Peter told his recovery story as an extended comment recently, and I wanted to give it a more prominent place as another in our ongoing series of personal stories. Because of its length, it will be posted in two parts.
During the last ten years or so, whenever the emotional roller coaster of my life has hit a trough, I often turned to the internet for relief. Feeling part of a larger community of depression sufferers was often enough to take the edge off the pain. I agree with John at Storied Mind that “a lot of healing takes place when people who have lived with depression tell their stories to each other”. It is in this spirit that I share with you the history of my depression and how I have tried to cope.
My Father’s Influence in Childhood
Most people were impressed by my father when they first met him. He was handsome, flamboyant, charming. Highly ambitious he pursued his professional goals energetically and with persistence. I knew my father mainly as someone who liked to taunt and torment people verbally and sometimes physically.
I was around 4 years old when my parents divorced. My first distinct childhood memory is my father’s question “What will you say when they ask who you want to stay with?”. I think I sensed the terrible dilemma that I faced and I knew what I was expected to say.
It was my mother who was given legal custody after the divorce but this did not prevent my father from “hijacking” me, probably more out of a desire for revenge on my mother than love for me. My mother lacked the strength to fight a legal battle and contact with her during my pre-teens was sporadic and usually clandestine.
Some time after the divorce, I was “parked” for almost a year with a large and warm traditional farming family. My fondest and most vivid early childhood memories stem from this period. I do not remember the circumstances but a few weeks into first grade I was taken out of the village school and somehow found myself back in the city with my father. I am still haunted by dark memories of the time that followed.
A Lonely Time
There was a period when dad and I lived in a sub-let room where I spent long and lonely afternoons and evenings waiting for him to bring something to eat and for company. He was often late. He would sometimes take me along to work and let me wait in the car for hours on end. He was not habitually violent but enough to make me fear him. I do remember receiving a severe beating when I once dared, against dad’s explicit instructions, to join my mother on a visit to grandma.
Dad had a mean streak. He liked to tease especially the meek and defenseless women he had affairs with and often encouraged me to join him. Sometimes he was outright weird. One time I had to wait outside in the stairwell while there was something mysterious going on inside. Afterwards dad showed me something wrapped in a handkerchief explaining that this would have been my little brother and then proceeded to flush the embryo down the toilet. To this day, I have no explanation for why he did this.
It was during the time when I stayed with my father that I started to develop a fantasy about a warm and cozy little house in a snow-covered forest at Christmas time. As I peek in through a window, I see a happy family gathered around the table. But, as hard as I wished, I never became part of that family.
I withdrew into myself and because nobody ever came to draw me out, I stayed there more or less for the entire duration of my pre-teens. The staircase of the apartment building where we lived had windows facing a back yard. I remember standing on a second storey window sill looking down wondering whether I should make a step forward in order to be with the angels that in those days I believed in.
As I was becoming too much of a liability, my father eventually dumped me with his grandmother (my great-grandmother) who was in her 80s and lived with her 60-some year old spinster daughter. They were both good souls and tried their best but just couldn’t cope with me. Fast approaching the teens, I had become rather unruly and it was decided to put me in a catholic boarding school.
At the tender age of ten I felt totally abandoned. With deteriorating grades, my perception of self-worth, not very high to begin with, dived to near zero during the one year I had to endure at this school.
A Slow Healing Process
My father – by then realizing that I was no PhD material – must have lost what little interest he may have had in me, because from age eleven onward I was finally allowed to stay with my mother. With hardly any alimony payments, times were tough financially for her.
In retrospect, I realize that the move marked the beginning of a slow healing process, but through the end of my twenties and beyond, my habitual reaction to real or imagined adversity continued to be withdrawal into myself.
The last one in the chain of my father’s girlfriends that I remember was a good-hearted woman who had picked him from the gutter after he had served jail for fraudulent bankruptcy. She spent her entire savings paying off his debts and together they worked incredibly hard to pick themselves up. Hoping that dad had indeed changed his ways, I did respond to their initiative to rekindle the relationship.
For some time it looked good, but as soon as the new business took off, my father reverted to his “sugar daddy” habits, spending lavishly on cars, nights on the town and mistresses, while running his now pregnant wife into debt, and subjecting her to severe verbal and physical abuse. We learned about this from a desperate letter she sent to my mother. Soon after, she killed herself by taking rat poison.
I last saw my father at the funeral. This was nearly fifty years ago. He is long dead now, but I still experience times when I feel small, inadequate and apprehensive in the presence of real or imagined authority.
The Teens and Onward
Although unaware of it, I was mainly motivated by the deep desire to belong. In my mid-teens I fell in with a gang of rockers because they let me tog along. It felt great to be noticed, never mind the reasons. If one could not gain respect through achievement, then recognition for obnoxious behavior was an acceptable substitute. Hanging out with these tough guys somehow seemed worth the trouble I faced when coming home late.
These were trying times for my mother. She was at the end of her rope when, to her great relief, I was rescued from sliding further into the rocker scene by a group of roving proselytizing Baptists. Soon after having “found Jesus”, I met my first love at a church youth camp and a beautiful romance ensued.
Finally, finally I had taken the long yearned for place at the table in the cozy house of my childhood dream.
It lasted for about half a year. Then my true love fell for an older suitor. After some initial anguish most youngsters will soon get on with their lives but it was a lot harder for me to accept.
The perceived abandonment pushed me into an abyss of utter despair. My slightly recovered self-esteem and confidence had been dealt a mortal blow. I was seriously suicidal but somehow I managed to survive.
School was a constant battle to achieve passing grades and to avoid expulsion due to discipline problems. After graduating from High School, the Wanderlust of youth kicked in, intensified by the urge to escape my present life and circumstances.
I left home to join the air force. Having served four years and after some extended travel in Europe, I left my home country at age 24 for good, returning only for holidays and between jobs.