As a therapist, I see many faces of depression. Sometimes the symptoms are obvious. Being tearful or feeling completely flat. Having a lack of energy, foggy thinking or indecisiveness. Expressing negative feelings about your own value, sleeping a lot (or not at all), or having a mood that won’t lift.
Maybe you’re not enjoying life or relationships and thus, withdrawing into your own world. All of these describe clinical depression. It could be severe, including thoughts of suicide, or more moderate.
It can be triggered by many things, such as poorly planned or unexpected retirement, divorce, estrangement from children, illness, deaths of friends or family. Or it can be more chronic, and something you’ve managed for a long time.
With older patients, sometimes I hear resignation. “I’m 64. There’s nothing I can do about what happened or the way I feel. I just have to live with it.”
I see a set jaw, or eyes that hold hurt or anger. In my experience, age has little to do with whether or not you can heal from depression.
Paul was a retired teacher, who had first seen me when his wife “dragged” him to therapy. He had been fairly quiet in those sessions, but congenial.
He called me a couple of months later, saying he’d like to come in by himself. There were no tears in his eyes when he flatly stated he had been fondled by his grandfather as a child. Only bewilderment.
When I asked him more about his childhood, other facts came out. A four-year-old brother had been tragically killed when he ran across an old dirt road, and didn’t see a truck coming. The children’s alcoholic father was in the house. Paul, the oldest, was “watching” all five of his brothers and sisters. As a result, throughout his life, he thought he never deserved to be happy.
We worked on the shame he had carried all his life, confronting its hold on his feelings about himself. He then took an anti-depressant for a few months, to help clear his thinking, and focused on readings that would help him understand the effects of childhood trauma. Paul beat his depression.
I had met with Elizabeth and her husband years earlier. He was the primary patient. She came to therapy to work on their communication, and sense of partnership. She was cooperative and polite, but didn’t shared too much about herself.
The second time she came to therapy, it was a different story. She was attending an Adult Children of Alcoholics support group, and it was changing her life.
As an adult Elizabeth always put the needs and wishes of others before her own — just as children living with alcoholics tend to do. She was programmed to keep her head down, and — more importantly — her feelings to herself. She was tired of the charade, and wanted a different life, one where what she cared about mattered.
There was kickback, however. Her family was accustomed to a mother/wife/daughter who never said no. But Elizabeth held her ground. Finally, she believed in her self worth. On her birthday, rather than repeating the usual neighborhood cocktail party that she’d always given herself—one where friends brought cards and kidded her about turning another year older—she went camping with her family. It was something she’d always wanted to do. Elizabeth was slowly freeing herself from her depression.
Victor, a retired military man, came into my office. He had diabetes that was slowly blinding him. He told me of a marriage that had totally revolved around him, his career, his interests and hobbies. How his wife, Sharon, sacrificed everything, and that, instead of thanking her for it, he expected it. He wanted to ask her forgiveness, while he could still see.
A few weeks later, I watched him tell Sharon how sorry he was. She also admitted her own responsibility for creating the dynamics of their marriage. And she forgave him. They had a hard road in front of them, but they could feel closer in facing it. Victor was letting go of his guilt.
Depression Isn’t a Natural Part of Aging
Positive change is possible, even for hurts or trauma that happened years before. Paul, Elizabeth or Victor could have easily have lapsed into suicidal thinking or despair, but they didn’t. Instead, they chose to open up about their shame, vulnerability and regret.
If you or someone you love seems more withdrawn, is getting more and more irritable, seems more negative, or has any of the above symptoms, these could easily be signs of depression, not simply signs of growing older.
I urge you to do something about it. Seek therapy, talk to your family physician, or get counsel from a trusted friend or minister. You can heal.
Editor’s Note: Paul, Elizabeth and Victor are fictitious names used to protect patient confidentiality.