Depression and relationships

Every young adult we interviewed said depression had significantly altered their relationships with other people. For many, the state of these relationships served as an important way to gauge the power depression had over their lives, and their own ability to cope with it.

This part of the website explores the impact that depression had on peoples’ relationships with family members, friends, and intimate partners. See ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’ for an exploration of strategies people used to strengthen their relationships, both old and new.

Relationships as a gauge for the impact of depression

Many people we interviewed said depression made their interactions with other people more difficult. Pete warned that when depressed, encounters with almost anyone – strangers, family, friends – just “leave you irritable.” To avoid being subject to the opinions of other people, James recommended that “if you’re depressed you should just treat yourself and take yourself out; when you’re depressed you don’t want anybody to judge you”. Often, social connections suffered and turned into social isolation because when depressed, young adults felt unworthy of other people’s attention; so misunderstood that relationships seemed meaningless; or unable to muster the energy to interact.

Because he felt unworthy, it was hard for Brendan to trust the relationships that he had created.
Interview Transcript

My depression and my anxiety would, you know, affect me in the ways of like, I would be convinced that, sometimes like – even against all logic – that, you know, my friends secretly hated me, and that they were just, you know, tolerating me. Because, you know, I have low self, self-worth, therefore I can’t understand why people would like me, therefore they must not really like me.

DEP Brendan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Brendan has three jobs and is a fulltime college student and musician. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. Ethnic background is White.

Click here to view Brendan's profile page
Whitney felt that her parents never really understood how depression altered her life.
Interview Transcript

It’s affecting me a lot. Like now, pretty much, my mom doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. My dad hates me. They don’t understand me. They don’t understand why I am the way I am. I think they’ve, still have to accept that it’s something I struggle with every day, and they’re not really knowledgeable on the whole fact of what depression can actually do and how severe it can get.

DEP Whitney
Profile Info
Age at interview: 29
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 9

Background: Whitney is unemployed and is staying with her father who has custody of her 9-year old daughter. She is White.

Click here to view Whitney's profile page
Depression holds Sierra Rose back from all sorts of relationships.
Interview Transcript

It feels like there’s this shadow, or this chain, holding me back saying, “No you can’t, you can’t go have fun with your friends, you can’t have friends. I’m not going to let you get off the couch this week. Oh you’re home alone? Well it looks like you’re staying here for the rest of the day.”

DEP Sierra Rose
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Sierra Rose lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, another roommate, and three beloved cats. She spent a week in the hospital shortly before her interview, and was continuing with out-patient care but struggling to pay for some of it. She is Italian and Jewish.

Click here to view Sierra Rose's profile page

People described relationships that survived the tensions produced by depression as vital sources of continued support. Brendan noted “My depression was so hard for me to manage. I leaned very heavily on my friends.” Strong relationships also proved to those with depression that they were still relied upon and valued. As Teddy put it: “I need my friends and family to know that I’m there to support them and they’re there to support me when I need it most.”

“Unbreakable” bonds with family

Being on good terms with family was very important for many of the people we talked to. For some, feeling at peace with relatives provided a tranquil center in the midst of other turbulent relationships. Sam and Colin both described feeling “huge relief” when stresses with parents could be set right. Family was also seen by some as offering secure protection against depression – a source of unconditional support, whatever the future would bring.

Sara's grandmother was a vital source of support, even though she didn't really understand how Sara's depression felt.
Interview Transcript

My grandmother was, and she encouraged me a lot to go get help. She didn’t think, she’s like old, really – not, really old – but, she’s not used to seeing a therapist and go do this, and she didn’t bring her kids to do all that kind of stuff. She was new to it, but she listened to what I had to say. She didn’t understand what I was going through, but she was there to support me. And that was, that was a big help. My grandmother was a really big help with all of my depression, especially my postpartum depression with my daughter. She was, without her I don’t know where I would be.

DEP Sara
Profile Info
Age at interview: 26
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 12

Background: Sara is the mother of a young daughter and was pregnant at the time of her interview. She has been living with her daughter and fiancé in various places, none of them permanent. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Sara's profile page
Depression fractured some family ties for Mara, but others survived.
Interview Transcript

So it put a huge strain on my relationship with my mom, which is, totally regrettable, but in a lot of ways I think it was sort of my relationship with her that led to, to a lot of the feelings that, sort of fed into my, my depressive personality and my self-injury. And then on, on the other hand, my dad has always been like, my number one advocate so, it was really nice just having a lot of support from him and just having support from him as somebody who was willing to say, “I have no idea what, where this is coming from, I have no background in this, I can’t comprehend it, but I really want to be here to support you through whatever you’re going through.” So that was invaluable to me.

DEP Mara
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 14

Background: Mara is a student at a large university. She lives in a dorm room on campus. She is Vietnamese and White.

Click here to view Mara's profile page

However, family was not reliably present or available for many people we interviewed. In some cases, the family itself had unraveled, making family relationships feel unreliable or unsafe (see ‘Depression and feeling different at a young age‘). In other cases family bonds that had once been strong disintegrated: as Teddy noted, sometimes “family can leave you as well as friends”.

People described several ways depression further challenged family ties. Some people chose to hide their suffering from parents and other family members so that they would not worry, and ended up feeling distant as a result. As Tia put it, when her depression was at its worst she “didn’t want to share that feeling… with my family because of I didn’t want them to worry, but my friends I kind of told them.”

For Jason, being close to his family helped buffer his depression, but also magnified his suffering when he could not be more open with them.
Interview Transcript

I think one of the reasons why I’ve never felt suicidal, for example, and like, I know people who’ve been unfortunate to feel those ways. I think, I’m very close with my family, so I feel like, the hurt that I think it’s going to cause them, you know, has basically precluded this possibility, at least for me. But I think on the, on the negative side, I think not being able to share with them, I mean, first of all, you’re always hiding something, right? And I think they don’t understand you enough. So, let’s say when I, I’m sorry remember, I remember I told you that I, at the end of last year was when I was very depressed and, I went back home. So, when I, say, quarreled with my parents, you know, I think a lot of it was just because I was still, you know, depressed and in a bad state. But then, I can’t be telling them, you know, “Leave me alone.” Like, you know, “You’re really, making me really, you know, like, we, you know, whatever you say, whatever it’s like causing me a lot of distress. Not because I’m, you know, angtsy and I’m being unreasonable. But, you know, I think it’s because I’m depressed, right?” And it’s, you know, it’s hard when you can’t tell them. Well I should, for me, I choose not to tell them and you know, you suffer as well.

DEP Jason
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Jason is from a large city in Asia, but is living in the U.S. while he completes his college education. He lives in a dormitory room and plans to return to his country of origin after graduation.

Click here to view Jason's profile page

Many people described a need to “distance” themselves from others when they felt most depressed. As Kate put it “I tend to push people away in different manners so that when I actually reach the low point of my cycle, I can just do it alone.” But since teenagers have little capacity to put distance between themselves and others living in the family home, conflict often resulted.

Tensions from depression during Violet's teen years had strained some and torn other family bonds.
Interview Transcript

My depression has affected my relationships with other members of my family, for sure. My, specifically, my mother and my sister. Because there are periods of time, especially in high school when I was using drugs, that my mood swings were all over the place, it was very unpredictable and I’m pretty sure I was actually probably nasty. I was just very, I was just angry, I was mean. I, couldn’t see anyone else’s point of view, I was probably very selfish. So I’m sure that my depression and mental instability contributed to that and I’m sure that them, not knowing really what was going on, you know, I’m sure they blame me for that. You know, our relationship has severely deteriorated over the years. My sister and I don’t speak what-so-ever anymore.

My mom and I still do speak, but I think there’s a lot of grudge there. You know, I don’t know if we’ll ever truly forgive each other for things that were said, you know? And, I do think that that boils down to the fact that, I was miserable and I wasn’t getting help and I didn’t really know what was going on.

DEP Violet
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Violet's profile page
Elizabeth found that her adolescent depression caused lasting damage to her family ties.
Interview Transcript

The depression had an unbelievably deep and strong impact on every single relationship in my life. My relationship with my mother at the time was awful, embarrassing, terrible. We would scream at each other constantly, she would say black, I’d say white, it was one of those relationships. And she was going through some of her own issues at the time, she was going through menopause at the time, too, so I was dealing with some hormonal issues and so was she, so we didn’t get along that great. Yeah, it was actually, really terrible.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

Click here to view Elizabeth's profile page

Some people described family relationships strained by constant worry, uncertainty and emotional instability. In Pete’s words: “I’ve been getting the sense that my family are kind of tired of [my depression]”. People also described how the passage of time and increased maturity could heal or begin to heal these ruptures.

A new generation helped restore Pete's family connections and self-esteem.
Interview Transcript

Well with my nephew and niece, specifically, the love that they have for me is unconditional and it’s shown every time I see them. How much I’m needed by them, how much they love me, how much they want me to be around them. How they get when I’m leaving; they get upset. Like, being around them and being known that I’m so important to them, makes me feel better about myself. It makes me feel like I’m not as bad a person as I think.

DEP Pete
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Pete lives with his mother and cat in an apartment in a large city. He is Hispanic. He has worked various jobs in the past and is looking for work.

Click here to view Pete's profile page
For Colin, depression eroded even the most loving family relationships, but over time they began to recover.
Interview Transcript

With my mother, our relationship became very, we used to have a good relationship, and being home and her being worried about me made it a lot rockier. She was very worried about me all the time and would just … We couldn’t have any normal conversations anymore, like we used to, it would all be, like. That’s another thing I have described in therapy, like, with my mom, she would ask like, how I’m doing, and like, “Are you ok?” But every time I’d try to give a legitimate answer, she would just change the subject, like she didn’t want to hear it, she was, just … If I told her I was feeling, how bad I was feeling, I think I remember one time I specifically told her how depressed I actually was. After that, instead of asking me more often, she actually just stopped asking how I was, I think she was scared. Our relationship became really, really weakened by it, actually. It’s a lot better now though.

DEP Colin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Colin works at the college he attends and lives with a roommate. He takes medications and sees a therapist. He is White.

Click here to view Colin's profile page

Friendships and peers

Friends are an easier source of support and understanding than family for many people. Long-time friendships can mimic the reliability of family relationships in a helpful way. Megan, for example, talked about two long-time friends who were “always there to talk to me and always supported me” as reliably as any family.

A number of people described wishing for friends whose lives seemed happier, more stable and more “on track” than their own. As Jeremy put it, “I like being around happy people; their energy is always appreciated.” (See ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’). But these types of friendships often felt hard to manage while dealing with depression. Sophie says she had friends who didn’t know how to react to her depression, “…and they would distance themselves and I would be kind of confused and sometimes that made it worse of course because they wouldn’t talk to me anymore and it’s because I didn’t know how to deal with either so I don’t blame them but it was hard.”

As she grew older, Whitney found it harder to hide the ways in which her depression had delayed her from getting what her friends had already achieved.
Interview Transcript

I still don’t have a lot of friends, like I cut everybody out … And, you know, and I’m so far behind a lot people, it’s embarrassing to go out with people … because I don’t have the money. I don’t have a house, I don’t, not always able to afford things. So it’s hard for me, I mean, I feel like everybody just looks down on me, so I just stay home, and hide away. And there’s a lot of my friends who actually have been pretty accepting of my issues.

DEP Whitney
Profile Info
Age at interview: 29
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 9

Background: Whitney is unemployed and is staying with her father who has custody of her 9-year old daughter. She is White.

Click here to view Whitney's profile page
Elizabeth worried about losing her friends if she revealed her depression.
Interview Transcript

Many of my friends at the time didn’t have a clear grasp on what I was going through, they definitely knew that something was not quite right, but I never really talked about it or opened up about it, because I was embarrassed and thought I’d lose them as friends, so, I didn’t really speak about it much.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

Click here to view Elizabeth's profile page
When Jackson went public with his depression, friends pressured him to take medication.
Interview Transcript

Like, “Oh that’s too bad. OK, now this is becoming awkward. OK now, you need to go on medication, because it’s making me uncomfortable.” And, and so, like, one of my best friends in college — we’re not friends anymore – but, like she, like often pressured me to get on medication, because I made, it made her uncomfortable, for me to be sad in front of her. Not projecting, but, sad in front of her. And I understand that’s really hard. It’s really hard to be around someone that, you’re not sure how to help …

DEP Jackson
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 14

Background: Jackson works in customer service and lives in a rented house with a roommate and a cat. Ethnic background is Fijian Indian.

Click here to view Jackson's profile page

In the face of these challenges, some young people with depression sought out friends with whom they felt more in common — people whose own lives were in a “lull” or who, in Nadina’s words “have similar feelings like I do, like feelings of inadequacy and feeling like they’re never good enough.” These friends required less pretense, and seemed more trustworthy because they had shared struggles. But such friendships carried their own challenges, since they also proved more unstable.

Maya's most trusted friends were those who shared her struggle with mental illness.
Interview Transcript

I sort of hung out with the, sort of like, the free-thinker, misfit, creative types. There’s actually just like a dorm that’s just like all of those kids, so you just take all like musicians and the drama kids and the gay kids and we’re just like one dorm [laughter]. And I hung out with mostly kids that had lived in that dorm. So, I want to say that mental health issues are, almost a given, with almost everybody I know. The severity and the variety is very different. A lot of people just have – I don’t want to say “just have,” because it can be debilitating – but a lot of people have, more typical things, just like OCD, but it doesn’t seriously impair their function, you know, they’re just kind of quirky. Other people have had very serious psychotic breaks, that have seriously impaired their lives. I have many friends who have been hospitalized for mental health reasons many times. So, I don’t imagine that anyone didn’t know that I had depression, it’s just something that all of us dealt with. In fact, I’ve had conversations with people that are like, “You know? I don’t really trust anyone who’s never really been through really dark periods.”

DEP Maya
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

Click here to view Maya's profile page
Kate befriends people with depression, but finds these relationships somewhat fragile.
Interview Transcript

A lot of the people that I live with also have the same illness, and the people that I’m friends with have the same illness. So, I am also dealing with them trying to push me away, as, as I’m doing my own pushing other people away, as well. And it’s hard to, sometimes even take into account, “Okay this person is struggling in a very similar way that I am, I gotta give them a break.” And it’s hard for others to give me a break, because I am so consistently, you know, positive and supportive and all that. And then when I’m not, it’s kind of a shock. And it’s frustrating or, or exhausting to feel responsible in that way. To, to have to consistently be that way, because I’m not a lot of the time.

DEP Kate
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 12

Background: Kate is an actress who works in an art gallery. She lives in an apartment with a roommate and a cat. She is white.

Click here to view Kate's profile page

Intimate partnerships and self-understanding

People described their relationships with primary partners as sharing some features of friendships, and some of family. However, the stakes are often higher. On the upside, intimate partners can be the mirrors through which young people more clearly see themselves and their mental health. On the downside, the ending of romantic relationships can feel traumatic; many of the people we talked to described how these endings triggered or deepened their depression.

Intimate relationships are characterized, at least in part, by close proximity. But such closeness poses challenges when depression dramatically alters moods. As Kate noted, “When I am in a relationship, I might not be consistently talking to them or I might not be consistent in the way that I approach them …. There’s a lot of patience I need from them.” The need for patience extends to sexual intimacy too, because those suffering from depression may be “the type of person that can switch from normal and everything’s great and then all of a sudden you have no desire what so-ever.” Several people talked about how their mood swings made it crucial to tell partners about depression so as to avoid misunderstandings and tensions so deep that they threatened the relationship.

Elizabeth says the relationship she had when most depressed suffered greatly because at the time she could not talk about her depression.
Interview Transcript

A, a, big factor in that relationship ending was, the fact that I was so depressed and I couldn’t talk about it at all. And I remember one day, going to his house and laying on the bed and I was just sobbing, uncontrollably crying, and I remember him rubbing my back and like, begging me to tell him what was wrong, and I just couldn’t talk. And you don’t get too far in life when you don’t talk about things, so that was difficult because I felt like it was my fault, like I ruined the relationship, like I pushed him away.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

Click here to view Elizabeth's profile page
Sally did eventually tell her partner about her depression and the relationship survived, but she wished she had told him sooner.
Interview Transcript

I remember when me and my boyfriend first started dating. God, it was a long time ago, it was like 4 years ago now. I was like feeling … I had just finished college and everything was like so great. You know, college was so crazy-busy and I was always doing something every day, every hour like, was so busy and then I graduated and I had a line up for a job, but I didn’t start for like another month. So I just went from like, super busy to absolutely nothing. And I got so depressed, just like, didn’t want to do anything, just stayed in the house all day and like I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t have any money, and like, I lost like interest in sexual activity and I didn’t want really, I wanted him around but I didn’t really know what to say, and I was just very distant. And he like got to the point of almost like leaving me because he had no idea why I was like, all of a sudden so distant and like, changed my attitude toward him and he said like, what did he … I can’t remember what like the wording he said, it was something about like, like where, like, “You’re a different person now. Like what happened, what did I do?” Stuff like that. Like, I remember like, we would, you know, like, have sex and stuff, and I would just be, there, but not really there. It was kind of just very, bland and, I was kind of just like dead, with like no emotion, at all, and like, he would, he’d notice, obviously, it’s not something that, you know, you just see someone and they’re normally one way and then all of a sudden like, like, snap your fingers and they’re completely opposite but … So we got into a lot of issues about that, at the time, and, and so like he almost left. So like, that would have been horrible, because now four years later we’re like, living together. But yeah, that’s, so like talking about the symptoms and like things that could happen … probably, better to do beforehand rather than have it come up.

And he didn’t, know about your depression at all before that?

No, it was too new. You know? It was like, way too personal of a thing to tell someone, like we were dating for, I don’t know, I guess like 2 or 3 months. So it was like, yeah, we saw each other most, you know, a few days a week, or if he would spend the night and stuff, but it was very like, new. So it’s not something you, you don’t want to like, air your – I don’t know, don’t want to say “dirty laundry” – but like, you know, the negative things about yourself to someone you’re trying to impress. So, you know? Proceed with caution, I guess. Kind of, tread lightly with that kind of stuff. But yeah … That’s kind of where it came from, I guess.

Yeah. So if you were advising someone else, you’d say – on the one hand – be a little cautious, but don’t let it go too far before you’d tell somebody you were close to?

Yeah, at least, like, give them some hint or, some, I don’t know, anything, say anything about it. But, don’t just leave it in the air, or just act like you’re perfect. Because no one’s perfect and like, you know, this, you know, if you have diabetes you wouldn’t be embarrassed about it, but, you know, everyone, is a more of a stigma with depression but, you know, you definitely have to say something if you’re the type of person that can switch from being normal and everything’s great, to all of a sudden having no desire, what so-ever.

DEP Sally
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sally lives with her boyfriend, dog and cat in an apartment in a suburb. She is in graduate school part time and works as a researcher. She is Middle Eastern/Egyptian.

Click here to view Sally's profile page

People with partners who also experience depression or other kinds of mental illness had a variety of experiences with these relationships. On the one hand, partners with mental illness could be most understanding and helpful in dealing with depression’s debilitating symptoms. Sara, for example, described how her partner who also struggles with depression “understands when I just want to cry. He understands I don’t want to talk about it; I can just cry”. On the other hand, people described how relationships with depressed partners could exacerbate depressive symptoms, trapping both partners in a cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that for some felt “extremely toxic”. As Julia put it, having a depressed boyfriend put her “… in the role of caretaker or caregiver. You know like I had to give him everything and he wasn’t in a place where he could give me anything. And, once again, like that distracted me from dealing with my stuff.”

A partner who also struggled with emotional problems offered Leanna a source of understanding, support, and insight.
Interview Transcript

I told him about that shortly, like, before we got engaged. I just let him know like, I have these mood swings, I have these, you know, certain things about me that, if you’re going, you know, we’re going to be married, we’re going to live together, you’re going to need to know, because we’re probably going to have some problems here and there we’re going to have to work through … and, and he understands. He’s a, he actually has PTSD too, but from, from Afghanistan, so, it’s a different, it’s a whole different … We actually help each other, in a weird way, you would think that wouldn’t work out, it would be like, too, like butting heads and stuff, but we actually find a way to like help each other out with it and work through it together because we can tell when we’re triggering each other and like that’s when we just, leave each other alone, let it cool down and stuff and, work through it together.

DEP Leanna
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Leanna lives with her husband and many pets in an apartment complex in a suburb outside a large town in a rural area. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Leanna's profile page
Having a partner struggling with mental health issues worsened Sam's negativity about himself.
Interview Transcript

I was dating this girl who was extremely, visibly, broken from the abusive environment in which she was raised. So, I would think to myself, “Yes, of course, I do need to be there for her, six, seven hours a day, on Skype, because, like, otherwise, how is she going to function in the world?” Which stemmed from another way co-dependency manifests itself, which is the sense of, “I need to give and give and give and give and give, because that is what my value in the world is.” But it was also, in a way, very controlling. The sense of, like, “I am the one who will take care of this person. It is on me, no one else can do it.” Which leads to a lot of stress, because that is not a stable way to have a relationship. It leads to feelings of anger and resentment that, you are being taken advantage of even if you put yourself in a situation in which you allow yourself to be taken advantage of. It leads to feelings of worry, because you have made another person’s problems your problems, but, ultimately, it’s on the other person to take care of their problems. And, if they are not doing it, there’s no way you can make them. And it can lead to this, all of those bad feelings and unhealthy ways of viewing oneself, can lead to this sense of feeling mired in depression, feeling like everything is hopeless, feeling like your best efforts are not good enough, feeling like you don’t have any value, feeling like you are worthless.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.

Click here to view Sam's profile page
Having a partner who was depressed was hard for Violet, but it also made her address how depression affected her own relationships with others.
Interview Transcript

It really was not good to have two people, that were struggling with very, of the same issues … very, you know, dark, depressing issues. It was not a good thing to have two people together that way. And once I made an effort that I didn’t want that in, for my life anymore, it became even more apparent, how dark and deep his own issues were. So, the contrast of that really pushed me forward, it pushed me into positivity, I could see from a more unbiased standpoint, his actions and I said, “I don’t want to be anything like that,” you know, I see now how I’ve been treating people. I see now how negative I’ve been, how much this does affect me, it does affect my happiness, it does affect my family members.

DEP Violet
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Violet's profile page

See also ‘Depression and feeling different when young’, ‘Depression and strategies for everyday life’, ‘How depression feels’, and ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’.

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