That’s Bert at left, looking depressed.
Steve says depression is called the “common cold” of mental illness.
Interesting way to view it.
I’ve had my cold for almost sixty years.
It started when I was in grade school. Nobody called it depression, of course. This was the fifties. I’m not sure if back then anyone even knew kids got depressed.
All I knew was I felt crappy: sad, shy, nervous, worried. Different. Flawed. Preferred being alone. Preferred books to people. Preferred tv to real life.
“Moody,” mom called it. “Difficult” was dad’s diagnosis.
I also remember feeling guilty about feeling crappy. Must be my fault, I thought. Teachers were always writing on my report cards could do better if he’d try. So I decided feeling crappy meant I was somehow doing Life wrong, that I’d feel better if I just tried harder. Only I didn’t know how.
Steve wants to add something.
Self-blame is pretty common. The depressed people I know tend to see their mood disorder not as illness but some sort of personal weakness or failure. I’ve always thought this is the worst part of depression. It’s hard enough to feel bad all the time. Blaming yourself for feeling bad just adds insult to injury.
I felt lousy through adolescence and into adulthood. I got some therapy and some medication along the way. (And read lots of books. I mean, lots of books.) But it was only in middle age, after Steve began to work as a therapist, that I came to understand why I felt like this.
It was Steve’s work with clients that taught me I didn’t get depressed because dad drank, or mom was unhappy, or they divorced when I was in second grade. Or because of anything, really, that happened to me.
I got depressed because of how I reacted to what happened.
Or rather, how I didn’t react.
Steve, you explain.
The best book I know on the subject is Depression and the Body by Alexander Lowen. It taught me to see depression as a physical symptom — a form of exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself, by holding in feelings that want and need to come out.
Put differently: depression is caused by emotional constipation.
Ever been physically constipated? Did you notice how, the longer it lasted, the more uncomfortable you felt? How it came to occupy all your energy and attention?
Held-in feelings affect us the same way.
It’s no accident that people in recovery use excretory metaphors (“my shit’s coming up,” “get my shit together,” “acts like his shit doesn’t stink”) to describe emotional processes. For feelings are a kind of waste material, the emotional byproducts of experience, just as feces are the physical byproducts of what we eat. And just as physical waste must be expelled from the body, feelings are meant to be expressed — not hidden or stored up.
And when they aren’t, we get sick: emotionally, physically and spiritually.
“The self is experienced through self-expression,” Lowen writes, “and the self fades when the avenues of self-expression are closed….
“The depressed person is imprisoned by unconscious barriers of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts,’ which isolate him, limit him, and eventually crush his spirit.”
In my family self-expression wasn’t an option. Dad’s drinking and mom’s depression made that impossible. Neither of them knew how to deal with their own feelings; how could I expect them to cope with mine?
So like all kids, I adapted to my parents. I learned to control their reactions to me — avoid rejection, conflict, disappointment — by hiding or burying what I felt. I moved out of my body, took up residence in my head, and developed a personality organized around this way of coping.
I’m a sixty-one-year-old monkey now, and still organized that way.
Yes, despite all that Steve and I learned together, Plan A isn’t easy to leave behind. So stuffing feelings is still my first impulse, especially under stress. I still find it scary to surrender to feelings, to give up overcontrolling myself and others. I probably always will.
But I rarely feel lousy in the old way anymore.
Why? Because now I know I have a choice.
I can express myself, or I can depress myself.
Or, put another way:
I can fight against feelings and keep losing. Or I can practice surrender and, at least some of the time, rise above the common cold.
Check out this interview with Alexander Lowen (subtitled in Spanish) in which he outlines his ideas about the body, feeling, movement, basic principles of Bioenergetic therapy, culture, insanity, health, breathing and connection. Compiled from fragments posted on the Lowen Foundation web site.
Read “What is depression (and what is it not)?” at the interesting Wing of Madness web site .
Finally, an article by Deborah Gray about “Identifying non-traditional depressive symptoms” at MyDepressionConnection.com.