Therapists, Steve tells me, see depression as the “common cold” of mental illness.
I’ve had my cold for six decades.
I caught it in grade school. Nobody called it depression then. This was the fifties. Not sure if back then anyone even knew that kids got depressed.
All I knew was I always felt sad, shy, nervous, worried. Different. Inadequate. Flawed.
I preferred being alone. Preferred books to people. Preferred tv to real life.
“Moody,” mom called me. “Difficult” was dad’s diagnosis.
I also felt guilty about feeling crappy. It 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. I just didn’t know how.
Steve wants to add something.
Self-blame is common among depressed people, who often see their mood disorder not as an illness but as some sort of weakness or failure.
It’s the worst part of depression. Hard enough feeling bad all the time. Feeling guilty for feeling bad adds insult to injury.
I felt bad through high school, college, and well into adulthood. Through courtship, marriage and fatherhood. Through college, graduate school and starting a professional life.
Along the way I got some therapy, and some medication, and read lots of books. I mean lots of books. The idea of happiness, always mysterious to me, became a preoccupation, then a challenge, then a sort of quest.
I read everything I could lay my hands on that might cast some light on what had become my life’s central question: How do you feel good about life?
But it was only after Steve began to work as a therapist that I found an answer.
It was his work with depressed clients that taught me I didn’t get depressed because dad drank, mom was unhappy, or they divorced when I was eight. It wasn’t because I never had as much money as I wanted, or the body I wanted, or wrote the book I always wanted to write. Or because of anything that had happened to me.
I was depressed because of how I reacted to what happened.
Or, rather, didn’t react.
The best book I know on the subject is Alexander Lowen’s Depression and the Body. Lowen explains that depression is a physical symptom — an exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself by suppressing feelings that need and want to come out.
Depression, in short, is caused by emotional constipation.
Ever been physically constipated? Notice how, the longer it lasted, the more uncomfortable you felt? How the internal pressure and tension came to occupy all your energy, all your attention?
Suppressed feelings affect us in 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. 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 must be expressed — not hidden or stored up.
When they aren’t, we get sick, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
The self is experienced through self-expression, 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 was no option. Dad’s drinking and mom’s depression made that impossible. Neither of them could handle their own feelings; how could I expect them to cope with mine?
So like all kids, I adapted to my parents. I learned to avoid disappointment, conflict and rejection — to control their reactions to me — by burying what I felt.
I moved out of my body and took up residence in my head. I developed a personality organized around this way of coping.
Now I’m a sixty-two-year-old monkey, and still organized that way.
Yes, despite everything I learned from Steve and his clients, my Plan A isn’t easy to leave behind. Stuffing feelings is still my first impulse, especially under stress. I still find it scary to give up overcontrolling myself and others, to surrender to feelings, to be myself without fear. I probably always will.
But I rarely feel crappy in the old way anymore. Because now I know I have a choice.
I can express myself or I can depress myself.
Or, put another way:
I can fight myself and keep losing. Or I can make room for feelings in my life and relationships.
And, at least some of the time, escape the common cold.
* * *
Feeling down from time to time is a normal part of life.
But when emptiness and despair take hold and won’t go away, it may be depression.
The lows of depression make it tough to function and enjoy life like you once did. Just getting through the day can be overwhelming.
No matter hopeless you feel, you can get better. But first, you need to understand depression.
~ From Understanding depression: Signs, symptoms, causes and help at HelpGuide.org.
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