What I Learned From My Mother’s Depression

Depression has affected my life in many ways. But I always had my mother to help me through.

My mom and I were sitting in the living room watching TV one morning when I was about 17 years old. It was a little past noon and she had just woken up. She slept a lot. She sat in her chair clutching her accidentally pink robe (one of her red socks bled in the wash). She stared at the TV with wide and watery eyes. I assumed she was still trying to wake herself up, or that she was mad at me about something, so we were silent. Taking her time, she slid onto the floor with me, still staring forward. I looked over to her with a comforting smile. She waited a while and said, “I think I’m suicidal.”

Growing up as a child of divorced parents, I was always trying to find what it was that drove my parents apart. Not that I didn’t think it was a fantastic idea knowing the both of them, and not that I could even remember the life I had when they were together (they separated when I was a toddler), but it always seemed like a puzzle to me. I remember some conversations I’d had with my mother and father on their issues, usually not by choice but as a captive sounding board. My mom was always a bit more politically correct about them; my dad still seemed a bit bitter. As I gathered the pieces of the puzzle together, though, they slowly started to reveal a clear picture of what had been the culprit: depression.

Clinical depression has deep roots in my family. My grandfather on my mother’s side was an alcoholic, a devastating side effect of his depression that ended up destroying his body. My mother has struggled with this condition since she was 14, and has now passed it on to me. This is not sadness or grief or fleeting blues, which are normal responses to situations or ideas, however painful they may be. This is clinical depression, a misfiring of neurons, an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. It is a medical condition.

My mother was a part of the first generation to recognize depression as an illness. But it was hard-fought. As a teenager and through most of her adulthood, the people around her treated her dismissively, seeing her depression as an illusion, an excuse to be dramatic. My father saw her as a crazy person, which was easy for a logical person like him to do to an emotional person like her.

Mine started around the age of 16 when I began worrying about the end of the world. Ideas of meteors careening into the earth or storms caused by freak super moons wiping out the entire human population left me huddled in my bathtub on more than one occasion. Thoughts of insignificance drove me to some very dark places. My depression would (and still does) attach itself to anything it could, no matter how frivolous.

Being a gay man is a smorgasbord for depression’s untamable appetite. Ranging from intense body image issues to dangerously low feelings of self-worth and acceptance, the side effects of depression can render you completely helpless. My mom frequently expresses to me the terror of knowing that, no matter how far you’ve come, how healthy you are, or how good you feel, depression will come back. It never fails to show up.

I often remind myself, though, of what a blessing it was to have my mother as a guide through my depression. Believe me, it was no vacation being raised by a parent with clinical depression. She slept constantly, to the point where my brother and I would ask her for money and in her fog, she’d agree, not remembering a thing when she finally woke up. She also threw her shoe at our dishwasher once. I forget why. But the negatives aside, she was always my go­-to for advice. When you’re 16, it’s hard to admit that you can’t sleep out of fear that you’ll wake up to see some shadowy figure outside your window, even though sleep is the only way to stop the constant hurting. But she knew exactly what I was feeling, and was able to relate with her own experiences around depression and anxiety.

My mother and I have never spoken about that morning when I was 17. We sat on the floor sobbing and holding each other, both of us trying our best to support the other. I’m not sure if she even remembers what happened that morning, but it has never left my memory. That was the day my depression faced its own mortality. For the first time, I realized I was not alone in feeling what I felt. For the first time, my depression stood still in fear. Even though it would always be in the background waiting to pounce, I knew then I had someone to fight it with.

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