Polyamory & Depression

People...I’ve had depression for thirty years. I’ve been in an open relationship in some form or another, for about seven years. You know what never ceases to amaze me? How many people feel the need to tell me that it’s the open relationship that’s causing my depression. Apparently there’s not much overlap between people with opinions and people who can count.

I’ve spoken before about open and poly relationships, and how difficult they can be. But if you really want to up the difficulty level, throw in some mental health issues as well. I don’t know you intimately, dear readers, so I don’t know how many of you have mental health issues, or how many of you are in non-monogamous relationships. So you’ll have to forgive me if I take a moment to tell you the obvious.

There’s a fungus that infects ants. When the ant eats the fungus, it takes over the ant’s brain and body. It makes the ant go to the tallest blade of grass it can find. It makes the ant leave the safety of it's nest. Leave the security of the other ants. Ignore all desire for food or drink. All that matters is getting to the top of the blade of grass. And then the fungus kills it there. This is depression. Depression is living with a brain that, a lot of the time, isn't your own. Your brain will make you know things about yourself, horrible things that become hard to live with. Your brain will cut off everything a person needs for emotional survival; any kind of happiness, pleasure or joy will be stripped from you. It will become physically difficult to move, impossible to ask for help, and you'll make decisions that, in hindsight, made no sense other than to make your life actively worse. 

This is what happens when you're single. When you're living alone with depression. Now add another person to that. A person who loves you, who tells you that they love you. A person who supports you when you’re feeling worthless. Sounds like an improvement right? Sounds like it could really help. Wrong. Your depression will use this person against you in every way it can conceive of. It will convince you that the love of your life is with you for absolutely any other reason except love. They’re only with you for your money, for your body, for the convenience of a dual income household, for the kids, for the dog, or because it’s just too fucking difficult to break up. You will know from the bottom of your heart that they don’t and can’t love you. No one possibly could. And then you’ll start to push them away. You’ll tell them they’re better off without you. You’ll convince them that you hate them, even as it’s breaking your own heart in two to say it. You’ll find a way to rationalise the destruction of your relationship with them, because your depression will tell you that you don’t deserve them, that they’d be happier without you. It’s a method of emotional self-harm. No one can see the scars, but it will hurt you more than any knife ever could.

That’s what depression in a relationship looks like. In my life I’ve pushed away friends, family members, partners and even pets. All because my brain knows how much it hurts and how the less people are there to support me, the easier it is to eventually kill myself.

All of this is what happens when you’re in a depressive episode. When your brain isn’t working the way that it should. But there are times when you’re completely normal. When you’re a thinking, smiling, functioning person who doesn’t try to implode entire relationships for shits and giggles. And when you’re normal, you get to live your life and make decisions based on rational thought, instead of abject insanity.

When I’m normal, I enjoy having an open relationship. I love seeing my partner date other people, because it makes him happy, and it means I get to meet other people who appreciate the man I love in different ways. I enjoy going on dates with new and interesting people. I like expanding my social network, going to fun events and just generally enjoying life with my genitals. Who the fuck wouldn’t?

But when you’re in a poly relationship and a depressive episode hits you, I promise you, it’s the most fucked up exercise in frustration you will ever experience. Because almost nothing you’re thinking is sane or rational and it now applies to more than just one relationship. You will start to put more pressure on yourself than any human is reasonably able to withstand.

When I’m in a depressive episode, I’ll convince myself that my partner’s relationships depend upon me not being depressed. I tell myself that if he sees me getting sad, he’ll think it’s because of the people he’s dating, and he’ll want to break up with them to keep me happy. Or worse, if the people he’s dating see me falling apart, they’ll assume it’s because I’m not okay with their relationship, and they’ll bail out rather than deal with the drama of my mental health. And these are all terrible scenarios, because the worst thing in the world for me, is to feel like my depression is impacting other people's happiness.

So what was initially just me and my feelings, now becomes a battle to ensure that no one gets to see what I’m going through, and every time that they do, the pressure mounts to not let it happen again. It’s one thing if someone sees me having a bit of a cry one time, but how will they feel when it’s six times in a row, and it always seems to coincide with their dates with my partner? And so I pile more and more pressure onto my already overloaded brain to try and be cool, to try and be as okay as I can be, to not let anyone see how broken I am inside. Surprisingly, this rarely works out well.

All of this is before I even get to my own additional romantic entanglements. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but nothing in this world will convince you of your own worthlessness faster than a depressive episode. I’ve gone from having great self-esteem, a healthy relationship with my body, and a positive outlook about my dating prospects, to complete and total hatred for every aspect of my existence, in the space of a single day.

Because when your own brain is on a loop, 24/7 telling you that you’re an unlovable, hideous sack of shit, it gets a bit difficult to maintain a positive outlook about your dating prospects. You’ll become convinced that no one will ever find you attractive, and on top of that, if anyone is desperate enough to want to see you naked, they’ll quickly run for the hills once they realise how broken you are in the head.

Once you’re in this head space, every dating mishap you have becomes confirmation of what your depression has been telling you. You go on a date and maybe they’re not that into you because of your stance on the deliciousness of meat. That’s not good enough for your depression, you’ll re-write that narrative in your head until it becomes about how utterly disgusting you are to look at, how mind-numbingly dull you are at conversation, and how you’re also a despicable pile of human refuse for not being able to subsist entirely on a diet of plants.

Occasionally I’ve been fortunate enough to find a poor, deluded individual who’s stupid enough to want to date me. But then I fall into another trap, where they want to be supportive, and they want me to open up about my depression because they want to help and understand. It’s a really lovely gesture on their part. But if I’m in a depressive episode it becomes hugely problematic. If you actually do open up about your mental health issues, there’s very little that anyone can say that’s going to be good enough for your brain.

For example, if I really don’t hold back and describe the physical agony and the mental torture that my brain puts me through on a daily basis, most people have no reference point for how to respond. So they’ll offer platitudes, like “I’m sure it’ll get better,” or “It could be so much worse” or “But there are rainbows.” Basically any response is almost guaranteed to make me feel worse. My depression will latch onto whatever they say and go “See, no one fucking cares, they want you to share, but then they really just want you to shut the fuck up, because they have no idea what you’re going through. They hate you and are bored by everything you’re saying.”

The other barrier your depression will throw up when it comes to your relationships though, is vulnerability. Depression is the ultimate exercise in vulnerability. The whole illness is about making you as pathetic and desperate as possible, bringing you as low as it can. This can be especially hard if the way you identify when you’re not depressed is as a bit of a badass. If any part of your normal identity is tied to being strong, or independent, or just kind of awesome, it can be utterly devastating to let someone see you when you’re depressed. It’s like letting a stranger walk, with dirty shoes, across your soul. You want to scream “This isn’t who I am”, and while they’ll tell you that they know, you can’t help but feel like they’re always going to see you as this broken, mentally crippled, pathetic mess every time they look at you from now on. So when you’re trying to build a new relationship with someone, you’re going to try and hide it from them. You’re going to pile all the pressure you can onto yourself to ensure that they never see this side of you.

You’ll meet people who'll tell you that they don’t care, that they love you no matter how you are. But they don't realise it's not about them, it's about you. It's about trust. Because if it's one-sided and they're seeing you at your worst, but you only ever see them as strong and capable, it can make you resent them. You'll feel like you’re doing all of the emotional heavy lifting, because you’re having all of the feelings, while they just listen and tell you that they’re not judging you.

And all of this is before you even start to deal with people who are external to your poly dynamic.

Recently I was in a situation wherein I needed to call the CAT Team. The woman on the other end of the phone was kind and patient and asked why I wasn’t coping too well. I explained about all the things that were bothering me and then added that I was also feeling some pressure to keep my depression hidden in case I ruined my and my partner’s other relationships. She paused and asked me to repeat it. I explained about our open relationship, to which she responded “Well maybe don’t do that. Maybe then you won’t be depressed.”

When you have depression and you’re in an open or poly relationship, it will get to the point where you’re afraid to talk to anyone about any kind of trouble you’re having, because you know they’ll tell you that you should just stop.

Stop being open. Stop being poly. Stop seeing other people. Stop challenging the status quo. Stop being such a fucking weirdo and just have one partner, like the rest of us. I've had friends, family members and other partners tell me that I’m not coping with one aspect of my relationship or another. I have depression, not brain damage. I’m self-aware enough to know what affects me and what doesn’t. I know what’s impossible and what’s just hard work. Not being in an open relationship, or not being polyamorous, isn't going to cure my depression. It's just going to tell me that I'm losing the things I enjoy in life, because of my mental illness. 

When I tell people that exercise makes me suicidally depressed, no one tells me to stop. No one tells me to give up. They rack their brains trying to find a different way for me to lose weight and be skinnier and therefore better. But when I say that one part of my open relationship is a little hard for me right now, people are determined that I should shut the whole thing down and just be monogamous; despite me telling them that’s not something I want.

I’ve been depressed for thirty years. I’ve been open for about seven. I don’t need someone to tell me that I’m not coping with my relationships, because that only compounds my issues. That teaches me that I can’t ask for help. That teaches me that I can never afford to be anything except okay. Because when I was single and when I was in a monogamous relationship, I was still depressed. I was still suicidal. I was still not okay. Blaming my depression on anything except a broken brain and a mental health care system that has consistently let me down is a fucking cop out and I’m not okay with that.

So I guess what I’m saying is, if you have mental health issues and you’re in any kind of non-conventional relationship, I hear you. It’s hard. And it can be lonely. And there are times where you’ll be your own worst enemy. But as long as it’s something that you want, and you’re being responsible about assessing its impact on your psyche (as you should with literally everything in your life), then keep pursuing it. Don’t let the world tell you that you’re damaged just because you’re trying something different. You deserve support. You deserve care. You deserve the life you want. Just as much as everyone else. 


That is all.


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