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 in that depression therapy session 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? They wanted to be brought to life in depression therapy, to have their stories told.
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 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.