Like a dysfunctional lover, depression has barged into and out of my life repeatedly. It was a most often situational rather than chronic, usually occasioned by some incident that pushed me beyond my limits. My depression expressed itself as anger, righteous indignation, sadness, hopelessness, listlessness, a sense of futility, and the feeling of living a useless and ineffective life. It often paralyzed me from taking meaningful action and ate away at my confidence, making the status quo unbearable. Being task oriented I managed to function at work without enthusiasm. I was adept at faking a positive public image in order to hide my real feelings. The depression would temporarily lift if I was called upon to assist someone in ministry, and it returned in a sea of boredom.
I’ve been blessed over the years with a number of good therapists and spiritual directors who addressed my depression with talk therapy, medication and counsel. I’m amazed at how patient they and my friends were in listening to my unhappy rants. I found cognitive therapy to be a great help, particularly David Burns’ work, Feeling Good, since I often spiraled into depression as a result of my faulty and unhelpful thought patterns.
I’ve come to identify some of these thought triggers. Several are classic personality traits of the highly sensitive. I’ve listed them in random order:
1. Wishing upon a star. My melancholic nature loves magical thinking wherein if I believe hard enough and trust in some benevolent force my dreams for life will come true. When they don’t my disappointment leads to feeling unvalued, ignored, and left out.
2. The victim. One of my least favorite but most tenacious habits, feeling like a victim laid the foundation for my cognitive dissonance. I am automatically pitted against the world, in which there are sinister intentions, indifference toward my needs, and lots of shaming and “you shoulds”.
3. Idealistic expectations. This is “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” thinking at its worst and compounded when I insert God’s ideal of the universe into the equation. These expectations will back-fire nearly every time.
4. Pipe dreams and romantic reverie. Daydreaming is a great escape, but can also emphasize the disparity between life as it is and as it should be in my perfect world. Ultimately it means that my life is not enough.
5. Lack of emotional boundaries. This plagues the highly sensitive. We are born into the world without the filters everyone else has that regulate external stimuli. We end up empathically sensing everything around us all at once, sometimes trigger “overwhelm” and leading to depression.
6. Comparison and envy. These nasties tap into my righteous indignation and trap me in a continuous analysis loop: I’m not like him; he’s more successful; I wish I was more successful; I wish I was more like him; but I’m not like him….
7. I’m not enough or good enough. In this state of mind no matter how hard I try, no matter what I’m given to work with, I do not have whatever it takes to please others, to meet their needs, to find a relationship, or to get validation and recognition for my accomplishments.
8. Cause and effect spirituality. This warped view of God is a result of mishandling the Christian message. In it I don’t really believe God will really help me until and if I live up to ideal expectations and “please him”.
I’m sure if I thought a bit more I’d come up with additional twisted thought patterns that have led me into depression. In addition to talk therapy there were times when Prozac helped me get through these periods which could last over a year. While very helpful at first I found Prozac left me feeling overly insulated from my emotions. It turned out that it would take brain surgery for me to discover what was really causing much of my depression.
About seven years ago doctors discovered a benign tumor of the tissue that covered the nerve sheath of my right balance nerve called an acoustic neuroma or schwanomma. It’s a rare occurrence that happens in one in 100,000 people world-wide each year. After a long and delicate operation at Massachusetts General Hospital the tumor was removed successfully. Unfortunately I was left totally deaf on that side, with tinnitus in my brain and a lack of physical balance.
I was also left with fatigue…profound and debilitating. I would have normal energy for a few hours and then due to stress, conversation, noise, or any environmental stimulation my vigor would drain from my body as if I had aged thirty years in ten minutes. I would shuffle to my bed to rest for an hour just to revive sufficiently in order to get through the next period of my day.
After two years of this I got fed up and started research. I began with tests for endocrine and adrenal gland functioning. Everything was fine. Then after speaking with a friend about his symptoms and medication I hit on testosterone. I discovered that my blood testosterone level was very low. I started a topical supplement for this vital hormone and soon I felt like a new, younger version of myself. In addition to getting my energy back, I also lost weight, got back to the gym, gained muscle mass AND no longer cycled through periods of depression.
I wonder if I’d been dealing with low testosterone all my life. I clearly had enough to make me into a functioning adult male, but not enough to give me the emotional and energetic support I’ve needed. I’m told over 20% of men over fifty are suffering from low levels needlessly and may not realize it.
I still fall into the traps that cognitive dissonance holds for me. I flirt with depression now and then but it rarely comes to stay with me for long. I’ve gotten rid of its guest room in my mind and heart. Life coaching and effective self-care have been the keys to growing away from dependence upon these old thought habits. What is your experience with depression, particularly as a man in a culture that usually doesn’t encourage men to discuss their feelings, especially those that show “weakness”? Have you had a blood test to see if testosterone is the issue, even if you’re feeling vigorous otherwise? Tell us your experience!
Contact the Life & Spirit Coach at firstname.lastname@example.org .