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The Connection Between Springsteen, Men, Aging & Depression

The Connection Between Springsteen, Men, Aging & Depression

By Dave Price

By any measure, Bruce Springsteen appears to be the epitome of the successes possible in the American Dream, a subject which as a songwriter he has so often examined in his acclaimed work.

There’s Bruce Springsteen rising from working class New Jersey roots to become the leader of the “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making legendary E Street Band,” which, while already enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is still one of the music business’ highest grossers whenever it tours worldwide.

There’s Bruce Springsteen the multi-millionaire adored for more than five decades by his continually growing legion of fans for his songs, his lyrics, his energetic 4-hour live shows, his activism, and the way he speaks for the concerns of the disenfranchised, the alienated, the forgotten, the lonely, and the lovelorn.

There’s Bruce Springsteen a member of the one percent who vacations with former President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Tom Hanks, but still walks the boardwalks of the Jersey shore alone in a baseball cap and T-shirt, pausing ever so often to let excited fans who recognize him take selfies.

There’s Bruce Springsteen, a winner of an Oscar, a Golden Globe and 11 Grammies, as well as a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors award and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

As a first-time memoir author, Springsteen earned a reported $10 million advance to write his autobiography, a large investment which proved more than justified as his book reached the top of The New York Times best-seller list and was heralded by both music and literary critics as one of the finest books of its type ever written.

Just last month, it was announced that Springsteen would be taking up an eight-week residency on Broadway next fall, performing solo five nights a week at the Walter Kerr Theatre. There are reports that Springsteen’s New York City run is a precursor to a full Broadway production based on his memoir Born to Run.

But then there is another out-of-the-spotlight Springsteen, a fellow human being like all of us.

Springsteen, now 69, has been suffering for about 15 years from a private darkness – recurring serious bouts of chronic depression which he says opens “a terrifying window into mental debilitation,” leaving him with “an agitated depression” that feels “dangerous and brings plenty of unwanted thoughts.”

During these periods, Springsteen says in his Born to Run memoir he was “so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I just wanted OUT. It feels dangerous and brings plenty of unwanted thoughts. I was uncomfortable doing anything. Standing … walking … sitting down … everything brought waves of agitated anxiety that I’d spend every waking minute trying to dispel. Demise and foreboding were all that awaited”.

“Sleep was the only respite,” he adds. “… all I really wanted was the bed, the bed, the bed, and unconsciousness. I spent good portions of the day with the covers up to my nose waiting for it to stop. Reading or even watching television felt beyond my ability. All my favorite things – listening to music, watching some film noir – caused such an unbearable anxiety in me because they were undoable. The fire in me felt like it had gone out and I felt dark and hollow inside. I was a walking husk. I couldn’t get out of bed. Hell, I couldn’t even get a hard-on. I couldn’t live like this, not forever. I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss. The fact that I understood this, that I could feel this, emptied my heart out and left me in a cold fright.”

Fortunately, utilizing expert mental health care, anti-depressants (which have to be tweaked from time to time because they stop working), and the patient insistence and love of his wife Patty Scialfa, Springsteen has been able to beat back the devastating demons of depression each time they have struck.

Of course, Springsteen isn’t the only person involved in a life-long struggle against soul-crushing depression. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that about 16 million American adults have at least one major depressive episode a year. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 300 million worldwide suffer from the disease.

And depression is definitely on the rise, especially with Baby Boomers.

It’s believed that in the United States 1 in 7 boomers are currently being treated for the disease and at least 1 in 5 will be diagnosed with depression in their lifetime.

So what can be done about this alarming situation?

First, medical experts say people must realize that depression is an actual disease, not simply a bad case of blues, which can strike anyone at any time, but especially those after age 50.

This is why so many are praising Springsteen for his frank, courageous, detailed description of his depression in Born to Run. They believe his candor may encourage other aging men to deal with their own depression.

There are several factors that may contribute to depression. The three most often mentioned are:

Genes – people with a family history (for example, Springsteen’s father suffered both from alcoholism and depression, as did mine) seem to be more likely to develop it than those whose family members don’t have the disease.

Brain chemistry and hormones – the brains of people with depression look different than those without the illness. Also, hormones that control emotions and mood can affect brain chemistry.

Stress – loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any extremely stressful situation may trigger depression in some people.

While anyone may get depression, signs and symptoms can differ in men and women. Men also tend to use different coping skills – both healthy and unhealthy – than women do. The Mayo Clinic points out that men, like women with depression, may:

  • Experience prolonged feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness, or hopelessness.
  • Lose interest in pleasurable activities such as sex, hobbies, or sports.
  • Find sleep disturbances occurring regularly. This could be an inability to sleep or sleeping way too much.
  • Become anxious, agitated, or restless.
  • Undergo a drastically reduced appetite and weight loss, or, in some cases, an increased craving for food and subsequent weight gain.
  • Endure tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort.
  • Have trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering.
  • Suffer from feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame.
  • Be tormented with recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts.

In addition, however, men also demonstrate other behaviors that could be signs of depression, but aren’t always recognized as such. Examples include:

  • Alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Controlling, violent, or abusive behavior.
  • Irritability or inappropriate anger.
  • Risky behavior, such as reckless driving.

Obviously, because these behaviors could be signs of depression or other physical or mental health issues, professional help is the key to an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

However, men are much less likely to seek such help than women.

There are several reasons for this. First, as always, there is macho pride. Men have a tendency to downplay depression signs and symptoms, just like they often do with physical ailments. They usually see a doctor only as a last resort. Of course, ignoring symptoms or masking them with unhealthy behaviors only worsens the negative emotions embedded in all depression.

Men are also much more reluctant to discuss depressive symptoms with even family or friends, let alone a health care professional, since that would mean examining and expressing feelings, which is an absolute no-no in the code for many males. Many men have learned that they must emphasize self-control and strength at all times. Therefore, such men think it’s unmanly to express feelings and emotions and try to suppress them.

Finally, even if they suspect they might be suffering from depression, many men avoid diagnosis or refuse treatment. They are worried that the stigma of depression could damage their career or cause family and friends to lose respect for them.

Therefore, it often falls to a wife, a partner, or some other close family member who recognizes the symptoms of depression to help the victim of the disease.

In his memoir, Springsteen is effusive in praise of his wife Patty for her help. “During these periods (of depression) I can be cruel. I run, I dissemble, I dodge, I weave, I disappear, I return, I rarely apologize, and all the while Patti holds down the fort as I’m trying to burn it down. She stops me. She gets me to the doctors and says, ‘This man needs a pill.’ And I do. The only thing that keeps me right side up during (a depressive episode) is Patti. Her love, compassion, and assurance that I’d be all right were, during many dark hours, all I had to go on,” Springsteen writes.

So how can you help a man whom you believe is mired in depression? Here are a series of suggestions adapted from the work of the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • Offer him support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
  • Engage him in conversation and listen carefully. Don’t disparage the feelings he expresses, but do point out realities while always offering hope.
  • Help him find a doctor or mental health professional and make an appointment.
  • Sometimes, if you sense it would be the right approach, suggest a general check-up first with a physician. He may be less resistant to seeing a family doctor than a mental health professional at first.
  • Offer to accompany him on any visits if he wants you to.
  • Encourage him to make a list of all symptoms to discuss. Help him focus on his feelings, as well as any physical ailments and to honestly discuss his use of alcohol and drugs.
  • Point out, when appropriate, how his behavior has changed. But do this without being critical. Say something like “You always seem to get pains before work” or “You haven’t worked out for months.”
  • Invite him for walks, outings, and other activities. But don’t be upset or critical if your invitation is refused.
  • Continue to gently urge him to resume activities that once gave him pleasure, but don’t push him to undertake too much too soon.
  • In the beginning of his recovery, you may need to monitor whether he is taking prescribed medication or attending therapy.
  • Never ignore remarks about suicide. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 in the US, contact a Provincial crisis support centre in Canada or locate a suicide support centre in the country you are in.
  • Always remember you can’t “fix” someone else’s depression. You’re not to blame for their depression. Ultimately, recovery is in their hands.

And what if you are a Baby Boomer male who has decided you are suffering from depression and serious about doing something about it?

Well, many of the above ideas have merit for you. I would also consider picking up Bruce Springsteen’s book and reading the three chapters near the end of Born to Run dealing with his depression. Trust me – it is one hundred percent accurate.

And why am I so sure of that?

Well, it’s not because I’m a former musician from New Jersey who played many of the same shore clubs Springsteen did when he was starting out. Or was in a band that performed at one of his Welcome to Philadelphia parties and once opened a concert for him and the E Street Band. Or that I have met and talked to him.

No, it’s much more than that.

For like Bruce, I too was diagnosed with depression in my 50s. And like him, I’ve had my meds cut out and have to be adjusted. Not once, but three times in 10 years. I hope it never happens again, but now I’m more aware and know immediately what to do.

In short, while I lack Bruce Springsteen’s prodigious talent, fame, and money, his story of depression is my story.  And if you have depression, chances are at least parts of Springsteen’s tale will be in your story, too.

The main thing to remember is that with time and treatment you can get better. And if there is a chemical relapse, you can get better again. And again. In fact, you can do it as many times as is necessary as long as you follow your prescribed treatment.

Here’s what Bruce Springsteen says on page 500 in the next to last paragraph of the 78th chapter of his memorable inner-look book:

“Mentally, just when I thought I was in the part of my life where I’m supposed to be cruising, my sixties were a rough, rough ride,” he writes. “I’ve long ago stopped struggling to get out of bed and I’ve got my energy back. That feels good. Two years have passed and it can feel like it never happened. I can’t recall the state. The best I can do is think … that’s not me. But it’s in me, chemically, genetically, whatever you want to call it, and, as I’ve said before, I’ve got to watch. The only real bulwark against it is love.”

And whether you are Bruce Springsteen, or me, or you, as bulwarks go in this often tough life, love is a really good one.

This is the third post in a continuing Booming Encore series written by Dave Price on the challenges that Baby Boomer men may encounter as they age. Here are links to the first two articles:

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.