the dread.

      But it will get better – CBT has been working well for me as well. And change is inevitable. It’s how we respond that matters. Hope you’re doing well.

  • joe jordan

    Hi Dave,

    I wanted to thank you for sharing your story of struggle with all of us. I’m so very sorry for what you’ve gone through and can appreciate your experiences better than most. I can relate as I’ve suffered similarly during the last ten plus years.
    I was married for ten years (together for twelve) to the love of my life and lost her to my struggles with major depression and “The Icy Grip Of Fear” that consumed my soul for over ten years. I too lost my corporate job and high income, my home, my marriage, my self esteem and my friends to those two heinous plagues on humankind.

    Among my other misadventures, I was hospitalized at a mental health facility for two weeks after a complete nervous breakdown, I was feeling suicidal, was unable to work, had became increasingly withdrawn and hyper religious and spent almost ten years searching for a solution. I changed prescribers on a feeling six months ago and oddly enough, my problem turned out to be that I was prescribed the wrong class of medications (SSRI’s) for all those years (By several doctors) and had been steadily increasing the dosage over the years to try to cope, which only made things worse. In addition, I also was diagnosed with severely low testosterone, which affects both afflictions very negatively.
    I’m now coming up on the second anniversary of my divorce to my ex-wife, who met someone right away, jumped into bed with him and remarried two years later in Vegas. Now they are the owners of a fine new home, have good jobs and are vacationing the way we used to do. I’m still living with my parents.
    The good news is that I was properly diagnosed six months ago and am now taking a combination of Wellbutrin (an SNRI) and Ativan (an Benzodiazepine). I am feeling much better and have begun the climb out of “The Eternal Lake of Fire”. Wellbutrin stopped the depression dead in it’s tracks. The Ativan has helped my anxiety temendously and I’m in the process of zeroing in on the correct dose.
    When my wife first bailed on me back in 2010, I was also able to begin proper testosterone therapy through the gift of insurance through welfare. (!) I felt better and forced myself to take an entry level job at a bank (my industry). Over the past three years I’ve been promoted first to supervisor and then most recently manager. These gains have coincided not so surprisingly, with my medical improvements.
    I’m still in love with my ex but someday hopefully, I’ll be completely over what happened to me and find love again. She has completely left me behind and has no idea that I’m back to my old self. I won’t reach out to her, as I feel that she suffered enough and wouldn’t want to interfere in her marriage.
    The point that I’m trying to make in this lengthy diatribe, is that for those out there who feel hopeless and are suffering. Please don’t give up. There is something out there that can help you. Change doctors if you must. (I needed to) You can make things better!!!
    Thanks again so much Dave, for sharing your continuing experiences and allowing me space on your forum to share my story.

  • Dave Burney

    Thank you for your comment! It does take time – and appropriate intervention is crucial. It’s unfortunate you spent so much time treating the demons with the wrong meds. But let me assure you, every experience brings with it patience and wisdom. Sometimes you don’t even realize it until months or years later. As you eluded to in your post – your promotions, regaining your confidence, all went hand-in-hand with your treatment. The processes that you underwent shaped you in a profound manner that likely wouldn’t have been possible through any other circumstances. You are where you are today because of what you’ve lived through and accomplished in spite of mental illness, and in spite of your divorce. Embrace the change. Embrace the experience.

    The most important thing I’ve discovered is to be vulnerable, honest and authentic. With myself and with others. No matter how scary it might be, despite the risk of criticism and rejection. At that point, things seem to come together. The stars align, life seems to be full of potential. And I realize it’s because I’ve decided to live it on my terms, not someone else’s.

    Good luck – and thanks for sharing your story!

  • Defeated Wife

    Hi Dave. For years I have been searching for something I can relate to, and today I found it in your post. Thank you! But what I relate to most, is the role of your ex-wife. I’m living with a husband who has not accepted responsibility for his mental health. Unlike your wife I have done my research and tried to do what I can to help my husband see, while there is a huge stigma with mental illness, its not something that I personally see as different from a physical illness. If he was diabetic, I would give him insulin daily if that’s what he needed. I’m very supportive and have been patient while he works on “changing himself”. I have learned so much about his depression, anxiety and mood disorder, I can identify trends in his behaviors, watch his symptoms unfold in textbook fashion, and many of them are similar to the things you mention struggling with in your post. I’m so sorry you’ve experienced/struggled with those things. I do understand how very real they are in that moment. And I’m glad to hear you’re doing much better now.

    When I initiated a separation from my husband, he sought help and saw a psychiatrist (two times), who prescribed him an anti-depressant. He did this because he knew he was losing me, and like your wife, I’m his crutch. Anyway, the medication works wonders… when he takes it the way he is supposed to. But he takes it about 60% of the time. He doesn’t realize that his medication means so much to the stability of our family not just himself. When he doesn’t take his medication, the entire family (we have two daughters) is put on an emotional roller coaster with him. He takes the medication just enough to feel better, on a personal level. But he hasn’t owned the larger scope of his illness, or sought further counseling or help, and he doesn’t see that this is something that our whole family is affected by. He skips a few days of pills, he realizes he feels crummy, and starts taking a few pills for a few more days. But in that time where he feels crummy, he is miserable company for the rest of us to be around… he has insecurities which surface and conflict is created and tension fills the house. He doesn’t see the connection between that tension and his not taking the medication. In those “low” times, he blames things on me, or the kids, as if WE have changed and our behaviors have somehow caused his feeling anxious, angry or whatever. For example, he’ll believe my three-year old is being especially bratty and she is the reason why he’s so irritable. When in reality, she is being her normal self, but he is not coping with her as well as he could if he were taking his meds.

    We are currently living (together) as you put it, “in this not quite good/not quite bad place”, where he too is functional, but is not yet working on an active recovery plan. And while I patiently wait for him to fully embrace the larger picture, I’m to a point where I feel like I cannot wait any longer. For so many years he has not been able to be a supportive partner to me, because he at times could barely make it through his own day, and his own daily routine and basic life functions. And like your wife, I do/did a lot of things for him and the family, not as a means of enabling him, but because if I left any responsibility for him, it just wouldn’t happen because the emotional exhaustion of dealing with things was too much for him. Of course, now that he is “functional” he does do more things, and is a better partner in general. So I feel that he has made some progress over the past couple of years. But as his wife, it is a lonely place to be (emotionally) when your partner is depressed or struggles with anxiety. He’s sitting right next to me, but we can’t connect on an emotional level because he is so preoccupied with his own thoughts. I’m tired of being unhappy and feeling like I’m constantly waiting for him to have an epiphany, which may never come. I feel like we too, have hit a plateau.

    It sounds to me like it took your wife leaving for you to embrace your mental illness, (which I respect you for tremendously). Or rather, the loss of what you saw as security is what prompted change on a deeper level. And certainly the kids are a great motivation, I relate to that as well. But I do fear that my leaving will send my husband into a depression. And there is no loss of love, just loss of hope that I will ever have the partner I need.

    So my question for you is, while you were on that plateau where things were not quite good/ not quite bad, do you think you would’ve remained on that plateau indefinitely? Did you need that life changing event to catapult you into something more? At what point did you feel like you had a good grasp on your anxiety and worked on making treatment a priority in your life?

    • Dave Burney

      Defeated Wife – I absolutely believe the life changing event was the impetus. Because I could not, would not face things on my own. It was my sink or swim moment. We are creatures of habit and change is hard. Most of us have to hit bottom – sometimes more than once – to realize that WE are the only ones that can make ourselves better. All the support, therapy and meds in the world won’t help someone who doesn’t see the value in helping themselves.

      To your second question, I’m still working through making treatment a priority. I have good days and bad days. But I do feel more determined now (at least most of the time) to work towards a better place where I have the skills and tools at my disposal to cope with my anxiety and depression.

      One final note – your husband’s depression is his. While I encourage you to provide him the support he needs and applaud your efforts to be an understanding and willing partner in his battle, you must also provide support for yourself. You deserve happiness just as much as he does. As selfish as it sounds, I’ve realized that I need to take care of me first – then I can see what is left for me to spread around. Sometimes there’s a lot, sometimes only a little. It’s an ongoing process. And I also find it imperative to examine my motivations and see what is helping me and what is hurting me. Can peel back the underlying motives and turn a hurtful thing into a helpful one. If not, why is it still a part of my life?

      • Defeated Wife

        Thank you so much for your reply. I value and respect your thoughts and the path you’re on to prioritize what’s important. And really appreciate your sharing your personal experience. I have found some support of my own in a group for people who are codependent, such as myself. And I really appreciate how clearly you state the following: “I’ve realized that I need to take care of me first – then I can see what is left for me to spread around. Sometimes there’s a lot, sometimes only a little.” I could certainly learn from that!! I’m sure I will revisit your story for inspiration. And I love the “Landslide” reference! Thank you again!

  • Karen

    Hi Dave,

    Thank you for sharing your story, I have written for Trish before, and never spoke about my marriage(s) in depth. I had so many other issues to talk about. I have been married 2 times, I am divorced from my first husband, who is one of my best friends now…lol, never imagined that. We have one daughter together. And I am recently separated from my current husband, we will be married 2 years on feb. 24th. ..My mental illnesses did not play as big of a role in my first marriage, I mean looking back I see why I married him,very quickly within 6 months we eloped, but I was so damaged from my upbringing and so was he.

    My second marriage I was already unable to work, had several diagnosis of major depression, panic attacks, BPD and Bipolar 2, I was on meds by then and had been in the hospital. But I knew my husband years ago, when I was in my 20s..we have a son together, who is now an adult but we never married. Long story short we reconnected and got married in 2012, he said he wanted to help me and be there for me, unfortunately my illness was out of control, I had intense rage, mood swings, and all my anger issues in my life were directed to him, I cried, I was frustrated. He did come to therapy with me though, I thought he understood but when we would argue, he would say I was crazy, etc…we both hurt eachother. I know it must have been very difficult for him, because the Karen he knew from years ago was gone, I had gone through a deep trauma in 2005 that resulted in a breakdown and forever changed my life. I am very sad, but my mental health was declining, the stress , the anger I could not deal. I was admitted to the mental hospital while we were married, I left him, I came back, I tried to work it out. Sadly I am at the point now where I have to get myself together first, I cannot be a partner to anyone until I heal and can take care of me first. Sorry this was so long,…I wish you the best of luck in your future and thank you for sharing your story.

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