Editor’s note: As we go into the second year of mental health guest posts here on No wriggling I am grateful for a contribution from the other side of the world. Deb is well-known in the genealogy community and has a great blog of her own over at A Pocket Full of Family Memories. Describing herself as a Mum, writer and part time diva she is working on a number of writing projects and tweets as @Debs_Dwelling and @RelicsofBeccles. My thanks to Deb for her honest description of how she is coming to terms with depression and anxiety rooted in childhood and how counselling and research into her family history helped her find inner strength and identity.
To say that I suffer depression sounds alien to me. The dictionary defines suffering thus:
- To feel pain or distress
- To tolerate or endure pain, evil, injury or death
- To appear at a disadvantage.
What I find interesting about the first two definitions is that suffering sounds like it could be a good thing. It’s normal and okay to suffer, to feel, to tolerate or endure. However, my past experience with suffering was definitely the third definition. I didn’t know any other definition until much later in life.
To my mind, suffering implied that I may not ever recover, that I was destined to be at a disadvantage forever.
A popular Australian seventies band sang “Ego is not a Dirty Word” and this couldn’t be further from the truth when it came to my upbringing. I was fed on a daily diet of humility and modesty from birth, where depression was a very dirty word. Depression ran rife in my extended family and yet, before I sought help, nobody discussed it or dealt with it. It was swept under the carpet alongside the failed marriages, frequent job or house changes, and ill health, including the interminable “c” word (whisper it with me now: cancer).
When did my depression start? From very early on in my life I now believe. I had a fairly unremarkable childhood; divorced parents, moving frequently, crippling shyness intermingled with a deep-seated need to please everybody (anxiety), an only child brought up by a single mother. But then came some pretty nasty shocks that no child should have to endure, which led me to a tumultuous adolescence and a manic introduction to adulthood.
My father had married again (starting a new family), followed by my move from England to Australia with my mother. I constantly felt torn between two countries, two parents, and two lives. The move threw me into utter chaos and dare I admit it, desolation. Getting through school in a new country, pimples, periods, boys, exams, graduating, getting a job, more boys, was a nightmare ride. I didn’t have a clue who I was, which only led to more anxiety and depression.
How did I deal with my depression? In my teens and early twenties, I didn’t. I was an ostrich who continually put her head in the sand. My only salvation was music. It became my lifeline. I listened to music all day, every day. I danced and I sang, and I mimed and I dreamed. For more than twenty years of my life music was my only currency. I dabbled with boys and alcohol, like most girls my age, but only music truly inspired me. When I turned 27 I found out, through professional counselling, that there was so much more in life to discover.
Telling my family that I was going to seek counselling was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Largely, I received confused stares, uncomfortable silences and very little in the way of support. Nobody knew what to say to me.
By 1992 I was desperate for answers. Why do I feel so miserable all the time? Why am I not happy? What is wrong with me? What have I done to cause this? By definition I had it all; a husband, a successful nursing career, a new home. I had no reason to be sad, right?
You might be thinking, “But you live in Australia, with sandy beaches and unending sunshine, I wouldn’t be miserable with that every day.” This is a myth, but I have lost count how many times I have had this said to me. No matter what I tell them, they think I’m “off my head”. What they don’t understand is that depression is not purely environmental. Depression is a condition, and it can strike anybody at anytime regardless of where in the world you live.
I couldn’t have picked a better professional counsellor to meet with. She was one of the most humble yet self-assured women I have ever known and to this day I still smile when I think of her. I remember the day when she looked across the room at me and asked, “Do you love your Mum?” “Yes” came my automatic response. “Do you like your Mum?” Silence. Why wouldn’t my mouth move? Of course I should say I like her. She’s my Mum! I had no idea that being asked this question twenty years ago would spark a major journey of self-discovery (which I am still on). That question slowly picked away at and unravelled the powerful issue of depression in my family. In me.
I would like to sound all “new-age” and say I embraced my depression but that implies that depression is an all-knowing, all-loving thing. I prefer to say that I am making friends with it. Like a friend, there are moments when it is there for me and I am glad and even comforted in the knowledge that at least I feel something. Then again, there are moments when I just want to be left alone. With a stubborn determination, I turn my back on it and ignore it until it goes away. This second option never works though. It just waits for me to turn back around and then it smacks me on the head even harder than the first time.
I have had to learn how to pay attention to my moods. This is not easy, especially when, for most of your life, you have been discouraged from thinking only about yourself. Remember, I was brought up on heavy doses of humility. The art of listening to my self-talk every day, with all its highs and lows, ebbs and flows, was repugnant. It took some convincing on my part to wade through the negativity and get to the core issues. I had to check and re-check myself constantly, and notice when my depressive state first showed signs of rearing its ugly head.
Recognizing the signs can still be exhausting. I have to factor in things such as pre-menstrual syndrome and take into account that external things can affect my moods. More importantly though, I have had to learn to turn off those self-deprecating “tapes” in my head that told me I was not good enough.
Nowadays, I get through my “bouts” of depression with genealogy, family history, and writing. I also draw strength from being a mother (when I’m not fretting about being the world’s worst!). I like to think that I have achieved a greater level of understanding through researching my ancestral past, finding a place in the world, knowing who I have come from and where I fit in to the ever-growing tapestry of life. I am passionate about my life history. I am also passionate about my spirituality. Without getting in touch with my inner strengths and weaknesses, and understanding that one cannot exist without the other, I am destined to be forever soulless. Being grateful for the ebbs and flows in my daily life is yet another work in progress.