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Stuck In An On-again, Off-again Relationship For 10 Years

Question:

I just got out of an on and off relationship of ten years. I’m 26 years old and very frustrated. Every time we break up, 2 or 3 months pass by and he comes back. Of course, I go back. It is very unhealthy for me because it makes me feel worthless. I know I am not ugly, I can actually say I’m attractive. I say this because there are lot of guys interested but I can’t seem to move on. That does not help my self-esteem though. When I am not with him, I tend to get very depressed and you might say suicidal. All I wasn’t to do is sleep so I won’t have to think about it. I take sleeping pills so I won’t have to feel this pain I’m going through. There’s been times that I’ve taken so many pills that I can’t feel my body anymore. How can I get over this, I’ve tried going to a therapist but it did not help me at all.

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Answer:

The mental picture I have based upon your letter is of a woman who is currently fairly dependent in orientation. By this I mean that your sense of self is not based upon how you judge your own actions, but rather on what other people (particular people to be sure) think of you. This is clear enough in how you regard yourself in terms of how other people view you (e.g., I have worth because I’m not ugly). This is not a freakish or weird way to be; many people’s sense of self is biased in this direction towards dependency on what other people think of them. The problem with this way of being is, however, that when you are dependent on how other people regard you for feelings of self-worth, your mood goes up and down like a yo yo every time someone looks at you funny. When your own moods are linked so strongly to how other people are regarding you, you are essentially at their mercy and not captain of your own ship. It would be bad enough if you were this way and weren’t aware of it, but you are aware of it, and that makes you feel even more pathetic and hopeless and stuck, which of course leads you to feel depressed. Your dependent motivation for becoming depressed is so common and normal that there’s even a name for it. Psychodynamic psychotherapists call it Anaclitic Depression, and distinguish it from other motivations for being depressed.

Your depressions are a serious problem and intolerable to such an extent that you are ambivalently suicidal and resorting to taking sleeping pills so that you don’t have to feel. The major problem here with this numbing strategy for coping is that sleeping pills can kill you. That may be the point, I understand, but I also hear that you are ambivalent about killing yourself. You’d prefer that your depression remit and your self-esteem raise up instead of having to kill yourself, I suspect. Lucky for you, depression is a treatable condition. It would be a shame if you killed yourself accidentally before you were able to experience this fact first hand.

You are playing with fire when you take sleeping pills, I think. Instead of playing chicken with the pill bottle, how about you go get some treatment for depression instead? You say you’ve been to a therapist, and it didn’t work, but what you might not know is that not all therapies are created equal. The best therapies for depression have specific names. Find a therapist who can offer you Cognitive Behavioral therapy, or Interpersonal Therapy for depression, and work with them for several months before you decide that therapy is worthless.

Apart from psychotherapy for depression, there is also medication for depression. Go see a doctor please (a psychiatrist would be best but any old doctor will do in a pinch) and tell that doctor about your depression, suicidal feelings and tendency to abuse sleeping pills. If you are really as depressed and suicidal as I think you are, you might benefit from antidepressant medication as a form of mood support and stabilization. You don’t need to choose between antidepressant medicine and psychotherapy, by the way. You can benefit from both at the same time.

You may feel that you are stuck in a never ending cycle of being at the mercy of your boyfriend and whomever else you have come to feel dependent upon, but I have this suspicion that you are only as stuck as you are willing to be ruled by fear. The typical anaclitically depressed person is fearful of being abandoned. The typical thing fearful people do is to try to avoid having to feel things that make them afraid. Maybe this explains why you are so willing to cave every time. You avoid having to feel afraid of being abandoned or worthless by caving, but then that makes you feel depressed. So maybe your problem is really, at root, a sort of anxiety disorder, rather than a pure depression. The way to beat anxiety disorders is well established, luckily. You need to stop avoiding feeling the fear long enough to realize in your gut that what you fear isn’t as bad as you think it is. A good therapist can help you work through your fears, and medications can make you less moody in the first place.

Passive, dependent people often can benefit from reading about assertiveness, and starting to understand that they have a right to set boundaries and to say no to requests. Passive people often feel they do not have a right to set limits. It feels selfish to them and they may feel that they don’t have a right to act selfishly. In fact, you do have that right, and a certain amount of selfishness and not caring about what other people think is good for a person who is passive to develop.

You’re very young and have time to mature out of this dependent place you’re living in. It will likely feel uncomfortable to challenge yourself to do this, and it may feel that you don’t have the right to do it, or can’t afford to take the risk of doing it, but in actuality, you can do it, you do have the right to do it and it is seemingly in your best interests to do it (because otherwise you’re so depressed that you are flirting with killing yourself). That’s no way to live! Go get some help for your depression and explore with a new therapist ways to break out of your shell.

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