There are days when I’ll feel slow, tired, old, and brittle, as if the lightest breeze could knock me over. The sky may seem leaden, and I’d rather be alone so I don’t have to compose my face into some semblance of cheerfulness. Even when these emotions aren’t particularly intense, they can leave me feeling profoundly different from other people. I remember going to a community 4th of July celebration on a bright, sunny day and thinking, “Everyone else here seems happy. Why am I not happy?” At other times, depression can have a more anguished quality. Especially when I was younger, I’d feel as if I were in a black pit for weeks on end; the worst part was that I had no idea when or if I’d emerge. More recently, if I were feeling guilty about snapping at my wife or yelling at my kids, I’d retreat to the bedroom, turn off the light, curl up under the covers, and wish I could disappear. Times like this have made me more understanding of those who end up killing themselves: While suicide is sometimes perceived as a selfish act that shows a disregard for the survivors, I sometimes genuinely believed that my loved ones would be better off without me.
And my depression can express itself as irritability and anger, symptoms that I’ve learned may be more common in men. Particularly when I’m feeling stressed at work, I’ll arrive home and it can be (in the words of Kay Redfield Jamison) as if “my nervous system were soaked in kerosene.” If my wife is listening to NPR in the kitchen and one of our kids is playing a CD in another room, the overlapping sounds will drive me bananas. Little things can get me steaming—if our daughter has her homework scattered around, or our son knocks over a drink at the table, or my wife asks a question that I take as a criticism. Because I can be very critical of myself, I may project that attitude onto others. So I can be hypersensitive to criticism, and then respond by getting defensive.
How depression affects my family
Of course, this can make my wife feel like she’s walking on eggshells. She wants our home to be a refuge from the pressures of the outside world, a place where we can say whatever is on our minds and where we can accept each other’s mistakes. But if our kids have to “leave Dad alone” because I’m in a foul mood, or if I parse my wife’s words to come up with some sort of accusation, then our house itself becomes a minefield.
What works for me
What has helped? As a teenager and young adult, I took long walks, read and wrote poetry, went to foreign movies, and roamed the art museums in Washington, DC. So: exercise and the arts. In high school and college, I benefited from the encouragement and company of some wonderful writing teachers and fellow writing students. A few years after college, while my wife and I were courting, I became interested in her faith and was baptized at the Episcopal church where we wed. I learned about the struggles that others in our church community faced and my own burdens seemed lighter. I explored natural therapies such as meditation and dietary supplements (which helped somewhat, but not as much as I’d hoped). I read self-help books that dealt with anger, depression, and the relationship between the two. And starting about 10 years ago, I benefited from stints in therapy. I’d work with a therapist for a few months, feel pretty good, and think I could handle whatever came my way.
But after a while my dark or angry spells would return, and my family would be suffering again. My wife urged me to try medication. I had long resisted the idea, fearing that I’d feel drugged or become impotent. But five years ago, I felt like I’d run out of alternatives and saw a psychiatrist. Over several months, I tried one drug, then another, and finally settled on the medication I’ve been using since. Finding a drug that made me feel better, and that my body would tolerate, took patience. I wish I had known about the Depression Wellness Guide available through Families for Depression Awareness to help track my feelings and medication side effects. Today, my moods are more even than before, and I feel more myself now that my mind is less apt to be hijacked by depression. I can still feel down or furious at times, but I’m less likely to get stuck in these moods.
My advice to people (especially men) with depression is to reach out for help and to keep trying until you find what works for you. It may be humbling to ask for help and it may take time to find the right treatment regimen, but the payoff is worth it. If you live with someone whose depression is not adequately treated, keep pointing the way toward help. As the character played by Amy Adams in Junebug says to her troubled husband: “God loves you just the way you are. But He loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
Incidentally, the most valuable thing I got from therapy was not a memory I unearthed or a technique I learned, but rather a single look of pure caring from a certain therapist, a look that conveyed a faith in me that I did not feel at the time. In such moments, the parched heart takes in water and prepares, when it’s able, to break into bloom.