Ronna Edelstein ~
Announce to friends that you have cancer, and they will probably react with sympathy and compassion. Tell them that you’ve broken your leg, and they’ll offer to get your groceries and drive you to medical appointments.
Share that you suffer from depression–and the sound of silence will fill your head.
Depression has been my companion for as long as I can remember. My maternal grandmother, who immigrated to this country from Romania, spent her days struggling to raise four children in a land whose customs and language she never learned. Her husband, my grandfather, rarely stayed home; when not traveling to eke out a living as a peddler, he would socialize with his cronies at a park or synagogue. In his later years, twice widowed and living in a nursing home, he set fire to his own leg as an expression of his inner unhappiness.
She tried her best to bring joy and comfort to my father, brother and me and to give us a hope-filled life. Yet even Ma, who took charge of the house like a general marshaling her troops, could not overcome genetics. I inherited her size-ten feet, her fear of dogs, her love of reading–and her propensity for depression.
Even as a little girl, I knew I differed from the other kids on the street. I remember feeling heavy–not only in body but also in spirit. Although I didn’t know the word “depression,” I knew that my inner darkness didn’t come simply from my being taller than everyone else. Something inside imprisoned and disabled me.
Rather than go outside to play with the real kids, I preferred to sit in the basement with my family of dolls while Ma washed and ironed. I knew, with a certainty born of my depression, that the other kids would tease me for striking out in kickball or failing to keep the hula hoop spinning, and that they’d let me stay lost during hide-and-seek.
I filled my days and evenings with doll-playing, television-watching with Dad and canasta games with my paternal grandma. At night, after falling asleep, I would wake up gagging and gasping in panic, unable to catch my breath. My father would rush to my room and gently rub my back and hold my hand until I fell asleep again.
But neither Dad nor Ma took me to a doctor to learn why I spent my days isolated from my peers, and my nights fighting the demon that lived inside me. Doctors were for sore throats and aching tummies, not hopelessness and anxiety attacks. Psychiatrists were for people locked away in institutions, not for a little girl who made her bed, respected her elders and did well in school. My parents didn’t address my depression because, like most parents of the 1950s and early 1960s, they didn’t recognize depression as a real disease.
In my twenties, as a newly minted public high-school teacher, I thought about getting professional help; but in those days therapy was still stigmatized. I worried that I’d lose my job if my principal heard that I was seeing a “head doctor,” and I feared that my parents would look down on me for seeking counseling.
Instead, I adopted the philosophy of my paternal grandma, who’d lost her husband in the 1918 flu epidemic, endured a second marriage to an alcoholic and spent years toiling in a grocery store: “Life is about getting out of bed, going about your business and not complaining.”
Six weeks shy of my twenty-fifth birthday, I married. Eighteen months later, after my son’s birth, my marriage began to fail. Despite that, I had a second child–a daughter. With both my marital situation and my depression worsening, I asked my physician for help.
“Have a third child,” he advised. As desperate as I felt, I did have enough wisdom and self-preservation to reject that particular advice.
Over the ensuing decades, I have consulted countless other experts. I’ve spoken with social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists; I’ve tried cognitive behavioral therapy, mental and physical exercises and medication. None of these approaches has helped much. Even the most skilled therapists haven’t had the power to change my genetics, nor, seemingly, to lift the shadows that hover over me.
In recent years, though, two things have helped me–ironically, neither of them medical.
First, for the past several years, I’ve been a devoted pen pal to my twelve-year-old great-niece, who lives several states away. Walt Disney is her hero. Knowing how fondly she cherishes the timeless, hope-filled verities of the Magic Kingdom, I choose my letters’ words and content with care; I don’t want my depression to taint her life. Writing to her feels like whistling a happy tune to convince myself that I’m not afraid: The more I write, the more I believe that I can be okay.
Second, last year my children gave me a seventieth-birthday gift that inspired a feeling that perhaps I can move forward in a positive way. It’s an album of photographs taken throughout my life, from my youth to the present, showing everything from my kids’ milestones to the last pictures taken of me with my beloved parents and grandmother.
In all of the pictures, I’m smiling–not just with my mouth but with my eyes. These images give me hope: If I once was able to wrap myself in joy and embrace moments of happiness, then I can do it again.
Although my depression has exhausted me, I tell myself, it has not defeated me.
And so I start every morning by reminding myself of something positive that will happen that day, and I end each evening by reliving a positive moment that I enjoyed. I remind myself that although some battles may have been lost, the war is still mine to win.
And so I soldier on.
About the author:
Ronna Edelstein is a part-time English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where she consults at the Writing Center and teaches a section of freshman programs. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Quality Women’s Fiction (QWF), SLAB–Sound and Literary Art Book, The Roaring Muse, The First Line, the Scribes Valley Publishing anthologies, Seasons of Caring: Meditations for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregivers,Tales of Our Lives, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Washington Post. “I wrote this piece because depression is real. People battling this disease shouldn’t feel alone, or marginalized by a society that still tends to look down upon those of us with mental challenges. Writing enables me to connect with myself in a safe way. It gives me an outlet for my feelings and an opportunity to imagine feeling better.”
19 thoughts on “Depressed”
Instead of feeling like a victim, you have chosen to be a survivor looking to find joy in your life and to bring joy to others’ lives.
What do you (and others) see in this:
Some see opportunity is no where
while others see
opportunity is now here.
Thank you, Ron, for such a kind response. L’Chaim to you as well!
A beautiful piece of writing. My mother struggled with these issues, and I use your strategies: connect with youthful energy, write, keep a gratitude journal. I also walk, walk, walk.
Gina, I wish you the best. Keep walking!
This is among the best first-person accounts I’ve ever read on depression. (I acknowledge that may have something to do with the fact we grew up at the same time.) Such an honest and hope-filled piece. Definitely worthy of sharing on FB.
PS I especially loved your use of “Ma.” That two-letter name conveyed your affection for and understanding of your mother the way ‘my mom’ would not have.
Your kind words mean a lot to me, Janice; thank you so much. I spent a lot of time gathering the courage to write this–and a lot of time thinking about how to write it.
I wish you the best.[quote name=”Mary Ann Barton”]Thank you for the gift of your writing and your story. It’s so important for those of us who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues to connect with others. Best regards from Massachusetts, where I read your words at the breakfast table on a sunny morning in May, the birds singing outside, and the cat in the window.[/quote]
Thank you for the gift of your writing and your story. It’s so important for those of us who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues to connect with others. Best regards from Massachusetts, where I read your words at the breakfast table on a sunny morning in May, the birds singing outside, and the cat in the window.
I appreciate your taking the time to read and respond to my essay. Enjoy the sunshine and Mother Nature’s symphony. I think spring has finally arrived in Pittsburgh as well–and I always welcome the light.
I cannot enjoy the light. Makes me realize how much I am missing, & feel worse. Keep windows covered to block light as much as possible. Meds don’t work. Unemployed for last 8 years, savings gone, desperately need to find work, but no interest out there for 65 YO nurse with big employment gap. Live alone. Family (including 3 children) never visit. Still hoping to find work. Faith, prayer life helps. In the end it’s all in God’s hands. But really enjoyed article and admire your strength.
“Jane,” your comments made me so sad. Keep praying and having faith. I pray that you will one day find your inner strength to bring some light back into your life.
Thank you for your contribution describing your depression. Calls to mind a question put to me at a lecture about aging: Do I think of my illness as an intruder or a guest? I am pleased to have encountered this question and offer it to you. Best regards from northern Pennsylvania.
Your question is like a “to be or not to be” question–one to be pondered and reflected upon. An immediate response is neither intruder nor guest–just a puzzle piece that makes up the whole.
Best regards from western Pennsylvania!
Thank you Ronna
You speak a deeply important truth…about the reality of depression and the ways many live with it. I hope you see that how you lived with it, even before you were lifted by the gift from your children, can itself be a beacon of hope for many.
Thank you, Sharon. I try to take each day, one at a time.
Ronna’s moving story about depression mirrors my
own experience with OCD. Her practice of seeking
and focusing on the positive really inspires me. Both
disorders were once highly stigmatized. Good for her!
Dennis, I wish you the best as you move forward–in a healthy, positive way!
Beautifully written from the heart.
Thank you, Beth.