Depression Therapy: Lonely Talk in a Crowded Room

Therapy for depression usually meant talking about the world I was seeing, the thoughts I had, the pain I felt, the judgments about me I projected onto others – all me, all the time. Once, I was talking to a therapist in that way when I sensed a crowd of people filling the room. The new arrivals were not trying to interrupt but were simply listening – at least I thought they were. It was hard to see them clearly. They were shadowy presences, and I could only guess who they might be.

I kept talking about what I’d been feeling and trying to do for the past week, but somehow that didn’t seem enough. I was uneasy in the midst of these people. Who were they? Why couldn’t I see their faces very clearly? They belonged in this session for some reason, but I didn’t know why.

They were like the characters in search of an author in the famous play of Pirandello. Their lives were incomplete because the writer had left their drama unfinished. He had abandoned them all, and they struggled to find a way to live with each other and their secrets. It struck me that they were like the many people I had known but never really, deeply known or even seen for who they were. Was that why they felt like familiar presences but were still in shadow, indistinct?

A long time ago, a friend tried to tell me about my ways with many I thought of as friends by pointing to the cover of a book. The title said it all: Life is with People. I got the message, though it didn’t make much difference. Getting to know people never came easily, and it was simpler, and less threatening, to dwell more in my mind and imagination than in the company of others. My friends became part of that world, but I wasn’t fully part of theirs. That was a step, frankly, I was afraid to take.

Of course, that was good depressive thinking: Stay with the fear of failing, with a belief that no one would want to know me, and remain convinced that I couldn’t face anyone until I was ready, until I wasn’t so depressed. What was worse, “people” sounded like a group, a community, and I was full of anxiety and self-doubt about meeting even one new person.

These days, I keep reading about the social nature of being human. Neuroscience is discovering the specific ways we’re wired for relating to others. Behavioral experiments proved long ago how a life can be destroyed when a child is raised without ever experiencing the bond of close affection.

I wrote a post about holding back emotion – feeling intensely but not allowing myself to show that to others. To others – that’s the point. Emotions are meant to be flows of communication. We’re social creatures who would never have survived without bonding in families and communities, but there isn’t much closeness without trust and shared feeling. Get deeply depressed, though, and all that changes. Emotion can be lost altogether, or it can be held back, measured out to others like a strictly rationed food.

But measured feeling never took anyone into a close relationship, and so there have been these fractions of people in my life, partly known, mostly hidden. It’s like trying to make music by focusing on one note at a time on an instrument. The notation breaks everything into tiny timed units, but the sound itself is a great flowing whole. It will never come into being unless the playing submerges the complex details in the total experience – unless you let yourself fly through the fingering of stops on a woodwind. Yet one note of feeling at a time was always what I played to people. Not much help when you’re trying to create the trust at the heart of any close human bond.

So if we need to develop in relation to people, why is therapy all about one person? Of course, you have to break down the patterns of depression you’re so used to, but why is the emphasis on personal fulfillment. It’s impossible to live a full life on your own, unless you’re happy to simply to be you and demand as the condition of any relationship that you’ll always be free to do what feels right and is fulfilling to you. That’s not the way things really are.

Depression was always a dark place full of one-way roads of feeling that all led back to me. Even when I feel so much better, I have to keep working at seeing people for who they are by offering more of the self I’ve always tried to keep hidden. That feels so hard and risky, but once through that fear I feel relief and get so much in return.

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12 Responses to “Depression Therapy: Lonely Talk in a Crowded Room”

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  1. “Getting to know people never came easily, and it was simpler, and less threatening, to dwell more in my mind and imagination than in the company of others.”

    This is so true for me. It amazes me how much I am in my mind. I hate it sometimes. Then with the anxiety comes the racing thoughts and it seems endless. But no matter what it is always safe. Those sentences really settled in for me.

    • john says:

      Hi, Feminista –

      It’s strange how being in my mind so much and staying away from others also leads to the longing for people to be close to. So my imagination loves to create perfect relationships to dream about but that have no reality. Maybe that’s “safe” but it’s also bleak.

      Thanks for commenting.

      John

    • Connor says:

      I know this post is a almost 3 years old but I really needed to comment here. This post is super well written and really describes a lot of the ways that I feel. Thanks for writing!

  2. Louise says:

    The greatest loss of all, within depression, is the ability to connect with others. You have expressed the experience so well. I am reminded of the lyric: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Louise –

      I never paid attention to that lyric before or noticed the insight. People who think they don’t need people aren’t so self-sufficient as they want to be.

      Thanks for coming by.

      John

  3. Joe says:

    Loved this post. It gets to the heart of what depression is. The lack of social connection and an absolute focus on self. People who are unable to open up and share with others – the loners, the perfectionists, the overachievers – are all strong candidates for depression. This is not a topic that is discussed enough. There needs to be more emphasis on getting depressed people to focus outwards rather than inwards.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Joe –

      That’s well-put – candidates for depression when reaching out to others is conditioned on the need to prove one’s worth. The pressure on the self is intense, you’re never ready to offer that precious thing that feels like your soul. What’s needed is the relationship, not the object to be gifted to someone else.

      Thanks for your comment.

      John

  4. Absurdly, I am too depressed to respond to much.
    I just wanted to say thanks for this… It helps to know that others have survived this hell.
    It helps that you acknowledge depression.

    WS

    • john says:

      Hi, Wondering Soul –

      Nothing absurd about being too depressed to respond. I’ve found that one key to my own wellbeing is to talk with others – one depressive to another as only we can know the reality. When we can talk, that is. There’s also talk in silence.

      John

  5. Evan says:

    Hi John, my thoughts on therapy and its individualistic bias.

    I think therapy focuses on one person because they are the one there. Also it stops the person talking about all the stuff they want others to do – which the therapist can’t do much about. These are the good reasons I think.

    The bad reasons are the tunnel-vision of therapists and the institutionalisation of this in therapy.

    There is a pernicious notion that we just have to change our thinking to be always happy or successful (equated inaccurately with happiness). This leads to a resolute focus on the individual and precludes any other focus. This leads to the ‘therapy is narcissistic’ critique (which I think is true of this kind of therapy).

    Therapists usually come from a long history of following rules and individual effort (school, uni, abiding by professional etiquette) so they, like the rest of us, tend to regard their neurosis as psychological health. These are encoded in definitions of health for instance.

    For me health is a particular kind of self-forgetfulness – becoming absorbed in the object of fascination. Also finding satisfaction of the need that drives this process.
    This is the truth of happiness when chased runs away, rather it comes and lands on your shoulder when you are still.

    • john says:

      Hi, Evan –

      Sorry to be so late responding – your ideas are, as usual, stimulating in so many ways. Health as a kind of forgetfulness – the ability to become absorbed in something outside you. That cuts to the heart of it! And therapists convinced that their neurosis is psychological health – that is a good observation, as you point out, for most of us. At least until we reach that point of breakdown that we can’t deny there’s something wrong in the way our minds and feelings have been acting – wrong as self-destructive and probably harmful to everyone we know as well.

      John

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