Withdrawal of love is at the heart of depression for many of us

I believe what causes depression, and makes it worse, comes down to the withdrawal of love. Either love has been withdrawn from us or we feel like it has been withdrawn – through death, relationships ending, anger, abuse, punishment, illness, injury, parental response, etc. Even just the feeling of love being gone is enough for depression to be triggered or worsened, because withdrawal of love makes us think we are unworthy. Then we feel ashamed or guilty, which is another way of withdrawing love.

I mentioned illness and injury in the list above. Yes, even these can make us experience a withdrawal of love, because in our misery we feel powerless, we feel cheated, we feel like we’ve been given a raw deal. We start to question, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” In those moments, we lose love. We learn to dislike the world around us and ourselves. We start to hate ourselves and think that we deserve shit.

Personally, I have long used withdrawal of love as a barrier. That’s the core of my depression. I felt like love was withdrawn from me and so, as a technique for protecting myself from being hurt again, I withdrew love from others. I withdrew myself. If someone wronged me, I cut them out of my life, wrote them off, and held an unshakeable grudge. I did it for decades. The problem is that this strategy no longer serves me. In weaponizing it against others, it has injured me over and over. Even sitting in isolation during a depressive episode is an act of withdrawing love from the world, and thus an act of withdrawing it from myself. It’s self sabotage.

I started doing it at 12, during a crisis. But the seeds were sown earlier. I grew up needing love. (What kid doesn’t?) When I was punished by my parents, I felt like love was withdrawn. Occasionally I was spanked and there was great anger in those moments. (I’m not blaming here, I’m simply explaining. My parents are good people.) But in those moments, I absorbed and wallowed in anger, shame, and guilt. I would be punished and then sent to my room. In there, I ruminated in shame, with some anger of my own mixed in. When it was over, I was expected to apologize. But there was no love expressed after that. Their generation didn’t do that. There was no explanation of why, no counselling, no make up hug, no arm around the shoulder to show that I was still loved. I was left kind of hanging. The shame and guilt were still there within me. I knew what I was expected to do to avoid problems again, but that’s as far as it went.

Love wasn’t actually withdrawn – they still loved me – but because it wasn’t displayed at those formative moments, I felt like it was withdrawn. It was what I personally needed most. It still is.

When I was 12 and we moved so far away from my childhood home to another state, love left me completely. I felt like my life had been taken away and that my family wasn’t available to help me in my hour of greatest need. Again I felt like love had been taken away. (There were reasons they weren’t available. I don’t blame them. There’s no point.) On top of the punishment/discipline techniques from earlier years, I felt like this change of life was a punishment. That I deserved punishment. That everyone was an asshole for doing it to me and for not giving a shit about me. I wasn’t taught how to cope with it. I wasn’t counselled. Instead I just had to live up to expectations of how a bishop’s son should look and be.

If you think this isn’t much of a hardship, just know that very few kids deal with situations like this, where they’re scrutinised by the wider public every day. I had nobody to turn to who shared this experience. You yourself likely weren’t “on display” every day at age 12, knowing that any wrong move would reflect poorly on your father and cause a stream of damaging gossip. Any negative stuff about the family was going to get twisted in the retelling and could easily become a scandal. As a 12-year-old kid, I was in fear of doing the wrong thing. We were nothing like the Royals or anything like that, but I understand how families of public figures withdraw into privacy and guard that privacy jealously. I also understand how they can feel like their lives aren’t their own. I felt very much under pressure. I had to grow up long before I was ready.

As a 12-year-old, I saw all the new adults in my life – and there were many – as people I had to withdraw love and care from. I did my best to stay away from them, so when they visited or when we hosted functions, I retreated to my room. I basically assumed the same mentality as I had when I was punished as a small boy.

As a teenager, I didn’t get to rebel the way others do. So instead, I withdrew love. I withdrew myself. I moved to another city for university – subconsciously getting away from the life I didn’t want. When I moved back to my parents’ city, I lived somewhere else, partly because I thought I should do that as an adult, and also because I wanted to stay away from the church happenings and news. Then I returned to my home state, subconsciously so I could be away from that other life entirely, and perhaps trying to recapture the better emotions and memories of my childhood. I didn’t call my parents very often. I didn’t visit often, either. In the end, I moved overseas, subconsciously moving away from it even more, from where I still don’t call often and visit even less. I essentially withdrew everything. Not only had I weaponized what I felt had happened to me, but I carry shame and guilt over doing it.

I weaponized the withdrawal of love against myself. It became my “survival” strategy.

Is it any wonder depression has been with me for so long? What a pity it has taken me so many years to wake up.

Over these past couple of years, it has been my parents’ hour of need and I’ve been pretty much useless. So I feel guilty. Distance is a factor, for sure, as is money. I can’t just drop everything and travel across the world. I have a wife and children and a mortgage and bills, etc. But most essentially, I can see the recurring pattern of subconsciously withdrawing love.

Since becoming aware of all this, I have tried to reconcile with my feelings. I even told my parents I loved them (something we didn’t say much in our family), because I do, but I don’t know if it really registered. If I call them, I feel dragged back into their world. And I don’t want to be in that world.

It’s like I’m trapped being 12. That is the heart and cause of my depression. I’m stuck with the emotions I felt when I was 12 – and the withdrawal of love has become a pattern.

As I write this, at this very moment, an email came in saying I was unsuccessful in obtaining an interview for a job. It’s really hard not to feel all over again like something has been taken away or withheld.

Through my teenage and adult years, when I received rejection from someone, I rejected them right back. “Fuck them. They don’t know what they’re missing. They can eat shit.” 12 years old again. Still.

I was 29 when my first marriage failed. I went into awful depression for a couple of years. That’s understandable. But I was sent back to being 12 again and reliving all those same emotions. Love had been taken away. I must deserve it. I must suck. Why must I be dealt a shitty hand all the time? Fuck everyone, get them away from me.

Although I knew our marriage wasn’t great in the months beforehand, I have to admit I was blindsided when the moment came. I had thought things would come good again. But there was nothing I could do and I descended into feeling like everything had been taken away.

A few weeks after we split, I remember thinking that I didn’t miss my then wife personally. I didn’t picture her face or remember her perfume smell or remember how our embraces felt. I didn’t long for the good memories. I ached for a general sense of togetherness and intimacy, with somebody generally, not specifically her. I needed love. I always had. And it was gone. Therefore love for myself was gone. Actually, now I can look back and realise that love for myself hadn’t been there at all. What a paralysing, paradoxical conundrum.

Now I’m aware of all this, the question becomes what to do. I have some ideas. They’ll take time. It’s a new world – one where I need to stop being a victim of my 12-year-old emotions.

How has withdrawal of love affected you? Where does it tie in with your depression? I’ll bet it’s played a pretty big role. Each one of us copes and responds in different ways. But our depression is a sure sign that our coping/defence mechanisms are no longer serving us.

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8 comments

  1. Hi John – I takes a great deal of courage to write about this issues you have experienced and are experiencing – it is quite a window into a life I have been close do and seen only part of but know what you are talking about

    It seemed to me that my father’s career was more important than we were as children – and being THE policeman’s children meant everything we did got back to our father very quickly and we were punished – our father wasn’t into spanking but our mother was – I know that feeling of withdrawn love only too well and the lost feeling I had when told the past was over and not to bring it up for discussion again. Children can feel helpless

    I know my father loved me – but he always said he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve – he was highly decorated though – he had a lot of medals – so when he grouched about not wearing his heart on his sleeve and said once “I can see the little paper heart there – luckily I can hear your real heart beating under all that heavy metal” and I am sure the satire of the comment went over his head

    But he did tell me before he died that he loved me – always had – and that what had happened was a Terrible Injustice.

    Still – I know what you are talking about

    I want to help your parents too but I don’t know how – I don’t know where they are. I respect there privacy and at this stage I am letting it rest. Still – I know what it’s like – these two brothers had incredibly successful lives and the kids seemed to matter less – I can hear your despair John – I know about it

    Now – with your own family and responsibilities and your finances being normally restricted it is very hard for you to do anything to help your Mum and Dad now. There is no need at all to feel guilty about it – sorry – yes – but life is what is has turned out to be and I have certainly looked at Google Earth and seen how far is from British Columbia

    If there is anything I can do to help I am able – willing to do so – really hope I can – please let me know

    Lin

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  2. Thanks, Lin. I don’t want to paint my parents as uncaring. They love me very much and have been there for me on so many occasions when I needed them. Unfortunately, the most “formative” occasion for me involved them being too busy. I truly did not want to be in the new place in 1982. At all. So I felt like I had no choice and didn’t matter. Of course, I did matter. But Christopher was so sick, Michael was still in Queensland to finish grade 12, and Mum and Dad were buried in new responsibilities. I knew nobody and was so scared. I was only 12, after all. You can see how easy it was for me to build resentment about the whole situation. I did feel that Dad’s role took precedence almost all the time and I resented having to conform to somebody else’s expectations.

    But I can’t blame Mum and Dad. At all. There is nothing to gain by doing that. Besides, it isn’t fair to them. I simply withdrew into depression and the people around me didn’t know enough about it at the time.

    It’s now up to me. Nobody else. I have to use the lessons I have learned and listen to the message the universe is sending me.

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  3. Thank you, John, for being so open. I can hear the pain, confusion, and love while you are sharing your journey with depression. You have no idea how much this current entry has helped me. While reading this current blog, I knew I was doing the same stuff, but I did not own it or name it or really investigate why and how I was dealing with my depression. I also went as far away as I could away from my parents but still be in Canada. I need to own my part of my depression and why it happened, still happening and to heal. My Mom told me before she died, that she was proud of me on how I have handled my illnesses. She felt that she had done all the wrong thing when she was sick but she had no tools to deal with depression – and she was sick most of the time of me growing up. I was angry as it looked to me that she was well for most of the plays, musical stuff that my Sister was doing but not mine. She also had depression and did not know what to do to treat it. She also withdrew love as it was something she learned while growing up. I then learned it too more from her and when I was hearing other Family members talk about my Mom and how she was faking most of her illnesses – she was ill, and she was not faking but as a young child of 6, I only saw why people thought was faking stuff. It was not until I was so ill at the age of 33, that I got all of what she went thru. Even as an RN with medical information, I did not see it. It was so easy to withdraw my love for her. My Mom also said how proud of my sister and me of the fact we are strong women and married our partners. I knew it took her a lot to say these things as she is of the generation that that is not said or talked about – any feelings. My Dad is a whole other issue. I was so lucky to find my soul mate. He listened to me how I had been treated by my parents, how I hated them for what they did to me. I had a lot of anger when I met my Husband, but it did not make him run away. He also made his own decision about my parents. Yes, he did agree with me too. To know I had my Husband support helped me work thru my anger I had at that time. This support has helped me so much over the years. Yes, I do have depression. I have work to do on my depression and own it. Thank you so much, John. ❤

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    1. Thank you, Sue. So much love to you. You are wonderful and worthy. From the depths of your depression, you have so much to teach us all. From the murky darkness, there is great clarity for you.

      For many of us, our depression is a way of “quitting” – simply because we have been hurt and don’t want that pain again. Our brains and bodies take over to protect us. It serves us for a short while, but then becomes a hindrance.

      Through this awesome clarity you have typed, you have a pathway forward. And you have Jim. But love yourself first. Ultimately every choice comes down to love or fear.

      Much love to you!

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  4. Powerful writing, John, powerful.

    I think you are on to something with this withdrawal of love idea but I think the other half of the equation is that some folks are more sensitive to the emotions around them. While my brothers grew up in (largely) the same environment I did, they did not and do not share my depression. Part of that is that my brothers literally can do no wrong in my mother’s eyes, but they also are not as intuitive/sensitive/empathic as I am.

    Because folks who suffer from depression tend to *feel* at a more sensitive level, the withdrawal of love affects us more deeply and more often than it does others. Others might be able to write off the lack of response by someone as the person being busy or preoccupied, but to depressed folks, I think we are much quicker to jump to the “they don’t like/love me anymore”. At some point, we start to realize that we are frequently hurt so we barricade ourselves to protect our tender emotions. We don’t let love in, and we don’t let love out which is a deadly combination that allows us to “justify” our feelings.

    Having a kid with Asperger’s has helped me understand this being overwhelmed by emotion part of my depression. While I knew that other people’s outlook could help or hurt my depression, I hadn’t put it together that I avoided crowds because of the sheer quantity of emotion they generated. Let someone be angry with someone else, and *I’m* the one feeling unloved. Let someone be overwhelmingly joyful, and I would be manic. No wonder I couldn’t figure out why I was ok in some crowds but not all crowds 🙂

    I had a therapist once who made the comment, “when was the last time you deliberately hurt someone?” I answered that I don’t think I ever deliberately hurt someone but I sure have done it often by accident or clumsiness. The therapist then suggested I remember that the next time I thought someone was being hurtful. They were more likely to be clumsy or unknowing than intentional. It took me several years to get that through my head, but eventually, that helped me forgive folks and be more willing to let down the walls to let me out and others in. To put it a different way, sometimes, folks think they lobbed a pebble at your direction to get your attention but instead, they somehow manage to shoot a cannon ball that lands on your toe. They didn’t mean to hurt you but you are still hobbling around. You can be angry they tried to get your attention, you can be angry that your toe is broken, or you can tape that toe together and hobble off to your friend to get sympathy. These are all choices you get to make.

    Of course, the challenge is with those folks whom we feel have deliberately been hurtful, or as you put it, withdrew their love. My mother viewed me as a burden or as an employee. I was to sit down, be quiet, and work. Good grades or comments from a teacher got nothing. She was often disappointed in me or simply working too hard to keep food and shelter to have any room for my childish needs. She married a loser for my step-father and chose to do nothing as his hanky-panky and drinking took over the household. To her credit, she did finally divorce him when she found the kids’ underwear stash but never addressed the elephant in the room, choosing instead to ship me off to boarding school. When I got married almost 34 years ago, my mother suggested I didn’t want to ruin my life by getting married. There were lots of other intentionally hurtful things she said and did around the wedding, but that is the simplest example. In talking with her around our 30th anniversary, she did admit that perhaps I had made the right decision. When I called her to tell her I was pregnant with my first kid, she said I had ruined my life and hung up on me. You get the idea. For a long time, I cut her out of my life but the anger I felt was a cancer that affected the way I looked at every relationship. As part of this same therapist’s treatment, she suggested I think about how challenging I was finding being a mom to two kids in spite of having an amazing and helpful husband and being fairly financially secure. How did I think my mother had felt when her two older sisters dumped their kids on her leaving her with 7 kids under 7? How did she cope when her husband walked out, especially since this was the era when women couldn’t own businesses, get credit cards, or get home loans? How had those struggles affected her growth as a person? The idea wasn’t to say her actions hadn’t been hurtful or inappropriate, but rather to apply the same analysis to her as I did when my own kids were misbehaving. It helped me take the personal part out of the hurt. My mother was too young, too poor, and had she known what birth control was, would never have chosen to have kids. If I start from there, it’s clear she was never going to be a good parent but she was never intentional in her hurt; she was just too tired and uncaring. Accepting that I was hurt, deeply, as a child but the hurt was unintentional and my mother had loved me as best as she could love anybody. Also realizing that many of those character traits I learned to help survive my childhood have helped me be the successful person I am today succeeded in setting me free.

    As my kids will attest, whenever they’ve felt someone was being hurtful to them, they’ve had me say, “do you think they are hurting you intentionally or do you think they are a clueless git?” Sometimes folks are bullying but educating them first makes it abundantly clear, to both me and them, that what they are doing is bullying. Instead of me rabbit-holing down the “did they mean to hurt me? they HATE me!” aspect, clarifying with them that what they did was hurtful makes their actions clear and above-board which means I can choose how to respond. Understanding that almost every hurtful act was unintentional makes it easier for me to give love and accept love because I can accept someone as being a clueless git 🙂

    Of course it follows that if they can be a clueless git, so can I. I’m still working to be willing to communicate more promptly “ouch-did you mean that comment to be hurtful?” or “I’m just fragile today so would you please be extra gentle today?” Because I am very sensitive to the flow of emotion, when someone is walled off, instead of me taking it as a personal withdrawal of love, I can accept it as they are having a tough day so I need to be extra gentle with them.

    But it’s always a choice, and choices are hard when the depression hits hard. When I am functionally depressed, I can make the choices. I don’t always choose wisely, but I can at least tell myself (and almost believe it) that they tossed a pebble even if a cannon ball landed on my toe. When the depression was suicidal, I was too far in the well of despair and loveless-ness to hear anything from anyone, including whatever echoes I could generate. When I was finally able to articulate the loves I had lost, I was able to come out of the well and back into the functionally depressed state where choices can be made.

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  5. Oh, Valorie. Wonderful comments. It’s like you’re reading my mind, especially about how some of us are affected more deeply than others. And that much stuff at the heart of our depression wasn’t done deliberately, but still had such a strong effect that depression resulted. I am only now learning about what it means to set myself free from the chains of other people’s behaviour and expectations. It’s a journey, all right. Thank you so much for your wisdom and insight.

    Might I use these comments and attribute them to you?

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    1. I’m glad some of my story resonates with you. I am finding the more I talk about my story, the less alone I am and more importantly, the bits I’ve learned seem to help others and the bits they’ve learned seem to help me. Please use what makes sense to you in hopes it will help others navigate their own wells of depression.

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