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Voice Male - Spring 2003
Men Overcoming DepressionBy Michael Burke, Managing Editor
African Americans called it "the blues." Winston Churchill referred to it as "Black Dog." One man I know described it as "walking through a black cloud, like a dream in which I could not speak." For me depression has always felt like various shades of gray: an opaque filter placed between me and the world, blotting out its vibrant colors.
Whether blue or black or gray, depression can be debilitating. It robs us of energy and enthusiasm for life. It takes away appetite, sleep, sex drive, decisiveness, and the will to get up in the morning. It can lead to thoughts of suicide, feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness: "Things are always going to be bleak. It's never going to get any better."
How do I know? Because I've felt it--all of the above and more. I've talked and corresponded with a number of other men who've struggled with depression, and as a men's support-group facilitator I've seen many men who are depressed. Some of them know it; many of them don't. But by now I recognize some of the signs: lack of affect and monotonous speech delivery; slouching in the chair or covering the face with the hands; lack of engagement with what's happening in the group; short, uncommunicative responses to expressions of concern: "Oh, it's all right, I guess..." "Not much is going on, really..."
Men who are depressed also may act it out in socially inappropriate and destructive ways, as therapist and author Terrence Real points out. They may be drinking, using drugs, being violent, having affairs, or acting recklessly, discharging their anger or neediness on others. They may not be seen as "men who are depressed," but rather as alcoholics, abusers, controllers, womanizers, boys who never grew up. Yet their actions, Real maintains, are essentially defenses against depression. (His 1997 book about male depression, I Don't Want to Talk About It, is considered a classic in the field.)
Depressed men's destructive behaviors may cause them to be fired or incarcerated, injured or killed, served with a restraining order, ostracized or isolated. If we as men don't seek help ourselves we may be called on our actions--if we're lucky--by someone who cares enough to push us to get help, at least with the symptoms. We may be dragged into a therapist's office by our spouse or partner or other family member-someone who loves us but who has had it with our behavior and has given us the ultimatum: "Come to counseling or it's over."
When we're depressed, it has an effect on those around us. More specifically, according to Michael D. Yapko, clinical psychologist, family therapist, and author of Hand-Me-Down Blues, those of us who are fathers may be passing along our depression to our children, and possibly their children--not so much genetically, but because we are modeling depressed behavior. Depression is the face we show the world, so depression is what our children see every day when they see "Dad." "All behavior has message value," writes Yapko, and our children hear us loud and clear. As they grow older they may internalize the depressive mode, learning lessons we didn't intend to teach.
Depression distorts the outlook, coloring our thoughts and interactions with pessimism and self-doubt. We see the cloud behind every silver lining; we immediately jump to put a negative spin on events; we blame ourselves first when things go wrong; and we look at any potential change in our lives with an eye toward the worst possible outcome. What's more, we believe we'll always feel this way, that there's no hope of better times.
Recent studies have shown that depressed people are more "realistic" than nondepressed people. Pessimists--I reluctantly include myself--take a dim view of life, as a protection against the wounds it can inflict. We may pride ourselves on our hardheadedness-yet this "realism" doesn't improve our mood, doesn't lead us to contentment.
Optimistic people are happier. Optimists greet the day with hope--like a friend of mine who met me one morning with a sunny smile and "Well, it's a beautiful day, and we have our lives." To which I thought, What kind of pop-psych bullshit is that?
But you know--he's right. Much as it pains a dyed-in-the-black-wool pessimist to admit, my friend's mantra is a huge improvement over the one that's often come up for me first thing in the morning: "I wonder how I'll get through today..." And one of the things I've started to learn, slowly and painfully over the last few years, is that we may not always have control over how we feel, but we can empower ourselves to create affirmations-new, more positive thoughts-that shed a happier, more optimistic light on what we're doing. Because if there's a choice--and I have to believe that in my mind, at least, there usually is--isn't it better to start from a point of "It's a beautiful day, and I have my life" rather than "It's a shitty (or potentially shitty) day, and what good is my worthless existence"?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not auditioning for Up with People, or setting myself up as a prophet of the You Create Your Own Reality school. I'm just suggesting that if we start to shift our thinking into a more positive key, it does begin to color our outlook for the better, and can also have an impact on what happens around us. It can affect our relations with other people, for example, as well as improving our own mental and physical health. This creates a sort of chain reaction, whereby some of those "good vibrations" flowing out of us come back in the form of the reflected care and concern-and love-we get from others.
But just changing our thinking is not enough. We need strategies to overcome depression and keep it away. What else can we do to begin to move out of our depression and isolation and into fulfillment, connection, and joy? There are no easy answers, but from my own experience, and from reading about depression and talking with other men about what has worked for them, here are some suggestions:
Get help. Take action--today--to begin your healing. Start with a thought: I will do something to help myself. I deserve to feel better. See a therapist, or a physician you trust, and tell him or her what you've been experiencing. Therapy can help, and medication might make a difference.
Talk with others. Check out a support group, such as those offered by the Men's Resource Center, or others you feel comfortable with. You'll meet other men who've dealt with depression, and they can help. Get out and see friends--real friends you can be honest with; you may be surprised at the offers of support you receive, and at how good it feels just to be heard. If friends are in short supply, plan activities you enjoy that will put you in contact with other people: join a hiking or biking group, volunteer with a charity, attend a house of worship or meditation group, or just hang out downtown having coffee and chatting. Interaction with others helps reduce the isolation factor, so harmful to men.
Move your body. Exercise and physical activity can dispel depression and keep it at bay. Find an exercise routine or activity you like and make it part of your weekly schedule. Go to the gym, swim, find a pickup basketball game, call a friend to play tennis or racquetball. Get outdoors and walk or bike or ski--just being outside in the fresh air, moving your body, can improve your mood immeasurably.
Develop your spiritual side. This could mean something organized, such as a particular religion or spiritual path, or it could mean meditation, poetry, journal writing, painting, being in nature, playing music, or any activity that calms the mind and brings a sense of fulfillment and peace. Are there things you used to enjoy that you don't do anymore? Chances are they're connected to your spiritual self, and doing them again will feel amazingly good.
Work on your relationships. If you're in a committed relationship, you might explore couples counseling or cocounseling--both to check out how the relationship is doing (how your partner feels about it and how you feel) and to learn how your depression is affecting your life with your partner. You can also try to find more time together-going out, resurrecting your romance and sex life and doing some of the fun things you used to do. If you have children, spending more time with them--whether playing games, taking them places, being outdoors, or just doing homework, dishes, or gardening together--can be a real solace and a boost.
Read. If you're a reader, reading is itself a joy and a comfort. I list some books on depression below-but just as important is to read something that captures your interest, gets you jazzed. It might be a novel, poetry, or a biography of some inspiring person. It might be medieval history or quantum physics for all I know. Whatever; just choose something engaging and uplifting (and nondepressing!).
Be honest-and compassionate-with yourself. Don't try to do everything at once, or think you're going to be on top of the world tomorrow. And don't punish yourself when you're not--don't bludgeon yourself for the day you missed the gym, the morning you stayed in bed, the times you let the machine answer the phone. Don't fool yourself that you can or must be perfect, that the work will be easy, or that at some point you'll absolutely have it licked. But do start loving and caring for yourself, be compassionate about your weaknesses--while acknowledging them honestly-and as a bonus you'll become more understanding, and less judgmental, with other people.
Once you get started on this healing journey you'll think of other things to do along the way. The important thing is to begin: to start building structures into your life that will make you happier over time, to create new relationships and mend existing ones so that you have a network of support. This is extremely important for men, as most of us were never taught to be intimate with others, many of us were taught that it wasn't okay to be honest and open or to have emotions (other than anger), and all of us have probably suffered from the damaging effects of our isolation. But we can learn how to be connected, and we can teach ourselves to appreciate and enjoy the life that opens up before us.