Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Great Depression - Part Two

Oh yeah - here are a couple of things to add to the previous post. In the 70s you might have depression, but you certainly couldn't talk about it. You were crazy if you had any kind of mental imbalance. Visions of psychiatric wards and electric shock therapy were enough to clam anyone up. And living with depression and anxiety (even at the best of times) can do a number on one's self-esteem. And it's not just embarassment or shame - the physical part of depression can cause the self-esteem to drop without even thinking about it. The self-doubts come along hand-in-hand with the lows. And it is exhausting both for the sufferer and their support system (and imagine what it does to an insecure teenager to live with an insecure adult - let's just say it wasn't the worst situation in the world, but it didn't help us through those troublesome years).

One thing my mother dwelt on for a long time was the fact that she lost friends over her depression. A seemingly good friend stopped calling after she shared the news of her illness (also great for one's self-esteem - especially since a lot of the self-worth my mother had was acquired outside of herself). I've had the same thing happen - but the friends didn't walk away when I shared my mood disorder with them (as I'm pretty open about it) - they walked away because they couldn't handle my mood swings or my actions. And I have to say I didn't lose any true friends over it. The good ones stayed.

For understandable reasons my mother didn't want anyone to know. What a horrible hell - to be acting like a weirdo, trying not to and not to be able to explain it to anyone. I'm much luckier to live in a time when people can discuss it without automatically being labeled. I know some people out there might find it difficult still, but it actually helps other people understand if you tell them why you might be acting strangely. If they can't handle it, it's time to move on anyhow.

Okay, so back to my story. After I left home to go to university, I had to un-learn some depressive/anxiety-esque behaviours, but I certainly wasn't depressed. That was just my Mother's issue. It was she who had it worse than anyone else. But we were so focused on Mom's illness (and I call it that because that's what we knew it as - now I consider it a manageable disorder) that no one else could claim that status. Mom had it bad. We were all lucky. Or, later on, my stress-induced problems. Or the fact that we all had to live with her and in many ways we were all directed by the depression demon (and having been on both sides of the depression issue, sometimes it's easier to be the depressed person than the ones living with her - especially if it's a time when it's not terrible, but temper is showing). But, no, it couldn't happen to me. I was stronger than that.

I'm sure that people in the 70s and 80s realized that depression ran in families (it's rampant on my mother's side, but since no one talked about it, none of us really knew), but I put this thought aside. I was the stable one. I was the strong one. I could do anything. My mother was not as strong. They couldn't handle as much. They needed taking care of. But not me. I was fine. Just fine.

Denial, you might say? And you'd be right. For years. I wasn't my mother and I wasn't going to have the same problems. And if, God forbid, she suggested I might be dealing with some of the same issues, I'd shut her down. I wouldn't even listen. She was wrong. I couldn't have it as bad as her. That's what I had believed since I was a child. And that's how the world was. Actually, that's how it still is. I still believe that my problems aren't as bad as hers were - but how can you compare or measure that? You can't. So I might be wrong.

My first acute hint that something might be wrong with me was when I was writing my master's thesis (if I look back on even my childhood, I see hints of things that point toward future issues, but let's move on from my 20s). Although at the time I think I was so in denial that I didn't even put two and two together. I was writing my thesis - long hours, BAD food from the cafeteria and any fast food place on the way to and from school - T.A.-ing a course, moved residences, was forced to finish an independent reading course, and (not too terribly surprising) got bronchitis that lasted for 2 months. And then I shut down. I recall someone in the hall at school asking me if I was alright and me starting to cry (although I felt "fine" until she asked). I just couldn't function. There was so much to do that I couldn't get started on anything. I was paralyzed, for lack of a better word, and I just couldn't achieve what I needed to get done. So I went to the doctor on campus.

I don't know who the doctor was. In those years, it was a long string of doctors that I went to for whatever ailment I had as the time. Docs on campus or in the towns I was in for the summer. I didn't have a regular doctor, and that was probably part of the problem I had in understanding my disorder. No one knew me long enough to be able to put the pieces together. Anyhow, I went to this woman at SFU and her words were something like this: "You know, this is what they used to call a nervous breakdown". And she gave me some little pink pills. She said they didn't know why or how they worked but they did. I took one. And I was so useless I couldn't function. But somehow, having acknowledgement that what was happening was real and not just my imagination gave me the strength to work through it and get all that work done.

Now let me explain. To me, the term "nervous breakdown" equated with complete and total collapse. Psych ward fodder. I wasn't feeling THAT bad, surely. I was still standing, still putting one foot in front of the other, still eating, still communicating. I had been raised by this suffering woman and understood that I would never feel that bad. So I really did believe that anything I felt was normal or just minor and that I could never truly understand what my mother was going through. So unless something put me flat on my back, I didn't recognize it as a symptom of a bigger problem. And this was a one-off in my opinion. Caused by too much stress at one time. It wasn't one battle in a long war. It was an isolated skirmish. That was it. Done. I worked through it. It's over. On with normal life.

During that time at school there are a few occasions that stick out in my memory that can now be seen as tip-offs to the actual problem. One was when our department hosted the Society for Historical and Underwater Archaeology Conference one year. I was the volunteer coordinator. I organized about 100 volunteers to cover a variety of jobs. It was complicated and stressful, and really good experience - a great boost to my resume. But I remember one little comment that the professor in charge made to me. I don't remember his exact words, but it was something like "why are you always so wound up about everything"? And believe me, it wasn't said in any kind of compassionate way. I was very much being told that I had a character flaw. But it was also a hint that I wasn't acting "normal". I just thought it was my personality (and him being an asshole, which he was). But looking back on it, it makes sense. I was uptight because that's a symptom of the beast. Anxiety, by definition, causes one to be "wound up". If he had any compassion or understanding of anxiety, he may have noticed it. If I was more self-aware or open to the idea of me possibly inheriting the family legacy, I might have clued in. But he didn't. And I didn't. And life went on. And I was "uptight".

If I look back at those university years, I can recognize some truly odd behaviour that is totally attributable to anxiety/depression. The irritable bowel (that I actually had from the time I was a baby), the low self-esteem looking for love in a string of relationships (each one being "the one" by the way), days where I felt like everyone hated me (had those in elementary and high school, too, but thought it was normal), desperately needing approval from outside of myself and never feeling like I got enough (that's a big one). Hindsight truly is 20/20.

Well, that's probably long enough for now. Post-University years to follow in the next post. Thanks for sticking with me.


  1. Hi Sandi,

    Thank you for this. I've been reading all morning. I know bits of this from our previous discussions, but it's nice to see the chronological element...

  2. Riveting piece of writing Sandi. Carry on, carry forward.


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