How my husband beat the blues

CHAYA: It happened slowly, over several years. My energetic husband slowed down. When he wasn’t resting, he was irritable and unhappy. He’d scream at the kids, scowling as he searched the kitchen for a snack. He’d grumble at me, never asking for assistance, just finding faults. He didn’t initiate conversation. If I chattered for too long, he’d fall asleep. I felt like I was schlepping him along, trying to shoulder the marriage by myself.

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DOVID: My wife kept asking if I was sad or upset. I denied it, but I could feel myself having periods of grumpiness. I didn’t want to talk about it, especially since I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was bothering me. It’s hard to describe, but everything felt like it was going dark, the world was closing in on me. All I wanted to do was retreat from all the noise of small children and a nagging wife.

CHAYA: I first noticed the change after the birth of our third child. Weeks after I recuperated, he continued to miss shul, dawdled on his way to work, lost his smile. I blamed his inattention on the new baby. Maybe he was feeling overwhelmed juggling the sleepless nights with his demanding job. We lived far from family and I wasn’t very good at asking my friends for help. Over the course of the year he seemed to recover, eventually attending shul on a regular basis and resuming his daily schedule of shiurim.

DOVID: We moved during my wife’s third pregnancy. The pressure of higher rent and bearing the brunt of my wife’s emotions as she adjusted to our new neighborhood were exhausting. My wife’s neediness because of the pregnancy hormones made me want to escape into the quiet cave of our room. Everyday noises put me in an exhausted and grumpy frame of mind. We chalked it up to a grown up version of the sensory issues one of our kids had. As the baby got bigger—and louder—I got increasingly angry over small things. At a particularly low point, I broke some of the new stemware Chaya had bought for Pesach. I could tell she was scared. I apologized, but my actions changed our relationship.

CHAYA: I returned to work within the year. Running around helped my baby weight slide off. But my husband continually complained about his expanding waistline. When I was pregnant, a distant cousin of his noted that my husband had also put on a few pounds. The relative teased Dovid that he had Couvade syndrome, where the husband experiences the symptoms of pregnancy along with his wife. We all laughed at the joke and` Dovid patted his generous belly with pride. Yet more than a year later, Dovid was still focused on his paunch, often calling himself overweight. It annoyed me at first because it sounded so feminine. Things were off, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to describe it. We went to therapy for a bit, figuring that would rekindle our relationship. The psychologist pointed out that I’m a high-energy type and should respect my husband’s sleep needs. She mentioned him taking vitamin B and left it at that. I purchased the vitamins; the bottle remained untouched in our kitchen cabinet for the next five years (I finally tossed it one Erev Pesach). “Don’t take it personally,” the psychologist advised, chalking my loneliness up to unresolved feelings from my childhood.

DOVID: I felt bad that Chaya was so lonely in our marriage and hoped therapy would help us reconnect, since I felt powerless to do anything about it. It seemed the more tired I was, the more she needed my attention. I blamed her neediness on the way her parents gave her so much time and attention compared to the way I grew up.

CHAYA: I busied myself with work and friends, filling my kids’ schedules with afterschool activities and play dates. I hosted teas to raise money for organizations I cared about and attended parenting classes. Anything to be out of the house—busy, occupied and distracted from my disintegrating marriage.

DOVID: I saw that time as a bright spot. Chaya was busy and seemed to feel good about life. Her positive attitude rubbed off on me and, though we didn’t spend much time together, I felt energized and upbeat.

CHAYA: My fourth pregnancy was very difficult. I was extremely nauseous and the doctor advised me to cut my activities in half. I quit my job, and focused on feeling well enough to care for our children. The change in pace improved our relationship for a while. My husband found time and energy to lighten the burden of childcare and told me jokes to keep my spirits up as the physical challenges of the pregnancy continued into the second trimester. Yet after the baby came, Dovid would lie in his bed for an hour or so with the lights off while the clatter of housework and kids’ homework continued downstairs. I’d pushed away the creeping feelings of resentment that crept up when I was trying to nurse a newborn while getting my three other small children to sleep. If he got up to help, his patience was thin and he’d end up slamming doors or making a cutting remark that would send me into defense mode. “Don’t bother,” I snapped once, after spending ten minutes trying to garner his help at bedtime. When he sauntered into our kids’ room, I was too fed up to accept his assistance.

DOVID: I’d gotten back into a good morning routine, attending a Daf Yomi shiur and davening on my way to work. Two weeks after our son was born, I’d hoped to resume my morning schedule, but Chaya seemed upset when I suggested it. The baby had a hard time nursing in the beginning and was quite jaundiced. She was up every hour and a half at night, so I guess she was overwhelmed and wanted my help getting our other kids to school and play group in the morning. I felt resigned to prevent Chaya from falling apart at all costs. I didn’t realize the emotional toll it was taking on me. Every minor hiccup from the kids was an infraction to our serenity. Every spilled glass of milk upset me. I started to yell at them for similarly minor things. Being around the kids made me very irritable. It reached a boiling point one time when the kids were acting up during Kiddush. I yelled for quiet, and when the kids didn’t settle down, I stormed off to my room to sulk for the rest of the afternoon.

CHAYA: Around this time, Dovid also would act scary when driving in traffic. A competent driver who’d transported our family safely for a decade, he began to stop short and honk his horn when agitated. I started ferrying the family around instead, for safety and sanity. We put ourselves back into therapy. My husband reined in his fiery temper; the door-slamming exits stopped completely after the therapist told him how it could affect the kids. And I learned to act with confidence and calm when I saw Dovid’s temper flare, instead of adding fire to the brewing storm.

DOVID: I knew I needed to control my temper and improve my parenting skills. As an added benefit, I rediscovered the good relationship I used to share with Chaya. We played board games, at the therapist’s recommendation, and drank tea after putting the kids to bed. We learned better words to mold the children’s behavior and express our needs and disappointments to each other.

CHAYA: But two years later, my husband was still tired. He was actualized, self-aware, understanding, but carried a certain edge or bitterness when he walked in the door from work. He participated in family life, but there was an undercurrent of frustration and disapproval. We’d come so far. I didn’t want to spoil our blossoming relationship and healthy family dynamics by calling him out on his relatively low level grouchies. He was entitled to have a bad attitude if he wanted. Except that the children continued to notice and react to his distant and grumbly attitude. Though his reactions were less abrupt and frightening than in the past, Dovid still stomped up to his room, and would speak harshly at times, especially when they were noisy. The kids started saying things that might be considered chutzpadik, but their insight was accurate. “Tatty’s always grumpy,” said my oldest son, nearly a teenager. “He needs a new job,” said his little brother. “His work makes him mad.” I cornered him in the kitchen one night, after the kids were asleep. “Maybe you do need a new job,” I told him, pausing for a moment before adding, “You seem pretty stressed.” “I don’t need a new job,” he shot back. “It’s fine.” “I’m not trying to pressure you to make more money or anything, believe it or not,” I continued. “Remember when we got married and you seemed happy to go to work and driven and more energetic?” His head hung low. He poured himself some orange juice. “My job is fine.” The conversation over, I finished cleaning up the kitchen and went to bed.

The next day I brought up checking in with our therapist. We hadn’t been there for a few weeks and the frum therapist we saw offered insight and techniques that had carried us through our challenges. I hoped she could provide some tips on how I could make our home life calmer in the evening or some other intervention that would cheer up my husband and reduce the stress I imagined was weighing him down. After a half-hour in which Dovid complained I was pressuring him and there was no point in looking for a new job, we brought up my husband’s malaise. The therapist sent me out of the room for a bit. I sat in the waiting room, wondering what was going on. I heard their muffled voices but couldn’t distinguish any words. I came back in and we identified some ways to modify our evening routine, and then left.

DOVID: The therapist began by asking me about our schedule and where our routines were breaking down. The number of small incidents that made me irritable seemed frequent to the point that the therapist expressed her concern. She assessed my angry reactions in more detail, asking me how often I felt irritable throughout the day, at work and home, with the kids and without. Since we’d been talking about this issue for over two years, recalculated our routines, refined parenting strategies and I still continued to struggle, she mentioned something that has changed my life. “Have you considered medication?” the therapist asked. “Even a small dose can make a difference in a case like this, where you’re functioning but still having trouble overcoming the underlying anger.” “No,” I answered. “I hadn’t considered that.” It seemed hopeful that there would be a technical, medical solution to the feelings I’d fought for so long. The therapist recommended speaking first with my local general practitioner to figure out if he could help me or if I needed a psychiatrist or other specialist to diagnose me. Chaya came back in, but the conversation I’d had without her remained private.

CHAYA: I asked Dovid if he’d found the session helpful on the drive home. He said yes, and didn’t offer any further information. Later, he confided, “She suggested I might be suffering from low-grade depression and I should consult our family doctor, who might be able to help me himself or recommend a psychiatrist.” I felt relief wash over me. A protective urge replaced the frustration and anger that had nagged our marriage off and on for years. There was something wrong, something fixable. He would go to our family doctor and find a solution. Unfortunately I didn’t always feel so positive about the news. As the possible diagnosis settled in, I worried what medication might do to my husband, if he’d still be himself. I played the martyr card in my mind, as if his sickness had anything to do with me. I wondered how I’d missed the signs. I insisted he see the head of the practice, who’s particularly sensitive, skilled and knowledgeable.

DOVID: I was looking forward to meeting the doctor, anticipating relief. The doctor was overbooked so it took four weeks until the appointment. I explained right away that my therapist had advised me to seek possible treatment for mild depression. He appreciated that a therapist had sent me and proceeded to ask me many questions about my sleeping and eating habits, irritability, difficulty concentrating, shalom bayis, motivation. He asked if I was suicidal (baruch Hashem, I wasn’t). He asked me if I had fun or enjoyed any aspect of my life (The answer, unfortunately, was no.) While he explained he wasn’t the type of doctor to push medication, he felt a low dose might help in my situation, along with a regimen of vitamins. He prescribed 2,000 milligrams of omega-3 and 5,000 units of vitamin D3, along with 50 milligrams of the antidepressant Zoloft. I had to start with 25 milligrams of Zoloft for a week, to slowly get my system used to the drug, before taking the full 50-milligram dose. He also recommended I make sure to exercise every day. He told me to check back in a month to see how I was doing.

CHAYA: Within two weeks, my husband’s edge lessened. He wasn’t suddenly tap-dancing down the avenue, but there was a spring in his step again. He was cheerful, helped the kids with their homework and led the Shabbos table like a mentch. He didn’t become a night owl, but he could stay up until 10 or eleven without a long evening nap. He made himself more emotionally available—complimenting me on supper and thanking me for the hard work I put in at my job.

DOVID: I’m much less grumpy and enjoy spending time with the kids, and Chaya, much more. I don’t view every mess or minor infraction as an emergency. I can horseplay with my sons, giving Chaya a break every so often without complaining. I can concentrate better at my job. I’ve slept through the night for the first time in years. The dose of Zoloft, in combination with vitamins and exercise, has been enough so far to lift me out of my angry funk. Obviously, I’m being monitored by the therapist and the doctor, so if the need for medication disappears or if I fall deeper into depression, I will check with my providers for the appropriate course of action. The doctor cautioned that Zoloft isn’t a happy pill, to be taken by anyone. Consulting with a psychiatrist can be imperative in many cases, since Zoloft and other mood drugs can have extreme side effects.

CHAYA: It’s been four months since my husband began his medication regimen, and things continue to improve. It helps to have the support of the therapist as I process the pain and hurt Dovid’s temper caused. The number of years we spent unhappy, complaining, questioning our marriage is a shame when there was a solution in sight. But we didn’t recognize his anger, exhaustion and low energy was something more than lack of sleep. I’d feared the diagnosis would send Dovid into a tailspin, but on the contrary, this small, monitored dose of Zoloft, vitamins and exercise feels like the blessing our family needed to survive.

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