I’ve written a lot about the form of depression in which men look outside themselves to find the cause for an inner pain that simply can’t be faced. They may feel anger, rage, a longing to act out fantasies, or a compulsion to blame and abuse those closest to them. That side of depression is the most aggressive and obviously damaging to relationships of all kinds. In my experience, it is not the only phase of severe depression that can cause a man to leave his partner, whether that departure is a literal one or an emotional withdrawal that can be just as destructive.
In looking back at what I’ve been through, I realize that I’ve lived at various times in four different mind/feeling states over decades of chronic depression. In the past, I have behaved differently as I felt in turn each one. Each in its own way has threatened relationships of all kinds, most vitally with my family but also with colleagues at work and with many friends. Thinking of these separately is more helpful to me than listing them as differing signs of one condition. They may well be that, but describing them this way has spurred me to recognize more quickly what I am starting to feel and do, and so take action to reverse what is happening.
Briefly, what I have felt in these different phases looks like this:
- angry, obsessive, blaming, looking outward for causes
- empty, lacking all feeling and attachment
- despairing to the point of suicidal thinking
- apparently restored but convinced it’s only a temporary reprieve
One is the aggressive side of depression that has probably not yet come to full awareness (“covert” in Terrence Real’s description). This is the mindset of looking to external circumstances, often focusing on family, as causes of inner hurt or emptiness. It leads to the destructive blame, rage, sense of being trapped, longing to escape, etc. that I’ve written about in several posts. Thinking can become fiercely obsessive and paranoid, finding threats, malevolence, betrayal everywhere. The anger, even rage, can explode at my family for little or no apparent reason. That is immediately hurtful and damaging. It turns intimacy on its head and puts in its place the drive for complete control.
Another phase involves the loss of feeling about everything and a kind of removal from human attachment. Nothing is painful or pleasurable, and nothing matters much. I’ve imagined feeling “fine” in this state while really distancing myself from my family and co-workers. I’m standing in place but no longer there. The effect is an understated absence that is no less hurtful than raging outbursts. I have a brief story about this in the next post.
Depression comes to a different sort of crisis when I’ve felt extreme despair and shame about being me. It’s then I’m constantly tearing myself apart, obsessing on every mistake, every failure – and everything looks like failure. Freud’s early description of anger turned inward fits this exactly. Thoughts of suicide are common because I feel this me isn’t worth enough to keep alive. Of course, that means I’ve blotted out the love of my wife and family and feel I’ve failed as well in those relationships. I can’t even hear the words when my wife and close friends offer love and support. My family can only be baffled and hurt at my inability to be present and constant hiding away in solitude. Often, I’m actively pushing them away because I can’t face dealing with anyone.
I want to include a fourth state because it appears to be the “normal” one. One day I wake up and feel fine – I’m restored to my “real” self. My mind is working again, I can handle anything that comes my way. Once more, I’m the responsive, loving husband, father, son. The problem is that, even when it’s happening, I believe this “recovered” state is unstable. After a good day or week or month, I’m certain I’ll wake up and find myself in the midst of one of the destructive states – or it might just arrive without my being aware of the change. What that means, as I see it now, is that my real self isn’t whole, isn’t recovered. I don’t trust myself, and my wife can’t trust me either. I could turn on her or shut her out in a flash when I disappear again.
I have my own stories to tell about each of these, but first I’d like to ask a question. What has it taken to restore trust in a relationship damaged by any of these behaviors? Has it been at all possible in your experience to come back from the emotional impact and regain the love and closeness you once knew? Thank you for anything you can offer for the rest of us.