In 2004, at the beginning of my fifth decade, I left my rural mountain home for the city where my wife had a new job as a school principal. Cut loose from my erstwhile enterprises and everyday friends, I landed in a place with no connections and no palpable future. I was free to reinvent myself again, free to take advantage of all the exciting possibilities as I went about the business of creating a new life in a foreign land!
I became depressed.
I’d walk the streets of the new town, I’d scan the local papers for opportunities that might mesh with my interests, experience and skill set. My walks eventually took me into the wooded parks above the city where I could look down on the hustle and bustle of everyday industry, traffic, and lives of people I did not know; lives I could not recognize as linked with my own in any meaningful way. I grew more depressed.
A perennially optimistic guy, this was truly foreign territory. Not the geographic place, but the gloomy feelings and sense of being untethered, adrift, and alone. I had no road map for this dark night of the soul—even though I had seen something like this state of being in the faces of friends with chronic depression. I did not understand it in them and I did not understand it in myself. I did not even try to equate what they were experiencing with my own deepening sadness and sense of purposelessness. As a psychology student I’d been taught there was a difference between depression and depressed feelings. As a guy suddenly caught in a twilight zone of restless desperation, I just knew I wanted to find some way out of this labyrinth, this emotional shipwreck.
Psychologist Bob Murray works with men and depression, and writes that, “overwhelmingly depression has been seen as a woman’s problem, and the rate of depression among women is usually estimated as twice that of men. However, recent research has shown that men are actually just as likely to be depressed, if not more so. The difference is that depression symptoms in men and women differ and male depression tends to occur at a different stage of life.”
Australian government statistics and U.S. researchers have shown depression commonly shows up for men in their 40’s and 50’s compared to women who are more likely to experience depression in their teens and twenties.
During what is now referred to as “male menopause,” due to similarities in hormonal changes with female menopause, both depression and anxiety can and do strike. Male hormonal change can lead to failure to maintain an erection, lethargy, mood swings, and increased irritability.
Dr. Murray shares that, “depression in men often goes unrecognized—by themselves, colleagues, family and even physicians. Yet some researchers estimate the depression rate among middle-aged men approaches 40%—considerably higher than the rate among women (25%)! Statistically it takes 10 years and three health professionals to properly diagnose depression in men. Often depression is not recognized until men are in their 60s or even 70s.”
So why is it that depression in men so often goes undetected? Reasons offered hint that the symptoms that show up in men are quite different than those for women. Aggressive, compulsive, addictive, and controlling behaviors expressed toward others; along with guarded and suspicious reactions, sleep and sexual problems are not uncommon in men.
Overall it appears men act out depression and women direct it inward. And that acting out takes its toll in the loss of productivity and work performance, (30% lower), conflict-filled relationships, divorce (much higher rate for men in midlife), and even suicide (the suicide rate for men in their 40’s and 50’s is three times the US national average—and 80% of all suicides are men!).
Besides these gender differences, one of the top reasons men suffer in silence is that we are programmed to “tough it out,” not ask for help as it would appear weak, and in most cases our male friends and colleagues don’t ask serious questions when they notice something may be wrong.
Looking back to that darker time in my life I can more clearly see now that a deep sadness had crept into me like a thick fog I could not peel away. My sense of confidence and competence and my more immediate social supports that might have made a difference had slipped away. Even though I myself had helped people through some emotional hard times and experiences it was not obvious to me where I could turn for help in this new terrain.
Then, two things happened that brought “me” back. First, I went on a “journey” by listening to a recording of James Hillman, a Jungian therapist; Robert Bly, a poet; and Michael Meade, a storyteller. In that journey I was given permission to feel what I was feeling, to be just where I was. The information provided and the tale told by these men was so affirming and compelling I recognized myself in that mythical journey as one who needed to go “down under the ocean,” really own this experience and find the gift, even though it sucked!
The other thing that happened is that soon after this I discovered a new passion, which almost immediately gave me a fresh new sense of purpose. What is a mid-life crisis if it is not about losing what one thought was his passion and sense of purpose? Perhaps bio-chemical changes in the body result from this loss as much as create it.
Today, I have a better understanding of the ebb and flow of my own feelings and the complementary states of “expansion” and “contraction” that are as natural as the cycles of the tides, and of night and day. It does not mean I am permanently free of what we consider less-pleasant feelings—not at all. I just now have more tools to use and maps to navigate by so that I can stay on course through the low times.
Two tools I’ve found to be essential are The Passion Test™, a simple and powerful way to find one’s true passions which automatically leads to regaining a sense of purpose; and The Work of Byron Katie, which helps us deeply inquire into those thoughts that drag us down into or that accompany depression. If this sparks your interest, lets chat about these and my own experiences. Call 209-923-0502.
There is no good reason for any man (or boy—or anybody, really) to be an island!
Also check out this link to a wonderful short audio that helps frame depression as a navigable journey. Harvard psychiatrist James Gordon’s shares insights into stages of healing, and his personal journey with depression. http://www.soundstrue.com/weeklywisdom/?source=tami-simon&p=1315&category=PP&version=full
Though I’ve not finished reading his book, so far I find Dr. Bob Murray’s perspective and tools for overcoming depression some of the healthiest and most empowering for men. Let me know what you think. http://www.upliftprogram.com/product_optimism.html