“Why don’t you just get a job?” is a common refrain at home, a rhetorical question frequently directed at me by my husband.
As the sole provider for our household, he’s under a lot of stress. He’s prone to losing his temper, all the more as his take-home pay never stretches far enough despite all the hours he works.
Because this is America, where being salaried makes you ineligible for overtime regardless of how short-staffed you may be. This has been a recurring issue: His isn’t the kind of work many people aspire to.
To say that the atmosphere in our house is volatile would be an understatement.
When I started writing again this summer to try and claw my way out of depression and earn an income, the endeavor went unnoticed.
Or rather, it went unacknowledged because, in my husband’s eyes, this kind of work doesn’t register as work. Never mind that I was a journalist and editorial translator when we met. Or that I’m a multilingual graduate with extensive international experience.
As long as I stay home, my skills and experience count for nothing as they don’t generate an income.
Then again, these words right here and those that came before are proof that I’m doing something. Because I’m not an editorial genius who cranks out perfect first drafts, any piece I publish is the result of hours of work. On occasion, a text can take days to put together. This is largely dependent on the subject matter, my mental state, and my surroundings.
For example, writing about sexual assault tends to leave me winded, as if someone had punched me in the gut. It can take me a couple of days to get back to a semi-clear head.
I don’t stop writing, but I’m a lot slower, more lackadaisical in the interim.
Whenever tempers flare, so does depression. To keep going, I must try and contain it. With detachment and a monomaniacal devotion to my craft, I focus harder on the one thing I can control: my editorial output.
I also write about grief and it is the hardest, most impossible thing I’ve ever done. And yet, it’s something I keep going back to precisely because of the impossible nature of the task.
In the shadows, there are many of us reeling from the sudden passing of a loved one and trying to figure out how to carry on living without them. I don’t have any answers, but curiosity and the search for comfort keep me exploring the issue in print.
Although this work pays little, it is a job. My job. The job I created, and the job I keep showing up for day after day, despite limitations. I can work from home in my PJs in the middle of the night, and I often do.
To anyone on a corporate payroll this job might look insignificant but it represents hours, days, weeks, and months of labor.
And it’s very much a labor of love, in every sense of the word.
When depression stole my writing voice, I lost my main work tool for almost five years.
Being unable to hold down a job catapulted my household into reduced circumstances and prevented me from accessing the care I need.
By nature, I’m the resourceful type. I can — and have — turned my hand at many other occupations besides journalism in the past. There’s no such thing as a “lesser” job and I’m not afraid of hard work.
During lean times, I’ve done housekeeping shifts in a hotel and cleaned spackled toilets. I’ve flipped burgers when I was a student many, many years ago in England. I’ve been a mail carrier on foot with bags heavier than I was. I’ve been a greengrocer unloading produce vans at the crack of dawn in Germany…
And yet, since 2013 I’ve been so incapacitated by depression I even struggle to go get the mail because it involves getting out of the front door. Some days, distress is all-encompassing, intent on destroying everything including me. I’ve flirted with the seductive idea of suicide more than once.
But I’ll never follow through: there’s no way my husband could afford a funeral.
I lost sleep; I lost all self-confidence or indeed pride in my appearance; I even lost the ability to communicate with those I love. As a result of not working, I also lost the freedom to travel and go visit my family overseas.
This almost cost me the loving relationship I have with my father.
My parents yet have to meet my husband; they also feel I’ve abandoned them.
And yet, no matter how many times I’ve broken down, unable to contain the pain of isolation and loneliness one minute longer, resentment has grown.
That’s the problem with invisible illnesses: If you don’t look like there’s anything wrong with you then you must be malingering.
Never mind that depression haunts my eyes. Or that it causes my body to come up with random and debilitating symptoms like rashes, crippling digestive issues, and back pain.
Never mind that I often go hungry because we can’t afford much food.
When my husband gets angry, he argues major depressive disorder is a lifestyle choice.
I’m not a masochist though, I didn’t choose my illness.
The roots of resentment run deep.
Shrouded in depression, I couldn’t understand this at first. The part my illness has played in the financial and emotional downfall of my household isn’t the full story.
To put it into crass capitalist terms, when my husband and I met, I looked like a good bet. The assumption was that my skills would command a decent salary enabling us to enjoy the coveted comforts of a double income no kids household.
But depression felled me shortly after landing in the US and put the kibosh on our plans. I even mistook the illness for happiness, a side-effect of adapting to a new life so different from my nomadic past.
Blinded by the novelty of marriage, we both paid no heed to my worsening symptoms.
This is partly my fault.
I was the first to dismiss them, the first to reassure my husband I could manage, the first to tout my resourcefulness. “Maybe we should get you some help,” my husband mused a few times. “Thanks, I’ll be fine. We can’t afford it anyway.”
My unwillingness to become even more of a financial burden played a huge part in keeping me sick, in making me sicker.
In other words, I’ve always felt I didn’t deserve care because I wasn’t earning my way. And I’ve never been anything other than staunchly realistic about our finances.
Meanwhile, my husband trusted me to deal with something I had no control over. And who could blame him? Also, he had no idea what depression was.
To him, my failure to get better represents an ongoing betrayal.
Regrettably, this assumption also set the tone for how we relate to each other, two imperfect, often frustrated, dented and broken humans who can be unkind when the going gets tough.
To try and overcome major depressive disorder without support isn’t something I’d wish upon anyone.
At the same time, I trust it’s possible: What other choice do I have?
I realized early on in my marriage it’d be up to me to hold my own hand throughout the recovery process so this is what I’ve been doing. My husband, meanwhile, tries to ensure there’s a roof over our head and food in the fridge, both of which I’m endlessly grateful for.
So what if most days he bears the burden of having to be responsible for another adult with resentment? It’s not what he signed up for and he wasn’t prepared. Unlike me, he’d never been married before. Unlike me, he’d never seen mental illness up close. Unlike me, he’d never been in more than one committed relationship either.
Not that our fundamental differences should be an obstacle to a happy marriage but depression has moved the goal posts.
On good days, we’re both confident we’re still headed for happiness — or at least a form of mutual contentment — but on bad days, everything is doomed and resentment rears its ugly head.
The only way my husband knows how to deal with it is to vocalize it.
Over time, I’ve learned not let it paralyze me and trigger a tsunami of self-loathing the way it used to. This doesn’t mean my heart doesn’t break for this man who’s desperately trying to hold everything together without ever seeing an end in sight.
Our separate struggles are one of the most dispiriting aspects of our life together.
Thankfully, I always had a best friend to talk to and lean on.
Despite geographical distance, with Anthony in my pocket I was never completely alone. He was the master of pep talks, too, always helping me see both sides of every argument with limitless compassion. But my husband has no friends beside me, and Anthony died a month ago.
I’m still not well but I’m on a mission now. This means razor-sharp focus as I attempt to write my way across the Atlantic. My 71-year-old father needs support while my stepmom undergoes treatment for metastatic breast cancer (aka Stage IV).
This financial burden rests squarely on my shoulders.
This is our reality but I don’t resent it. Instead, I continue to try and reclaim my agency from depression, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to flex my editorial muscles again. At the same time, I’m building up the confidence I need to re-enter the workforce as a contractor or a staffer.
So I can eventually help my husband, I’m helping myself, one word at a time.
I fight stigma at home, and I fight stigma in print to survive.
And if this is what lazy looks like then so be it.