I Don’t Want To Talk About It

Excerpts from:  I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terrence Real, Scribner, New York NY 1997.

Pg 4     Healthy self esteem is essentially internal.  It is the capacity to cherish oneself in the face of one’s own imperfections, not because of what one has or what one can do.  Healthy self-esteem presupposes that all men and women are created equal; that one’s inherent worth can be neither greater nor lesser than another’s.

Pg 82   Covert Depression, prevalent in men, can be viewed as internalized disconnection—the experience of victimization warded off through grandiosity, perhaps through victimizing.

Pg 83   Overt depression, prevalent in women, can be viewed as internalized oppression, as the psychological experience of victimization.

Pg 93   Virginia’s eruptions served the marriage like a blessed storm, releasing tensions too suffocating to endure.

Pg 147 Risk taking, gambling, infatuation, and rage all trigger our bodies’ “fight or flight” response, releasing both endorphins, the body’s opioids, and adrenal secretions, the body’s natural stimulants….Noting the high prevalence of crisis in the lives of people who have histories of trauma, he hypothesizes that some may seek intensity to “Self-medicate” internal pain not by reaching for an external stimulant, but by throwing themselves into extreme states of physiological hyperarousal….These men uniformly describe the self-mutilation as bringing a sense of relief.  It may be that at a most elemental level these prisoners are describing release from the torment of feeling nothing at all.

Pg 180 On the one hand, since they are entrusted with the psychological equilibrium of the parent, and since they become caretakers to their own caretakers, they enjoy inordinate power within the family.  But that inordinate power is based, as for Faust, on forfeiting the most precious part of them, their souls, their deepest vulnerabilities and needs.  I call such trade-off “conditional grandiosity.”  It lies at the core of the male experience.

Pg 203 The first clue of his condition is an absence rather than a presence—an absence of feeling for himself.  Billy tells me that he felt the pathos of his bickering parents but did not feel, and still does not feel, much concern for the young boy who grew up with them.

Pg 204 Billy feels his parents’ pain precisely because they do not.  And, burdened with their pain, he has little room left for empathy toward his own….Billy Jodein’s lost connection to self suggests that in those nights out with friends or upstairs alone in his room he learned more than simply to cut off from his deepest emotions.  He actively learned to despise them.

Pg 204 In depression, the childhood violence that had been leveled against the boy—whether physical or psychological, active or passive—takes up permanent habitation within him.  The depressed man adopts a relationship to himself that mirrors and replicates the dynamics of his own early abuse.  This phenomenon, which I call empathic reversal, is the link connecting trauma to depression.  To understand the mechanism of empathic reversal, we must accept a disturbing truth—that trauma intrinsically involves fusion between the offender and his victim.  In the very moment of damage, some form of unholy intimacy occurs, in part because trauma always involves a failure of boundaries.

Pg 204 Most often, childhood trauma results from a layering of both kinds of boundary failure, as in the case of a father who is so stimulated by his adolescent daughter’s sexuality that he will no longer touch her, or the case of a mother who neglects to set appropriate limits on her son’s temper and then blows up at him herself.

Pg 205 When a child is traumatized—by a parent who is either negligent or out of control—his first and most profound response will be to take responsibility for the failing parent.  When a child comes face to face with a caregiver’s pathology, that child will do whatever he must to reinstate the caregiver’s psychological equilibrium.  A child’s need to preserve his attachment, his willingness to contort himself into whatever shape the parent needs him to be in during such moments represents one of the least recognized, most pervasive, and most powerful psychological forces in human development….In fact, it is a direct manifestation of that instinct, for the simple reason that each child relies on his parents’ capacity to function in order to survive.  As Herman suggests, in extreme cases, the need to preserve the attachment to an abusing parent may even supersede self-preservation…One of the distinguishing characteristics of persistent, “mild” childhood trauma is that, unlike a terrorist bomb or a devastating hurricane, damage is delivered to the child by the hands of those on whom he relies.  Safety fluctuates, often capriciously, with danger.  Love alternates with contempt.  The child remains in an excruciatingly confusing and precarious position.  In such instances, both as a result of the boundary failure and as an unconscious coping strategy, the child will take the feelings that the parent is not handling responsibly into his being.

Pg 206 By developing a contaminated, stigmatized identity, the child victim takes the evil of the abuser into herself and thereby preserves her attachment….Pia Mellody has called these transmitted states carried shame and carried feeling.  They are the means by which the wound, the legacy of pain, is passed from father to son, mother to son, across generations.

Pg 207 My father hated and punished his own weak, dependent child in me, and I absorbed into my psyche both the hated and the hate-filled parts of him….In the midst of his brutality, I most strongly sensed, even as a young child, the urgency of his fragility, his pathos.  I felt sorry for him.  As a therapist, whenever I hear a depressed a man tell me that he feels sorry for one or both of his parents, I know I am in the presence of carried feelings.  A healthy parent, barring some true catastrophe, does not id for his child’s pity….All traumatic acts are simultaneously disempowering and falsely empowering.  No matter how badly a caregiver treats a child, he also models, through example, a shameless way of being in the world.

Pg 208 Henry’s rage stealthily enters his son through the very door of Tom’s repulsion.

Pg 211 She would be sitting there, or cooking, or whatever—talking to one of her girlfriends.  Whatever.  But not to me—just not to me.  And I would get so fucking agitated.”

Pg 212 If empathic reversal—the process of taking on the offender’s perspective and losing empathy for one’s own—is the process by which trauma becomes depression, reversing that reversal—reestablishing empathy for the vulnerable child within and creating distance, a healthy judgment toward the offender—lies at the core of recovery.  From the first moments a depressed man enters my office, most of the actions I take are aimed at reconnecting the dismembered, pained self and challenging the toxic, internalized offender.

Pg 225 Depression is an obsessive disorder.   …An unhappy, immature, relationally unskilled man on medication becomes, at best, a happier immature, relationally unskilled man.

Pg 233 Just as the forces that push boys toward “masculinity” and the forces that push boys toward depression are inextricably bound to one another, so too, recovery impels a collision, not just with depression, but also with the terms of masculinity itself.  When a man reconsiders performance-based esteem, when he reaches into his own heart to unearth and form a relationship with the emotional parts of himself, when he takes on responsibilities for psychological self-care as well as the psychological care of others, he breaks with the terms of traditional masculinity.

Pg 234 Men who do not turn to face their own pain are too often prone to inflict it on others….Lisak guessed that the traumatized group would salve their hidden insecurities with heightened fidelity to the traditional male role…To his surprise, Lisak found that the group with abuse histories proved to be significantly less rigidly masculine than the control group of nonabused men—slightly less “macho,” less traditional, less denying of “feminine” traits.

Pg 236 Somehow they were able to distance themselves from their abusers and to embrace parts of themselves that even the “normal” group of controls still held in some degree of contempt.  I consider these men to be heroes….The harsh child also takes in the general force of contempt for the “feminine” that is rampant in our culture at large…Too often, what fathers bequeath to their children is their own unacknowledged pain, and, in instances of violence, an entitlement to inflict it on others…one avenue for obtaining closeness with him, for absolving the father and uniting with him, is to become him.

Pg 239 One must limit the aggression of the harsh child, and nurture, without indulgence, the emergence of the vulnerable boy.

Pg 247 He had thrown their family money into the winds and taught his sons, instead, to treasure their hearts.

Pg 248 recovery frequently involves, or at least invokes, several generations of men.

Pg 303 It does not matter much whether the returning male is a miner or a professor; his wife, knowingly or not, has the culturally defined task of reading his face for signs of despair and doing her level best to get him back out there again the next day.  Women are the cheerleaders of industrial society.”…If the relationship of most traditional wives to their breadwinnng men is one of caretaking, of “building up the male ego,” then the wife’s relationship to a depressed spouse represents a kind of caretaking doubled….It is not hard to understand Joe’s wish for a moratorium on obligation.  As a small boy he had stepped into the vacuum left by his depressed father.  Little Joe became, in many ways, his mother’s emotional husband, his father’s business partner, his siblings’ father.  The only person’s needs Joe learned to ignore were his own.

Pg 306 For generations, traditional men have been willing to slog their way through combat trenches, dirty, mean jobs, dangerous occupations, to sacrifice their health, even lie down and die, for the sake of their breadwinner roles.  Men have enjoyed the “privilege,” as more and more angry voices are rising to say, of killing themselves.  In return, what men have been promised is an appreciative, saintly wife—a whore in the bedroom, a kitten on the living room couch, a scintillating cocktail companion, and a damn fine cook and homemaker.  This is not a mature relationship.  It is what I have taken to speak of with couples as traditional emotional pornography….Some pornography is deliberately demeaning, all explicitly erotic material is not intrinsically violent toward women.  But most pornography does play out in the arena of sexuality a broader male fantasy—a fantasy of women’s boundless, joyful compliance….The one thing never depicted in a pornographic film is a woman criticizing her lover or demanding something different from him.  The essence of the pornographic vision of women is that they are so thoroughly “in sync” with the male, that the things that give him pleasure just happen to drive her wild as well.

Pg 307 Stuffed with such romanticism, neither men nor women learn to vigorously negotiate their differences, because true harmony is seen as obviating difference….the idea that a good woman is one who is happy to take care of—and leave alone—her breadwinning husband….Women, traditionally barred from direct confrontation, have learned the “feminine wiles” of management….Women, in this culture, have been taught to be indirect, manipulative, and silent, while men have been taught to ignore their women, punish them, or feel wounded by them if they dare speak out….Joe needs to wake up to the responsibility of listening, of bringing himself to the negotiation table to begin with.

Pg 308 Men are raised to be good workers.  Once they realize that they must work on themselves and on their relationships, they can usually carry it off.

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