Holding Back Feelings and Denying Depression
Once I was talking to a therapist about the trouble I had expressing my feelings, even to my wife. I had picked up one of the props he left lying about his office, just to have something to busy my hands with. It was an empty plastic one-gallon jug. Mindlessly, I turned it about as I spoke of my progress in becoming more open in talking to my wife about the feelings I was experiencing right in that moment, instead of after the fact. I was getting so much better about relaxing self-censorship, I reported.
"That’s good," he said, "but look at your hands." I looked down and saw my right hand tightly gripping the jug’s handle and my left firmly sealing off the open top. The well-worn metaphor was alive and well. Bottling up my feelings had become just that instinctive and unconscious, and my tense hands were directly contradicting what I was saying.
That habit was not only undermining my closest relationship, it had long kept me from recognizing the full extent of depression and trying to get help for recovery.
In the last post, I talked about growing up, like many men, learning to keep my emotions under control. Painful events in my own family life pushed me even farther than most in that direction. My strategy for survival as a kid was to wall myself off from the violent emotions rampant at home and hold back my own feelings for fear of making things even worse. Depression started early in childhood, and that dampened my emotional life even more.
By the time I got through high school, I seemed well adjusted to friends and teachers alike, if not so outgoing as people advised me to be. But there was a great pressure of held-back feeling that I had never dealt with. I was hiding not only that but also the darker feelings of depression. At the time, I had no idea about mood disorders and never thought I had an emotional problem. I was a young man showing about as much feeling as men generally were expected to show.
Of course, there were the endless migraines that could keep me in bed for a day at a time. There were those feelings of shame and low self-esteem. There were those fears that I was stupid and failing at everything, while fooling people into thinking I had talent. There were the occasional panic attacks. But all that was just part of who I was, not an ongoing illness to be treated.
So bottling up hurt, pain and any strong feeling became a powerful habit, one that I’ve struggled with ever since. Holding back feeling wasn’t hard when it came to the legacy of pain from my family life. That was all locked in a vault somewhere and out of my conscious mind altogether. But feelings of the here and now were always close to the surface, and I consciously refused to let anyone see them. I clamped down hard.
That takes work, serious muscular labor. I read recently that a person has no control over the most basic emotional expressions such as crying because they’re set off by deep parts of the brain, like those that keep you breathing and your heart beating. The body will do these basic things without giving you a chance to interfere. It takes a lot of muscle power to keep crying in check because you really are fighting your body. Over time, I got to be quite good at winning that fight. It often happened that people would be looking right at me and not suspect for a minute that I was going through an inner melt down.
But then depression deepened in intensity and became so recurrent that I felt it was always with me, even if just lurking in the background. After so many years and so much hard work to keep feelings in check, I suppose it was inevitable that the biggest health crisis in my life would be all about emotion.
Feelings normally come and quickly go, but in depression they stop, hang around and take on a life of their own. They turn into endless moods that pervade everything you try to do. True enough, there are types of depression, or phases of it, that make it impossible to feel much of anything - but it’s still all about emotion, whether too much of the wrong kind or none at all.
Those distorted emotions pushed me to my limits - despair and shame, grief for no reason, panic and rage - all took their turns in pulling apart my weakening efforts to keep them in bounds. Even as depression was turning my life upside down, though, my instinct was to deny that it was anything more than a minor problem. I wanted to believe I could limit its impact by shutting it out of my mind.
If my wife pointed out that my behavior was changing or suggested the idea of getting help, I would get angry, deny any problem and refuse to talk about it. My urge to control told me that getting that pain and turmoil out in the open and talking it through would only make things worse. Then I’d be giving in to its reality, its power and really be overwhelmed. If the depression got bad enough that I couldn’t ignore its effects, I’d isolate myself. At least then, I thought, no one else would know what was happening. Of course, everyone did know because I was absent more and more, either literally off by myself or else drifting through days with little ability to relate to anyone.
To begin to recover from depression, I had to learn how to reconnect with my own feelings and let them be, instead of trying to regulate them so tightly. Then I had to admit how powerful a force depression had become and how impossible it was to limit its effect by refusing to think or talk about it. And I had to let myself express more freely what I was going through and work hard with the many kinds of treatment I’ve tried over the years.
To get better, I had to unlearn the habits of a lifetime. I’ve come a long way in doing that and recovering from depression. But the habit hangs on, and when I least expect it my hands will grab and tightly seal that bottle so that nothing can possibly get out.
John wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression.