The Love Hidden in Family Depression

Boy hiding from light

I’ve written about emotional abuse in my boyhood and a family history of depression as big contributors to my own illness, but recently I’ve spent more time reconnecting with the things that went right all those years ago rather than dwelling only on what went wrong. The positive side is simply the love that has always been there. Feeling it is a powerful force for recovering life.

There is so much injury in childhood that can bring on depression and so many ways to reconstruct and analyze how it affected you. God knows I spent enough time learning about the lost child, the damaged sense of self, the avoidant attachment style, dissociation from feelings, toxic parents, trauma and all that these things lead to. I definitely needed to re-experience all the anguish, frustration, hurt, anger and depression that permeated the 17 years we lived together as a family.

Immersing myself in the dark history was important when I was first gaining insight into the widespread effects of depression in my life. I needed to see causes, connections and explanations that could end the tail-spin of self-blame and self-hate.

I needed to feel the emotional ties to my family life that I had shut away, even if the first impact was about the nightmare side of growing up. Reliving the worst times helped reconnect me to emotions I had long hidden, but I lost sight of another dimension of all those experiences. The hurt would never have been possible without the deep love that I also felt and that has never left me.

A therapist once tapped into that hidden love when I was rattling off something about my past that had to do with my brother. I was describing things in a detached way when he suddenly interrupted and said he could sense the deep love I had for my brother. It was one of those moments that caught me off guard with its simple truth – and I was very much on guard emotionally at that time. I teared up and became speechless.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able then to open up fully to the love I felt. I was more comfortable pushing it aside while I focused on the damage of the past. But my brother was the key, as that therapist knew intuitively, because he was the one in our family who brought his feelings into the room, whatever they were.

Whether he was raging and ready to fight or pulling us into a chain kiss, he was right there emotionally. We were opposites in that way. I hid my feelings, he acted out his. I was the observer, he was the doer. At times, he terrified me with impulsive violence. At times I looked up to him as a heroic figure. I was always passionate about him, though I could never express that or even acknowledge it to myself. He embodied the intense feeling and love that were so frustrated and hidden in all of us.

The other day I reread an unpublished piece he wrote several years ago about our father, and I realized that he was helping me once again to get to the real feeling. It’s a short memoir that tries to capture a sense of what Dad was like. What comes through most strongly to me is the love that moved him to write this piece, a love that survived a lot of anger.

Both my brother and I had much to be angry about when it came to our parents. In their very different ways, they were each preoccupied with their own dreams and injuries and lost to us. Neither could take us into their lives fully or lovingly. Like most kids from difficult homes, we learned ways of relating to other people and ourselves that were distancing, and depression was one of the legacies of that past for me. But the love of children for parents is so strong that it can survive neglect and abuse.

What I’ve been realizing in the last few years – and with renewed force this week with my brother’s help – is the importance of reconnecting with the pure and simple feelings of love that I had as a kid and still have now for those very flawed people who raised me.

By reconnecting, I don’t mean forgiveness or compassion. I’m not talking about “letting go” of resentment and anger or condoning harmful actions of the past. Nor is it about restoring the relationship. My parents died many years ago, and nothing about the past can change.

It does mean letting myself feel the love that is there, setting aside all the judgments and evaluations, all the struggles, hopes and frustrations. No conceptualizing, no names for feelings, no purposes, no words.

To the extent I can let myself dwell in the intensity of that love, I’m in touch with the deepest and most vital part of me. It feels like a source of life itself, a place where words aren’t needed.

My brother was getting at something like this in his own way when he wrote at the end of his story:

So what was my father like? A smile and the smell of shaving cream; corny jokes and nice clothes; games of cards with his mates; business and an important sounding voice on the phone. Distant in death as he often was in life. Out there somewhere and somehow still with us. Whenever I rise above my own shortcomings, when I do something that other people appreciate not because it is me but because it is something good, an achievement, I like to think that it is those positive aspects of my father working through me. I still love him and I’m sure he still loves me. What else can I say?

Where are you in the long process of sorting through the impact of early family life? Has it been a healing experience?

13 Responses to “The Love Hidden in Family Depression”

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  1. Depressed teenagers learn this neurosis from their close relative, and they practice it very well. Too well in fact. To them this learned neurosis is a good thing. The teenager subconsciously thinks: “If that relative of mine is doing that, I guess it must be good. Let me learn it too”.

  2. Donna-1 says:

    My parents think I had a perfect childhood. But I never loved my father, nor did he show love toward me. He was violent, emotionally distant, and addicted to pain medications. His mother was a victim of incest. His dad was cruel and a paranoid schizophrenic (diagnosed) and a total fruitcake as far as I am concerned. So it didn’t start with my dad — he had his own rotten childhood. But last night I was talking with my mother and she broke down, crying, saying it must be her fault that all of her children are on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. It must be her fault that out of four children, only one chose to have children of her own. My older sister died of cirrhosis of the liver from alcoholism, which started at age 15. My brother became bulimic at age 10 and is still bulimic now in his mid 60’s. My younger sister is chronically unhappy and thinks only a man can solve that, but she always picks weak, non-commital men so she can make all their decisions for them. I was in an abusive marriage for 13 years and now crave isolation from everyone. So yes, we are one of those screwed-up dysfunctional families. But almost everyone I know was in a family that was in some way grossly dysfunctional. For a long time, I thought it was only me. I have found my solace in a loving aunt, though. We can and do talk about everything, and I know we love each other. I took care of my father when he was dying of Alzheimer’s. He was very scared and confused and nothing could be done about it. I visited him twice a day yet he told the nursing home staff that no one from his family had ever come to see him. How strange. He had never been there for me, and now he thought no one was there for him, when we really were. It is still too difficult for me to focus on good times, because I honestly don’t remember any. Does my depression rewrite and color my past to the point where anything good is obscured? My siblings don’t remember any of the bad stuff my dad did when we were children. Am I making it up? False memories? No, I’m not. It was all very true and left scars. I need to find a way to overcome those old memories and move on.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      I guess every family suffers in its own way. We start out with such basic needs that aren’t all that complicated but then feel them frustrated, denied, twisted, mocked. And that leads to spending decades reproducing the pain with others in more and more complicated ways. Fortunately it’s still possible to feel and respond to the simplicity and genuineness of a loving connection, like the one you had with your aunt. When I’m feeling that kind of bond, I wonder at how easy it feels – why has it seemed so hard and complicated to get to. I guess now I’m able to feel the simplicity of the underlying need and quality of lovingness, quite apart from all the events and hateful words that drove my family apart. The needs and capacity to feel a loving connection were there, but none of us believed that it could happen.

      John

  3. Janet Singer says:

    What an interesting, thought-provoking post. I was blessed to grow up in a home with two loving parents, and it wasn’t until I went off to college that I realized not everyone was so lucky. During this holiday season, your post is a reminder to us all that the most important gifts we can give our children, indeed all children, are our time and our love.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Janet –

      You were indeed blessed to grow up with two loving parents, and your children are blessed to have you. Have a great holiday season.

      John

  4. Sal says:

    John,

    Thanks. Once again, you’ve written something that is so profundly thought provoking, I am going to have to read it a few more times then do some journaling.

    Holiday time is upon us…and with that come family visits…the first that I’ve really had with them since deconstructing all the ugliness from my childhood. I was wondering how I was supposed to react, now that I’ve allowed myself to experience the bad emotions, because I really wasn’t sure if it was OK to move on…as if not continuing to recognize the past for what it was would be like me avoiding and ignoring the pain, just as I have been doing all these years.

    I want to heal from this and to do that I have to face the GOOD as well as the bad.
    Thanks again.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Sal –

      Holiday time seems to be the worst set-up for being with family, at least it has been so often for me. All the sensitivities are there, yet I also hope that I can experience the best side of everyone and feel connection in a simpler way. I seem to magnify the importance of each gesture or look and over-interpret attitudes and intentions. It’s like feeling the pressure of taking a test – will I get it right this time, will they try harder? The only advice I can ever give is not to worry about how you should react or feel, whether you’ve moved on or not. For me, the saving thing is remaining aware of what I’m feeling and what I’m reacting to rather than continuing to re-enact all the old patterns when the automatic pilot is triggered. This is the time when mindfulness, acceptance and presence become fully active parts of my life rather than nice ideas to read about.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts — John

  5. Judy says:

    Wow. I have a very hard time with this. Most of my pleasant childhood memories do NOT involve my parents – it was my grandparents who were my refuge. While my dad has mellowed with age, my other is still the same narcissistic person she always was and, truthfully, I don’t think I’ve ever really felt love for her. She has not changed or matured with age. My dad, who was the real abuser, actually seems more lovable now than he ever was, but it hasn’t been a total change as he still has the capability to be emotionally abusive. Sometimes it’s hard to not feel guilty for not feeling the love I think I “should” feel toward them, but I’ve tried my hardest and that’s all I can do. My parents couldn’t even do a decent job with their grandchildren; they are remote and really act like they couldn’t care less. It’s their loss, I tell myself, but I feel badly that my kids couldn’t have the kind of grandparents I did. Those are the people I prefer to remember. Yes, they had flaws, but I still felt loved even if I didn’t feel it from my parents. Thank God for those people and the others who came after them who have filled that void.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      This is a very hard thing to get into. I’ve spent so much of my life, as you seem to have, reacting to what my parents did. It occurs to me in reading your comment that what I’m doing now is setting aside all the reactions and all the things my parents did and did not do that had such a powerful impact on me. None of that changes – I kept reacting with frustration to my mother to the end of her days, and she never stopped doing the hurtful and self-absorbed things she did when I was a kid. What I’ve been getting closer to is my own capacity for love without any sense of obligation (none of us needs another “should” in the long list of feelings or connections we think we should have) and without any need to imagine that my parents “really did” love me in their own way. I think it’s safe to say that my mother never “got” what loving another person or at least her children was all about. That’s OK. I think what I’m feeling now is that I get it, I can feel the love of son for parent, brother for brother – and that has nothing at all to do with their responses to me or my hurt or anger in reaction to those responses. I need to come at this again in another post – or maybe more words won’t get me any closer to the heart of it? Thanks for helping me stay with this.

      John

      • Judy says:

        John, thanks for your comments. I just noticed something funny in what I wrote – I left off the “m” in “mother.” So now she’s just an “other.” Maybe one of those “Freudian slips?” Ha ha

  6. Evan says:

    I grew up in a pretty benign family thankfully. So there weren’t huge issues to sort out for me.

    I’ve been lucky too to find myself in places that supported me in sorting out the impact of my upbringing on me. It has been very beneficial and healing to me.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      Growing up with the support and love of both parents is truly something to be thankful for. Without such a family background, I think you have to explain the lack in some way, and it usually comes back to feeling that you are not quite OK. My brother and I dealt with this in different ways, and sharing our experiences is drawing us a lot closer all these years later.

      John

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    The Love Hidden in Family Depression I’ve written about emotional abuse in my boyhood and a family history…



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