About a year ago, I wrote a series of posts about my experience with the fantasies of a better life that often prompt depressed men to leave their families. You can find the first of those stories here, here and here. Those brief pieces tell only a small part of a long and troubling story. To stay in recovery I have to know more, and so I’m starting a new series of posts specifically about why men want to leave, how we change, where we want to go.
Of course, this story is not mine alone. I’ve been there with many other men, and we’ve all been cold company. Whether depressed men leave by walking out or by emotional withdrawal or aggressive rage and abuse, they go through a baffling transformation and provoke the most devastating crisis for those who love them most. My own experience has been bad enough, but I read the same story and worse online each day. The pain, confusion and desperation are always fresh, even though repeated hundreds of times in forum after forum.
– He won’t look at me anymore. – Whatever I do is wrong. – I can’t understand the anger when he comes home after work – and I haven’t done a single thing. – If I ask him what’s wrong, he goes into a rage. – He gets so abusive and blames me for everything he doesn’t like. – His rages scare me to death. – I don’t know who this man is anymore. – I can’t do anything right. – This is not the life I thought I was getting into. – I feel so small around him. – What have I done to make him so angry? – It’s all driving me crazy. – I can’t take much more of this. – What can I say? – What can I do? – Please help!
It’s one thing for me to blame depression for causing behavior that inflicts such pain. It’s another to get clear about exactly what I did in order to recognize it early and stop myself from repeating the same thing over and over again. To stay in recovery, I can’t focus only on what’s going on in my head but need to be able to face squarely the effects on those closest to me. Seeing what the reality has been for my wife and children in those dark periods makes it so much more urgent that I get to the bottom of what I have done.
Only in that way can I break the forces of mind and feeling underlying my hurtful words and actions. What was I thinking and feeling when I was isolating myself from my family emotionally, if not actually leaving? Why didn’t I see sooner what I was doing? When I did see part of it, why couldn’t I stop? What was changing deep down? I have to be able to answer these questions and a lot more so that I’ll be quick to recognize the problem if it begins again. If I do see it, I’ll have to know what to start doing to turn that mindset and behavior around. Recovery depends on alertness and action every day.
Here’s a quick overview of what I want to explore in this series. This is the way I’m seeing it through my analytical brain. I’m sure as I tell the stories each evokes, I’ll change and refine the picture I’m looking at now. It’s almost a model of how this state develops, and that means to me it’s far too neat. I’m separating each element from the real experience, but it is never so simple as this line-up might make it seem.
- Control and Denial. Whatever the internal crisis may have been, I had to keep it under a tight lid, hide it from everyone, including myself. Denial is a common word. What isn’t always clear is how much energy it takes both to keep inner turmoil under control and to keep it from getting too close to awareness. That took so much out of me, I was always tense and run down with the effort.
- Refusal. If there was nothing wrong with me, there was no need to talk about it. Every time my wife would try to engage me about what I was feeling, I refused to talk about it. I was genuinely angry at the suggestion that I had a problem. This behavior is frequently described, but what many miss is the sense of power men can get from holding back words. There is a perverse satisfaction in keeping others guessing, and the silence also prevents me from knowing more than I want to know. Strong and silent are paired for good reason.
- Isolation. Isolating from others doesn’t mean physical separation so much as creating distance while you’re with family, friends, everyone who’s close. I could do this by being angry or abusive, or by an emotional and mental disappearance in plain sight. On any given day, I could shift from one unmindful strategy to the other.
- Blame. Naturally, if there’s nothing wrong with me, the explanation for that hurt and turmoil buried within has its cause in someone or something else – family, job, city – probably the combination of it all. The feeling builds that the life I’m living is a trap that’s ruining my chances for happiness.
- The Cure. Since the problem comes from outside, I can also find the cure for it there. Everything will be better there, everything is hopeless here. So the yearning to leave and the fantasies that go with it get stronger all the time. Whether they’re acted on or not, the damage to others is already done.
This is what occurs to me now. How does it sound to you? What’s your experience like?