I’ve always wondered why the stories of veterans with PTSD, like those I’ve been reading for the recent posts here and at Health Central, have resonated so deeply. I have nothing close to the unimaginable violence of war in my experience, or any of the other overwhelming traumas associated with PTSD. The aftereffects, though, feel closer to what I know.
Depression, after all, is depression, no matter the cause. When I heard, for example, the yearning of one veteran to pull a blanket over his head and disappear, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Endlessly reliving the worst moments of the past – scaled down mightily from combat to home life – was an obsession of mine that lasted for decades. My memory doesn’t like to let go. I’ve written about some of the moments it has held onto (like this one and this). As veterans in treatment are now urged to do, telling their stories over and over again until they are routine and safely defused is a method that’s worked for me.
Even though I’ve come a long way in accepting what happened, unexpected memories still bring back childhood years of tension and fear, the start time of depression.
- As a boy, I watched the next-door neighbor, a tired-looking man, as he put up a high wooden fence of narrow, straight juniper poles, amazingly close-packed, to serve as a good barrier to – what? The shouts and raging fights from our house.
- Going out with my high school girlfriend for a walk in the neighborhood, embarrassed, ashamed as the shouts of my parents followed us along the street – each word reaching so clearly through the summer evening. She took my hand warmly in hers.
- Sitting in my room upstairs so anxious that I couldn’t do the homework I’d been staring at. My mind wouldn’t focus because I was waiting to hear our massive front door open and shut with its sound of finality. That would mean Dad was home, and it would be just a matter of time before I caught the first murmurs of his clash with Mom and my brother. In a moment, voices would be pounding through the house, I’d hear the knock of a chair kicked aside, then shouts of hurt as the fight got physical.
I stood apart from it as much as I could in the partial safety of my room . But as the fighting got more intense, I’d have to get down those quiet, carpeted stairs as my mother yelled for me to join the fight, help kick out the enemy – Dad.
I couldn’t take sides – I was the only cool-headed one there. If I did step in, pour my feelings and shouting voice into that room, that would be it, the house wouldn’t stand, the family would blast apart, I would lose my home, my room, the only security I knew. So as a kid, I took the burden on myself. I was convinced that my restraint was holding these people together and that I had the power to break them apart. I was afraid to move or show a feeling.
It was never clear how or why this split between my parents began, but once it took root, Dad was gone most of the time, and Mom was vastly depressed. Of course, I had no notion of depression or mood disorders, but I didn’t need the concept to know what living with it was like. It was a quieter violence that did its work slowly over many years and gradually drew me into its shadow.
These days, we’re told by researchers that looking to the past to heal from depression doesn’t work very well. The focus has shifted from exploring childhood and formative relationships to the mood cycles, distorted thinking, and destructive behavior of the present. Medication hits the moods. Cognitive therapies and mindfulness retrain depressive thinking and attitudes. Interpersonal and family therapies probe the dysfunctions of relationships. Other therapies focus on what you do as well as you think and feel.
For someone like me, depression has been a condition with few boundaries of time or symptom. It has recurred in cycles over a lifetime, starting in childhood, and the patterns and distortions that took hold then lasted for decades. True enough, understanding them hasn’t cured depression, but it’s been one essential component in helping me see more clearly what needs changing in the present. It has given me a fuller picture of what my version of depression is all about so that I can find the most effective strategies to uproot it completely.
Has searching the past been at the center of your work on recovery? What balance have you found between that form of psychotherapy and the methods that focus on improving your immediate mood and way of thinking?