Overcoming Male Depression

“David,” Elaine says evenly. “You need to tell Terry about hitting Chad.”

“I didn’t hit him,” David says sullenly.

“Whatever.” Elaine shrugs this off. “It needs to be addressed.”

David hovers for a moment between fighting and giving in. Then he sighs, leans back in his chair, and tells me the story.

“Chad was walking out the back door last night,” he begins, “with the keys to the car in hand. Elaine and I were in the kitchen, and i asked him a few questions–Where was he going?–that sort of thing.”

“Yeah right,” snorts Chad.

His father’s pointed finger shoots up at him. “Was I unreasonable?” David asks. “Was I?

“All right,” I calm David. “Tell me what happened.”

“So, he doesn’t answer. And Elaine and I follow him into the garage”–he glances reproachfully at his son,–”where he starts to give me a lot of back talk. Right?” he turns to Chad.

“Go on,” I say softly.

“Well, I tell him, ‘Fine. If you want to keep up the back talk, then I keep the car.’ You know, ‘Hey, it’s your choice, okay?’ And he throws the keys against the car . . .”

“On the ground,” says Chad.

“Against the car,” repeats his father, “and then i hear, ‘Fuck you’ under his breath.” David falls silent.

I try catching his eye. “At which point you . . .” I prompt.

“I pushed him,” he allows.

“You pushed him,” I repeat.

“Yes. You know. I shoved him. Whatever. I pushed him.” David stares intently at the spot of rug between his feet.

“Hard?” I ask.

David shrugs.

“Hard enough,” says Elaine.

I look for a moment at Chad. Behind his glasses, I cannot tell his expression, or even if he is crying. I am suddenly aware of how thin he is, how young.

I stand up, motioning David to stand beside me. “Show me how it went,” I say.


Reluctantly, with many safeguards and assurances, David and his family let me set up the scene. Chad still wears his sunglasses. When they get to the part where Chad throws down the keys and mutters “Fuck you” under his breath, David, with alarming speed, throws his son against the wall of my office so hard that he knocks a picture off one of its hooks, leaving Chad winded. David has pinned his forearm against his son’s throat. His muscles are taut and his breathing is hard. “Say it again!” he threatens. “Go ahead. Say it again!”

Chad is gasping for breath. He is scared. Elaine is scared. My heart is pounding as well.

“David.” I touch his shoulder gently while looking at Chad. “It’s okay.” I can feel his muscles relax under my touch. “I get it,” I say. “Really clearly. Good job.”

Everyone takes a deep breath and after a while our hearts stop hammering. I ask Elaine if she would role-play David, and she agrees. Now I mold her into position as David, with her forearm against Chad’s throat. Then I walk with David to the far end of the room, and I ask him to take a good look at this tableau. We stand for a long time together, our shoulders almost touching. Whether it is my imagination or not, I can feel sadness radiating from him, like heat, as we stand side by side.

“What do you see, when you look at this?” I ask him. “What do you feel?”

David drops his head. After a long while he speaks. “I guess it’s not right,” he offers, ever so meekly.

“Pretty grim,” I agree. After a pause, he nods. “Tell him,” I say, nodding towards Elaine, who is role-playing David, still with an arm pressed against Chad’s throat. “Tell him what he needs to hear.”

David shuffles about uncomfortably. “You’re a jerk,” he cracks, halfheartedly.

“No, I mean it.” I say, standing close. “Tell him.”

David pauses for a long time, then he lifts his head and addresses his role-played self. All traces of self-mockery or humor have left him. “Don’t do it,” he says quietly.

“Don’t do what?” I push him.

“Don’t treat him that way.” His voice is small, flat.

“Is that enough force to stop this guy?” I ask.

“No,” he agrees.

“It’s going to take some conviction,” I tell him. “Some oomph, you know what I mean?”

David nods.

“You want to try it again?” I ask.

Without answering in words, David obediently squares off. This time he reaches deeper in and his voice carries some weight. “Don’t treat him this way,” he says.

“More,” I say. “Louder.”

Don’t treat him this way,” David repeats.

“Good!” I say. “Do it again. Tell him why.”

“Don’t fuck with him,” David begins. “Just don’t . . .” and then the dam breaks. “He’s your son, for Christ’s sake!” David yells, thoroughly enrolled. “For Christ’s sake! He’s your son.”

David suddenly deflates, crestfallen and profoundly sad. I have not seen him look this way in the months we have worked together. This is an opening.

As his sadness grows in the space between us, I ask, “Tell me, who else are you talking to, right now? Is there anyone else standing beside this guy as you say this? Friend? Teachers? Mother? Father?”

David looks absolutely defeated. “I guess,” he allows.

“So, who is it?” I ask softly.

Embarrassed and angry, he says, “My father.”

“Tell me about him,” I ask.

David sketches the portraits of a responsible, taciturn, working-class man who put in long hours to provide for his family, who loved them all–though he rarely spoke it–whose sudden temper sometimes got the better of him.

“I guess the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree,” David says with a sheepish smile.

“We’re working on it,” I assure him. We look together at the frozen tableau facing us across from the room, both of us thinking.

Don’t treat him this way,” I repeat, musing. “David, can you give me a particular memory, a scene, a vignette that would capture that feeling with your dad?”

At first David does not remember any, but then he begins to tell me.

David recalls himself as a boy of seven or eight handing his father a report card with a bad grade. He is nervous because of the D he got in some subject or other.

“We don’t get D’s in this family,” his father intones, in David’s memory. And then, in a  sudden, raw temper, his father reaches out, grabs the report card, and rips it to pieces.

“Take that back to your teacher,” his father says.

Frightened and angry, young David grabs at his father’s hands.

“What did you do that for!!!” he screams. Without a word his father draws back his huge fist and lands it squarely on the boy’s chest, knocking him to the ground.

“I haven’t thought about that for years,” says David.

Again, I get up. “Show me,” I ask him.

David and I act out the scene first. And then Chad and Elaine agree to reenact it. David and I step to one side, as we watch Chad playing the young David, with Elaine playing David’s dad.

We don’t get D’s in our family!”–once, twice, three times the fist goes out until the scene feels real enough that violence is palpable in the air.

“Okay, David,” I say. “Fix this scene. Make it right.”

David looks down at me for a moment, quizzically, and then, without a word, signals the players to begin. Again, the frightened boy offers the offending report card. The father destroys it. The boy protests. The father leans into his swing–but at just that moment David steps forward, catching the fist in his own large hand and enveloping it.

David looks his “father” in the eye and says very quietly but with full conviction, “Don’t do it, Dad. Don’t touch the boy.” I notice he is shaking as I step in behind him.

“Don’t hurt him, Dad,” I prompt.

Don’t hurt him,” David repeats. He has begun to tear up.

“He’s just a little boy,” I prompt.

He’s just a little boy.” David bends over and cries. It is a strangled cry without sound that lifts his shoulders.

“Don’t hold it back, David,” I say. “You’ll just give yourself a headache.”

David sits down, still crying, his face hidden in his hands. Elaine pulls her chair next to him, rests her palm on his thigh. I asked Chad to pass his father the issues. As he does, for just a moment, briefly, almost furtively, David grasps his son’s hand. Chad takes off his sunglasses and folds them into the pocket of his shirt.

David did not know it, but he was depressed. […] David’s depression was born from the pain of that little boy–not just from this one incident with his father, but from hundreds, perhaps even thousands of similar moments, small instances of betrayal or abandonment, perhaps more subtle than this one but just as damaging. For […] such moments can become the building blocks of depression, a condition which, conceived in the boy, erupts later on in the man. David’s unrecognized pain ticked inside like a bomb, waiting for its appointed time. The force of that ticking pushed him from his family. It sped him toward mood buffers and self-esteem enhancers like work, alcohol, and occasional violence. By the time I first met him, his son was on the edge of school failure and his wife was on the verge of filing for divorce. The bomb inside was due to release itself and his life was about to explode. And neither he nor anyone close to him would have understood why. But I knew why.


I knew what it felt like to have the breath knocked out of you by your own father, what it meant to be thrown against a wall and dared to fight back. Intimacy with the sticky threads of loving violence that bind parents to sons across generations helped me recognize David’s secret. Deep inside his bullying and drinking, his preoccupations and flight, lay that little boy. The depressed part of David, his unacknowledged child, waited in darkness, resentfully, for its moment in the light, wreaking havoc upon anyone near. Showing great courage, David allowed, on that afternoon in my office, the pain he had carried within for decades to break through to the surface. His vulnerability drew the people he loved back toward him. The appearance of his hidden depression permitted him to touch and to be touched after a long, bristling time behind armor. In his struggle, David Ingles is not alone.

Pp. 26-31 in Real, Terrence. 1997. I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. New York: Scribner. [Italics in original, pictures and bold not.]

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