Depressive Double Lives and the Usefulness of Pain

“For a long time in my life, I felt like I’d been living two different […]

Emily Hornsby / 7.29.13

“For a long time in my life, I felt like I’d been living two different lives,” Kevin Breel says as he begins his TED talk titled “Kevin Breel: Confessions of a Depressed Comic.” “There’s the life that everyone sees, and then, there’s the life that only I see.” In a well-delivered and candid talk, Breel opens up about his personal struggle with depression, the stigma attached to mental illness, and the reasons that people need to pay more attention to stories like his. Kevin says that, for the past few years, he has felt like he needed to hide his depression because people would perceive him as weak, rather than sick. Kevin describes his double life: “Beneath my smile there was struggle, beneath my light there was darkness, beneath my big personality just hid even bigger pain.” Depression isn’t taken seriously as an illness, says Kevin, and as a result, people are suffering alone. He urges that it’s time we all start talking about depression, starting with the depressed.

In his new book The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz also discusses the importance of telling your story. In a conversation with Jane Clayson for On Point radio, Grosz talks about the emotional damage that results from an inability to express your life in stories.

I’m really interested in what happens when people can’t tell their stories. So often people come to see me and of course the most difficult story from their childhood was the one their parents…didn’t help them find the words for. ..maybe because of guilt…[the parents] don’t know how to help the child articulate their feelings…Sometimes we don’t know how to put into words the most important things that a child may be going through. Those stories don’t go away, they get buried in us, and they come out in all sorts of different ways. And part of what therapy may be about…are people who are then troubled or caught in an impasse because of these stories not being known to them, not having the words for them.

Breel was afraid to speak up about his depression because of the social stigma, which in Grosz’s eyes could be seen, along with imperfect parents, as an agent that robs you of language and expression.

Both Breel and Grosz see the pain of mental anguish as potentially beneficial. Breel says that he is grateful for his depression because the emotional valleys have shown him that there are also peaks; because of his mental darkness, he is better able to appreciate light. Grosz takes the benefits of pain a step further:


But when we succeed in feeling nothing, we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us and why we hurt. So, in fact, pain is useful. It’s useful not only for my work but for all of us, whether you’re in therapy or not, as a way of understanding what’s important to you and what’s not…We certainly fail a lot of the time. We get things wrong. That’s not the end of the world. I mean, I think getting stuck or getting things wrong in the first place…the trick is if we make the mistakes productive and…learn from there.

Perhaps the focus on using pain as a motivator—turning it into forward motion—is a hopeful message to psychoanalytic patients and those struggling with mental illness, but I wonder how Stephen Grosz views this progress, especially in relation to that tricky word “cure.” What seems most powerful, however, about both of these testimonies—that of the sick and that of the doctor—is the emphasis on the soothing value of communication and community; they’re trying to talk to each other and to us. As Grosz says, “These things can be so lonely and isolating and the profound value of having someone who’s in your corner, facing this with you, is to me just hugely important.” This whole focus on telling your story is dependent on this other person, this someone, in “your corner” (a listener), because when you are listened to you are valued and understood, you are loved.

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