My two children sent me a digital frame for Mother’s Day. They filled it with pictures they had accumulated throughout the years, including ones they had surreptitiously borrowed from my family photo albums. Each picture flashes on and off the screen as quickly as each year begins and ends. Like those passing years, the pictures show my transformation from a smoothskinned, brown-haired 16-year-old to a 64-year-old with wrinkles and graying hair. Yet, the more I study the photos, the more I realize something else: The forced half-smile of my earlier years has gradually become a full smile that reaches my eyes and brightens my face. The pictures reveal what I have felt but have feared to verbalize: My journey to delete depression from my personal lexicon and dismiss it from my daily life is finally reaching completion.
While the thought of living a depression-free life appeals to me, it also makes me feel like Alice tumbling through the rabbit hole into a foreign world. After all, depression has been my constant companion from the moment I was conceived. My maternal grandmother, an immigrant from Romania, spent her days struggling to raise four children in a country whose customs and language she never learned. My maternal 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, widowed and living in a nursing home, he set fire to his leg, his way of showing his inner unhappiness with himself and life. It is no wonder, then, that my mother grew up in a house filled with darkness, even when the sun shone and the curtains were open. Maybe Ma nurtured some dreams as a child, but when her parents refused to send her to college so she could become a teacher, Ma succumbed to a life devoid of dreams and hope.
Ma tried to bring joy and comfort to her husband of 68 years and to my brother and me; she tried her best to give us a dream-filled life. Yet, even Ma, the woman who took charge of the house like a general controlling her troops, could not overcome genetics. She not only gave me her size 10 feet, her fear of dogs, and her love of reading, but she also passed on to me 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 did not yet have a vocabulary that included words like depression, I knew that my inner darkness did not just come from my being taller than everyone else. I found it hard to give in to laughter and fun. Something – which I now know as depression – imprisoned me and disabled me.
I preferred to sit in the basement playing with my family of dolls while Ma washed and ironed than going outside and interacting with the real kids on the block. I knew with a certainty that stemmed from my depression that the other kids would tease me for “striking out” in kickball, mock me for failing to keep the hula hoop spinning around my waist, and allow me to remain lost in a game of “hide ‘n seek.” I filled my days and evenings with doll-playing, television-watching with Dad, and canasta games with Grandma. At night, however, long after my bath and reading time had ended, I would awaken, unable to catch my breath. The more I yawned to inhale oxygen, the more I gagged and gasped. Hearing me, one of my parents would rush to my room, gently rub my back, and hold my hand until I fell asleep.
But my parents never took me to a doctor to learn why I spent my days isolated from peers and my nights fighting the demon who lived inside me. Doctors were for sore throats and aching tummies, not hopelessness and anxiety attacks. Psychiatrists were for those people locked away in some institutionalized cuckoo’s nest, not for a little girl who made her bed, respected her elders, and did well in school. My parents did not address my depression because parents of the 1950s and 1960s did not recognize depression as a real disease.
I, therefore, traveled through life earning the kudos of teachers while squelching any opportunity for peer friendships. While the other girls jitterbugged and did the twist, I sat in my room and retyped the notes I had meticulously taken in school that day. I often fantasized about going to a sleepover where girls painted their nails, drooled over movie magazines, and gossiped about the latest couple on “American Bandstand,” but my “once upon a time” fantasies never ended “happily ever after” because happiness had no place in my world of self-loathing.
No one, not even the parents and grandmother who loved me, saw that I was sick. Instead, they applauded my report cards and attended the ceremonies that inducted me into National Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa. When the limousines lined our street to take the others to the prom, they did not think it strange that I sat home behind closed windows and a locked door. “You’re a late bloomer,” Ma would say. “Your time will come,” Dad assured me. Although both my high school and college yearbooks list a plethora of clubs and awards under my name, they are more significant for what they omit: no phone calls from a best friend; no classmates with whom to share a Coke and fries; no memories to exchange at a reunion. I was the invisible girl who trudged through the halls and across the campus. Like a turtle, I buried my head into my neck; I did not want others to see me, and I did not want to see myself.
Perhaps as a young adult, I should have sought professional help. Yet, therapy still had a stigma attached to it. I worried that I would lose my teaching job if my principal heard I was seeing a “head doctor,” and I feared my parents would look down on me should I confess to them that I was being counseled. Therefore, I adopted the philosophy of my paternal grandmother, a woman who had 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.”
Following Grandma’s advice took its toll. While I never had the skeletal frame of the stereotypical anorexic, I did exhibit anorexic behaviors. Knowing I could not control my sense of hopelessness and despair, I decided to instead control what I ate. During my senior year in high school, I ate only two meals: a hard boiled egg for brunch and a slice of chicken for dinner. Determined to avoid the typical freshman weight gain, I spent my first year of college in a state of dehydration. If I did not drink milk, juice, water, or soda, I would not add liquid pounds to my body. Shortly after giving birth to my second child, I turned to a diet of yogurt and carrot sticks. Food brings joy, but I did not believe I deserved joy; deprivation, then, was the right course for me.
Ma, a woman who believed that one could never be too thin, loved my vanishing body. She bragged about my thinness, my grades, my degrees, and my teaching successes. Dad also complimented me, but his love came unconditionally; I knew he would be there for me even if I ballooned in weight, did not get tenure at my school, or stumbled in any other way. Earning Ma’s love, however, not only required more effort but also motivated me to mirror my life after hers. For 41 years, Ma worked at a children’s furniture store. Because the store gave her a sense of worth she could not find in herself or in her personal life, she allowed it to consume her time and energy. I, too, devoted myself to my students, leaving little time for my children and potential friends.
Genetics, then, planted the seed of depression within me, but my choices, rooted in my need for Ma’s love and approval, watered and nurtured that seed. That need lay behind every decision I made, including the one to do what society and Ma expected of me: get married. I pursued one man – not because I liked or respected him, but because he was slightly taller than I. With my arm tucked into my Dad’s, I walked down an aisle strewn with rose petals; with my new husband next to me, I again walked that aisle, but this time I felt as if I were trampling on shards of broken glass. Those in attendance smiled at me, the glowing bride, but I knew this marriage was doomed to failure. Not only did my husband have to deal with his own issues, but once I tossed my bouquet, I returned to what I was: a woman with depression. After two children and thirteen years of wedded bleakness, I became a statistic – a divorced woman and single mother.
Like many divorced women of the late 1980s, I placed personal ads in the paper, asked colleagues to fix me up, and tried to live the teenage life I had not ever experienced. I put on make-up, bought new clothes, and flirted with men both married and single. Yet, constantly playing the role of happy divorcee depleted me. No matter what façade I presented to others, my children always saw me as the mother who rarely laughed or relaxed.
My son and daughter, therefore, were the primary victims of my depression. During a Disney World vacation, I remember abandoning them to their father, sitting alone on Main Street, and sobbing as the Disney characters paraded by. I felt threatened by the happiness of the Magic Kingdom. I prolonged every school day for my children by forcing them to spend hours creating perfect projects and error-free homework assignments. I violated their privacy by invading their rooms and discarding stuff I thought they did not need. As I drove them to a classmate’s house to play, I complained about my tiredness, and I voiced my resentment of this chauffeuring chore.
My depression also caused me to physically isolate myself from my children. I erected an invisible shield between them and me. I got the idea from a toothpaste commercial I saw as a child: Use this toothpaste and you will create a shield between you and decay. I hid behind my shield, guarding myself from the decay ready to attack me. When I got really down, I refused to even talk to my children; I literally lay in the fetal position on my bed in order to make myself as small and as invisible as possible. My children, products of a generation that saw therapy as healthy, begged me to “see someone.” I refused, unwilling to admit I had a problem.
My children got angry at me, and I got angry at myself. I wanted to smash my fists through my invisible shield and cause my hands to bleed. I wanted to fall down the escalator at the mall or wreck my car like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. I never took pills or sat in a garage with the motor running, but I did want my pain to end.
Like Ma, I rarely looked in a mirror. When I did, I saw what she saw: a woman who went through the motions but who gave up the right to happiness – even the right to pursue happiness – a long time ago.
Then, March 21, 2007, Ma died. When Dad asked me to write and give the eulogy at her funeral, I spent many hours sitting at my computer, searching for the perfect words and memories that would capture Ma’s vitality and feistiness, not her darkness and despair. As I reflected, I could not help but envision the day when my son or daughter might be writing my eulogy. I did not want my children to remember me as a prisoner of depression. I also did not want my daughter, an adult who deals with her own demons, to feel that she is doomed to repeat the life of her grandmother and mother. No matter how much I blamed Ma for giving me depression and no matter how much I blamed myself for passing it to my daughter, I suddenly realized that I needed to act before I ran out of time. My desire to become a positive role model for my children and to leave them a strong legacy became my motivation to take the necessary steps to change. To implement this internal transformation, I turned to what I know best: teaching. This time, however, my students would not consist of the sixth and eighth graders with whom I spent two decades, and the curriculum would not focus on the magic of reading and writing. Instead, I would be my sole student, and my course of study would be Defeating Depression 101.
I have devoted the past four years to teaching myself how to be happy. Knowing I needed a jumpstart, I finally agreed to a regimen of medication that I should have begun years ago. I convinced myself that an anti-depressant is not a sign of weakness but rather a symbol of self-awareness. I also entered into therapy on a regular basis.
As a teacher, I always encouraged my students to keep a journal. After Ma’s funeral, I bought a journal with a daffodil-yellow cover and a sun smiling in the upper right corner. Every morning I give myself the same assignment: Write three positive goals you hope to accomplish today. I end every day by recording three happy things that occurred during the day. Sometimes I write about spending five minutes in front of the mirror without having to turn away; other times I describe a walk to the library or the joy at finding the newest Philippa Gregory or Alexander McCall Smith book on the shelf. The subject of my journal entry matters less than its positive tone and focus.
I also find time during every day to “gift” myself by listening to music on my iPod, walking the treadmill at the gym, indulging in an ice cream cone, or taking a nap. I have tentatively entered society by establishing friendships with women who share my single status and interest in movies and theatre. I warn myself about jeopardizing these relationships by returning to my old habits of jealousy and insecurity. When I feel myself donning the familiar cloak of depression, I ask myself two questions: Aren’t you tired of living in darkness? Don’t you want better for your children? My answers energize me to turn to the light.
Like all educational situations, my learning is a process that often finds me taking two steps forward and three steps backward. It is one thing to promise myself I will change, but it is another thing to do it – to rid myself of a companion who has shadowed me for six decades and to develop healthier ways to deal with both old and new problems. Like any addict, I experience moments of such intense frustration that I just want to return to who I have always been: a person who finds familiarity and comfort in depression. Yet, when I handle an upsetting call from one of my children without reacting with “doom and gloom” or when I deal with my 95-year-old father’s spinal stenosis pain without wringing my hands in despair, I soar like a bird that has been freed from its cage. I allow myself to believe that the past does not have to determine my future. I am not Ma, and I do not have to follow her path.
I lie in bed every night, watching the digital frame flash its pictures. The ones of Ma sadden me because I can clearly see the pain that clouded her eyes like cataracts. It is too late for her to live a life filled with more than fleeting moments of happiness, but it is not too late for me – or my children. No matter how difficult my journey towards happiness becomes, I will continue to move forward. Returning to depression is no longer an option.
-- Ronna Edelstein is a teacher and a lifelong student, a daughter and a parent, a caregiver to her 95-year-old father and a recipient of others’ care. Ronna is a dreamer and a doer, an optimist and a realist, a lover of M&Ms and daily workouts on the elliptical. Ronna is a thinker and a writer. As a part-time faculty member of the University of Pittsburgh’s English Department, Ronna works as a consultant at the school’s Writing Center. She also teaches Freshman Programs, a course that introduces students to the University and the city. Her work, both fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in Quality Women’s Fiction, Ghoti Online Literary Magazine, First Line Anthology, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.