The following excerpts were taken from When a Parent is Depressed, a book written for families facing depression. When a Parent is Depressed is published by Little, Brown, and Company and can be purchased at your local bookstore, through the publisher’s website (www.twbookmark.com), or at any major online book retailer.
When a Loved One Becomes Depressed
When a loved one becomes depressed, parents, like their children, are extremely prone to feeling guilty, blaming themselves, and believing that they should have done something differently. But we know now that to blame family patterns as the cause of childhood depression is unscientific and nonsensical; in fact, it contributes to the difficulties families experience. This has come home to me again and again as I have simultaneously had my own children go through the period of highest risk for childhood depression, ages fourteen to twenty three, and seen many of my friends’ and my acquaintances’ children struggle with depression, some of them even being hospitalized on the service I run at Children’s Hospital. In many of these families, depression has truly struck completely without warning. (183)
Hospitalizing a Child
“Having a child hospitalized with a depression takes all of your time, all of your energy, and all of your focus,” one mother commented to me after her daughter had been hospitalized out of the blue for a suicide attempt. “You know, the first day our daughter was in the hospital, we were shell shocked, could barely move.”
Only gradually does one put one’s life back in order. When a child is in the hospital, the need to ask questions, to advocate, to constantly force the issue of how plans will be made, is all important. Only gradually, after the immediate concerns were taken care of, could this mother begin to deal with her hurt, rage, sense of loss, and complete confusion about her daughter’s unexpected suicide attempt. The steps along the way to recovery were first adjusting to the ward, then readjusting to her daughter’s being home and her gradual reentry into school, and then coping with a continuous back and forth, heart in the throat agony about whether she would attempt suicide again.
Recovering from Depression
A chronic, recurrent illness such as rheumatoid arthritis can be managed through a combination of medication, stress reduction, and close interaction with a doctor who is flexible in employing different treatments as needed over time. The same is true of depression.
Depressed individuals and their families are often dismayed when their recoveries aren’t instantaneous or permanent, but it’s more reasonable, just as with rheumatoid arthritis, to expect a slow recovery period with occasional setbacks. Most people understand that a heart attack requires a period of rest and recovery, but we also know that a great many sufferers recover fully; this analogy is helpful in understanding depression as well. (36)
The following vignettes were taken from the book, When a Parent is Depressed:
By his junior year, Charlie began to experience many of the symptoms of depression all at once, and I began to see him more regularly. Gradually, he met the full criteria for a major depression. He began to ask questions about whether life was worth living. He had marked difficulty sleeping. He withdrew from friends.
What was it like for him? Charlie kept a journal and shared some of it with me … at the worst time, he wrote, “My eyes grazed across the room, blurred with tears, frustration, and suppressed panic. My eyes are blurred, the material world is blurred, and the only sight with any integrity is the inward sight. My ruminations, creations, speeches, fantasies, rages and sorrows are more real than the daily humming of routine, interspersed with moments of epiphany, regret, and pain. But I cry from my thoughts and cringe more often from my inward sight than physical torment. My fingers are slow and heavy now. I am wheezing in my pathetic attempt at crying. I feel robbed of my ability to really have tears. I can only hyperventilate and cough and squeeze tears from my eyes, and suffocate because my nose feels full of cotton.”
In short, while Charlie looked not very different than he always had to his classmates, he suffered a silent agony. His parents, both thoughtful teachers, strongly supported therapy and medication. He and I began to work even more actively together. We met weekly and focused on how he could change things in his life. I tried him on an SSRI and then another. As is often the case, it took many months, as well as a consultation with a senior child pharmacologist, before we found a combination of sleeping medications and antidepressants that worked for him. (186)
I began seeing Jesse a year after his mother’s death. He and his father, Arthur, had managed together for a while, grief stricken, but then Jesse began to present an interesting puzzle for those around him. In many ways he was doing incredibly well with friends and in school, but every four to six weeks he became angry very quickly about something that didn’t warrant such an outburst. Those around him didn’t know what this meant and were worried that Jesse was becoming depressed, or even worse, becoming manic, the illness his mother had struggled with, or that maybe he simply found the loss of his mother too much to take. …
Characteristic of many younger children, Jesse could not put feelings into words but would show loss, pain, and anger through his gestures. (166 167)
Kate had at times wrestled with mild symptoms of depression, but she never became fully depressed. She had the capacity to think about herself and the actions she could take, and to act on those understandings. As she came of age she could leave her mother’s house and not feel responsible for all the life issues that only her mother could resolve. She was able to separate herself from her mother, which meant that she could get on with her own life. Her success exemplifies three important traits of resilience: relatedness, a sense that her actions made a difference, and above all, self-understanding.
Kate also commented on what would help others growing up in a household with depression. “First, somebody should explain why people get depressed,” she said. You really don’t know what it is and if it can happen to you. You don’t know why your parent feels that way. You don’t know if you’re going to feel that way yourself or how to manage it if you do feel depressed. If someone has a disease, you want to know how they got it and how you can prevent it from happening to you. Otherwise, you have fear. You can’t ever trust something that doesn’t have an explanation.” (73-74)
By the time she [Rebecca] was sixteen, she herself was wrestling with depression, brought on largely by medical treatments and not being able to compete athletically. She received a series of active interventions, including medication and therapy for her depression, and she talked with many people about what she was going through. As she gradually recovered from her depression, she struggled to make sense of it. And her understanding of herself and her own depression further helped her understand her parents’ experience.
A year later, at seventeen, she could begin to reflect about who she was in relation to her parents. She said that her father was very insecure and, “It’s not up to me to fix it. That’s a dangerous place to be. It sets me up for failure. I do the little things I can.”
At eighteen, she observed, “I’m not so judgmental about my parents. I know what it’s like to be depressed. I’ve learned something about the self-hatred that goes along with it.”
As she prepared to go to college, she reflected that she needed to put depression behind her. She said, “It’s no one’s fault. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know. It’s partly chemical and it’s partly who they are.”
After a year of some success at college, a gradual recovery from her illness, and an awareness that she had undergone a depression, she was more empathetic. She had recently broken up with her boyfriend, and that enabled her to say, “I know what it’s like to be really sad. I’ve had such feelings myself and I can talk more easily about it.”
For Rebecca, understanding herself, particularly in relation to her own depression and the risks she faced, left her reflective, mature, and able to move on. (193)