Why Depressed Men Don't Talk
We hear it so often, I think everyone takes it for granted. Women talk about feelings. Men don’t. Women are relational and talk things through with the people they trust. Men do their feeling in private behind a brick wall. Or they don’t do feeling. They explain. Here’s the cause, here’s the effect, here’s what you do - so what’s all the feeling about?
There’s no question that much of this is true, but only up to a point. There isn’t really so much difference in the way men and women feel. But many men have to pay a high cost to get to those feelings. And depressed men usually can’t afford to go there. They’re afraid it will take everything they’ve got.
During the many years I was depressed, I didn’t want to talk to my wife about what I felt - though she could pull the words out of me in my less guarded moments. I didn’t want to talk to anyone else either. Even in therapy, I held back a great deal.
I may not have been talking, but I was constantly trying to figure out what was happening to me. I came up with a lot of answers, and for a long time depression wasn’t one of them. That may sound strange since I already knew that I became depressed quite often. But I thought that only meant feeling low, not wanting to do much, and slowing down to a crawl.
Everything else - finding it impossible to get work done, getting paralyzed with anxiety, feeling intense anger, despairing about myself - all that was simply me. I didn’t like who I was. I felt stupid and worthless, however well I could conceal that from anyone else. I felt like an empty glass. Everyone would be able to see there was nothing inside unless I carefully covered it over.
Hiding things all the time and presenting a calm face to everyone is no easy thing to do. Talking about feelings and that inner self would risk exposure. I might lose the control I had over what people could see of me. This wasn’t a conscious thought - it was instinctive.
And there was another problem. I might be empty of value and talent, but there was plenty of feeling roiling around inside. Powerful feelings of all sorts, intense love, fierce hate, grief and hurt, horrible despair, an urge to lash out in violence - but it never got into my voice or face. No spontaneous emotion allowed. Those surges of feeling felt like unpredictable violence - like a monster waiting to escape. Again, the instinct held it in check.
When depression with all its symptoms got worse and worse, I felt incapable of doing anything. Talking was still the last thing I could do because I didn’t know what was happening. I’d be irritable all the time at home, flying into a rage that I realized was taking me over. I couldn’t stop it.
When my wife asked me what was wrong and suggested talking about it, I simply got angry. There’s nothing wrong with me I started to blame her. I pushed the shame I felt in her direction. She was doing everything wrong - she was the problem. It wasn’t me, it was all her fault!
She reached a limit and demanded I get help. I did, but something happened that was much more important than therapy or medication.
I started to talk.
I was so exhausted by the constant stress of holding everything back, second guessing what I did say, talking guardedly about what I was feeling rather than just saying what I was going through at that moment. I was too confused and too scared at what was happening to me to keep fighting off my wife.
We were alone after the kids had gone to bed, and she was trying to draw me out yet once more. And then I said just two words, the truest words I has spoken to her in a long time.
It was such a relief to get that simple statement out. I felt relaxed and so did she. And I could go on from there. There were so many things I was afraid could happen. The enormous and terrible things I was trying to hide suddenly seem smaller, less powerful. She felt the genuineness of me once more. I was really there, talking through the fears that had been consuming me
This was only the first step, and the turnaround didn’t last very long. Habits of a lifetime don’t disappear, and I’m still struggling to drop the defenses every single day.
John wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression.