As is the case with many people who live with depression for a number of years, it’s wreaked havoc on my marriage at times, nearly cost me my job and isolated me from friends and family. Both of my adult sons have suffered from it since they were pre-teens and the older one attempted suicide twice. I could say that this is a sign that it’s genetic, and that may be partly true, but I’m sure my own depression had some influence on the mental health of my sons.
My younger son is also on the autism spectrum and developmentally disabled, so that has posed an additional challenge when treating his depression. I know several people in my mother’s family who were probably depressed, but undiagnosed as such. Even 40 years ago, there was so much stigma associated with any kind of mental illness, it was difficult to talk about and to admit to suffering from it.
Growing Up with Depression and Abuse
I am the oldest of 5 children and there were four of us by the time I was five years old. We never had much money and mostly what I remember is the constant yelling and screaming between my parents and at us kids. It didn’t seem to matter what triggered it, especially for my dad. Something would just hit him the wrong way and he would start yelling obscenities and sometimes hit or kick us. My aunt told me years later that on several occasions, he kicked me up and down a short flight of stairs in our house and I remember him at one time kicking one of my brothers from the living room, down the hallway and into his bedroom for something he had done.
My mother spent what seemed like days at a time in bed so I can only assume that I was probably “looking after” my two younger sisters in whatever way a four or five-year-old could do, but I have no memory of it. Her retreats to bed continued, off and on, for years.
In addition to what was going on at home, I was molested on different occasions by three older men when I was between the ages of 6 and 14. I told my mother about each episode, but nothing was ever done except to forbid me to go to the homes where it had happened, in the first two occurrences, because my friends lived there. The last incident happened while on a camping vacation with my family and was perpetrated by the man who ran the campsite. I reported that one, too, and my mother laughed, thinking it was funny, as in ha-ha funny. She even asked me to go back to the store run by this man to buy something, but I refused. These experiences contributed to my feeling like there was something wrong with me, that I was some kind of target for perverted old men and that it was partly my fault.
What saved me, I think, from total despair were my maternal grandparents. I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with them and even though my grandmother was fairly strict, she always managed to make me feel loved. I adored my grandfather, but he died when I was eight years old. Because my mother was so overwhelmed by his death, I was not allowed to grieve for him and I still miss him to this day. I was permitted to see him once in the hospital, shortly before he died from cancer. In those days, pain management was totally inadequate and even I knew that he was suffering horribly. I can still remember the color of the suit he wore in his casket. But I could never cry. By then, I’d learned that crying brought shame and punishment.
Getting a Break
I spent most of my high school years in a boarding school at a convent, thinking that I wanted to be a nun. In retrospect, it was probably a way I could legitimately get out of the house. While there, I was rebellious and got into various kinds of trouble, doing things that I probably would not have done at home. This seems odd to me, because convent life was certainly very structured and rigid, but I think I didn’t have the fear of physical abuse and extreme rage that I had at home. I ended up leaving there when I realized that this wasn’t a way of life I could really embrace.
After I got out of school, I immediately got a job, putting college on the “impossible” list because my biggest goal was to make enough money to move out of my parents’ house. I became more and more depressed while living there, prompting my first experience with therapy. I understood that my depression was probably caused by all the unacknowledged anger I had, mostly at my mother. During this time, I was finally able to move out, eventually into a place of my own, and get a better job. I met my husband while working in this new job; since we worked in the same department, I decided to look for another job when our relationship became more serious and subsequently found one and stayed there until I retired 35 years later.
Here It Comes Again
After my first son was born, I experienced postpartum depression without really understanding much about it. I felt strange not being at work and my son was allergic to regular infant formula, then to soy milk, which caused him to be sick and crying a good share of the day. I’d cry when my husband left for work and cry when he came home. I ended up going back to work sooner than I’d planned because I’d already spent four weeks waiting for my son to be born – he was a month overdue.
Going back to work helped some, but I eventually went to the doctor and got put on an antidepressant, which I was able to discontinue after a few months. I got on medication much more quickly after the birth of my second son four years later and averted a bad episode.
When my younger son was three years old, I began noticing that nothing felt right and I was angry all the time, especially at my husband. I eventually got back into therapy but did not see a doctor for medication for a few more years after that. I hated myself and everyone else; there were times when I literally felt like I wanted to shoot people at random if I’d only had a gun. I felt like I was looking for answers without knowing what the questions were. My therapist’s reaction to my depression made me feel ashamed that I couldn’t shake myself out of it.
Learning about PTSD
After five years of therapy, I was sick of getting nowhere and was beginning to get suspicious about why I couldn’t remember most of my childhood, why even the word “childhood” felt like a heavy blanket over me. I decided to try hypnosis with a new therapist to see what I could uncover and, while I know that most people are wary of the reliability of memory retrieved in this manner, I was able to get a much bigger look at what my life had been like, much of it corroborated by a relative and by piecing together known facts. The memories were so real that I often experienced physical reactions to them, such as spontaneous bleeding. I was diagnosed with PTSD, as well as depression, and things finally started to make sense.
My husband and I also began couples therapy, which was very scary for both of us because we didn’t know how to argue or fight; each of us would withdraw when angry because we had no skills for working things out. I know I was afraid to admit to any anger because it felt like a huge monster that might be unleashed if I let it out, but that was most likely because of the way my father expressed his endless anger. It took a long time to learn how to talk to each other, but I found it a safe place that helped me find the courage to talk about our relationship and my depression.
Stress at Work
My last 15 years on the job became a petri dish for chronic depression and at one point I took a six-week medical leave. I had a couple of managers who were unreasonable in their expectations and who treated me like I was stupid because I didn’t have a college degree, let alone the Ph.D. which they had. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere, but I liked the work I did and got along well with my clients. There was the constant self-talk, though, about being lazy, not being a good mother, wife, daughter – anything.
As time went on, I also began to realize that I disagreed more and more with the values that were being touted by this company and increasingly resented the energy and time that were expected to be put into various programs that were invented to increase productivity and efficiency but didn’t really help most of us in administrative positions do our jobs any better. I think the main reason that I could even be aware of this difference in values was that I was doing some emotional healing.
The final year or so I was there, I was barred from department meetings and the answer I got when I asked about it was that I was not a direct report to our manager – I was the only person there who wasn’t. I would get criticized by my supervisor for not carrying out some direction that was decided upon in these department meetings, yet nobody ever told me what was talked about. I was feeling paranoid, maybe realistically so, certain that I was being set up for failure. Mercifully, I finally reached my “magic number” for retirement and once I decided to go, I could at least see a light at the end of the tunnel.
While my life has improved tremendously since quitting work, I am still in the process of healing from the effects of abuse, still dealing with depressive episodes which are less severe than they used to be, but nevertheless, set me back every time. I’ve found EMDR to be quite helpful, in ways that are hard to explain, but I believe it’s worth a try, particularly if one is dealing with PTSD.
I found an online depression support group and discovered that maybe I could help others. Everyone who is depressed feels alone, even when we know we’re not. We deal with the stigma of it, it’s usually not a fit topic for social discussion, yet it can eat up so much of our lives and poison our minds. I’ve found that darkness can turn into light if I look for it and I can share that light with anyone who is open to it – just as others have shared their light with me when I’ve been in need.
About the Author: Judy is a frequent commenter at Storied Mind as well as at Health Central’s My Depression Connection.