Once I was waiting for a train on a subway platform in Manhattan. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the rush-hour crowds had not yet arrived. A few yards away, there was an older couple with a young boy - clearly the grandson, and something about them seemed very wrong. The man was tense and kept eyeing the boy with suspicion. The boy, who seemed to be examining the gritty concrete floor, suddenly turned and made a little lunge, as if he were trying to run off.
The grand-dad, waiting for just such a move, grabbed his collar, yanked him back and yelled at him to do what he was told and stay right there. The boy didn’t stand still but, keeping his eyes down, made small moves, as if he were ready to spring - clearly playing a game with his angry elder. The grand-dad stared at him, waiting for a defiant move, ready to explode all over again. His wife stood by, just watching. Then a train came, and they were gone.
That was a snapshot I couldn’t get out of my mind. The man was playing out exactly the drama of control that I had been through with my kids over and over again. This had happened especially during one period when I had no sense at all that I might be affected by depression or any mood disorder. It was a time of denial, and only in retrospect some years later could I get a clearer picture of what had been happening. I knew there was something wrong, but even though I’d had a long history of dealing with depression, I had no thought that it might be coming back.
Most commonly at that time, I felt instinctively the need to control whatever the people close to me were doing - both at home and at work. I couldn’t have explained what I was after or what exactly I needed to keep in check. But almost anything might strike me as wrong, and I’d have to fix it. It was easy to find things to cast a net over in our house with three young boys bursting with energy.
I’d come home and in a few minutes start raging around the house. I’d be furious, seeing only what I wanted to see - everything shabby, a mess, toys strewn everywhere, furniture shoved about, the kids running all over, fighting, their rooms in shambles and me storming after them. Stop it, put all this away, don’t ever touch that, can’t you ever be careful!
I’d feel twisted inside, as if caught in a tornado. I couldn’t believe what I was doing. No, this can’t be me, what am I yelling for? But I couldn’t stop until I had worn myself out putting everything in the house back where I thought it should be. Then, I’d settle down and see my wife at her wit’s end, hardly able to get her own anger into words.
Other times, though, I’d feel fine, come home from work and enjoy the boys playing their ingenious games, inventing roles to act out, squabbling over whose turn it was to play with this or that toy, figuring out trades that seemed fair. They’d want me to play too, and I’d feel a sudden impact from behind and a tug on my shoulders, as one of them leapt onto my back. They were being the boys they were, not the obedient robots I wanted them to be when I was in a rage.
I came to see that the fury and demand for control was all about seeing my own hurt, shame and depression all around me. My home and family felt like an extension of me, and I was afraid that any disorder there would show the world how worthless I was. I was gripped with fear and shame and saw my messed-up self reflected in scattered chairs and wrestling kids. The place looked shabby because I felt shabby and needed to restore it to the order and suppression I capped my own feelings with.
I could never see the paradox in all this. While I was compelled to lock down intense feelings for fear of unleashing a dangerous force, I regularly lost control to a rage that might have come from the very monster I was trying to keep hidden. I suppose when all intense emotion is kept out of sight, it feels more powerful, more dangerous, more explosive under the pressure of control.
The need to impose my will on the people and things around me also went on at work, though in a different way. Anger and rage were kept hidden, but I couldn’t leave anything alone - every project in that office had to have my stamp on it. Even if someone else had a better idea and a unique talent for putting it into practice, it didn’t seem right until I had corrected a part of it that didn’t need correcting. Or I might simply do the whole thing over. I needed the help of colleagues but couldn’t allow them to work without interference. It was demoralizing for everyone.
When that drive to control everything finally lessened, I fell into an extended depression that had probably been there all along. At least, I couldn’t deny any longer that I needed help and so began treatment once again.
Have you ever felt this exaggerated need for control - or had to live with someone full of denial and rage about an underlying depression? It’s one of the most painful experiences my family and I have been through, and I count myself lucky that it stopped before breaking our lives apart completely.
Published On: February 28, 2010