“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Winston Churchill called it his black dog.
Maybe he needed a euphemism. Outright calling it depression might have been too vulnerable for this former lieutenant, prime minister, strong man. Then again, he was also a literary man, and his imagery was apt. Depression is loyal, like a dog. It doesn’t leave on its own. It lies comfortably by your feet.
I know, because depression has been sitting with me since childhood.
It runs away and is gone for years but so far, it has always come back sooner or later to feed. Sometimes it’s gone for so long, I don’t recognize it when it returns. Sometimes it stays for so long, I can’t imagine life without it. And like Churchill, I’ve called it by a different name.
I’ve called it fatigue, muscle ache, busyness, cravings and slowness. I’ve called it fate, character and monstrosity. I’ve wanted it gone. I’ve withdrawn, pretended, and held up a mask of lightness or strength.If you’ve ever been depressed, you’ll know what I mean. And if you haven’t, know that depression is a stagnation of soul that can descend on any one of us at any point in our lives.
Sharing our pain breaks the spell of depression
Which is why, after so many years, I wanted to speak to this part of my life, as it affects my life as a partner, a friend and as a dad. Maybe it affects yours as well. Then that makes two of us. As we join together and share the full experience of our lives, we are made whole by witnessing and being witnessed. I’ve learned that this is the best compass for working my way out of the swamplands. Sharing what I know about inhabiting this painful terrain, the acrid smell of the still waters, the strange and unexpected sounds, the rough texture of the moss and rotting sticks. Seeing and being seen. Listening and being listened to. Step after tentative step.
If we don’t have that compass–calibrating our whereabouts by finding trusted escorts and pilgrims who have walked this way before us–we may not find our way out. The marshland is the backcountry of the human experience, and some people eventually discover that the way out is through. Others are caught there for good.
Isolation makes us sink deeper
Countless men have disappeared in the swamplands, embalmed in peat. Are you familiar with the figures? These cold, merciless numbers that turn lives into statistics, but also helps us see more clearly what may happen to depressed men who cut themselves off. They cut themselves down. Because when we leave depression unattended, we sink beneath the surface, into the wet and unctuous earth.
Unattended, we descend until the light wanes for good.
Here it seems we’ll never again enjoy sand between our toes and wrestling with our child. We won’t know the laughter that shakes our bones. We will have forgotten all about grace and gratitude. Here it seems our passion and purpose has been extinguished for good.
When the pain of depression is too hard to bear
And here men–far more often than women–decide there’s no place for them in the light anymore. Here the pain of staying is greater than the fear of going. Here men, fathers, sons, uncles, grandfathers become a number. Like this: suicide is the number one killer of British men aged under 45. Or this, spoken by men’s activist William Farrell: “At age nine, girls and boys commit suicide in equal numbers, but boys are twice as likely aged 14, four times more likely aged 15-19, and five times more by age 20-25. This is the time when dads drift out of their lives”.
As dads, we can estrange ourselves from our children in many ways. The wound of distant father leaves an ugly scar on a boy’s tenderness in particular. Without us, without a man to guide them, boys are also cast adrift. Sometimes they float for a lifetime. Few wounds leave as deep a scar in these children as a father taking his life. There are men in my family who have killed themselves. Some of my closest friends have lost their loved gramps, brothers, and dads to suicide. And I know men who shamefully hide their family stories–a father, uncle, son or grandfather who took his life. Desperate men, lost men whose troubled hearts were cast away by the aggrieved into cavernous silences.
There is paralyzing grief there that is inherited and passed on, from one man to the next, until it becomes unrecognizable, ephemeral, deadly, like gas.
Revealing the illusion of isolation
I’ve asked myself if a life coach should really share something as personal as this. How can my intimacy with the black dog possibly help anyone bring their gifts into the world, become a more caring father?I’m not a therapist or a counselor. I’m a coach, mentor, guide. If a client is depressed or suicidal, I refer him to others more qualified. All I know is what I’ve learned in my own life and in my work with other men, and I trust that hard earned lesson.
Isolation is an illusion.
The swampland in which the depressed man sits to his knees in soaked peat, is part of a greater landscape. Some men are just led to this part of the geography more readily than others. There’s a path that leads here. And there’s a path that leads out from here too. Others have walked it before. Others will walk it after.
We may think we’re the first to discover it, but we soon learn that others know this marshland too. Our surprise is understandable. Stuck in the swamp we lose sight of the forest and lakes, the peaks and meadows, the deserts and valleys. They fade from view, become vague, remote, almost imaginary.
We’re overwhelmed instead by the murky, damp, all-encompassing bogland. This becomes our whole world. We’re deceived, of course. Our world is bigger than this. But some of us have a harder time to catch the creator’s sleight of hand. Is this the totality of creation? We don’t know. The illusion is well crafted.
The illusion is well crafted.
Growing from the soil of depression
We inherit depression in our genes. I believe we inherit it also in our bodies, our beings.
It comes to us through a fragment of story we overhear when the grownups believe us asleep. We sense it on slow Sunday afternoon when we’re alone with a parent as a child. We hold a black and white photograph in our small hands and notice the empty gaze of our great-grandfather. It comes to us like a stray dog that will not leave, and we take pity. Unless we acknowledge the pain of our ancestors, and the pain we ourselves hold, we cannot also stand in the light, the lightness.
Is this what the Czech writer Milan Kundera called the unbearable lightness of being? I don’t know, but I’ve long wondered. Our deepest creativity is sourced from the soil in which we grow. The places we find hard to visit don’t go away just because we deny their interior location. Our capacity for bringing healing to a world that needs it so desperately, depends on the courage with which we are willing to become intimate with all parts of the terrain. Intrepid explorers. Love warriors. Soul wanderers.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was a soul wanderer. He new this terrain well. In his Letters to a Young Poet, he adviced visiting with the pain.
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
Become a trusted mapmaker
The maps we hold help us guide our children to a deeper sense of belonging and familiarity with the breadth of the human experience. We can struggle to leave the hidden recesses, mired in muck, strain towards the peaks, and never speak of the sordid places we know so well. Sooner or later, we will wander the land again and find ourselves back in the same spot. Lost in a familiar place. Desperate again to get out.
But when the time comes to hold up the map of our hearts, we must decide if to leave a dark and plain space where the swampland lies. Carl Jung knew about these dark places we avoid speaking of, these vistas of perpetual night, all features enveloped in shadow. That is the name he knew them by: shadows, all those parts of ourselves which we deny, repress or hide. He famously said that “people will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
The bigger our shadows the greater our suffering. And the bigger our shadows, the greater the suffering of our loved ones too. We source our actions from a darker place. When we ostracize the orphaned parts of ourselves, we cut ourselves off from our gifts too. We deny ourselves the experience as human beings who are fully at home. Until we can be with our grief and acknowledge our depression, until we can say I see you, I hear you, I welcome you, to all of our experiences as humans, we’re homeless men in search of belonging.
Making a home for it all
Our way home is not always a journey. Our way home can also be the skill of inhabiting the place where we find ourselves. Here we pull up a chair and make space for all parts of ourselves by the hearth of our heart. Home can be a map that is as true as we can make it today. When we fully trust that every part of our being serves the ecology of our souls, we are beginning to make a home for ourselves.
And for every part that we invite out of the shadows, our capacity grows to be wholehearted fathers. We can then listen to our children with greater compassion, presence, understanding. And we can show them that we don’t flinch when they find themselves in frightening places. With our steady presence, they will know that home is not just a place they wake up to in the mornings. Home is a place where even the least understood and the most foreign parts of their souls are fully welcome. Home is where they belong for who they truly are, without conditions.
A child who grows in such a home, won’t readily be deceived by the illusion of isolation.
This post originally appeared at Naturaldads.com