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 … ?