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, though.


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 clarity, 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 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 to see the truth about our 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 with plumes of cigarette smoke crawling up to the ceiling, and crates of cheap booze on the weekends. If you looked sideways at them, they’d likely belt you in the mouth.


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 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 snowbank. 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. My mom 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 was 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 a 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 separate 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 to 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.


7 Delicious Dinners That Help Fight Seasonal Depression

If you’re suffering with the winter blues or have full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAS), there’s some good news: Not only is spring on the way, but there are actually certain foolds that you can eat to help ease depression and increase your energy levels.  Read the Blog

5 Steps to Increase Motivation

Procrastination trains the brain to dump adrenaline right before the event, and when we get energy to take action things generally get done; however, it comes with a huge physical cost, and low-level living can lead to depression.  Read the Blog

Building Your Depression Toolkit

One study found that as many as eighty-percent of all people in this country that suffer from clinical depression don’t get any treatment.

Given that depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and that over 20 million people are afflicted with it, that’s a lot of people – about 16 million.

However, many of the law students, lawyers and judges with depression that I’ve met tell me that they don’t need to be told to get help because there are already getting it. They’re already in therapy, taking medication or both. They get it. They know that depression is an illness and they have to deal with it.
Some of them have been coping with it for a very long time. I call these people “depression veterans”. I have met many such veterans and their courage and determination to recover and stay well inspires me.

As I wrote in a prior blog, these people are really my “heroes”.

I also have met many in the legal biz who say they’re at the end of their rope. They’ve been in and out of therapy over the years with little or negligible improvement in their depression. Others have started and stopped a number of antidepressant and/or other mood stabilizing medications tired of to little impact on the mood and too many side effects. But the depression always returns for them.

For most of them, it’s not a relapse into major depression. Rather, a mild or moderate depression interspersed with fatigue, a lack of pleasure and a glum outlook on life. What they are experiencing is a fact about depression and its course. That it often a chronic and life-long illness for those so afflicted.
Then there are many who go through long stretches of feeling pretty well most of the time, but still have pockets of depression.

I put myself in this camp.

Most days, my depression, on a scale of “1” through “10” is a 1 or 2, if it’s present at all. If it gets worse, it’s less often, not as strong and has a much shorter duration is much shorter – maybe a 3 or 4. This seems to be especially so during the dark days of winter.

What worked for me to reign in the beast of depression was a change in lifestyle, which included regular therapy, medication, a support group, prayer and exercise. While there is no one thing that is a panacea for depression sufferers, I am convinced that such the positive changes have a direct, lasting an significant alleviation of depression’s worst symptoms.


To make a lifestyle change, I develop a depression “toolkit”. A game plan that I’ve pretty much stuck to for a number of years. The value of such a toolkit is that it provides a map for us to stay on course. It gives us a sense of structure and a sense of hope.

If you thinking about how to really recover from depression stay healthy, it’s important to come up with your own depression toolkit. There are lots of ways to go about it. The two best examples of depression toolkits I’ve found come from the University at Michigan’s Depression Center and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

So pick up your pen and start building your own toolbox today.

Copyright 2014 by Daniel T. Lukasik


Worry and Anxiety in Depression: Anxiety May Try to Help, But Then it Hurts: What Should You Do?

Anxiety is a normal human feeling.

Anxiety is what you feel when you are faced with uncertainty. When you do not know what is going on or what you should do about it, you react with a feeling of anxiety.

What makes anxiety pass? Resolving the ambiguity. Figuring it out. What’s happening or what to do about it. Then the feeling is gone, and you are relieved. You may still have work to do or a problem that needs to be fixed, but the anxiety about it is finished.

When people suffer from depression they often also feel anxiety and spend too much time worrying, which increases their depression. The parts of their brain that are involved in that normal reaction to ambiguity are working overtime. And the thinking brain, low on energy due to depression, cannot stop that worry train. When they worry too much and can’t exert enough control, then the feeling of anxiety persists beyond any situation that includes some uncertainty. In fact, the anxious feeling can be present before any uncertainty. Then it creates the nagging sense in your gut that something is wrong, so your helpful brain, the one that wants an explanation for every feeling you have, goes on a search to figure out what might be the source of that anxiety.

Because the natural response to anxiety is to try and figure out what to do, you may start to think over all the possible reasons you could feel worried, and you will inevitably find one. When you are depressed your brain generates too many negative thoughts and cannot effectively shove them aside. You can get stuck in a loop of worrying one worry after another. However, because real problems are not the reason you have the sensation of anxiety, you either think and rethink in an effort to get relief or you move on to yet another worry. Thus: rumination and “serial worrying”, hallmarks of anxiety fuel depression.

There is a lot you can do about this. You can use your brain to change your brain. Here are 2 ideas to start out:

1. If it is a real problem, you will not fail to notice it: In your “thinking brain” you can assess if the problem you are worrying about is a real problem. If it is not a real problem (perhaps just a potential problem) you can decide “not to believe everything you think”. This is a conscious, determined choice to disbelieve the sensation of anxiety that feels so real. In its place you put an intentional more positive thought: You are competent to know when you have problems that need attention. Then you move your thoughts along to something more positive.

2. Stop and Interrupt: You will also have to use your thinking brain to stop and interrupt the worrying. As they say in the 12 Step programs, this process is simple, but it isn’t easy. You must plan what you prefer to think about on a daily basis and then when the unnecessary worry pipes up, you stop, interrupt yourself, and replace it with the preferred thought. The hard part is doing this every time an anxious feeling creeps in or a worry pops into your head.

There are many ways to use your brain to change the brain. Learning various methods and putting them into place starts a process that is the first step to lifelong change. You might need some outside help to achieve this persistence in the face of such distress, but controlling anxiety is doable over time. As you get more control of anxiety, your depression will diminish too.

Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D.
Author of The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques and The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques

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