Treating Hidden Male Depression: Irritability, Anger, Anxiety, and Loneliness

Millions of men are depressed and don’t know it. Millions of women are living with depressed men, but don’t know what to do. Men often take their irritability and anger out on the women and children they care most about and feel guilty, ashamed, and frustrated. Families live in confusion and pain because they don’t understand Hidden Male Depression. Untreated male depression can cause a family to fall apart and can even lead to violence and suicide. When I wrote, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression, I introduced the idea that irritability and anger were often unrecognized symptoms of depression. I also described new ways for prevention and treatment.

            I’ve been helping men and families for more than fifty years, but my own family nearly came apart before I recognized the Hidden Male Depression in my own life. My wife, Carlin, and I had gone to a support weekend for our son. As part of the program they gave a written test for the parents which looked for possible depression. My wife scored high on the test, while I scored low. She talked to a counselor and my wife agreed to get a full evaluation when we returned home. I was glad she was going to get some help, which I hoped would improve things in our marriage.

            After returning home, she saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed her depression and started her on medications. Her anxiety and low mood lifted and our lives improved considerably.  A few months into her treatment she surprised me with a new concern. “You know, now that I’m feeling better, I’m wondering if you too might have some depression yourself.” I immediately became defensive. “What do you mean by that? Are you saying I’m depressed? Remember it was you who scored high on the depression test. I scored low. So, no, I don’t think I’m depressed.”

            She backed down and I felt relieved. My father had been depressed, though he had never been diagnosed. Secretly, for my whole life, I had been afraid that I might be depressed and worried in silence, but never spoke about it to anyone. A few weeks later, we had what is considered a minor disagreement. Carlin felt it was more than minor. “You know you really are reactive lately,” she told me. “You blow up at the least little thing or you get into these angry silences and get that beady-eyed look that chills me to the bones. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells around you. I wish you’d go get checked out.”

            I was defensive again and told her in no uncertain terms. “I’m not angry. I’m not depressed. I’m fine.” But of course I wasn’t. I finally agreed to see the doctor she’s seen. He diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, based on my mood swings, anger, anxiety, and a number of other symptoms.

            When I got home, Carlin was anxious to hear what the doctor had said. I hemmed and hawed and finally told her what he had said, but I still resisted the truth. “I don’t really think he understood me and besides I didn’t like him. I really want another opinion.” In retrospect, I’m surprised Carlin didn’t hit me. “You want another opinion. I’ll give you another opinion. Get help before you wreck our marriage.” Before I could reply, she turned and walked away.

            It took me another two weeks, but I did seek another opinion. This time with a woman physician who I liked much better. To my surprise, she offered the same diagnosis and recommended medication, but more importantly she wanted to work with me to get to the root of the problems and offered a deeper kind of support than most health-care professionals.

            I wrote about my healing journey in an article, “Being Bipolar: Living and Loving in a World of Fire and Ice.” In his excellent book,  I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, family therapist Terrance Real shares experiences which were similar to my own.

He says,

“In hindsight, it is clear to me that, among other reasons, I became a therapist to cultivate the skills I needed to heal my own father—at least to heal him sufficiently to get him to talk to me.”

            I’ve come to see that our inability to talk about our feelings is what keeps many men locked up inside a fortress that keeps us lonely and cut off from the love and support we so desperately need. Our irritability and anger are both a desperate cry for help and also reflect the terror we live with, afraid that if we ever opened up and let our feelings out, we would drive away the people we love the most.

            Rather than confront our fear, we deny our depression, deny that we need help, blame others who try to break through to us. We often escape from it all through drink, drugs, and pornography or through more acceptable escapes like overwork, overeating, and our ubiquitous reliance on T.V., computers, cell phones, and social media.

            Or we escape into a world where we don’t need to feel at all. We do our job as best we can. We soldier on. We don’t complain. “I’m fine. No, really, I’m just fine.” I’m still moved to tears when I read the journals my father kept to himself and I only discovered after he had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

                November 8th:

                     A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. 

                     I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying.  Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”

  My father didn’t die, but too many men do. And the real killer is our lonely silence.

Dr. Thomas Joiner, author of Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success, says,

“Men’s main problem is not self-loathing, stupidity, greed, or any of the legions of other things they’re accused of. The problem, instead, is loneliness.”

  As the suicide statistics verify, men often feel increasingly alone, and the problem gets worse as we age.

In his book, Dr. Joiner goes on to share this chilling report.

“A postmortem on a suicide decedent read: ‘This is a man in his sixties. He did not have friends…he did not feel comfortable with other men…he did not trust doctors and would not seek help even though he was aware he needed help.”

This is a description that is all too familiar to me and for too many men who are dealing with hidden depression.

  Fortunately, help is available. I’ve developed a new on-line, self-guided, program for men, women, and couples. The course is based on what I’ve learned over the last fifty plus years healing my own wounds and helping more than ten thousand people move from irritability, anger, anxiety, loneliness, and depression to a life of greater comfort and joy. Check it out here. If you have comments, questions, or things you’d like to share about your own experience, I look forward to hearing from you.

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