Talking Honestly about Depression



I’ve always had trouble talking honestly about depression, in therapy or out. Even though much of its influence is gone, this remnant of depression is still holding on. I was always able to report the latest news to a therapist – I’m down at level 2 instead of up at level 8 (or whatever other shorthand you might use). And talking about history was not the problem. I could summon up all the turbulence and pain I’d gone through long ago from the safe distance of time.

It was the here and now that stopped me. Telling anyone the full emotional truth of the present, as I was feeling it – especially the intense stuff – was next to impossible. The fear was that the words could not be formed without the emotions flowing with them, and it was the spontaneous rush of feeling that had to be prevented. Something in me always reacted faster than thought. It was more than a censor, it was a builder of strong barriers that walled the feelings in and me with them.

That autopilot response hard to stop, and it worked with cold efficiency most of the time, especially in therapy. That’s supposed to be a refuge for healing as old poisons are purged from my present life. How much emotional truth of the moment was I able to get out? Let’s put it this way. If there had been a buzzer going off at every half-truth, that would have been the loudest and most frequent sound of the hour.

It’s amazing that therapy has done me any good at all, but it has. I’ve always been able to talk about the past, even the worst moments, or about powerful dreams that force something into my awareness. These things provoked strong feeling, but however bad they’d been, they weren’t here and they weren’t now. If I did feel overwhelmed, about to cry – the door slammed shut at once.

It wasn’t just the talking, it was letting the feelings roll through and find whatever physical expression they were after. Emotions need the outlet of the body to be complete and serve their purpose. Not so hard to do in private, though I can have plenty of trouble with that too. (Remember that Real Depressed Men Don’t Cry!) But facing a live person – the resistance was like biting into splintered wood to shut my mouth and crush the feeling into manageable size. That hurts!

That wasn’t the end of it, for then I’d have this crowd of ticked-off feelings pounding in me to get out. There must be a law of physics about the conservation of emotional energy. It’s never destroyed but takes on different, more ghostly forms. I could never recognize them, but I’d always feel something strange happening. Each moment of denial put another to-do on the list of things I’d have to deal with later – that is, talk through. In the meantime, I had no clue when or how the stunted feeling would finally kick its way to the surface.

Emotions like to be sociable. They need to get out there and be seen and heard by the people I’m closest to, most of all, of course, my wife. Letting the feeling be itself can only deepen those essential bonds. Whenever they did get through the walls, as happened every now and then, my wife and I would feel the intimate connection all over again. How else, except by that emotional presence, could anyone get to know who I am and trust the relationship we’ve formed together? If I stomp out fear or grief, I’m also refusing to reach out for help, not to mention love, and refusing to accept it.

But all this holding back never had anything to do with common sense. It was about the deepest fear I’ve known, courtesy of severe depression. It was a soul-deep dread that intense feelings on the loose would release a terrifying force I’d been keeping in check. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but eventually I gave it a recognizable face. My own hideous and violent Mr. Hyde was waiting to spring free, and that I could not allow.

Of course, I knew that was a crazy thing to believe – especially after all sorts of therapy and self-probing – but on a depressed and primitive level it felt like truth for many years. He was everything half human and monstrous that my depressed mind told me I must be. Chains and shackles were all that held him, not to mention round-the-clock surveillance.

He’s not really there anymore, but the habit of holding him and every intense feeling in check hasn’t gone away completely.

So talking about depression, which bundled this dread together with all the other symptoms, has never been easy. Nevertheless, I was able very slowly to learn the skills that let me see clearly what I was doing and stop the weirdness, on most days.

So how’s your emotional truth level with a therapist or whoever you try to talk to about depression? On a scale of 1 to 10, you usually come in at … ?

15 Responses to “Talking Honestly about Depression”

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  1. Tim says:


    What you have written has hit home on many different levels. I am just now seeking therapy, after a failed attempt many years ago. I completely agree with the Mr. Hyde bit. I just recently destroyed a relationship with someone because I thought I could keep control of him long enough to try to get my partner to understand. I have been able to step back and see what I do and how I make people feel when I do them, but despite my best efforts, I am unable to stop them from happening. I haven’t been able to figure out what my triggers are. It’s a fight to even get out of bed in the morning. Being socialable is out of the question, and isolation seems to be all I am capable of. Every morning I look in the mirror and hate what I have become. This isn’t me. What I usually say and what I do are not how I feel deep down. Suicide is a constant thought, and in a few cases a real problem (have attempted several times). Thank you for writing this, and every thing else you have written about depression. It’s opened my eyes, and I really think It’s going to help.

  2. Just to say…
    Yes.. You are so right! Depression differs only slightly from person to person and its masks are few.
    Amazing then, that it is still so profoundly isolating.

    Hope you are well.

    • john says:

      Who knows – maybe some day we’ll be able to enter a collective mind space and crack the masks forever. 😉

  3. Louise says:

    Believe it is important to recognize and factor in innate characteristics of the personality such as being either an introvert or an extrovert, which has everything to do with the best therapy for depression. An extrovert may need talk therapy and the exchange; an introvert would probably do better being in nature, a walk in the woods or along a shoreline to clear the mind. Tools I’ve recently practiced with success in fighting depression are: putting space around my thoughts and watching them pass through without condemnation in recognition of my duality, that I am not my thoughts; and, doing something for another, expecting nothing in return. Getting my mind off myself, I find, is second only to laughter as a best medicine.

    • john says:

      Hi, Louise –

      Those are great ideas, though this introvert has often done therapy as well. An exchange one-on-one always helps me, but groups are a strain. I usually wind up putting on a false face at those and so avoid them – definite introvert behavior. Mindful meditation has served that purpose for me of stepping aside from the flow of thoughts and watching them go by. That does wonders, especially if it becomes a regular part of living.

      I’m glad these things work for you – that keeps you in charge of getting better.

      Thank you!


  4. Svasti says:

    Hi John! I never once told my therapist when I had suicidal feelings. Mostly because I didn’t intend to let anyone know. Sort of because I didn’t want anyone to feel like I was emotionally blackmailing them. And sort of because if I decided to get serious about going down that path, I didn’t want anyone to stop me. Heh.
    About other things, I dunno. I mean, I think I was generally pretty honest, but I also didn’t want to end up taking medication, so I think I probably skimmed the top off how I felt for that reason, too.
    Sometimes, especially when my PTSD was really active, I had no choice. I couldn’t control how I felt, I couldn’t control it if a flashback occured in a session. So I’d lose it all over the place.
    And in those times, I’d feel physically ill before going to see my therapist, because I was terrified of another incident. So its probable I pulled back then, too. To save myself.
    Complete emotional honesty. How many of us ever do that, anyway?

    • john says:

      Hi, Svasti –

      Isn’t it interesting how we can control – for whatever reason – what the experience of therapy can be? We all do it sometimes, and not only because there’s something we don’t want to get into. How many therapists know how to handle anything beyond a little crying? If we don’t have total trust, it would be foolish to get into immediate hot button issues.

      Thanks for being so open about it!


  5. Tomas says:

    While reading Talking Honestly about Depression, I have sensed myself as if in a cinema where film of my own life was going.

    Emotions like to be sociable. They need to get out there and be seen and heard by the people …. Your note portray as our whole being, as a way out of our calamities: as the story goes, it’s bad to man to live alone.
    Your post helped me to grasp myself – to understand the mystery of the artist’s need to display their pictures for the public review) Emotions just must be shared – that’s like the breathing that makes us alive.

    • john says:

      Thank you so much, Tomas, for this beautiful comment. It touches me very deeply to know how this has helped you.

      I had not thought of the special need of artists to share emotion by displaying their work, and the mystery of that need, as you say. That is part of the urge to create work in any medium – to speak the feeling to others.

      All my best to you —


  6. John,
    I don’t know where I come in at. Probably a 1.
    Your post (again) feels as though you have read some kind of script deep inside me.
    Talking openly about depression with anyone, even here in the blogsphere is AGONY… It feels almost impossible. I’ve been trying to write about it but I find that just the energy it takes to try leaves me feeling exhausted.
    You have described the pain and the fear of repression so beautifully. It resonates so deeply that it almost hurts.
    I know and understand the intense pain of keeping everything walled, repressed, hidden… and yet, the overwhelming fear that to NOT do that will result in being somehow swallowed up up by it.

    “The fear was that the words could not be formed without the emotions flowing with them, and it was the spontaneous rush of feeling that had to be prevented. Something in me always reacted faster than thought. It was more than a censor, it was a builder of strong barriers that walled the feelings in and me with them.”
    “But facing a live person – the resistance was like biting into splintered wood to shut my mouth and crush the feeling into manageable size. That hurts!”
    Yes and yes.
    So well put.
    Your writing on this subject is some of the most powerful I have ever read. I wish I could talk to you.
    Thought about a book?

    • john says:

      Wondering Soul –

      Discussing all this has made me realize that the “script deep inside me” isn’t just mine or just yours. The details may differ, but so much is the same. Depression is an illness that spreads its familiar symptoms and tries to bury the uniqueness in each of us. Like a swindler, it takes real feeling and pays us back with counterfeit. There are endless ways to be fully human but only a few ways to be sick with depression. It’s especially agonizing to be able to see what’s going wrong – like the walls and suppressing feeling – and not be able to stop it, either because of the fear you mention or because that stuff happens before we’re fully aware.

      I can’t thank you enough for all the kind things you say about my writing. [Of course, I can’t really believe praise ;-)]

      Take total care of yourself!


  7. Dear John,
    Another really important post. And thanks for sharing your feelings on this topic.

    I, too, have found it almost impossible to talk about depressions when I’m experiencing them. The problem for me is that when I’m severely depressed, I don’t feel like talking at all.

    However, I have always been capable of writing about my feelings when I am incapable of talking about them.
    The problem is that I’ve never met a psychiatrist yet who will read what I’ve written and respond to that rather than asking me questions I have no interest in answering.

    But, last December during one of the very worst episodes ever, I tried my hardest to discuss what I was feeling with my psychiatrist and when that wasn’t satisfying with another psychiatrist whom I had to drive more than two hours to consult with.

    What I learned from both experiences was what I have long felt. When I am at my lowest ebb, psychiatrists (at least the ones I’ve seen, and there have been seven in the last 15 years) can’t help me.

    Their clinical approach to despair leaves me feeling far worse. The professional distance they create does not heal me. And talking about feelings of hopelessness makes me feel worse rather than better.

    This is not to say that I don’t believe in seeking help when I’m depressed. It’s just that I now seek it from people who in my mind are true healers.


    • john says:

      Hi, Susan –

      I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but my experience with psychiatrists is similar. There have been a couple who have helped me at those bad times (though I’m great at understating and concealing what’s really going on). Many, though, listen for a while, then reach for the little white pad to add a new med or increase the dosage. That’s what a lot of them have to offer. A few in my experience, though, have had enough experience, humor and skepticism to see past treatment fashions and get back to the basic human relationship.

      Your new approach makes a lot of sense – forget the credential and find the genuine healer. I hope you’ve found the right one.

      All my best — John

  8. Jaliya says:

    Telling the whole emotional truth of the present moment … Gulp … Does it ever feel impossible to you, John, to simply sense and locate a feeling in your body, or to know what it is? I find this difficult to write about because I’m in an open space of real confusion about what a feeling feels like … or even if I’m capable of feeling itself. Major depression totally buggers up the natural sensation, perception, articulation and expression of feeling. With all our defensive habits of repression, we’re left with unexpressed emotion that eventually backfires on us somehow. KABOOM. We act out, or act in.

    “Something in me always reacted faster than thought,” you write, and I wonder if that might be instinct. An instinct to self-protect — perhaps the “autopilot” you name. I know this reaction … and it’s hard to pin words to it. When it’s beyond thought’s capacity to grasp, I wonder if it’s an infantile, precognitive reaction that occurs without conscious thought.

    … I have to come back to your post … must get to sleep … John, your blog is a thinker’s delight, and a saving grace.

    More later 🙂

    • john says:

      Thanks, Jaliya –

      Impossible to sense and locate a feeling in your body … I guess when I’m depressed, really at the despair level, every feeling is blended into one, and I’m not very conscious of what my body is doing. Confusion about what a feeling feels like .. that’s a powerful way to put it. That and the idea of being incapable of feeling itself seem to come with a different form of depression where I’m completely detached from myself and everyone else.

      This is tough stuff, Jaliya! I’m so sorry you’re in that state now. The backfiring is a terrible part of all this – and makes it hard to trust myself with other people. I might say or do something I don’t intend – but there it is, coming from I have no idea where.

      I hope you’re moving into a better space!

      All my best, and then some —


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