Hi, Dr. Dan!: My father, who committed suicide about seven years ago, always viewed me as his competitor, and continually sought to kill my spirit. I still can’t get my brain around why any father would do this.
Apparently, he did a pretty good job. Every time I was feeling good about myself, and said so, his response was, “Self-praise stinks!”
At this point in my life, I’m chronically depressed, I have a mild case of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and I feel like life is a train that left without me long ago. I have tried many antidepressants, but they all turn me into a sexless cipher. I’d rather be depressed than feel nothing.
Dear Ron: The story you tell identifies low esteem as your problem and your father as the cause. That may or may not be accurate. It may be a story that you have long told yourself to organize your thoughts and emotions.
Consider this: your problem may not be low self-esteem but critical self-judgment. So the problem is not about who you are, but how you perceive yourself.
Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance, tells a story about a middle-aged woman caring for her dying mother. At one point, the mother said: “all my life I have felt there is something wrong with me. What a waste.” She died several hours later. The revelation of her inner critic was her final gift.
Another issue I wonder about is that of hope. That’s right, hope can be a problem. Many people hope that if they beat themselves up enough, they will become better people. But what if you have no hope? What if you can be the person you are now – without the self-criticism? Then you might see yourself as wounded and struggling, just as many humans do. You might feel less alone and more a part of humanity.
Speaking of misguided hope, there is one more area that may apply. Part of you may still be trying to convince your father that you are OK. What would happen if your father really died? I imagine that finally saying goodbye to this man would be terribly painful. Battling him is a way of avoiding this profound grief.
Of course, your father injured you. But I believe he also suffered terribly for probably his whole life. The vast majority of people who commit suicide do so because of a severe depression that has been untreated. Your father’s anger at you – really, anger at himself – was a symptom of his depression.
And speaking of depression, you know more than most about how painful and dangerous depression can be. If your children suffered from a clinical depression, I am sure you would urge them to get help. Well, I am doing that with you. Try medication again. See a good psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist, recommended by your family doctor or another knowledgeable person. The better ones are quite skilled at managing dosage and side effects, and combining the newer medications. There might be some side effects, but you might experience great relief from your pain. And not to do this might risk your life.
I would also strongly recommend psychotherapy. Not only does the combination of psychotherapy and medication help most of those with depression, but you could work on many other important issues with someone who is smart, caring – and not critical!
One other thing. People who suffer the way you do are at risk of becoming self-absorbed. That’s because any pain demands attention. My concern is that if you spend too much time living inside your mind – generally a dangerous place – it can worsen your self-esteem. I believe one way to feel better about yourself and your life is to help other living things. Spend some hours each week trying to diminish the pain in other people’s lives. Often that is the best way to see what is happening inside your heart.
By the way, about that train that you felt has left you? Do your work, take your medication, be more kind to this fellow named Ron, and then go to the train station. There will be another train coming along shortly.