(THE BOOK) Chapter 25: The depressed

For the anxious, constipation is a problem.  For the depressed, it’s a lifestyle.

Usually it starts unconsciously and in self-defense.  All my depressed clients grew up in dangerous families where it was unsafe to be themselves.  (See Chapter 14.)  Kids in such families have little choice but to self-constipate. 

Ever been physically constipated?  Remember how, the longer it lasted, the more distracted and uncomfortable you felt?  How eventually the internal pressure and tension came to sap your energy and occupy all your attention?

That’s just what happens to the depressed.  It’s no accident that people in recovery use excretory metaphors (my shit’s coming up, can’t get my shit together) to describe emotional processes.  Feelings are a kind of waste material, the emotional byproducts of experience, just as feces are 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.

Humans either express themselves or depress themselves.

The best book I know on all this is Alexander Lowen’s Depression and the Body, which explains depression as a physical symptom, an exhaustion that comes from fighting oneself by suppressing feelings that need to come out.  Lowen writes,

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.

For control addicts – who experience life itself as one long litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts — some depression is inevitable.  And since everyone is addicted to control, it is not surprising that depression is called 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.  I’m 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 bad about feeling bad.  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.

I felt bad through high school, college, and into adulthood.  Through courtship, marriage and fatherhood.  Through college, graduate school and into professional life. 

Along the way I got some therapy, and some medication, and read lots of books.  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 that might cast some light on what had become my life’s central question: How do you feel good about life? 

It was only after I began to work as a therapist that I found an answer.

Doing therapy with control addicts taught me that I hadn’t gotten depressed because dad drank, or mom was unhappy, or because they fought or 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.

We express ourselves, or we depress ourselves.

 

 

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6 responses to “(THE BOOK) Chapter 25: The depressed

  • PD

    That was amazing Steve. Hit home in every way.

  • Al

    You have just told my life story too….and the ‘didn’t’ react bit is definitely the crucial bit for me.
    So my work now is focused on identifying my denying strategies 🙈 or monkeytraps, removing them as best I can by knowing about them and then, maybe, with practice in a safe place, learn to express my feelings..
    Ali 😊

  • Lisa Marie

    This just may be my new favorite post/chapter. I always like it when an author/therapist shares their personal history in explaining a concept because it seems to be more legitimate. By more legitimate, I mean it’s like my childless friends who give child-rearing advice. I tend to pay more attention and believe you know what you are talking about if you’ve had the experience. Keep up the good work.

  • alexis

    Great post, Steve! I have to underscore the example you set: like a terrier with a rat, you committed yourself to finding out how to be happy, how to claim your life, and it is clear that you have had [at least] some success. That is the kind of commitment it takes and too many are hesitant/resigned about/afraid to embark on such a journey, without a guaranteed outcome. I think it is the most worthwhile endeavor a person can make: I hope you address the pitfall of refraining-to-commit in [a] future post[s], as, it seems, many of us need encouragement.

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