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Depression in Men - Part I

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Real men don't need help, right?

by John McManamy

 

Men and depression. Ray Bradbury's 1953 short story, "The Playground," says it all:

A father drops off his boy at nursery school for the first time and observes the following with increasing trepidation: "The rushing children were hell cut loose in a vast pinball table colliding and banging a totality of hits and misses, thrust and plunging to a grand and yet unforeseen total of brutalities." The father's sister assures him everything will be fine: "He's got to take a little beating and beat others up; boys are like that."

This being science fantasy, the father makes the ultimate sacrifice and switches places with his son, finding himself in the body of a boy at the top of a slide:

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He shrieked, he covered his face, he felt himself pushed, bleeding, to the rim of nothingness. Headfirst, he careened down the slide, screeching, with 10,000 monsters behind. One thought jumped through his mind a moment before he hit bottom in a nauseous mound of claws. "This is hell," he thought, "this is hell."

How Men Experience Depression

Men may not exactly hail from Mars or women from Venus, but clearly the two sexes experience the same planet through rather different operating systems.

In his 1998 book, "I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression" Terrence Real recounts being physically and emotionally abused by his father. He was a D student, a drug addict, and petty criminal before eventually finding his calling as a family therapist in the Boston area, with clients typically sharing similar patterns of abuse and dysfunction.

It's a jungle out there, make no mistake about it, even for men with idyllic childhoods, with rites of passage as brutal as those found in any rain forest.

There is nothing new about this, of course, but the depression aspect adds a novel spin.

Boys and men internalize their hurt into what Mr Real calls "covert depression," a psychic band around the heart that its victims respond to by engaging in destructive addictive behaviors - from classic alcohol and drug dependence to affairs outside the marriage to workaholism to neglecting or abusing their own children. Typically, they are incapable of making the emotional investment necessary to sustain a lasting loving relationship, either with their wife or kids.

These are not the type of people who turn up for therapy on their own volition. They are there because they have to be - because the courts have sent them or because their wife has delivered an ultimatum. In many ways they are the lucky ones, for there is someone there to catch them, before or during the inevitable transition from covert to "overt" depression.

Overt depression erupts when a man's addictive behaviors no longer assuage the hurt. Sometimes it occurs in the middle of therapy, after the client's defenses have been unmasked. Often medication is part of the treatment, but in the author's view it represents at best a partial response, as "an unhappy, immature, relationally unskilled man on medication becomes at best, a happier immature relationally unskilled man."

The author describes depression as an "auto-aggressive disease," of the self attacking the self. Recovery is about connecting with the hurt and trauma that lies beneath. Boys feel as much as girls, but this is hardly the message we send them. Ultimately, in the author's words, "boys become men by lopping off, or having lopped off, the most sensitive parts of the psychic, and, in some cases, physical selves."

Terrence's own healing came at age 37, when his father finally opened up to the horrors of his own poverty-stricken childhood, of his mother dying at age seven and of being shunted from one relative who didn't want him to another. One evening, the author's father found himself bundled in the car in the garage with the engine left running. As the gas fumes began to overtake him, the boy had to struggle to break free of the embrace of his suicidal father.

"Don't let the way I talk fool you," the author's father confides, as he admits, probably for the first time, how precious his son is to him.

"Healing," Terrence Real concludes, "interrupts the legacy of depression's transmission from parent to child ... Depressed men, by healing themselves, bring peace to their ancestors and protection to their offspring."

Go to Depression in Men Part II ...

Published early 2000s, rewritten Jan 20, 2011

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