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  • Writer's picturePatrick Norris


When we experience griefs, losses, or traumas our brains record those moments as retrievable memory files.

John, a thirty-five-year-old client, was struggling with depression. A survey into his “roots of bitterness” gave several examples of a rigid, disengaged father and an enmeshed mother. His dad had always elevated rules and behavior presentation as the most important part of childhood. To his dad, if you acted right, did the right things and submitted to his standards, you were effectively being groomed for success.

Unfortunately, John’s Dad was also disengaged. He didn’t know how to share emotional moments. While rebuke or lecture were not uncommon, celebrations were rare. John never knew what it was like to have a Dad check-in, with non-judgmental interest and exploration, into John’s emotional state.

John grew up never feeling really seen, known, felt, or connected to by his dad. What further saddened John was that his Dad thought they were very close because his dad had a lifetime of examples where he had “discipled” John into a good man. But John was empty of nurture, intimacy, and shared emotional experiences. He had little to feel around laughing together, grieving together, or feeling together.

John’s mother was also struggling with her marriage to his Dad. Because of her need for emotional connection, that John’s Dad never developed skill or awareness for, she would turn to John’s budding personality. John was a natural at being a good listener. His cognitive skills for connecting thoughts and observing details in social environments made him a source of wisdom, comfort and connection.

John’s mother learned how to access John’s special competencies to meet her emotional needs. She would share with him her marital problems, her own feelings of grief, and her sadness at life. She needed support and found that John was a deepening resource.

John was confused by the feelings of power when his mom turned towards him for comfort and wisdom. He felt alive and powerful, but also felt he was responsible for his mom. He struggled to separate his own emotional sense of self, and his own emotional regulation, as he managed hers. When she was upset, angry, or depressed, John felt that way too. He would become anxious to figure out what she needed. His emotional state was often set to the thermostat of her emotional temperature.

Meanwhile, John’s Dad knew that he couldn’t satisfy his wife’s emotional needs. He became weary early on in the marriage realizing he didn’t know how to make her feel loved or meet her emotional longings. John’s Dad felt a great relief that his wife finally found a source of refuge, so he could go on with his own ambitions without her distractions. His Dad was more than relieved and happy that she found strength in John as John became more mature and capable. At least it wasn’t another man outside the marriage.

John, as an adult, couldn’t figure out why he was so depressed. His wife, his elders, his friends, all thought he was living the American dream. He had success. He had financial stability. He had a growing church. His influence had gained a large following. He had a great wife and family. His parents hadn’t physically abused him. His parents loved him. His childhood was with a nice Christian home and lots of opportunity. How could he possibly be depressed?

Unfortunately, what all his comforters, the voices assessing his life, didn’t know is that John had begun medicating his depression. He would fantasize acting out with alcohol bingeing, and even flirting with ladies. He found this made him feel alive, an aroused sense of life. Then in a more rational moment he would begin to feel deep shame. The shame of not being enough and being a disappointment would fire up his depressed state. He was stuck in a cycle and saw no way out.


Now, let’s strip all this back and analyze John’s story in view of the raw reality. John’s Dad abdicated his responsibility to meet the needs of his wife to a young middle school boy that he, as a grown man, was incompetent to fulfill. John’s mom elevated her own emotional need above the needs of John. John should have lived as a happy, easy going, playful child. He should have felt seen, heard, nurtured, and celebrated independent of his rule-keeping and the way he presented useful giftings. This should have been his reality through middle-school and all his teenage life.

John was not equipped neurobiologically to carry these weights. He knew nothing of boundaries, differentiation, transference, or countertransference. He had no mentor to make sense of what he was carrying. There were no therapists to guide him. There were no adults to form his brain in the love circuits God designed our brains to require for health and functionality.

John was forced to give up a childhood to be uber responsible for the rules of Dad, and the emotional states of a Mom. As his brain evolved it built unidentified pockets of grief, from a lost childhood and insufficient emotional nurture.

All of these actions, one circuit at a time, created strong neuropathways of dysfunction in John’s brain. Around these neuropathways energy pockets from grief, sorrow, and loss were built. These energy pockets grew and produced neurochemicals that emotionally, he experienced as depression.