I remember my first bout of lasting depression. I was 38 years old, I had an excellent job, a home, a nice car, and yet I felt like someone was holding me under the surface of a big vat of liquid, thick liquid, like cooking oil. It was a suffocating feeling that I couldn’t shake, not through the ‘normal’ means. It bothered me mostly because I knew the Christmas holidays were upon us, and everything was going to be shiny, and Christmassy, replete with special music, and people really excited about the most wonderful time of the year. Why didn’t I feel wonderful?
So I decided that I must be depressed, and maybe it was because in the winter, the days were short, it was becoming darker outside earlier and earlier, the bane of the northern hemisphere. I thought it would be civil of me not to spread my lack of cheer with those around me, so I declined a dinner invitation or two and allowed myself to give some thought to what could be happening to me. At that time, seasonal affect disorder (SAD) was being discussed on Oprah, and Dr. Phil, and I listened with interest as they talked about people like me who turned a little sad when their beloved summer had given way to the cold, dark winter. These television talk show hosts explored the whole concept of winter being a metaphor for death, and in my case I knew that very soon, certainly sooner than I wanted, I would be “over the hill” and turning 40 years old. All these points of information, plus the great idea to increase the exposure of my skin to natural sun light. They even had light therapy where SAD sufferers just sat down in front of a fluorescent light fixture and let the light penetrate their pores, while envisioning warmer days, and the approaching renewal of the spring.
That was a great start, but I felt as though something was missing. I felt like there were pent up emotions that needed to be explored, and if possible liberated. I could feel an unwelcome presence in my bones that didn’t belong there. I decided to explore what emotions were present. Why was I sad about the darkness, and cooler Florida days? How might I delve into reasons for hysteria, the effect of weather changes on the mood of humans? Aha! Music would be helpful. I sought out my favorite CDs (anyone younger than 35, these were like DVDs, only music and not a movie was being digitized and played on my stereo). The music was so helpful, because sometimes I sang along, and my own singing broke the silence.
Still there was something else in there, something unexpressed, and repressed back into the deepest recesses of my mind. It was usually at Christmas time that I most experienced the impact of change. Vicissitude is the name given to the phenomenon of constant, unstoppable, and unpredictable change. The dying off of skin cells, loss of hair, teeth….. and then it occurred to me, people! In life, you lose people who are close to you, people that loved you, and that you loved in return. They were gone, and sometimes separated from you by death, others by their choice to move on, perhaps like an old lover, ready for the next. Change was seldom my favorite experience, and I resisted with great energy, fighting to hold onto a shred of security, or a piece of dignity that some force might want to gouge out of my soul.
In deference to unwanted, and painful changes, I decided the music of unwanted change is not the happier tunes. The songs of loss, perhaps the most powerful in my mind were the ballads about lost love, unrequited feelings, divorce, and perfidy. Wow, that really made a difference. When I listened to Dinah Washington, Linda Rondstadt, kd lang, Patsy Cline, and Diana Kral sing of lost love, then the tears came. Slowly at first, and attached to some of these songs were the memories of the losses I had experienced along the way. As I sang along with these very talented chanteuses I experienced a great release of repressed pain and deep sorrow. But…… Men aren’t supposed to cry. Men don’t show their feelings…. had I completely lost my mind?
Wait a minute…. Why was I starting to feel better?
It was that great feeling like that the vat of oily liquid had a floor, and I’d just found it. I stood up on the floor of the liquid change that had depressed me so profoundly, and I felt like I’d taken a deep breath of air, just before drowning. I began to think very deeply about the loss and associated feelings of helplessness that had been bottled and stored inside my subconscious, like bad childhood moments of truth, and out they came, some of them decades old. The feeling of loss when my beloved dad had been working overseas on 2 year projects, in far away places that I could barely find on a map. The loss of several loving relationships past, those times that young lovers foolishly professed their desires to grow old together, but ended like a favorite movie. Then there were all of those wonderful pets, who like my guardian angels, my unconditionally loving fans. Those dogs, cats, and parrots were also part of my life history, and they proved to me that I had experienced great love because I was now acknowledging the lasting effect of the loss of each one. What a light switch that had just illuminated recesses of my makeup that I never knew existed. It felt like I had just seen the great motherboard of my mind’s computer, and wondered what each chip, welded metal circuit, or silicon wafer might do!
Somber music, the music of loss, and the relief that flowed out through cleansing tears, those trapped spirits that had come and gone in my life. They had revealed the next layer of meaning for me, giving me perspective about my depression.
At the advice of my trusted friend, I reluctantly sought the help of a psychotherapist, one who had coached my close friend through her painful and abrupt divorce. Dr. Andrew G. Mathis was a caring psychologist whose smile and warm greeting made me feel like a cure was going to be possible. He asked me why I thought these feelings had suddenly come into my head, and in such a way as to keep me away from the things I enjoyed most in my life? I hadn’t anticipated such a profound question. It actually took me a few tries to develop a suitable answer, but it was in fact the approaching milestone birthday that was a central piece of the puzzle. I would soon be 40 years old, and there was no mansion, no children, and no prospect for change in the future.
Know that at that time in the late 1980s, the most current revelation of the greatest thinkers in mental health was that Americans demanded immediate gratification. We had become huge consumers, wasteful of natural resources, and self-centered about our needs. Both religious leaders and mental health researchers were alarmed at the high rate of divorce and substance abuse in the United States. Much like the self-centered American people, I wanted things and relationships with important people to last….. forever! With doctor Mathis’ gentle guidance I’d been led to discover that my depression was a”phase of life” problem. He had given me some good reading assignments like Codependent No More, and best of all Dr. Mathis told me I was normal. My depression was mild and could be managed through medication.
I am still grateful to Dr. Mathis who died in 2015. He was the man who freed me to experience painful emotions, and to allow my soul to grieve, even if it meant I cried a little. He convinced me that strong people cried too, and intelligent people understood that there was an endorphin release from a few well timed tears. It’s been my experience that I’ve cried many times since this first epiphany. Maybe I’m lucky that I do not suffer protracted jags of uncontrollable crying, or long periods of reclusiveness. To those of you who do suffer the lingering, debilitating feelings of sadness, I respect you for your feelings, and I wish for you a Dr. Mathis who might offer you an ear, or a book that distracts you from whatever lasting pain has possessed your soul. Depression is a tough disorder to live with, and unhealthy self medicating addictions are all around us today. If you’ve had a friend who gave up an evening to listen to your heartfelt sad stories, or brought you out of a funk, please take a moment right now to hug or thank them for helping you stand up in the vat of oily goo that engulfs and drains the energy from good people suffering depression.
PS One of my favorite self-medicating musical interventions is attached. Al Jarreau understood the healing power of music, and this is one of my favorite examples from his repertoire.