Dan Fields, a consultant to the Grief Support Services of the Samaritans, recently crafted a beautiful piece that articulates what his dysthymia feels like. I think his description does a better job of communicating the subtle signs of male depression than any list of symptoms I could throw at you. I have excerpted his profile from the helpful site, “Families for Depression Awareness.” However, I urge you to follow the link because he explains later in the piece what has worked for him.
I’ve struggled with depression at greater or lesser intensity since my teens. The word “depression” suggests sadness, and this is certainly one aspect of the disorder.
There are days when I’ll feel slow, tired, old, and brittle, as if the lightest breeze could knock me over. The sky may seem leaden, and I’d rather be alone so I don’t have to compose my face into some semblance of cheerfulness. Even when these emotions aren’t particularly intense, they can leave me feeling profoundly different from other people. I remember going to a community 4th of July celebration on a bright, sunny day and thinking, “Everyone else here seems happy. Why am I not happy?” At other times, depression can have a more anguished quality. Especially when I was younger, I’d feel as if I were in a black pit for weeks on end; the worst part was that I had no idea when or if I’d emerge. More recently, if I were feeling guilty about snapping at my wife or yelling at my kids, I’d retreat to the bedroom, turn off the light, curl up under the covers, and wish I could disappear. Times like this have made me more understanding of those who end up killing themselves: While suicide is sometimes perceived as a selfish act that shows a disregard for the survivors, I sometimes genuinely believed that my loved ones would be better off without me.
And my depression can express itself as irritability and anger, symptoms that I’ve learned may be more common in men. Particularly when I’m feeling stressed at work, I’ll arrive home and it can be (in the words of Kay Redfield Jamison) as if “my nervous system were soaked in kerosene.” If my wife is listening to NPR in the kitchen and one of our kids is playing a CD in another room, the overlapping sounds will drive me bananas. Little things can get me steaming—if our daughter has her homework scattered around, or our son knocks over a drink at the table, or my wife asks a question that I take as a criticism. Because I can be very critical of myself, I may project that attitude onto others. So I can be hypersensitive to criticism, and then respond by getting defensive.
Of course, this can make my wife feel like she’s walking on eggshells. She wants our home to be a refuge from the pressures of the outside world, a place where we can say whatever is on our minds and where we can accept each other’s mistakes. But if our kids have to “leave Dad alone” because I’m in a foul mood, or if I parse my wife’s words to come up with some sort of accusation, then our house itself becomes a minefield.