The two real boyfriends that I’ve had were similar in many ways. They were both incredibly kind-hearted, funny people. They made me feel light, buoyed by their presence. They always made me laugh.
But they were also alike in that neither of them knew about my longest relationship with my most consistent lover: depression. Although I’ve spent much of my late teenage years and early 20s trying to shake him, I was born with him tangled up in my genetic code, causing a chemical imbalance in my brain. Although he comes and goes irregularly, we’ve grown codependent — and after so many years together, it’s difficult to imagine my life without his presence. He’s a possessive lover. He gnaws and snaps and claws at me, clinging us together, until my brain is a bruised and bitten peach.
There’s rarely room for someone else. Depression is too needy, and grasping for my time and attention for there to be a party of three.
My depression sometimes feels like the wild manifestation of a parallel life I have on the side. My real self, I’d like to think, is very happy. I’m animated with close friends and family, in class and at work where I smile for a living — “welcome to Earls!” I’m usually having a pretty good time. I love to read and talk politics, and can spend countless hours with my best friends. I like hanging out with my neighbours’ cats. Given the amount of time Milo and Ruby spend with me, I can only assume it is mandated by Cat Law to put in a certain amount of hours socializing with single, emotionally fraught women. But most of all, I like to date.
More accurately, I love to date. For me, a first date is the ultimate curated experience — a new addition to my incredibly diverse dating portfolio. I like choosing a sleek outfit and putting on my jasmine perfume. I like the representation of our best selves, our even-tempered voices, the atmosphere of the candlelit bar we’ve agreed on. And as a student of psychology, I always find something so intriguing in being up close with another person. He’ll smile easily. He’ll be a sculpted David come to life. He’ll be achingly intelligent, conscientious of our increasingly turbulent world and seeking to fix it. Sometimes he will be all of these things at once and I’ll melt like caramel ice cream, sweet and dripping. I’m aware of the effort we both put in — but unlike most people, I enjoy it.
Most of all, I like how a first date permits me to feel close to someone, all while only having to reveal the specific amounts of neutral emotional territory that I want to.
After the first date, though, things change. This is when my two diametrical lives uncomfortably intersect, for depression will make himself known as soon as I have the opportunity to create real intimacy. He’s a low hiss in my ear when I want to ask the person I’m seeing a deep, probing question. A firm, clenching hand on my shoulder warning me not to go there, because if they ask me something real about how I’m feeling, it’ll be painful to lie about it.
Given too much time with a certain person, things will swing like a pendulum away from the facade of first impressions or the rawness of passion to an uneasy middle ground. Others might call this a comfortable familiarity, but there is nothing comfortable about it to me. Almost anything can be said and found adorable when someone doesn’t really know you. An absolute void of spatial reasoning skills and a money-back guarantee that I will get lost in three square yards? I couldn’t count the number of men who have tried to help poor me learn the basics of navigation. A fantasy I occasionally have that includes filling my pockets with stones and walking into English Bay? How many people could understand that? Depression is not a sweet quirk I want to share with someone. It’s so, so ugly. I like pretty things.
I know it can’t continue forever like this. I usually see people for a spell of a few months before moving on, because keeping men at arm’s length for longer than that is draining. When things with someone are purely physical, it’s a little easier. For me, sex and depression have a similar physical manifestation: a racing heart, a heat in the stomach, a tension in the muscles. In a sick sense, it’s exciting. It’s crude. It’s a release. But above all else, it’s illusory. No real intimacy is expected, and that certainly helps in moments of “You’ve been Trumped!” — a phrase I’ve coined when I find out guys I’ve been seeing are supporters of Orange Hitler. This has happened three times and each time, I have immediately morphed into Jim Halpert from The Office, staring into the camera, silently begging to be saved.
But what did I expect? That’s what happens when you don’t share who you really are or care to learn who the person you’re seeing really is. What’s actually difficult is keeping my emotional barriers up around men I could genuinely see myself with. For these truly empathetic people I’ve met who share my values, I turn on a nice movie about myself for them to watch with the volume turned way, way down. All of my bad and broken parts are muted, it’s true, but my good qualities remain hazy and half-present. They deserve better. And in moments of clarity when my mental fog dissipates for a bit, I know I deserve better.
My relationship with depression is the biggest source of toxicity in my life. Breaking up with him will probably be the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do. But it’s necessary to eventually let someone else in — and as much as I dream of becoming a clinical psychologist or living abroad one day, having a strong partner who knows all of me just as I know all of him is something I want out of life. Part of it will mean accepting my depression and my mental health likely won’t ever be perfect. But acknowledging it feels a little like a few of the bruises I have are beginning to heal.
Sienna Cohen is a fourth-year psychology student.