An active and aggressive side of depression, especially painful to recall, is the rage that used to blast through me at my wife and three boys. There are few things to equal the power for healing of the connection and love of your own family, and it’s a sign of the depth of isolation and emotional distortion that accompanies depression when that very connection is abused and threatened. But so it is, and, as Beyond Blue summarized a couple of months ago, research is identifying hostility, aggressive blaming and need for control as more typically male responses to the underlying changes going on in the mind and body as the illness deepens its impact over time.
The rage, the urge to break away, the impossibility of talking freely to my wife (or myself) were at their height when I had little or no awareness that these were all linked to the same illness. I knew I was subject to depression, but I thought of that problem as a name for the episodes of despair and paralysis that had been part of my life since childhood. Maybe migraines were related, I wasn’t sure of that – doctors had always treated those separately. But I was active at this time, building a new business, traveling a lot, feeling like I was getting somewhere. And yet there were these times, more and more frequent, when I knew damn well I was really out of control. Something just took over, and I struggled to stop it.
I remember driving back home one day from the airport after a week’s absence. Good things had been happening on this trip, and I was eager to talk to L. about them. I had missed her and the boys, who were about 2, 5 and 6 at the time, and couldn’t wait to hug them. But I was nervous too because these moments of return were often the hardest of all. That’s when I would fall into a rage, sometimes forcing it to smolder inside, sometimes watching it boil over in furious words and slamming anger. This one time, though, an insight came to me as I drove down the last hillside to our driveway. As I struggled to understand the rage in human terms, I suddenly realized that underlying that aggressiveness was a deep fear, the fear of losing my family. I saw so clearly in that moment that the raging abuse was more of a protective reaction – push them away before they give up on you – a crazy response, to be sure, but one based in love and need that I couldn’t admit to. I was so relieved and excited to see it that way. I felt so deeply how much I loved them and couldn’t wait to tell this to L.
But that’s not what happened. No sooner had I grabbed my bags out of the car and started across the garden walkway that led to the front door, than I could feel a tightening in my chest. I was already nervous about losing it. There across that open grassy space, the kids’ toys were strewn about, and from inside I could hear two of them screaming at each other and thundering about as a tumbling fight ran from room to room. The noise cut deeply into me, as if their clatter and yells were knife-blows at my body. L. was trying to yell over them to cut it out! The tension became unbearable. Each tossed toy or sweat shirt on the lawn glowed in my eyes as a piece of me I had to put back into place. The rage was building and drove out any thought of a cheerful entrance.
As I walked through the door, instead of seeing each boy and L. as who they were, I could only feel my own shame spilling out in every direction – the mess inside me took the shape of that house and everything in it. I had to grab it all and restore the scene of order I was suddenly composing in my mind. I was driven to make it, and me, whole again and furious that no one else seemed to care! I wouldn’t stop until I had put everything back where I desperately needed it to be. There was no room then for surprising, unruly people, no room for anything unexpected. I obsessed on everything that struck me as out of place or broken or ugly, and nothing looked right! I was seized with a rage at once that sped me about picking up, straightening, pushing, shoving, slamming.
“What the hell’s going on!” I roared at L. “Can’t you HANDLE this!” She turned in shock from the cooking she was doing at the stove and just stared at me. “What are you talking about?”
But I didn’t stop to explain. I marched in fury on B and S who were locked in their wrestling and even laughing as they knocked over chairs and banged against a wall, tilting a framed picture on impact. I yanked them roughly apart, almost hurling them to opposite sides of the room. Between them on the floor I found a long rubber strip they had been playing with.
I knew exactly where that had come from because I had so painstakingly fitted it back into a metal runner that held it on the floor of the station wagon, not once but many, many times. It was a part of the car that just wouldn’t stay put and it symbolized all the mess and irresponsible destruction of this house – the mess I had become. “Who took this out of the car?” I raged. B look at S who was about to say something in his defense when I swung it hard against the side of his leg. He immediately burst into tears, and L. was at his side to help and hold him. She looked at me in speechless anger, the words trying to form in her mouth for a minute before she could finally hiss them out. “You can’t do that! You are OUT OF CONTROL!”
I stood there for a second still possessed of that rage but increasingly uncomfortable, knowing damn well this was crazy, this was not what I wanted, but I couldn’t stop. “They’re breaking everything! Why does everything have to get broken!” I practically ran out the door, that strip of rubber in my hand, and went right to the station wagon, pulled open the back, crawled in and set about trying to jam it back into that damned metal strip. IT JUST WOULDN’T FIT RIGHT! I willed all the rage still flowing through me into my finger tips to squeeze the endless three feet of that hard, resisting rubber strip back into its enclosing metal slot so the stupid thing could do what it was supposed to do and protect the finish of the cargo area floor. How many times had it popped out, and each time it tore at me that something I owned, that was a part of me, was wrong, completely wrong! I wound up pounding that strip with all my might and gave up when I could see it would stay put, but only for a time, of course, until a box was shoved over it, forcing it loose again. The whole thing was futile!
I sat in the back of that car feeling like a complete fool, my life a mess, everything wrong, ashamed that I had hurt my dear son and practically in tears at the thought of how happily I had hoped this homecoming would be. I was calmer then. I walked back to the house to see if I could repair the damage I had caused. Perhaps I could replay the scene, I thought, and get it right this time! Perhaps I could be the loving father and husband, glad to be home again, laughing at the playful tumbling of the kids, the special projects they had made out of the living room furniture, curious to see what they were up to, open and at ease with whatever might happen next. Maybe, someday.
I went through years doing this sort of thing and can hardly understand how we stayed together as a family. Fortunately, there were more good, or at least OK, times than miserable ones like this. Having a partner or parent lost in fits of depression-fed rage has got to be a terrifying thing. It was terrifying enough to be that partner, that parent, never sure when I’d lose it next. When the person you originally fell in love with gets back in balance, how can you be sure that the improvement will last?
How have you managed to cope with a partner in this state, or something like it? How do you go about rebuilding the basic trust of the relationship?