Growing Up with Fear and Depression

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?

10 Responses to “Growing Up with Fear and Depression”

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  1. I am reading the posts on Storied Mind and I just sent a reply to Wendy about drug coverage that I’ve used before. I don’t think I did it right and it didn’t go through.

    I have a blog at aginganddepression/blogspot.com and would love to hear from some of your readers. I’m struggling with depression and anxiety. The post I sent recommended using Canada Drug Pharmacy for expensive meds. They have worked out well for me.

    I would love to hear from some of your subscribers and have them check out my blog.

    Good luck to Wendy on getting meds covered. It’s an ongoing problem.

    Patricia

  2. Jessica says:

    Hi John,

    Sorry for bringing up an old post, but I’d really like to hear what helped you break free. I grew up in the same environment and have never really broken free from the symptoms. Besides the emotional turmoil, I was stressed mentally, isolated socially and spiritually. Unfortunately, no sibling to share. Now, I’m clueless to living life, and spend everyday in persistent self-punishment.

    I’d be grateful for your insight.

  3. Richard Rice says:

    Ture enough, trying different types of treatments can be beneficial. It can help you know the appropriate approach to help you overcome your emotional problems.

    No problem John. I really liked your post and I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Richard –

      I very much appreciate your thoughtful comments and hope you’ll drop by often.

      John

  4. Richard Rice says:

    Hi John.

    Resolving ‘issues’ in the past through therapies can definitely help in understanding yourself and possibly finding ways to cope with your current situation. I also agree that even if therapies cannot be the remedy to the problem, an insight about yourself would still be beneficial. Emotional problems can be caused by family histories. The past can highly influence the way we are relating to others now. Learning how to cope with those ‘issues’ can help one to be a better person in the future.

    For your readers in Carolina, they can try biopsychological therapies with Dr. Robert A Moss or maybe a local psychologist whom you trust would be of great help also. There’s nothing wrong with therapies. It actually opens our mind to fully understand the way we behave and that could be helpful in responding effectively to our relationship with other people.

    • john says:

      Hi, Richard –

      There are so many ways family histories affect us. Working on the combat PTSD experiences of veterans makes me think that trauma of many kinds is the primary factor that can lead to depression. As you point out, understanding the patterns established in childhood and how they affect present experience is useful no matter what the state of a person’s mental health. I look forward to getting to know the approach of the practice at Emotional Restructuring.

      Thanks for your comment.

      John

  5. Wendy Love says:

    Yes, I have delved into my ‘issues’ with the help of a professional. For me these were not childhood issues. I am so thankful for a happy childhood. For me it was an unexpected divorce which in order to move on, I had to work through with the help of a coach. Doing that was helpful but only to a point. As you say, this must be balanced with life choices and strategies for coping. I now try to live with the strategies and not the trauma of divorce. This is a much more productive, happier place to be. But there is always a tendency, when depressed to relive the bad times. That is when I have strategies to get away from those ruminating thoughts… I sing, I dance, I walk, I laugh, I make a list of things to be thankful for. Balancing the positive and the negative does not come naturally, it has to be intentional, it is a concerted effort, but well worth it.

    • john says:

      Hi, Wendy –

      Those are good strategies – if you can will yourself into action. I’m convinced that if you can start doing something – even dragging yourself into it – the activity pulls more energy and positive feelings out of you and breaks into the ruminating and obsessing about everything that’s wrong. It’s great to hear that this works for you.

      John

  6. Karen says:

    I have plumbed the depths of childhood in the hope that it would “cure” my depression and have to agree that it has done more harm than good sometimes. Medication has been more effective in a lot of ways.

    Still, when something upsets me and starts off a mood swing, if I can identify it, I can related it to some way it resonates with a childhood experience that was terrifying to a child. That means that I can say, “this person in authority is not my father, and doesn’t have the power to crush me physically or emotionally” or “if I don’t handle this conflict well, the world will end and I will lose everything.” It’s good to remind ourselves that we are not powerless anymore, and we are not responsible for solving every problem that arises. It doesn’t stop the rush of PTSD, but it can help mitigate the effect.

    I too had that feeling of being responsible for everything in the attempt to stave off a father’s wrath. I was the oldest of five children, with my next youngest sister only 20 months younger. As the oldest, I was always expected to be responsible for what they did and was often left “in charge” even at the age of about 9, as my dad went off to pursue whatever he wanted and my mother went with him in her codependent role. Naturally, my authority with my sisters was limited in proportion to our age differences. I knew that if there were any transgressions of our many household rules, I’d be at fault. I didn’t reflect until adulthood how irresponsible my parents were being for putting me in that position. I thought it meant I was extra-special, all the time it was setting the stage for a crisis mentality.

    I think it relates to a soldier’s PTSD, when he or she feels responsible for something terrible that did or might have caused harm to other soldiers in the unit. It’s on a much smaller scale, of course, but looms large in the experience of a child.

    • john says:

      Hello, Karen –

      Yes, that’s the way therapy helps me too. It gives me the tools to interrupt the automatic repetition of childhood patterns in current situations. The reminder about the power to act differently is a good way to put that. Children don’t seem to have a choice but to put themselves at the center of what they experience. For a certain period of childhood that’s the only way to make sense of things. Pretty costly later on in life when that early exaggerated sense of responsibility doesn’t go away.

      John

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