I'm a suburban husband in my 40s and I think I'm getting depressed

I don't know if this is just typical midlife stuff, or if I'm in serious psychological trouble.

Published January 11, 2008 11:19AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Before we get to today's letter, I wanted to address you directly.

You know, when I started writing this column in 2001, I did so with a very clear heart; all I did was respond to individuals one to one, as though they were standing in front of me; I wrote as one ordinary person with no special knowledge but my daily experience working as a layman with other troubled individuals. It was an aesthetic adventure, a journalistic experiment and a personal mission.

I am still doing it six years later. I have enjoyed it very much and of course I am going to continue. But I find, as in a long relationship, it is useful from time to time to sum up and take stock, to see where we are so that we can catch our breath and continue.

I write this column five days a week. Every morning I can be found at home reading letters and thinking about them and writing. I try to read the remarks that others make about the column. I have been greatly, profoundly affected by the many positive responses I have received. But I also read the negative remarks, including the rather nasty ones. I am affected by them. I do not think that is a bad thing. I try to be affected by them, in fact. As a writer, I try to be affected by everything. I do not believe it is the privilege of the writer, as it is the privilege of other people, to say, Oh, they don't get it. I think it is the duty of the writer to consider all voices of criticism, including the outraged, insulting voices -- as it is also the duty of the politician to consider such voices, even if they are unhelpful. He ought to ask, what is going on with that?

There are various standard complaints -- that the column is too long, that I am self-involved, that I don't answer the question clearly. Some of these I do brush off as a painter might brush off such complaints about his painting -- that his canvases are too big, that they do not portray reality realistically and recognizably, that he seems to be working out some personal vision rather than expressing the will of the nation or the prevailing aesthetic.

But there are others that seem to come from pure disgust, hatred and outrage, that seem to be directed at me, personally, the actual person writing the column. I draw lines between who I am and the column I write; but I draw a great deal on inner work, the calling up of emotion based on similar experience, the attempt to inhabit other feelings, so I suppose it seems as though I myself had sometimes appeared on the page.

So in considering such comments, I came to think about my own dislikes, fervid and legion. I am brimming with dislike. I dislike so many people, so many writers, so many institutions! If I found pleasure in it, I might make a career of publicizing my dislike of others. But while I dislike thousands of people, both people I know and people I have never met, while I dislike hundreds of institutions, hundreds of products, so many books and magazines, so many movies and so many snack foods, so many pets and so many shoes, so many cars and so many swizzle sticks, so many fast-food menu items and so many cash register receipt slogans, so many faces and habits and mannerisms and clothing styles, so many oddly colored shoes and hand gestures, so many house colors and vegetable displays, so many driving styles and parking styles and telephone voices, so many political clichés and sayings, while I dislike so many thousands of things with great and vivid intensity, I do not consider my dislike of these things to be a source of wisdom, or a cause of action, or a premise for public expression, or evidence of critical acumen, or a guide to living, or an emotion I wish to impart to you so you can share in it, or an admirable fact about which people will say, at my funeral, "He disliked a great many things, and for this we will remember him always." To the contrary, I consider my dislike of many thousands of things mineral, plant and animal to be my own problem that perhaps by the end of my life will no longer be so all-encompassing. I would like to pierce the veil of reality and see how fruitless and misguided are my multifarious episodes of automatic disapproval and scorn. I wonder frequently at my own vast and cruel arsenal of put-down. I marvel at my ability to seize on the tiniest aspect of a person as representative of their worth. I am appalled at my own irritability. I see myself hurrying by a crowd standing in a corridor and I hear my own voice asking why they don't move aside more quickly for me; someone brushes against me and I think why is he so clumsy and thoughtless; I see young people in a group and I ... on and on and on.

Now, it is a fact that many writings about me are unoriginal and stupid. But I do not take pleasure in publicly identifying them as stupid. No compassionate person wants to draw attention to someone's stupidity, any more than he would call attention to a deformity. Stupidity is often genetic and otherwise unavoidable; no one asks to be stupid. Moreover, even the stupid take pleasure in speaking stupidly. Why should we deny pleasure to the obviously disadvantaged? When one is attacked stupidly in the open, one simply wants to point out to the assembled crowd, Everyone, take notice: This is a stupid attack and therefore without force. Whatever you may have observed here: It is meaningless and of no consequence!

But even doing that is sort of mean.

As a younger person I was rather cruel. I thought I had a special gift. I could see the faults of others. I took pride in saying what I found to be wrong. I also took a sophomoric delight in insult. I lacked in human feeling; I lacked in compassion; all I had was arid insight; I was overly dependent on thinking and underdeveloped in feeling. So I can understand, to a degree, the delight others take in attacking innocent and unsuspecting people on the Internet.

So what is it that prevents me from acting in this way? And what is it that opens me up to such attacks from others, as though I were a ninth grader with a briefcase and a bow tie, getting secretly kicked in the hall? What prevents me from unleashing my own voluminous set of grievances against individuals and institutions? What keeps me from engaging in pointless public self-defense? Well, through long practice it has become clear to me that writing is a contemplative act; it is not done well in a heated state; it is a dish prepared for the mind of another, not the emotions. The mind is the portal of readerly emotions, as it were. The pleasure of reading is the pleasure of receiving a full and developed thought from another, and thoughts can best be developed fully in tranquility. While enraged, it is hard to think straight. That is definitional. So naturally as a craftsperson I try to arrange my working methods in order to produce a certain cadence that comes from a settled mind. But why does this cadence irritate certain people?

I have no good answers, only speculation -- and any speculation could only involve characterizations that are not flattering. So I hesitate.

But let me say this. I know a certain person who flies into a rage when I try to talk to her. I think it is because she feels that in some way she owns me and has a right to dictate how I should be, and because of a certain bond it must also be said that she loves me although she is angry at me. She wants me to be a certain way and when I refuse to be that way she becomes angry, and nothing I can do can stop it.

It seems that many people who delight in insulting me and saying that I am a bad writer feel in some way that they own me, as an angry parent owns a child, or as a citizen owns an official even though he also detests him; being emotionally bound up with me, they seem to feel an infuriating frustration that I will not become their amanuensis, that I will not reflect back to them what they want reflected, that I am not their servant or their mirror ... and even that I am sitting in their chair! There are those who feel they know who should sit in what chairs. Perhaps they are accustomed to owning the world and naming the chairs. They see a person sitting in the advice giver's chair who is not doing it the way it has always been done, and they are infuriated, and they believe that they own that chair and they know who should be sitting there. It's as if they want to call the club membership to a vote.

It may be presumptuous of me to mention it, but there is a class system in America, and there is a system of brutal power relations, and a system of repression and of hateful discourse, and this system is not benign, but has a purpose, which is to make sure that no one sits in the owner's booth but the owner and his friends. Lack of self-knowledge is truly a luxury of the self-absorbed, and the truly self-absorbed are not those who reveal themselves in publication but those who hold all the cards and yet reveal nothing. It is a luxury of power to avoid introspection, to merrily skip out on the self-interrogation that leads to humility.

This has been on my mind. Writing this column every day makes it necessary to occasionally sum up and reexamine. I must every now and then try to remember why I am sitting in this chair.

And now to the letter:

Dear Cary:

I am a suburban husband in my 40s with two wonderful kids, a good marriage, a secure job and financial situation, no medical problems, no substance problems, or anything like that. I work in a technical field, but harbor pretensions of being a creative person. My emotional state has always been somewhat up and down, but in the past six months or so, it has moved more decisively into the negative territory than it has since high school, if ever. I'm always tense, and frequently feel hunted, like I'm barely holding on by my fingernails, just holding my life together. I feel as though it's all I can do to keep my head above water.

Sometimes I am almost overwhelmed with panic, and at other times I get these flashes of depression, and I wonder how I'm going to make it through the workday. I feel as though it's all I can do to stay on top of the details of my life, yet all I am actually called upon to do is drag my sorry ass to work, drag it home again and do the dishes sometimes. In the past I have had artistic endeavors, and one in particular that I consider my true passion and have devoted a lot of work to, work I am proud of. I feel I have betrayed that passion by not having any energy for it these days. I feel that my life is entirely defensive -- there is no grip-it-and-rip-it attitude left. Things that used to make me feel more alive now just seem like hassles and pressure trips (like travel). Diversions that I once considered transporting or transforming are now almost irritating distractions. I have tried meditation, and have a sense that I should do it more often, but, you know, I don't. Oh, and my libido has pretty much disappeared.

Is this just a run-of-the-mill midlife crisis? Looking back at what I've written, it actually seems a little more messed up than that, like textbook depression. There is no rational reason for the feelings of dread I feel most of the time. Should I just smack myself and stop whining like a little girl? How can I introduce some perspective into my life in a way that my gut and heart will understand? I strongly resist the idea of pharmaceutical help, which I'm sure a professional would steer me toward. Then again, maybe I'm like the adulterer who tells his mistress and himself that he's miserable with his marriage but never seems to get around to divorcing his wife -- actually much happier with the current situation than he lets himself believe. (What do you want? Look around and ask yourself: What have you got?) I'm quite functional and am good company: Most people who know me would be very surprised to know I wrote this.

What's your take?

Out of Gas

Dear Out of Gas,

Well, I really appreciate your writing to me, first of all. And, sort of in line with what I have written above, I'm trying to stay away from the position of, like, knowing it all and being clever, which is the death of a real advice column, and instead just relate to people from the heart. So I can say that I've felt how you feel, and I've come close to clinical depression myself, and also steered clear of antidepressants. I did consult a psychologist and found out some pretty surprising things, things I hadn't noticed or thought about. And I was able to make some adjustments and I'm better off for it. I don't have those periods of blinding despair and depression that I had started to have. And I'm, uh, nicer to myself now. So I got out of my 40s without ending up in the nuthouse. Hurray for me, I'm an American male success story.

I don't know why this seems to happen in the 40s, except that by the time you're 40 if you've actually been working you've been doing meaningless bullshit for so long that it really starts to get you down. I'm not saying your work is totally meaningless but, come on, there's something else you'd rather be doing. I mean, you can do your technical work for a while, and make a good salary, and put plenty away as investments, you can sacrifice for your kids' future and put your own needs aside, you're strong, you're a man, you can handle it. But after 20 years of that it's not surprising that you're starting to fray. You're not getting enough sleep, you're having to do what other people tell you to do at work, you're behaving yourself, you're doing what you're supposed to do so people don't say you're a creep or so your wife isn't embarrassed by you. And that's fine for a while, but Jesus, if you think of how you were at age 18, and what you liked to do, what gave you pleasure, what your ideals were, and you think what your life would be like if you had followed those ideals, and then you think if there is anything in your life today that meets those ideals ... no wonder men in their 40s crack up. You're not alone.

Speaking of being nice to yourself ... man, you sound like you put yourself down a lot. You might think it's just regular humility, not making too much of yourself, or being realistic. But behind it, you'd be surprised, there could be these assumptions you don't even know you have, like, oddly enough, that you really do deserve to be slapped like a little girl. That you're not good enough. That you're a fraud. I mean, look at how you talk about yourself. You say you "harbor pretensions" of being a creative person. What kind of talk is that? Would you talk about somebody else that way? Creativity belongs to all people, regardless of class, race, economic level, gender, whatever. It's not some special prerogative of the rich and the gifted, or the politically popular. What is with all this judgment, like you can't write or paint or do music unless you are a professional at it? How did we get to this point as a culture?

What about having a little humility and saying, You know what, I feel better when I paint duck decoys, so I'm painting duck decoys. And fuck you, get out of my garage. And don't call them figurines. They're duck decoys.

OK, so that does not sound so brilliant. But that's what I'm saying, that some of this stuff is not about being brilliant. It's about being real. It's about being truthful. It's about being able to live with yourself.

So in a nutshell, here is my three-part program for you. First, do get yourself checked out as to the whole clinical-depression angle. Get your blood done and all that. If they say yeah, you're a case, you can decide for yourself whether to take meds or not. But see what the clinicians say. If you don't want to take any drugs, don't take them. Just tell them you're not taking any drugs. Just say you want to get checked out.

Second, start a program of taking care of yourself, meeting your own needs. Start tomorrow: Eat a good breakfast. Relax before you drive to work. Relax after you drive to work. At work, have a good lunch -- I mean a healthy, well-prepared lunch. Take a full hour or whatever. Leave work early and go to the gym. Have a good two-hour workout, a sauna, a good shower. Or, if you don't belong to a gym, do some running in the woods, or whatever you do for exercise. Then go home and have a good meal and hang out with the family. Get to bed early. Get lots of sleep. Don't yell at anybody. Take it slow.

Try it again the next day, same thing. Get lots of sleep, eat well, plenty of exercise, take it slow. Goof off a little. Exercise. Enjoy the air. Take a look at your calendar. Schedule a vacation with the wife. Book a place with a hot tub and a slow pace.

And the third thing, which you can do on your own and also in conjunction with a therapist if you decide to go that route, is just recognize that there are tangible forces in the world working against you, and that you need to be conscious of how you are reacting to these forces. People say, "Don't blame others for your problems," and all that. Well, fine. But don't introject either, OK? Don't blame yourself. We're living in pretty scary times. Don't pretend that it doesn't affect you. It's healthy to have an adversarial view of those portions of the world that are against you. Life is a fight.

And if you don't like your life, say so. If you don't like going to work every day at the same time and driving the same route, and coming home to the same suburb, say so. It may help you start making some long-term plans for change. It's not against the law to have complaints about the way our society is organized. You put monkeys in the suburbs, they'd go nuts; they'd tear the houses down and start living outside in the park. We're all cooped up in these little houses and it's spooky. OK, so I am an unreconstructed hippie and devotee of Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri. Our suburban living may work fine for some, but it would drive me nuts.

We ought to protest in the streets simply because there is not enough joy in our lives! Why don't we do that? Wasn't it wonderful when we were 16 and we'd go demonstrate in the streets not even knowing what exactly was wrong or how to fix it, just saying we're here, we're fucked-up 16-year-olds and we're not going to take it anymore! We don't have to have all the answers. There's a lot in this world not to like. I mean, where do you want to begin? And let's not get started on all the killing, the explosions, the destruction that's going on. I'm just saying, how can we not be affected by that?

So, to sum up: First, get yourself checked out by an expert to see where you are on the official spectrum of depressive episodes. Second, take concrete steps to eat better, get more rest and get more exercise. And third, get mad! Recognize that there really are many external forces working against you, and it's not surprising or shameful to be affected by all this, the way the world is, the way you have to live your life. It's good to be affected by it. It shows you're human. It shows you're awake. It shows you're alive.

Happy New Year! Book offer extended!

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition!

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