Me, Mom, Dad, and Depression: A Family Affair

lukasik_parents_cropped“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

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

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 a two-day celebration.

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 really work hard to interpret the stories of our past. I believe there’s a strong urge in all of us to make a comprehensible story of one’s life at this juncture. And our parents are a large part of that tale.

How to Defy Your Genes

This AARP Magazine article features Buffalo, New York lawyer, Dan Lukasik.  The article tells Dan’s story about growing up in a home with two parents who suffered from depression and what he’s done to address his depression differently to better cope.  Read the News

An Interview with Will Meyerhofter About Depression in the Law

Will Meyerhofer, JD LCSW, is an author and a psychotherapist in private practice in NYC.  He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU School of Law and The Hunter College School of Social Work.  Following law school, he worked as an associate at the BigLaw firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City before becoming a therapist. He is also the creator of the website and blog The Peoples’ Therapist.  I spoke with Will about what depression is, how it forms and why so many lawyers are afflicted by it.

Dan:  As someone who has suffered from depression and treats people for depression, what is depression and how does it develop?

Will:  When Freud was asked why he went into neurology, and medicine, the career which developed, for him, into psychoanalysis, he said he was inspired by Charles Darwin’s astonishing breakthrough with the theory of evolution.  Freud was an admirer of Darwin.  That’s relevant, because evolution, I believe, plays an important role in depression.  Depression is an evolutionary adaptation of humankind gone wrong.

It’s a bit like Sickle Cell Anemia, which is actually an adaptation in our blood intended to prevent Malaria.  Unfortunately, that adaptation can also go too far and result in a harmful blood disorder.
Human beings have an enormously long childhood – the period of dependency following birth.  That is chiefly due to our single most important adaptation – large brains, which at full size, would never fit through the birth canal.  So we are born with a partially developed brain, about a third of its full size.  As a result, our brains require a strikingly long period following birth– at least compared to most other higher species – to develop and mature.  During that time, we’re utterly helpless.  Many species are born, brush themselves off, and a couple of hours or days later, they are up and running around – just think of horses birthing foals.  That’s not true for people.  Humans take 10-14 years before they’re in any shape to take care of themselves.  Our brains don’t even reach their full size until we’re about 6 years old.

Dan:  What does this long period of childhood have to do with depression?

Will:  We humans experience a very long period in our lives in which we demand and require enormous amounts of care in order to survive.  Otherwise, we’d die.  Little children comprehend that situation on a cellular level.  If you walk away from a little child – make it clear that you are planning to abandon him for any length of time – that little child is going to absolutely flip; he is going to scream so loudly it will peel the paint off the walls.  That’s because he knows he could die if he is abandoned.  A child will always experience solitude as abandonment.  To put it bluntly – the role of a human child is to please.  It’s more intense for humans than for other life forms, because we require a lot more care and for a much longer period of time.  Reptiles lay eggs and disappear.  They might even feed on their own young and not think much of it.  But mammals need care – milk from the mother.  And of all the mammals, humans need the most care – years and years of it.  So humans spend many years learning to please.  We grow up with this directive to please – and blame ourselves if we fail at that task.  It gets coded into our brains and becomes a trained behavior, an instinct.  Keep in mind, the threat of death is real.  Historically, as a species, humans display high rates of infanticide.  This phenomenon exists in many species.  Birds often cull their young and throw hatchlings out of the nest if there is insufficient food.  But with humans, because we require so much care in our early years, if things are bad, it would not be uncommon to take a child who is disfavored – perhaps an illegitimate or disabled or otherwise undesirable child – and leave it out in the woods to die or simply abandon it as a street urchin.  It is incumbent upon every human child to please so he can receive care and survive.

Ok, so how does this apply to depression?  Under stress, humans regress – they fall back instinctively into old, unconscious behaviors acquired during childhood.  In our case, that means falling back into the childhood pattern of locating the fault within –  feeling that you’ve failed to please and that if you’re not pleasing, you are going to die.  So, when you are under stress and things aren’t going well for you, you blame yourself – it must be your fault.  Instead of acting like an adult, and getting angry and thinking – I’m not being treated well, I have a right to get angry and advocate for myself, or take care of myself, if no one else is going to do it – instead of that healthy, adult functioning, it’s the old regression, to “I’ve failed.  It’s my fault.  I’ll die because I’ve failed to please.”

An adult – unlike a child – does not have to experience solitude as abandonment.  You can say I am an adult.  I am independent.  I can take care of myself.  Not only that, I can choose an environment that’s healthy for me and I can reassure myself.  I can self-sooth, I can self-parent.  I can say to myself, hey you are a good person, come on.  You choose who you are going to be each day. You are proud of who you are. You make that determination.  You make that judgment whether you are worthy of being valued and receiving care each day.  And you can tell yourself, Hey cheer up, you are going to get through this.  You’re going to surround yourself with people who value you because that’s what you deserve and you are going to take care of yourself.  And you can feel angry if you’re not receiving the care you deserve.  That – in a nutshell – is how you address depression.  You snap out of the regression to behaving like a dependent child and become an adult, a parent for your own child.

Dan: What signs do you look for to diagnose depression?

Will:  There are two major indicators for depression that give it away each and every time.

First, I see an absence of appropriate anger.  A child does not get angry when the parent fails to provide him with suitable care – the child sees himself as helpless.  You can’t get angry at someone if you need them desperately, the way a child needs a parent.  It’s not where the hell are you, I need a feeding, my diaper needs to be changed.   Instead, the child’s in absolute panic and thinking I’m bad, I’m bad, I’ve failed here, I have failed to please – now they’ll leave me to die.  That is the first characteristic of depression – absence of appropriate anger.  If I ask a depressed client “Are you angry right now?” I’ll always hear the same answer.  It will always be some variation of “I’m only angry at myself.”  The rest of that statement would be “. . . because I’ve failed to please and can’t survive on my own.”

The Second indicator of depression is a dismantling of a person’s self-esteem apparatus. There’s no sense of pride in yourself or a sense of value in who you are and what you do. You think I failed, I hate being me.  A depressed person will insist, over and over again – “I’m only angry at myself.  I don’t like who I am.”  That’s because the depressed person’s fantasy is to escape into someone else – someone who will please, and therefore be worthy of care – and survival.

Dan:  The absence of appropriate anger and a dismantled self-esteem.  I think those are two things that people on the street and even lawyers would associate with lawyers. We expect them to be tough and strong.  We expect them to have high self-esteem and take pride in what they do. In your experience, why is the exact opposite true for lawyers struggling with depression?

Will:  At a law firm, you are reduced to a child-like helplessness.  You have no right to speak your mind, to self-advocate – to stand up to authority.  Instead, you go helpless, and try to please.  Any anger, if it is acknowledged to any degree, is tightly bottled.  You can’t show it.  The environment at law firms is uptight, rigid and extremely constrained.  You can’t say to the partner – “Oh, for heaven sake, it’s Friday – why are you bothering me with this?”  You say – “Yes, sir.  I’ll do it right away.”  If the partner – who is clearly exploiting you to make money – announces you are going to be working all weekend, you say “Absolutely, no problem.”   You do not put up any kind of a fight.  Lawyers, especially young lawyers, imagine themselves as helpless as young children in the law firm environment – utterly dependent on the partners, utterly incapable of advocating for themselves, or providing themselves with the care they need on their own.  They permit themselves to be abused in an extremely toxic, exploitative environment – they often don’t even seem to realize they’re being abused.  They’re too busy attempting to please their abusers.

Dan:  Will, you treat a lot of lawyers with depression.  Is depression in some way different for lawyers?  Are there different causes for their depression?

Will:  If I were to design an environment specifically to create depression, I would design a law firm.  The reason is that lawyers are pleasers.  A lawyer tends to be the kid with the best grades in the class – a generalist whose primary skill is getting good grades – pleasing teachers.   If you are really good at math, you become a mathematician or a scientist.  If you are particularly skilled on the violin, you become a musician.  But if you get an “A” in everything, then your only skill set is getting good grades – and to monetize that skill set, you wind up heading to law school.  That’s pretty much how I did it.  I got into Harvard and then went on to NYU Law.  I wasn’t spectacular at any one thing – I was a generalist.   I was also the teacher’s pet.  I was an excellent student – but what is an excellent student?  It’s someone who gives the teachers what they want. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, they dropped out of Harvard, they weren’t good students – because they – and others like them – were geniuses, and entrepreneurs, not good students.  Lots of geniuses drop out of college – it’s a common feature they share.  They’re not pleasers. Einstein struggled to complete the academic rigamarole required to get a teaching post – he was too busy re-inventing physics.

Lawyers tend to be good students.  A genius or an entrepreneur – an individualist – says I’m going to do it my own way and the hell with you.  Screw Harvard. I don’t need it.   This is in contrast to lawyer, the pleaser – the type of person who says I’m going to compete viciously with my peers and get straight A’s at Harvard and then go to a top law school and compete some more to get more straight A’s and then get a job at a top law firm and keep on competing.  What happens to a pleaser when you get to these top firms? You do what you are told.  And you compete.  That’s a very typical lawyer behavior – you are essentially pleasing partners who are replacements for your parents and teachers, what therapists call the idealized parent object, the primary object – the person you’re programmed to please.  And you are killing off your peers – the other children who compete for parental attention and care.

Dan:  Big firms then have collections of pleasers and demanding partners.  What does that do to the psyche of a lawyer?

Will:  A law firm takes all these pleasers, herds all these kids who have always gotten A’s, and concentrates them in one giant feeding lot.  So you have an entire law firm stocked with pleasers, and no one to please!  There are no more teachers.  The partners are the closest thing to a parent-object, and they’re overgrown pleasers themselves.   It ends up with everyone competing with everyone else and everyone feeling like they’re failing.  Throwing people under the bus is not a management technique except in a law firm.   Anyone who’s ever worked in big law firms will tell you that folks get thrown under the bus every day at those places.  It’s the antithesis of good management.   That’s because they’re all competing – no one is stepping back and getting pleased, and saying – hey, you’re doing a terrific job!  Good management is a requirement for happiness at a workplace.  Everyone seems to realize that but lawyers.  Employees need to feel supported, appreciated and motivated.  They’ll do better work if they believe they’re good at what they do.  Employees need to feel like they want to come in everyday because they like their workplace.  Every time you walk in, you need to feel like Yeah, I know everybody here, my boss knows me, he respects me, he thanks me for my work.  A good manager understands this – it isn’t rocket science.  A fundamental management principle is that a review process needs to be supportive.  There should be about 90% praise, and the constructive suggestions should be just that – constructive and suggestions.  You don’t get anything remotely resembling that in a law firm because everyone is busy instinctively competing with each other like little baby animals trying to kill off the other baby animals as though they might die if someone else succeeds.  Management technique, at a big law firm, amounts to throwing someone else under a bus, and thinking you feel better afterwards – like, somehow you’re now in a safer position.  It’s madness.

Dan:  Please tell us about your two books.

Will:  My first book, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy, actually started out as notes for  young therapists.  I was doing training for volunteer counselors at a hospital and I kept repeating the same things over and over to them, explaining anxiety and depression.  So I started with these notes and realized there was a book there that I could use with my clients.  That’s one way to look at therapy – as educating your clients – training them, really, to be therapists themselves, to the extent that they gain an understanding of emotions and how they work.

The first part of the book is about gaining awareness and understanding how anxiety and depression work. The second part tackles applying that knowledge to your life as you live it.

It’s interesting, how I came up with the title.  I wrote this phrase, somewhere around the middle of the book – “Life is a brief opportunity for joy.”  It was a literary agent, later on, who read the book and spotted it and said, that’s your title Will.  It seemed to sum up the entire book.  Let’s face it:  We are all heading to the same place – oblivion – a hole in the ground.  It’s a brief trip and it goes by quickly. Our mission is to be joyous. Life is a gift – it really is.

Many many lawyers make themselves incredibly unhappy. I think sometimes it’s as if they’re determined to make themselves miserable.  And depression is, at its heart, a self- punitive behavior.  You are doing this to yourself.  You are beating yourself up. You are being a bad parent to your inner child, by abandoning him to panic and attack himself for failing to please.

Dan:  So when someone struggles with depression as an adult, they’re basically repeating the maladaptive patterns they learned in childhood – – but this time they’re doing it to themselves.

Will:  Pretty much.  You’re not pleasing others, so you blame yourself for that failure.  You place the fault within and dismantle your self-esteem.  That’s what I did.  Instead of saying to myself maybe I don’t belong here, I kidded myself I did belong there.  The truth is, I never belonged in the legal profession.  I went because of the money and to try to please my mother in some misguided way.  I was a writer and a young therapist, at heart.   I would have become a therapist if my parents had done a better job handling my coming out as a gay man.  I  would have gone into mental health right away because I was fascinated by it.  But my parents hated that I was gay and sent me to a psychiatrist to be “cured.”  That scared me away from mental health, and in the end, I wanted to make my parents happy and provide them all the money and the status to compensate for being gay.  I didn’t even understand what law was. I just went into it blindly thinking well, okay, status and money.

Dan:  Now, tell us about the second book and why you wrote it?

Will:  Well, the second book has a silly title, Way Worse than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning.  I have a literary agent friend who always seems to come up with my titles and she came up with this one, too.  We were kidding over coffee and I said, well basically  if you’re not smart enough to get into medical school, you have two choices.  You can aim a little lower and go to dental school or you can become a lawyer.  Weirdly enough, I’ve had people write me who read the book and said,“You know, I went into dentistry and I am glad I did.”  Or, “I went law and damn I should have gone into dentistry.

So that was the idea – you should have been a dentist.  There are people who bash dentists and talk about their high rate of suicide or depression.  In actuality, I think that’s a myth.  The dentists I know are fascinated by it and doing a lot of good for people.  I have a bunch of dentist friends.

But anyway, I came up with this silly title and the book was based on a bunch of columns I wrote for Above the Law, along with additional materials that were either too personal or too honest or too long or too – something – to get included in the originally published columns.  Every time I wrote a column, I thought of more I wanted to say and I realized I was starting to exorcise my own demons from that very traumatic experience of trying to be a lawyer years before. I dedicated the book to the partners of Sullivan and Cromwell, just for a laugh.  The back photo, if you really look at it, is my firm’s facebook photo from my very first day at Sullivan. They took my photo in a suit and tie – I was terrified, but trying to look confident and successful.

Dan:  Give us just a few thoughts or ideas about how lawyers can recover from depression.

Will:  First of all:  Remember who you are.  I had a friend at the firm, years ago, a brilliant guy. He went to Yale Law School and then onto Sullivan and Cromwell.  I remember him looking at me one day as if he were saying the most forbidden thing he could ever admit: “Will I just don’t think I’m very good at this.”  And I remember thinking, God, that’s how I feel.  This guy was so accomplished and I thought, My God, they have really torn him down. He has forgotten who he is. I told him “Look at your record. You were a Yale undergrad and then Yale Law” and on and on; top of his class in everything and I said “How did they do this to you?”

How do you remember who you are?  There are a couple of things that can help to snap you out of depressive thinking.

One, remember that you are not always right, but you are not always wrong either.  It might not be your fault when things don’t go right at work.  Depressed people tend to put the entire fault on themselves.  Everything is their fault, they failed and they feel they have no right to anger. I always tell my clients “Look, you have the right to have anger, even if you’re just angry that it’s raining outside.  Get angry about something.”  It’s about dignity.  The inherent dignity of being an adult and possessing a right to your own opinion, a right to your anger.

A child doesn’t really get angry.  He gets scared and terrified.  But an adult can say, hey, maybe this isn’t the right environment for me.  I remember someone at Sullivan & Cromwell, at some point, very sadistically telling me, “Maybe you’re not cut out for this place.” At the time I was desperate. I went to my office and wept because I had to be cut out for it. I had to succeed.  Then I realized maybe I am not cut out for this.   And I remember laughing and then I thought Oh my God, there is a way out. I don’t have to please.  I can please myself.  I can remember who I actually am.

I pose this question all the time to my lawyer clients:  Who are you really, inside?  They say “Well, come to think of it, I was an English major, I loved reading, I loved computer games and I always wanted to go bicycling,” or whatever.   It starts to come back and they remember who they are “You know, I love to bake cupcakes and I love to go hiking. I’m mad about punk music from the 70’s.”  Whatever floats their boat – their very individual, quirky, personal boat.  And then a person starts to come back to who they really are, to their true self.  That’s the beginning of the end of depression – simply remembering who you are, giving yourself the dignity to be you – not trying to care for yourself by pleasing others, but doing it directly – by caring for yourself, in the way you need to be cared for, the way the child inside you – who celebrates life and drinks deep of joy – needs to be cared for.  That’s how you beat depression.

 

 

When Working Out Doesn’t Always, Well, Work Out

I had a tough spell of moderate depression that started two weeks ago and just ended recently.

I had little energy. I was glued to my seat.  Before this, I had been exercising religiously three times per week.  I noticed that exercise had a wonderful cumulative effect on my mood that carried over from day-to-day as long as I kept at it.  I actually looked forward to going to the gym.

But then, something happened.  I got a horrible head cold. I couldn’t work out.  As I laid on the couch, I felt myself sinking.  I was cranky. More followed.

image0I got a call a few weeks ago from folks that wanted to write an article about my parents and I.  They had found me by reading a blog I had written, Our Parents, Our Depression.”  They interviewed me then asked if I would rummage through some old pictures of my parents.  I dug around in some boxes. I found an old black and white of my parents. Probably when they were in their early fifties.  It brought me down.  They had depression also. Though I didn’t know that as a child. And they probably didn’t think of it that way.  But they clearly had all the symptoms.

This whole thing brought up a lot of sadness. Some of it because of the unhappy lives they led – much of it punctured by episodes of depression, drinking, and violence.  I feel connected to them still years after their deaths. I thought about how powerful the link, genetic, emotional and psychological, is between where we come from and where we find ourselves now.  Given this history, I sometimes feel like my depression is insurmountable.  Why even try? I think. It’s just going to come back away.

So, back to working out.  I just couldn’t get going.  Just thinking of the 10-minute drive from Starbucks made me weary. I drank more coffee to get a boost, but it had no effect.

IMG_6681 (1)

I started feeling a bit better yesterday. I still didn’t want to go to the gym but had enough energy to push through my resistance.  I got to the gym parking lot. My legs felt heavy as walked to my workout.  I got through 20 minutes on the elliptical and pumped weights.  I felt great the rest of the day and today the depression is gone.  I feel back to my old self.  While exercise and movement aren’t a panacea, it is one powerful tool to coping with this onerous illness.

This experience taught me something: exercise isn’t just something that healthy for someone like me who has depression.  It’s essential.  It has powerful effects on the brain that are difficult to achieve with therapy and/or medication. In fact, for mild to moderate levels of depression, studies show that exercise is just as effective as the meds.  As it turns out, exercise actually boosts the positive effects of antidepressants.

So build up a regular workout regimen.  There will be times that you’ll fall off the wagon. You’ll find that working out just doesn’t isn’t working out when you’re blue.

But get back on the wagon. And get your heart and spirit pumping again.

Check out the excellent book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain for a wonderful explanation of what goes on in the brain during a depression and how exercise counteracts it.

Copyright, 2016 by Daniel T. Lukasik

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.

lukasik_parents_cropped

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.

dom-polski-bar

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.

 

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