“I am not sure where it all went so horribly wrong,” he said in a very low whisper, slumped into a ball on the couch, shame awash over his face as he was desperately fighting back the tears.
My client is 35, a father of 2 toddlers, and ‘on paper’, everything looks good. He’s well dressed with no physical health problems. He has an esteemed education and good reputation, is on an excellent career trajectory, has money in the bank, and support from his wife and friends.
Yet he feels low. So low in fact that he has sat on the bed many nights, simply looking at his wife and babies sleeping, and wondering if life is even worth living.
What would happen to them if he was no longer around?
He thought of his own father who struggled with depressive thoughts and episodes also. A father who was emotionally and physically absent; the acrimonious divorce of his parents. And he knows this is not the life he wants for himself. But he says he doesn’t feel anything anymore. He’s got no zest, no ‘oomph’. We talk about his ‘Care Factor Switch’.
His switch is “turned off and out of action”, he says hopelessly. He lacks energy and zest, is distractible, unmotivated, has trouble sleeping, has lost weight, isn’t happy with things that used to make him happy, he feels very little emotionally when his toddlers run around and jump on his lap and beg for his attention (even though he can put on a good show), and he has zero desire to be intimate with his wife.
This man is clinically depressed.
He’s totally indifferent about everything. Favourite foods, sports, memories from the past… he can take it or leave it… he just doesn’t care. And aside from people commenting on his weight loss, he has hidden this for well over a year.
He’s been showing up to work every day and ‘ticking boxes’, cracking the odd joke, going to dreaded meetings and putting on a smile. He didn’t speak to his wife directly about the issues as he said he didn’t want to worry her, although he noticed himself getting snappy and irritable with her over very small things; and he recalled a recent altercation with his boss where he was just about to tell him “where to go”.
Overall, he says that “putting on a brave face” seems to have worked, as well as the odd run, and staying away from alcohol. He was still grasping onto the hope that this problem would simply disappear though; perhaps that he’d wake up one day and suddenly feel good—after all, he’d noticed small moments of happiness or pride when his children did something cute or clever. He also felt an upcoming promotion at work might change things, he mentioned somewhat hopefully.
But depression doesn’t work like that—you don’t just snap out of it—and people can develop symptoms of depression at any age. The biggest issue we face is validating how real depression is for men and fathers; how it can manifest slowly over time, almost imperceptibly alongside normal daily stressors; and how it is not your fault or a sign of weakness. In addition to some typical stressors and individual reasons, you’ve likely just got so much on your plate that your usual strategies don’t work as well anymore—simple as that. Depression is also more common in younger fathers; men with a partner who has ante-natal or post-natal depression, and approximately 1 in 5 fathers will suffer from depression by the time their child hits their teens.
Men definitely struggle after their children are born; as their children grow up; as their children marry and leave the home; and even as their adult children return home jobless or divorced! But they don’t often talk about it like females do. Generally, they feel that showing a stiff upper lip is the way to manage. That pushing down emotions or waiting for some extraneous event to change things will somehow bring about the magic solution. And even if friends and family do have an inkling that something is wrong; men tend to brush it off, get angry, get busy, or get defensive.
Does this sound like you?
The symptoms that my client was experiencing could have been dealt with far earlier. He didn’t need to struggle for so long. He definitely didn’t need to entertain the tragedy and enormity of suicidal thoughts. But that’s where it got to in his quest for relief from his painful mind.
Indeed, if your leg was broken, you’d immediately go to the doctor, right? So consider this as a glitch in the software, so to speak. You need a reboot and some reprogramming. After all, we can still do a lot with a broken leg….but with a broken brain?
If you are a father out there, no matter what your age, and if you’re feeling some of the symptoms like the above client, then please know you’re not alone. As brave as it feels to keep it all inside, it’s even braver to share this with an appropriate person. But don’t go to someone who doesn’t completely support you or doesn’t understand mental health. Find someone who will stand by you and give you appropriate coping strategies and tools to cope with the situation at hand.
The ‘gold standard’ of treatment is structured therapy and medication for more complex or chronic cases, but a General Practitioner, Psychiatrist or Clinical Psychologist could assess your situation more accurately—and often medication is not needed at all. There are also wonderful brief interventions and even groups available where a trained practitioner can support and guide you out of this.
The harsh truth of the matter is that you not only have to think about yourself here, but you’ve got your children to think about also. The way you feel affects them directly, no matter what their age. And what would you say to them if they were struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings? I suspect you’d be a little more lenient and would be getting them all the help they need.
You deserve that too.
Dr. Melanie Schlatter (PhD) is a New Zealand educated Health Psychologist. She specialises in helping adults cope with psychological issues related to health and disease.