Depression: Compulsive Self-Deception | Alice Miller


From “In almost all cases of suicide, it is possible to establish that cruel childhood memories have either been denied completely or never identified in the first place. These people reject the knowledge of their infant sufferings and live in a society equally oblivious of this kind of distress. Even today, there is still little or no room for knowledge about the fate of children and its significance for later life. This is why we are usually surprised when a celebrated star commits suicide, thus revealing that he or she suffered from severe depression. The typical reaction from all sides is that the person involved had everything that other people wish for so dearly. So what can have gone wrong?

. . . The categorical denial of the pain we suffered at the beginning of our lives is harmful in the extreme. Suppose someone setting out on a long walk sprains an ankle right at the outset. That person may decide to ignore the pain and to soldier on because he/she has been looking forward to the outing, but sooner or later others will notice that they are limping and will ask what has happened. When they hear the whole story they will understand why this person is limping and advise him/her to go for treatment. But in connection with the sufferings of childhood, which play a similar role in our lives to a sprained ankle at the beginning of a long hike, then things are different. Those sufferings cannot be ‘played down,’ they will leave their mark on the whole enterprise. The crucial difference in this case is that normally no one will take any notice. The whole of society is, as it were, in unison with the sufferer, who cannot say what has happened. It may well be that, despite the violation of their integrity, people who have been injured in this way really have no memories. If they have to spend their whole lives with people who play down the traumas of childhood, then they have no choice but to connive in this self-delusion. Their lives will progress in much the same way as the outing of the hiker who has sprained his ankle but pretends that nothing has happened. Should they, however, encounter people who know about the long-term effects of childhood traumas, then they will have the chance to abandon their denial and good prospects of healing the wounds they have been carrying around with them.

. . . It is true that as children we have many resources we can draw upon to survive even severe harm. But to heal the consequences of this harm we need Enlightened Witnesses in society. Such witnesses are usually conspicuous by their absence when the injuries in question were inflicted on the child by its parents. As adults, children abused by their parents are without witnesses and remain isolated, not only from others, but also from themselves, because they have repressed the truth and there is no one to help them perceive the reality of their childhood. Society is always on the parents’ side. Everyone knows that this is so, so they will hardly venture to seek out their own truth. But if successful therapy helps them to experience and express their anger and resentment, they may well be confronted by the hostility of their families and friends. The readiness to attack them for violating this social taboo has to do with the fact that the violation of that taboo is a source of major alarm for others too. These people will sometimes mobilize all the forces at their command to discredit the former victim and thus keep their own repressions intact.

There are very few survivors of childhood abuse who are able to withstand such aggression and have the fortitude to accept the isolation involved in refusing to betray their own truth. But as knowledge of the emotional dynamics involved in these processes increases, things may hopefully change, and the formation of more enlightened groups will mean that total isolation is not the only possible consequence . . .

The lives (and deaths) of [many] successful stars indicate that depression is not a form of suffering that relates to the present, which after all has bestowed on them the fulfillment of all their dreams. Instead it is the suffering caused by the separation from one’s own self, abandoned early on, never mourned for, and accordingly doomed to despair and death. It is as if the body used depression as a form of protest against this self-betrayal, against the lies and the dissociation of genuine feelings, because authentic feelings are something it cannot live without. It needs the free flow of emotions in constant flux: rage, grief, joy. If these are blocked by denial the body cannot function normally.

People resort to all kinds of ‘remedies’ to compel the body to function normally all the same: drugs, alcohol, nicotine, tablets, immersion in work. It is an attempt to avoid understanding the revolt of the body, to prevent ourselves from experiencing the fact that feelings will not kill us but, on the contrary, can free us from the prison we call depression. Depression may reassert itself once we revert to ignoring our feelings and needs, but in time we can learn to deal with it more effectively. As our feelings tell us what happened to us in childhood, we can learn to understand them, we no longer need to fear them as we did before, the anxiety recedes, and we are better equipped to face the next depressive phase. But we can only admit those feelings if we no longer fear our internalized parents.

The assumption I proceed from is this: for most people the idea that they were not loved by their parents is unbearable. The more evidence there is for this deprivation, the more strongly these people cling to the illusion of having been loved. They also cling to their feelings of guilt, which provide misleading confirmation that if their parents did not treat them lovingly then it was all their own fault, the fault of their mistakes and failings. Depression is the body’s rebellion against this lie. Many people would prefer to die (either literally or symbolically by killing off their feelings), rather than experience the helplessness of the little child exploited by the parents for their own ambitions or used as a projection screen for their pent-up feelings of hatred.

. . . At any age depression is nothing other than the escape from all those feelings that might bring the injuries of childhood back to mind. This leaves a vacuum inside us. If we have to avoid mental pain at all costs, then there is basically not much left to sustain our vitality. Though we may distinguish ourselves with unusual intellectual achievements, our inner life will still be that of an emotionally underdeveloped child. This is true whatever age we may be.

. . . Even when details about a person’s childhood are well-known, it is extremely rare for any connection to be drawn between these details and the adult’s later sufferings. We speak of a tragic destiny, but we have little interest in understanding the nature of this tragedy. No one in [King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s] entourage appears ever to have inquired into the deeper meaning of his castles. Though several films have been made about the ‘mad king,’ no inquiry has been made into the origins of his so-called schizophrenia in childhood. Numerous scholars have conscientiously sifted all the details available about his building mania and published books about it. The culmination of a person’s delusions arouse keen interest, but the genesis of such disorders is passed over in profound silence. The reason is that we cannot understand such a process without pointing to the parents’ cruelty and lack of affection. And this strikes fear into the hearts of most people because it threatens to remind them of their own fates.

This fear is the fear felt by neglected or tyrannized children at looking into the true, undisguised faces of their parents. It is the fear that incites us to self-deception and hence depression – not only isolated individuals, but almost all the members of a society that believes that medication has solved the problem once and for all. But how could this be possible? Most of the suicides I have mentioned took medication, but their bodies were not to be deceived. The body refuses to accept a life that hardly deserves the name. Most people keep the story of their childhood carefully buried away in their unconscious. Without suitable assistance they will find it difficult indeed to establish contact with their early lives, should they wish to do so. They are dependent on experts to help them reveal the self-deception and free them from the chains of traditional morality [‘Honor thy father and mother’] (in one of his letters, Chekhov wrote: ‘I am afraid of our morality,’ Bunin, p. 263). But if those experts merely prescribe medication, they are helping to cement that fear and also blocking off their patients’ access to their own feelings, thus depriving them of the liberating potential implicit in this discovery.

. . . If I allow myself to feel what pains or gladdens me, what annoys or enrages me, and why this is the case, if I know what I need and what I do not want at all costs, then I will know myself well enough to love my life and find it interesting, regardless of age or social status. Then I will hardly feel the need to terminate my life, unless the process of aging and the increasing frailty of the body should set off such thoughts in me. But even then I will know that I have lived my own, true life.”

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  1. If a person suffers from ‘PTSD’ (and most people do to an extent) – it will show up in the Present.

    Near Disabling ‘PTSD’ (from my own experience), can be healed through focusing “on feelings” rather than “thinking”.

    Once the feelings resolve, the thinking also resolves.

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  2. When I read these articles, I have some difficulty with the psychotherapy stories about treating “mental” illnesses properly, as psychiatric “diagnoses” are just descriptions of syndromes that can have a number of possible origins that don’t all have the same treatment. There’s no “one size fits all” for the proper treatment of “mental” syndromes.

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