I’m Free, So Why Am I Depressed?

Question: My father is very controlling. When I was a kid, his word was law and I had no power. In order to not go crazy, I’d just “check out” emotionally. There was never any point in trying anything (pleading, getting upset, talking calmly with him) because nothing ever changed. I thought that once I no longer lived with him, I’d be excited to be free but I’m not. Instead, I’m so depressed that I’ve considered suicide. Is my depression a way of repressing who I am like I did growing up? He has no control over me anymore, so why am I continuing this pattern? 

Answer: Yes, depression very definitely could be a coping pattern that allowed you to get through what sounds like was a very difficult childhood. There are many theories behind the cause of depression, everything from anger being turned inward to neurochemical explanations but what seems to best describe your experience is a concept called learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness theory is the idea that depression and other mental illnesses may occur when someone experiences a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. For example, you may have learned early in your life that no matter what you did, your father would have control over what you did. Thus, you gave up trying (so you wouldn’t constantly be disappointed or angry) and have taken that coping skill with you into adulthood. While this is understandable, learned helplessness is not healthy and people who suffer from this often experience physical, emotional and social problems.

Treatment for learned helplessness (and depression) includes cognitive restructuring. The first step in this restructuring involves the realization that you do indeed have control over certain things and, in fact, you always did (although it would be difficult for a child to understand this without adult assistance). They may seem like small measures of power but you did and do have control over your thoughts, emotions and behavior.

One of the best ways I’ve heard this described was from Bruno Bettelheim, an Austrian psychologist who survived two concentration camps. While in the camps, Bettelheim discovered that even within the most extreme environment imaginable, people still found ways to be in control of themselves and those who did tended to survive longer. These people made up their minds how they were going to behave and then informed their heart of their intentions. This gave them power and you can do the same.

Although it may be difficult, people can decide that they will perform the actions necessary to alleviate the symptoms of depression. They can eat well, exercise and find the mental health treatment they need. That can include anything from workbooks and support groups to going to counseling. Such a road will be long and filled with challenges. It will take determination and it probably will involve not getting the results you want right away but with persistence, it can be done. Your father controlled you as a child. Do not let him control you forever.

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