Even as a therapist, I fought the stigma that men should handle everything themselves. I finally got help, narrowly avoiding paying the dearest price.
Although depression runs in my family I was convinced that I could outsmart it. Since I was a psychotherapist I had convinced myself that I knew everything there was to know about depression and my knowledge would keep depression from undermining the joyful life I so desperately tried to maintain. My unwillingness to recognize my vulnerability nearly destroyed my relationship and almost killed me.
It was my son’s problem that forced me to deal with depression. When our son decided to enter a treatment program to deal with his alcohol and drug problems we felt great hope for his future. He had struggled with these problems for many years. When the program invited family members to attend a weekend program, we immediately agreed to come. We learned about alcohol and drug problems and how they impacted the family. We were sure the knowledge would help us help our son when he returned from the treatment program.
As part of the program all the family members were asked to complete a depression questionnaire. It was explained that many people who had a family member with a drug and alcohol problem also had problems with depression. When we completed the questionnaire we had the opportunity to talk with a counselor about the results. My wife scored high, indicating that she had depression, while I scored low indicating that depression was not a problem in my life.
After returning home, my wife had a more complete evaluation, sought out a doctor, was prescribed anti-depressant medications and our lives changed for the better. She began to have a much more positive outlook on life. She worried less and seemed more peaceful with the challenges we were facing. To my surprise, my wife suggested that I might want to be evaluated for depression myself. “You’re often irritable and angry,” she told me. “I have to walk on egg shells when I’m around you. Now that I’m feeling better I think you ought to get checked out yourself.”
I immediately got angry at her suggestion that there was something wrong with me. I told her I was glad she had gotten help, but I certainly didn’t need it. I reminded her that she scored high on the depression scale, while I scored low. “Well, the scales just give you an indication of a problem,” she insisted. “Seeing a good clinician is the only way to know for sure.”
I clung to my belief that I didn’t need help and I certainly wasn’t depressed. I admitted that I was often angry and at times I felt overwhelmed by the stresses in my life, but I felt my anger was justified. “Who wouldn’t be angry if you had to put up with the crap I have to deal with every day?” She backed off and continued to improve with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
Even as her life improved, our relationship began to become strained. I insisted the problem was work, the state of the world, our children, her lack of understanding. I blamed my own unhappiness and frustration on things outside myself. I would never admit it to my wife, but I was beginning to feel suicidal. I felt ashamed of my weakness in not being able to handle my own problems and I felt ashamed that I might have to admit I needed help.
I finally agreed to see the doctor, mostly to “prove” that I didn’t have a problem. After a full evaluation he gave me the news. “There’s no doubt you are dealing with depression,” he told me. “You would benefit from a trial of antidepressants.” I was shocked. I didn’t want to believe it.
When I came home my wife was anxious to hear the results. I was evasive, then angry. I finally told her what the doctor had said. I complained that I didn’t think he was that good a doctor. I was a professional and I didn’t like his manner, I told my wife. I said I wanted a second opinion. Then she got angry. “You want a second opinion? I’ll give you a second opinion. You’ve got a problem, get some help.”
It took me another month before I could get an appointment with another doctor. I liked this doctor much better. She was much more personable than doctor number one and her evaluation was much more complete. I was sure I would be told I was fine, just stressed out a bit. To my surprise, she told me essentially the same thing as the first doctor. But she explained that I had a form of depression called bipolar disorder, which she said explained my irritability and anger as well as my times of feeling unhappy and overwhelmed.
I began taking medications and also psychotherapy. Things began to improve at home as well as in my outlook on life. I realized that even though I was a therapist I held many of the societal views about men and mental illness. As a therapist I knew that depression and other illnesses were no more shameful than having heart disease or cancer, yet I still felt that a man should be able to handle “life’s ups and downs” himself.
I was lucky that I had a supportive wife who got help herself and encouraged me to get help even when I insisted I didn’t need it. Once I allowed others inside my defenses I found that I didn’t need to be the tough guy who could handle everything himself. I found that I could rely more on my wife, that she could, and would, love me even when I felt weak and overwhelmed.
Now that I’ve gotten help I’m amazed that it took me so long. Too many of us guys get locked inside the “gotta-be-a-man box.” When we have emotional problems we think that means we’re less than a man. If we have to reach out for help, we feel even less manly. Too many of us would rather die than take the risk to break out of the box and allow ourselves to be truly held and supported by others. It turns out being vulnerable and asking for help makes us more manly, not less. What do you think? I’d enjoy hearing your own experiences.
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