Our Parents, Our Depression

If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in the moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people – Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk

Like all parents, my Mom and Dad were flawed people – as I am. They were something more than that.

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I’ve struggled to understand them much of my adult life; maybe more so now that they’re both gone. Here’s a picture of them from 1946 cleaning up the reception hall after their wedding.

The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary.” Maybe it isn’t till midlife that we work hard to interpret the stories of our past. I believe there’s a strong urge in all of us to make a coherent story of one’s life at this juncture. And our parents are a large part of that tale. 

The author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, a WWII veteran like my dad, wrote:

“The most important thing I learned was that when a person dies, he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. It’s just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.”

Now that I’m 57, I still wonder what role Mom and Dad played in my depression. Looking at the facts, I guess it’s all too obvious: drinking and mental health issues on both sides of the fence. In my most self-absorbed moments, I blame them and feel justified in doing so. In moments of lucidity, I see that they, like me, were somebody’s children once. They didn’t start life the way they ended up – nobody does. They were, in a real sense, victims. This fact doesn’t excuse what happened; the real pain they inflicted on their children. But it does help me to understand their plights in life. And with that understanding comes some measure of peace, a peace of heart.

Turning the pages to our past

Jonathan Franzen, the author of the best-selling book Freedom about a family that struggles with depression, writes:

“Depression, when it’s clinical, is not a metaphor. It runs in families, and it’s known to respond to medication and to counseling. However truly you believe there’s a sickness to existence that can never be cured, if you’re depressed, you will sooner or later surrender and say: I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.”

Here’s Jonathan Franzen talking about his novel on PBS:

How much of our life is determined by our familial past? How much of it is spun by choices we make apart from that past? Apart from what happened to us at the hands of parents, can we really change? I believe that shifting through our history helps us become unstuck. And after all, depression is about being stuck. We can’t go forward if we can’t go backward and to see the truth of about past.

There are some things we can change and some we can’t. We can’t change our genetics and scientists now know that the genes we inherit have a significant role in our vulnerability to depression. There is a gene that regulates how much of a chemical called serotonin is produced. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. The amount of serotonin that flows to your brain influences your mood and emotional state. Those whose serotonin transporters included a gene that was shorter than would be typically expected at a certain point had a harder time bouncing back after experiencing a stressful event. Chronic stress and anxiety, as I’ve written about before, have a strong correlation to a vulnerability to clinical depression.

This bit of news makes me want to know my ancestors, these ghosts of my past. These folks and I have something in common: irksome chromosomes that could flip off the happy switch in our brains from time-to-time.

I heard on National Public Radio that there had been 60 generations that have lived and died since the time of Jesus. Since the extent of my knowledge about my family only goes back, at best, 100 years to the time of the birth of my grandparents, that leaves me about fifty-eight generations or 1900 years of emotional and genetic history unaccounted. I wish there were some recorded history of their lives because I am a continuation of them even as my daughter is of me.

Dad’s Story

Dad was born in Buffalo in 1926, the oldest of five born to Polish immigrants who arrived in America just in time for my grandfather to serve in the United States army in WWI. I never met my grandparents, but from family lore, learned that they were tough people who lived even tougher lives: brute physical labor for their daily staple of meat and potatoes, playing pinochle while plumes of cigarette smoke crawling up to the ceiling, and crates of cheap booze on the weekends. If you looked crossways at them, they’d likely belt you in the mouth.

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Alcohol played a significant role in my family’s drama through the generations. Sometimes they drank at home, but more often in what my grandma called “Gin mills.” Men would cash their checks in these Polish joints, throw their money on long wooden bars sip draught Genesee Beer, as they talked about all the scraps they’d been in that week just trying to get along in life.

My dad grew up in this world. At 17, he joined the Navy to fight the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII. War must have deeply affected him, as it does all young men. Robert E. Lee, writing of his experiences in the Civil War, wrote his wife in 1864:

“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors and to devastate the fair face of the earth.”

Last year, I read a New York Times Book Review about J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. The article notes that Salinger, who served in the infantry during WWII in Europe, witnessed a lot of death and mayhem and struggled with depression his whole life:

“Salinger’s experiences during WWII heightened his sense of alienation. The war left him with deep psychological scars, branding ‘every aspect’ of his personality and reverberating through his writings. Salinger had suffered from depression for years, perhaps throughout his entire life, and was at times afflicted by episodes so intense that he could not relate to others.”

Ultimately, he stopped publishing, moved into a cabin in rural Connecticut and practiced Yoga and Zen meditation.

Dad clearly suffered from undiagnosed depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder something that would, like Salinger, haunt him for the rest of his life. But war can’t explain all his misery, can’t explain the storms that would rage in his head. Dad’s younger sister, my Aunt Mary, suffered from depression and taken medication for the past 40 years.  Not only do I have depression, but so do my siblings, cousins, and a niece and nephew. None of us have fought in a war.  Part of the depression puzzle for all of us must be genetic.

Mom’s Story

Mom, like dad, was also part of WWII generation. Her older brother Joe went off to war in the Pacific for three years. As fate would have it, he met my future Dad aboard a ship in the Philippines and said, “If we ever get out of this shithole, I’ve got this cute, blonde sister back in Buffalo.” They survived, my parents met, fell in love and married.

Mom had an alcoholic father, also an immigrant from Poland. She recalled being asked by her mother to find her dad regularly when he didn’t return home after work. Often, during the harsh Buffalo winters, she would find him passed out in a snow bank. The only intimate moments she remembered sharing with him was when for her eighth birthday, he took her to a Shirley Temple movie and bought her candy.  That was it.

Mom and dad quickly had three kids. Things went well the first ten years of their marriage, but the wheels began to fall off: dad drank too much, gambled, womanized, and had unpredictable outbursts of high octane rage. It was too much for my mom. She collapsed back into herself, like a crumbling building, and never recovered. She began to eat a lot, added lots of pounds to her slender frame and watched T.V. Maybe the dopey sitcom narratives sliced through the quiet pain my mom carried.  Mom didn’t have a genetic history of depression in her family. Become my mom clearly became depressed after so much abuse and unhappiness.  And we grew up with that.

Dad died 38 years ago at the age of 56 (I was 19) from too much drinking and smoking. He died unrepentant, never saying he was sorry for anything. But, in my mind, I think he was sorry. I think he just couldn’t bring himself to say it because of the enormity of his sins. But I have learned to forgive him, this enemy of my childhood who I had wished as a boy would just die.

The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

As for my mom, well, she died almost nine years ago at the age of 82 from brain cancer. She was always somehow distant. Like a star in the sky that had burn bright, but always surrounded by darkness. She never had any friends; her family was her posse. She loved us, but did not connect on a deep level; maybe because she was never cherished as a child by parents who took an interest in her inner world.

She did, after all was said and done, the best she could and, in this sense, was much easier to forgive than dad.

Walter – Second Edition

Wally, my oldest brother at age 65 and Dad’s namesake, and I were walking back the other night to the parking lot after our hometown hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, had taken a real shellacking. I asked him in the frosty, hidden darkness where men – – if they do at all – – share a sliver of their true inner lives: “Do you ever think of dad and what did he meant to you?” He replied, after a few huffing breaths: “Not really, just what a real asshole he was.”

My brother has never been in therapy, never taken antidepressants. But he had heroically forged ahead “carving out a living” as he was prone to say. I couldn’t help think about the profound effect dad’s abuse had had on him and my other three siblings. I wonder if he sometimes thinks about it at night while lying in bed with the windows cracked open on a hot summer’s night. Does he wonder why he can’t stop feeling bad about himself? Why doesn’t he feel more confident? And the toughest part of it all, the thing that keeps me up at night when I think of my burly, big-hearted brother, is that he probably blames himself for all of these feelings as adult children of alcoholics are prone to do.

My Coming Around

As for me, a real veteran of therapy and antidepressant medications, I know all too well that my parents are still tangled up inside of me long after their deaths. My therapist once said that I had to work out the long-buried grief of never having had the parents I needed. Over the years, I have done a lot of grieving for the childhood I didn’t have. As I was to learn, it wasn’t only my grief about my childhood troubles that I was to deal with, but for my parents as well. For the loss of their innocence, their difficult childhoods, and all that they could have been.

Despite the pain in my family, there was love; fractured though it may have been. As he aged, I sensed that my dad knew that too much had gone wrong that he couldn’t fix. But in small gestures here and there, he showed affection and love. As my mom’s wake last May, I was privileged to give the eulogy. I said my mom’s defining quality wasn’t worldly success, intelligence or gardening, but kindness – that this is where she planted her flowers that continue to grow in the hearts of her children and grandchildren. And what a gift that is. One that’s always in bloom.

My parents were both hopeless in their own respective ways. They were dealt a crummy hand in life. They were born with certain genes, into a family and time in history that they didn’t choose. The difference between them and me, the blessing that came out of my depression that didn’t happen for them, was that my pain forced me to finally confront my wounds and work hard to heal them. It compelled me to examine the long unexamined within me. It gave me a choice: I could continue to live out my parents damaged and wounded views of life or embark on my journey and discover what was real and true for me.

While it is true that none of us can avoid the pains and difficulties that come from living on this planet, what modulates the pain is love — pure and simple.

Andrew Solomon, who has suffered from depression for much of his adult life, captured this in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:

“Depression is a flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself.”

In the end, love is the only thing that saves anybody.

 

Why It’s Important to Join a Depression Support Group

“What can I do to help my depression?”

Well, there are many things you go do, really:  therapy, medication, etcetera, etcetera.

But one idea you might not have given much thought to: join a depression support group.  There are many benefits.   I have belonged to one for the past seven years. Here are some of my thoughts about why it’s good for you and how to find one.

Why It’s Good For You

One of the worst aspects of depression is the loneliness that sufferers endure.  There are several reasons why this is so: they don’t feel up to being with other people, others simply don’t understand, or they feel a sense of shame and hide.  While it may be a good idea to take “timeout” from others to enjoy some peace or not share with others that we have strong reason to believe won’t understand, these strategies are often maladaptive and only serve to maintain and/or fuel one’s depression.  Here is a bit of hard-won wisdom I’ve learned:  when I feel the worst is when I most need to be with other people and share.

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Being with others is even more critical when you’re in pain.  You need to communicate your distress and know that your “tribe” will listen and care.  When this doesn’t happen, you feel alone, distressed and even abandoned.  You wander in the wilderness of pain by yourself and endure it as best you can.  But don’t you deserve better than that?

Having a place to admit and share your story

Andrew Solomon, author of the best-selling book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, writes:

Depression is a disease of loneliness. Many untreated depressives lack friends because it saps the vitality that friendship requires and immures its victims in an impenetrable sheath, making it hard for them to speak or hear words of comfort. Worldly success does little to assuage that agony, as Robin Williams’ suicide makes clear. Love, both expressed and received, is helpful, not because it  ameliorates the symptoms of depression (it does not), but because it gives people evidence that life may be worth living if they can only get better. It gives them a place to admit to their illness, and admitting it is the first step toward resolving it.

Besides the psychological salve that support can bring to the wounds of your loneliness, there are important physiological reasons for being part of a support group.

Positive experiences can also be used to soothe, balance, and even replace negative ones.  When two things are held in the mind at the same time, they start to connect with each other.  That’s one reason why talking about hard feelings with someone who’s supportive can be so healing: painful feelings and memories get infused with the comfort, encouragement, and closeness you experience with the other person. (Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom, Rick Hanson, Ph.D. with Richard Mendius, M.D.)

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I’ve talked to hundreds of folks about depression over the years and often found that a good chunk are resistant to joining a support group.  They feel tired and unmotivated to do so or feel hopeless that anything, even this, will help their depression. They have to meet this resistance and push forward because as depression expert Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. once told me, “Depression isn’t your fault.  But it is your responsibility to get better.”  And a support group, together with treatment, is one of the best ways for you to take responsibility for getting and staying better.

Small steps are best.  Before going to a group, get in touch with the contact person for the group and speak with them by phone, or, better yet, meet them for coffee to see if the group would be a good fit for you.

How to Find a Support Group

It isn’t as hard to find a support group as you may think.  Here’s my list:

The Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance

The National Alliance for the Mental Ill

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

Mental Health America

If you are a lawyer, check in with your local and/or state ABA’s Lawyers Assistance Program.

If there isn’t a support group in your community, my next blog will address how to create one.

Watching Geese

It’s almost the end of October. I look out my back window and can see the wild geese that gather again in the pond in my back yard this time of the year. It’s a way station before they fly off to warmers climes.

Canada Goose

People with depression feel less than – less than good, less than successful, less than a loving spouse or parent. Too often, they feel poverty in their souls. In their heads, they chew on thoughts that if they were only “better” people or more “successful,” they wouldn’t be suffering so much or could overcome depression.

It’s as if they’re to blame for their depression and any self-compassion is as absent as rain in the desert.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

You don’t have to prove – over and over and over again – – to yourself or others – – that you’re worthy to walk this sweet earth and enjoy a sense of wholeness. You don’t need to beg others for their approval because God, however you define him or her, is always announcing in the natural world on fire with colors and portents of change at this time of the year, your intimate belonging in this world.

Poet Mary Oliver captures this so beautifully in her poem Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

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