When Depression Runs in the Family

Being Haunted Isn't the Same as Being Cursed

Martha Manning • 2/9/2017 • Be the First to Comment

My family is haunted by depression. My mother can trace it back in her family at least six generations and it's in my father's family, too. When it hits, it hits hard. We don't get "down in the dumps," we get lost in the pits. Some people find themselves or are found, others get lost forever. The melancholies, nerves and breakdowns of my ancestors landed them in sanitariums, rest homes or in upstairs rooms from which they never emerged. Treatment involved the state-of-the-art interventions of the time: cold packs, electric current, sedating drugs. Sometimes people got better. Sometimes they didn't.

Six months into my own treatment for an episode of depression that scared me in its speed, severity and stubbornness, I had placed most of my emotional cards on the table, but was disappointed that my therapist still hadn't constructed some brilliant framework in which my difficulties and those of my family could be finally uncovered and our dysfunction excised. Since he never volunteered his opinion on the subject, I finally just demanded, "Why are there so many problems in my family?" He shrugged and replied calmly, "Because there are so many people in it."

My first reaction was, "I'm paying $100 an hour for this?" And yet, eight years later, his comment still stands firm among my list of top 10 therapeutic interventions of all time. The poet Mary Karr, author of the celebrated Liars' Club, a memoir of a colorful and tremendously chaotic family, recently echoed my therapist's comment when she wrote that her definition of a dysfunctional family is "a family with more than one person in it."

My own memory of being haunted by depression extends back to my great-grandmother who lived into her nineties and died when I was about 10. As I began to put things together about the relationship between my grandmother and her mother, I started to wonder whether the dulling of self I sometimes experienced, and its power to contaminate energy and joy, played leap frog with the generations hopping over my great-grandmother and landing on my grandmother, leaping over my mother and crashing down on me.

On her good days my grandmother was magic extravagant, energetic and always interested. She allowed my cousins and me to tag along with her on her many errands and activities. She let us know that we were all perfectly wonderful children, despite our parents' petty complaints about us. She was fun in a way my mother never was. But as I grew older, I learned about the other side. On her bad days, I could see my grandmother wilt before my eyes. There was nowhere to tag along, because she didn't go anywhere. She never got fully dressed and when she did, it wasn't worth it. She didn't laugh. She didn't think I was perfect anymore. The air felt heavy around her, very still and hard to breathe. My grandfather, a C.P.A., seemed always to be working. My grandmother went to bed early (many times before dark). For a woman who spent as much time in bed as she did, I was always puzzled by her daily complaint that she didn't get any sleep. My grandfather recedes in my memory as a major player when my grandmother was nursing her depressions and sulks. It's like he just disappeared at those times.

In early adolescence, my relationship with my grandmother changed. Now I felt some unspoken expectation that with my new maturity, I owed her something. Now she wanted me to listen to her complaints of how badly she slept or how my grandfather worked too much or how her children didn't understand her. I couldn't stand her laments. And, since I couldn't do anything about her complaints, I left each interaction frustrated and resentful. She scared me in a way I couldn't and didn't want to understand. I felt an uneasy resonance with her, a sonar that picked up on cues that predicted a shift in her mood.

My mother had a no-nonsense approach to unhappiness. Stay busy, think of someone worse off than yourself, offer it up for the souls in Purgatory. At the pediatrician's office when two or three of us lined up with our bare asses vulnerable to imminent medical intervention, one of us invariably burst into loud and contagious tears, protests and screams. I remember more than once my mother leaning over and whispering, "If you must cry, cry quietly."

I recall her curiosity and impatience at my unremitting despair following being dumped by a boy when I was 13. She was sympathetic to the pain of such an experience and allowed that there was nothing like a good, cleansing cry. It was the intensity and duration of it that proved problematic. My mother had about 15 minutes in mind, whereas I was planning to make a weekend out of it. I wondered which woman, my mother or my grandmother, was the preview of my future. My unspoken fear that increased with age was that I was destined to become my grandmother.

I understood more about the nature of my mother's strength when I saw her in the context of my grandmother's vulnerability. As I grew old enough to realize that my mother and I could experience diametrically opposed feelings on the same exact subject, I realized she hated visits to my grandmother—the very same trips I loved. When I was 6, I looked at the calendar and cried out, "Two more days till vacation." My mother's face got as stormy as it ever gets. She clenched her teeth and spit out, "This is many things, but it is definitely not a vacation.

When my grandmother's mood changed, my mother's did, too. Upon our annual arrival at my grandparents' beach house, it seemed like my grandmother almost willfully fell backward into helplessness and depression. And, in response, my mother went into overdrive. After feeding her own six kids dinner in our adjoining cottage, she rushed up to the main house to feed my grandparents, who somehow made it through the other 50 weeks of the year just fine.

But cooking was the least of my mother's duties. She was my grandmother's personal cheerleader, her therapist, the person who got her up and going, who tried to shift my grandmother's automatic negative outlook at least to neutral. One of my most common memories of those visits is the way my mother and grandmother sat around the kitchen table. My mother always looked like she was sitting on tacks and my grandmother always looked like she was sinking in mud. The sheer exhaustion she conveyed in the act of stirring her tea made it look like she was mixing cement.

Their conversations always stopped short when I walked in the room, but my mother didn't look at all like she looked in the many kitchen-table conversations she shared with her friends. When I became a therapist, I realized that during those times my grandmother and mother were "in session." It was only once we were on our way home again that I could see my mother's shoulders relax. She started smiling again and tolerated our loud and stupid car games.

In retrospect, I see how that pattern repeated itself with my therapist-husband when I was depressed, as we sat on the bed or at the table and he tried to get me to articulate what was wrong. Anyone who has ever been seriously depressed knows that that task is as daunting as asking a lame man to tap dance. In addition, it leads to mutual frustration, anger and, ultimately, helplessness. It was only when we both gave up the expectation that my husband could somehow "cure" me that we moved from pseudo therapy to true support. Instead of reaching out with well-intentioned "therapeutic" interventions, he shifted to questions like, "What would help right now?" My therapist was always willing to include Brian in our sessions and, even though they were not present, to recognize Brian and my daughter, Keara, not only as my support system but as people who were suffering also. This freed them from the responsibility of those awful sessions at the kitchen table, where the certainty is that if you stay with this depressed person for one minute longer, you will drown as well.

I moved to Boston with my husband and daughter to do a postdoctoral fellowship at McLean Hospital. My first cousin the firstborn in her family of seven was going through her own hell at the time from depression, a hell that culminated in suicide in her early twenties. My own deepening depression and my cousin's suicide catapulted me into psychotherapy with a psychiatrist referred by my health plan. I told him I was anxious. He told me I was depressed. Yeah, I admitted, I had my moods, but no way was I depressed in the way my cousin or grandmother was. As evidence against his diagnosis, I listed my accomplishments, the many responsibilities I fulfilled. But 30 minutes into my session with him I was convinced that I was indeed depressed. At the end of our first session, he turned to me solemnly and said, "You really believe that life is something to be endured, to be overcome." I looked back at him suspiciously, wondering if it was a trick question. "It isn't?" I asked. He told me we had our work cut out for us and scheduled a session for the next week.

But my depression continued despite insight, despite a good marriage, despite a child I dearly loved. I finally agreed to try antidepressants and was horrified when my psychiatrist recommended imipramine, the same medicine my grandmother had used in her late seventies, with moderate success, but difficult side effects. My psychiatrist must have registered the horror on my face. He reassured me that he always chooses as the first antidepressant a drug that has worked with other family members.

He was right. The medicine helped quickly and dramatically. It lifted a lifelong weight off my back and made me wonder, "Is this how regular people feel?" But like many people who take psychotropic medications for significant periods of time, I struggled with questions like, "Why can't I do this on my own?" or, looking at the tiny pills, I wondered, "Is this all that stands between hell and me?"

Fortunately my psychiatrist and I already had a strong therapeutic relationship. Yet despite the benefits of the antidepressant, I still feared that I was destined to be my grandmother, a fear no drug could erase. I didn't want her resignation, her helplessness, her just-be-low-the-surface bubbling anger or her genuine and horrible suffering. I also didn't want to have the impact that she had on her family, particularly on my mother. I did not want my daughter to take on the yoke of responsibility and resent me for it. I had already watched three generational scenarios: My great-grandmother's influence on my grandmother, both of their influences on my mother and all three of their influences on me. The one that scared me most was the next one the weight of all four of us on my 11-year-old daughter.

In addition to support, the therapy focused on developing an understanding of the commonalities I shared with each woman, appreciating aspects of our shared legacies as some of the things I most valued in myself. I also had to articulate the differences between myself and each of them. I worked to understand that depression did not negate me, it just made my life different and difficult hopefully, for a limited amount of time, and that no one genetically, biologically or psychologically is the blueprint for anyone else. Being haunted is not the same as being cursed.


This blog is excerpted from "The Legacy," by Martha Manning. The full version is available in the January/February 1997 issue, Uncommon Sense: Reviving Ophelia's Mary Pipher Helps Families Stay Sane in a Crazy World.

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Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: antidepressant | anxiety and depression | chronic depression | clinical depression | coping with depression | Couples & Family | curing depression | dealing with depression | depression | Depression & Grief | families | family | Children | generation | Parenting | parenting issues | parents | suicidal | suicide

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