Her physical hell was the beginning of her mental hell.
I’m pushing an elephant up the stairs...”
REM’s lyrics aptly describe the battle with depression.
…I remember vividly how comforting the idea of dying was: I could go to sleep one night and just never wake up. I was not a particularly precocious child and for that reason I had no way of knowing that in order to escape by death, it would likely be necessary for me to have an active hand in my demise. I wanted to die, yet I had no real concept of suicide. All I knew was that I was hurting, big time, and that I would continue in agony until death intervened. And so it was on Christmas Day, six weeks after my twelfth birthday, that I began praying to God to let me die.
My sister was not yet ten years old that long-ago Christmas. We were attempting to wrestle heavy bales of hay from huge stacks in the hayloft-two little girls assigned a job that was more suited to grown men. It was bitterly cold in the drafty old barn, and she sobbed as she worked. I rarely cried anymore. I didn’t have to.
We mumbled, recalling how the nuns and priests at school had always told us that God loved us and would provide for us in our time of need. “Okay, God, this is it…this is our time of need. So where are you?” Our pleas poured out in trembling voices as, one by one, we maneuvered the cumbersome bales toward the trapdoor and sent each tumbling down the stairs.
“Can you see us, God? If you can see us, please help!” I shouted. “Whatever it takes, do it now.”
“We can’t live here anymore,” my sister shouted toward the roof, her voice punctuated with sobs. “We know you can help.”
We took turns pleading for God’s intervention. “Just let us die!”
Silence. My sister stood still, staring at me through eyes glistening with tears. “Die?” she asked, astonished. “I was asking him to let us go home. Why are you praying for us to die?”
I stared back at her, but I could not answer her question. I didn’t know how to explain to her that I had prayed daily for over a year to go home. We had been in the foster home for sixteen months, long beyond the date when the social workers had promised we would be back home. But we were never going home. I knew it. My sister, at age 9, did not. And she was too young to understand that death was the only way out.
Years later, I was convinced that my severe bouts of depression and suicidal ideation were the result of horrific childhood events. I had, after all, served a two-year sentence in state-sanctioned Hell, then moved on to a series of other foster homes until I graduated from high school at age 17.
I had always been a low-energy kid…not really down, but often not able to run around and play to the extent that the other kids could. When I think about my childhood now, I have to admit that my lack of energy and my inability to experience joy were there, to some degree, even before the foster homes and their particular brands of abuse became part of my life.
By the time I was 20, I had suffered through two crippling depressive episodes. But I did not seek help. What kind of help was there for this? I knew of none. I didn’t know much about depression as an illness, and even if I had known, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was not mentally ill. I was just sad and confused, solely due to life circumstances that had been totally out of my control. My emotional state had nothing to do with malfunctioning of my brain; it had everything to do with my own weakness, my inability to pull myself up by my bootstraps and get on with life.
At least, that’s what I was told over and over again by aunts and uncles…the same aunts and uncles who, conspicuously absent from my life earlier, had reappeared to constantly remind me that I would never amount to anything. My refusing to get out of bed for several days at a time was proof that I was just plain lazy. I was, they said, an embarrassment to the family name. (Consider this, if you will: I had eight brothers and sisters, all of us were dumped into foster homes years earlier, yet my relatives never admitted having been embarrassed by that. I mention this so that you have an idea about their priorities. My family put the fun in “dysfunctional” long before the term was in vogue.)
My daughter was born when I was 22. She was healthy and happy, smiling and laughing often as a baby. This temperament continued as she grew into a toddler. By the time she started school, she was a bit shy around people she did not know, but her teachers loved her and she had many friends at school and around our neighborhood. That was fortunate for her given my mood swings: I could praise one minute and criticize the next. I missed work often because I could not get out of bed, sometimes for days at a time. Though sometimes functional, I was usually emotionally disabled; some days I would cry over nothing, other days I would be fidgety and irritable.
By my mid-20s, my suicidal thoughts had intensified to the point where I knew that I would follow through one day. It was as though I had a mental “To Do” list on which suicide was just another task that I had yet to find the energy for. Dying was at the top of my list whenever I was in deep depression, but I was so low during a major episode that I was “safe.” I could not have hurt myself if I tried. Not then, anyway.
Coming out of a major episode, however, was a different story. I would rise slowly to moderate, then mild depression. In the moderate stage I could function to some degree; in the mild stage, I could function reasonably well. I could take care of our home, cook meals, and hold a full-time job. Most days, however, I was barely functional, plagued by waves of fear, an overwhelming sense of impending doom.
Even though family members had convinced me that I was hopeless, there were times when I was cognizant of the fact that I had a daughter who needed me. I would never be Mother-of-the-Year material, but I was all she had. The truth is that it was for her benefit more than my own that finally, during a particularly lucid state at age 28, I sought professional help.
Diagnosis: Major Depression. On antidepressants, my depression lifted, alternating between mild and moderate. Over time, I got to a point where I was up more often than not, though I never got to where other people seemed to be-normal people. While the meds lessened the frequency and severity of depressive episodes and thus relieved much of my pain, they did little to diminish guilt. But I had no idea that my guilt feelings were related to my depression. To me, it was a separate issue. After all, I had always been and continued to be a poor excuse for a human being, so I had plenty to feel guilty about! The same goes for feeling more anxious and agitated when on antidepressants-I never questioned this. When asked if the meds had helped to relieve my depression, I answered honestly that they had. It never dawned on me to mention that feelings of guilt, anxiety, and agitation had intensified in the process.
No longer “depressed,” but in a constant state of agitation that made concentration difficult, and after several emotional outbursts, I lost my job. Without health insurance, I was forced to discontinue therapy.
Through it all, my daughter thrived. I do not know how she managed given the fact that over the years I had been packed off to the psych ward more than once, only to come out unemployed and unemployable, shifting in mood from bad to worse…well, you know where I’m going with this…
I had no idea then, of course, that depression could be inherited. Whenever my mother walked out on her kids, certainly she was manic. Perhaps she never knew she was ill. We never knew she was ill. In those days, there were no treatments for manic-depression short of institutionalization, so individuals suffered through it and denied being ill whenever possible. After Dad died, my mother partied a lot. She would be gone for days or weeks at a time, and would come home only to sleep. And sleep. And sleep some more. When she finally got out of bed, she would yell over everything or over nothing. And then she would rush about, getting ready to leave again. One day, she came home to an empty house. Her nine kids were gone, driven off in two station wagons by state social workers. And we never laid eyes on her again.
When my daughter was 12 years old, she went to bed one night a healthy, happy kid, and woke up the next morning with a dark gloom in her eyes, unable to hold back tears. I asked her what was wrong. She said she hated her life. I called her pediatrician.
“It’s hormonal,” he assured me. “Her body is changing and her moods will change with it. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s normal, and she will eventually grow out of it.”
Whew!! Of course it was nothing to worry about! She was at a difficult age, and she was going through what all girls that age experience!
Healing is only possible if one accepts illness for what it is. Being in denial is a highly destructive element of mental illness. You cannot help yourself if you do not admit you have a problem. By denying my own illness, by believing that my not coming to terms with my past was responsible for my moods, I was unable to see my daughter’s symptoms for what they really were. It never occurred to me that she could inherit this “thing,” this character flaw that was caused by my own weakness, by my inability to let bygones be bygones.
When my daughter’s pediatrician assured me that she was just fine, I accepted that. She had not had a stressful childhood, so it made sense that this was just a phase and that she would grow out of it. But the reality was that certainly she had suffered enormous stress because of my mood disorder. She had not been abused, had not been neglected in regard to food or shelter, medical and dental care, etc., but there had been numerous lengthy periods of time when I was not there for her emotionally, and her father had been out of her life since she was three years old. With one parent absent physically and the other parent absent mentally, she had been left to fend for herself emotionally during her formative years. Add to that a genetic predisposition for depressive disorders, and you have the ingredients for some very serious latent mental health issues.
I could go on and on about my battle with depression and the devastation that has resulted from my many years in denial, but this is not supposed to be a novel, so I will stop for now. I will close with saying that knowledge is key to survival; without it, you are powerless. If I had known then what I know now, I could have saved myself a lot of agony, and I might have spared my daughter a horror beyond description. This time, guilt is more than just a manifestation of my illness. It is real and it is deserved.
While my guilt hovers like a mammoth beast near the first riser, my daughter is faced with the monumental task of hoisting an entire herd of elephants. She is, however, not in this alone, as she has been blessed in recent months with a series of miracles. Events have unfolded that cannot be explained in any other way. I will tell her story another time.
Published 2000, reviewed Feb 13, 2008
A mother's very worst nightmare was about to begin ...
Her daughter lay dying and God was nowhere to be found.
Her physical hell was the beginning of her mental hell.
Knowledge is Necessity
Copyright 2010 John McManamy Contact
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Living Well With Depression and Bipolar Disorder by John McManamy (HarperCollins 2006)
"I doubt there is a person in the world who knows these conditions better, inside and out, than John McManamy ... He weaves together the science and the inner experiences of depression and bipolar disorder in a way that is quite rare. This book is full of studies and personal insights, in about equal measure, leavened with the practical conclusions of its even-handed and often humorous author. It breaks new ground." - Nassir Ghaemi MD, Tufts University
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