Depression, Springsteen, and Me: On Moods and Madness

depression-picI recently read an article, “Why Bruce Springsteen’s Depression Revelation Matters” and it reminded me how important it is for well-known people to talk about their own mental illness and mental health. In Springsteen’s recently released book, Born to Run, the rock legend talks about his long history of depression and how he has dealt with it in his life.

Even in our more enlightened times, mental illness carries a stigma that can undermine our well-being and can disqualify us from being elected to office, as Senator Thomas Eagleton found when he had to resign as George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate. It can also undermine our ability to make a living.

The first time I sought help to deal with my depression I was in graduate school training to be a mental health professional. I was afraid that someone might see me going to the student health center and suspect the reason I was going. I went early in the morning, hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to see me professionally if they knew I suffered from depression.

Once I got my degree and began working in the field I continued to have problems with depression as well as bipolar disorder, but I was convinced I could handle them myself. I’m sure some of the reason I went into the field was the hope that I could learn enough about mental illness that I could keep from ever having to deal with it in my own life. I know this makes about as much sense as becoming a medical doctor to ensure that I would never suffer from the flu or ever get cancer or heart disease.

But mental illness carries a different meaning than physical illness, although we now know that they really can’t be separated. Mind and body are infinitely inter-related. The article on Springsteen cites a study that shows “for years the media has reinforced negative stereotypes of people with mental illness, often depicting them as ‘inadequate, unlikable, dangerous’ and absent a ‘social identity, single or of unknown marital status, frequently without identifiable employment … confused, aggressive and unpredictable.’”

I remember growing up and trying to make sense of my father’s depression and bipolar disorder. When he was hospitalized I was teased mercilessly about my crazy father. The teasing didn’t stop with him, but they told me that clearly I was “a nut case,” just like him. I finally began telling people my father was dead. It was a much more acceptable place to be than in a mental hospital.

Over the years as a counselor I would tell clients they shouldn’t feel ashamed of having mental problems. “There’s no more shame suffering from depression or bipolar disorder than in suffering from diabetes or high blood pressure. Yet, I still felt fearful about dealing with my own problems and admitting I needed help.

I was finally forced to deal with my denial when my wife went to the doctor because she was constantly ruminating about potential loss and was often feeling anxious and sad. She was diagnosed with depression and put on medications. She quickly improved and both our lives got better. She suggested that I should see her doctor because she saw a lot of similar symptoms in me.

I resisted her view that I might be depressed. I became defensive and aggressive. I told her in no uncertain terms that I was glad she had gotten help, but that I was sure I wasn’t depressed. “I’m a mental health professional. I’d know if I was depressed,” I told her. Her reply stopped me for a moment. “Well, you didn’t seem to know that I was depressed,” she said. “I had to figure it out myself and, when I did, I got help.”

It took me another three months before I finally relented and made an appointment with her doctor. After an hour-long evaluation he concluded, “We could argue over whether you’re bipolar I or bipolar II, but it’s clear you are suffering from a mood disorder and would benefit from treatment.”

When I returned home, Carlin was anxious to hear the result. I finally told her what the doctor had said, but that I didn’t believe him. “I don’t like him,” I told her. “He was cold and distant. I want a second opinion.” Looking back, I’m amazed she didn’t blast me out of the room or leave me. She just shook her head and with a sad look on her face told me, “I love you, Jed, but I’m getting worn out by you. I sure hope you get some help. You need it and we need it.”

Somehow that got through to me. I wasn’t ready to see another doctor, but I began reading all I could on depression and bipolar disorder (manic-depression). One book I read was by Kay Redfield Jamison who had written the definitive text book on bipolar disorder. All the science and studies didn’t touch me as much as her own “coming out” as she admitted her own bipolar illness.

In her book, An Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness, she helped me see that even a professional, with a world-wide reputation in the mental health field, can suffer from mental illness and live to talk about it. In the book’s prologue she offers this revealing portrait of her illness against the background of her professional life:

“Within a month of signing my appointment papers to become an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, I was well on my way to madness; it was 1974, and I was twenty-eight years old. Within three months I was manic beyond recognition and just beginning a long, costly personal war against a mediation that I would, in a few years’ time, be strongly encouraging others to take. My illness, and my struggles against the drug that ultimately saved my life and restored my sanity, had been years in the making.”

I knew this was a book I needed to read from a doctor I knew could help me. As I read more about her experiences I began to see myself. There was one description that ripped me apart. In the epilogue she sums up her experiences in a way that gave me the push I needed to get past my resistance to get the help I so desperately needed:

“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed.”

With the following words she absolutely nailed what was going on inside me. She was speaking my truth in words I had never been able to articulate or share.

You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”

All these words resonated with me. I was irritable, paranoid, humorless, lifeless, critical, and demanding. No matter what my wife, Carlin, did to show me she loved me, it was never enough. I knew I was frightened inside, but I had to admit I was frightening to the people who loved me the most.

The following week I sought a second opinion about my condition. This psychiatrist was a woman who did a much more in-depth evaluation than the first doctor. I liked her and trusted her. I was surprised that her diagnosis echoed the first doctor. “We could argue about whether you’re bipolar I or bipolar II, but it’s clear you are suffering from a mood disorder and would benefit from treatment.”

This time I listened. I began taking medications, began a program of monitoring my moods, and saw the doctor for regular psychotherapy sessions. I gradually improved and like Jamison, finally came to peace with who I am. All aspects of my life improved. Our marriage got back on track and regained the luster it had lost. My professional work got even better and my writing became more inspired.

I continue to thank all those who have helped along the way—My wife Carlin who never gave up loving me or encouraging me to get help, my doctor, and my clients who helped me understand mental illness, even when I wasn’t willing to admit it to myself.

I look forward to hearing about your experiences, your struggles, and what has worked for you.

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  1. Jed, thank you for this. I still struggle to embrace my recent descent into depression and OCD flare-up, but treatment has helped immensely and I’m doing lots better. I wish I had some of your articles on mental illness when I was at my worst, as nothing spoke to the depths of terror I experienced back then. Glad we’ve made it through, and one day I hope I am inspired to speak as openly…perhaps with patience and time, and ironically, not feeling I need to. Now it’s out to the Halloween parade with my nieces. Thank you….J*

    • Jack, Thanks for the feedback. As I say, I think we all are living in a world where emotional problems are part of the journey for many of us. I’m happy to share what I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned so others can add it to what they are learning about themselves. I think we can all help each other.

  2. Jed – I just found your website for the first time. I read what you wrote about your own depression and it resonated so much that I burst into tears. I am 62, a psychologist who has worked my whole career in mental health. I have been in treatment for over 40 years with psychotherapy, medications and many retreats, workshops, etc. It has helped me stay the course through life, but has never fully relieved my depression. I am so disappointed that with everything I’ve learned, I can’t seem to help myself. I became so despondent 2 years ago that I just wanted to commit suicide to escape my pain. This landed me in a very prestigious psychiatric hospital here in the Northeast where the failure of medications led to having 36 ECT treatments over a period of several months. Besides maybe jolting me out of despondency initially, I suffered considerable memory loss to the point that I felt like I had alzheimers but was still depressed. I went against their advice and stopped them. ECT did not resolve my depression and I continued to try other medications. I have not worked since and have technically retired far sooner than I ever expected. Four months ago I weaned myself off of medication because it wasn’t helping, I still felt miserable and the side effects were unpleasant. I have taken responsibility for finding another way out of this illness once and for all by practicing mindfulness, meditation and yoga. I
    believe in it and it makes total sense, but it is still a constant struggle and I wake up every morning with a sense of dread and a pit in my stomach. It is taking every ounce of energy and faith that I have to stick with it. What you wrote about the intense emotional pain that only those who have experienced depression can understand, is so true. Pulling myself out of depression is the hardest thing I have ever had to face. There is no easy or clear solution. I feel very isolated and alone and have pushed my wife to the brink. I find myself feeling angry because people don’t really get it and expect you to function just the same. I wish I could. What I feel I need is support from others who are also going through this or have been through this, particularly men. There are so many resources out there for people with addictions, but so little, if anything for those with depression other than seeing a therapist privately. If you know of any resources for depression support groups, I would really appreciate some feedback.

    • Steve,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m sorry its been such a long grind and you’ve become discouraged. Part of the reason I’ve been writing about my own personal experiences, in addition to my professional work helping men deal with their depression through newer and more enlightened means than just talk therapy and drugs, is to give people hope that there can be a better future for all those men dealing with depression.

      Like most things there are many dimensions to depression, including genetic, epigenetic (family changes going back generations), psychological, interpersonal, work, spiritual, etc. I try and expand the process so people can rekindle their understandings and find new hope even when things look bleak.

      I’ve been in a men’s group for more than 37 years and we support each other through all these kinds of changes. I don’t know of any specific men’s programs that deal with depression. Maybe we should see about starting one.

      In any event, know that I’m here for support and hopefully there are others out there as well.

      Do keep in touch and continue to reach out. Isolation is the real killer.