Friday, 11 January 2008

About the Gorilla in the Living Room

I read a post yesterday in which the writer speaks of depression as a 250 hundred pound gorilla sitting in her living room. This gorilla has been an intermittent visitor of mine for a long time. Probably not coincidently, I also found myself committing yesterday to a fairly intensive level of involvement in a Mental Health Support Project, an involvement that will be more useful if I am identified as a CS - 'Consumer Survivor' as the Ontario Ministry of Health identifies people with diagnosed mental problems under treatment. Doesn't that just sing? Anyway, the Program Director asked me if I minded being 'outed' about this. It took me a minute to understand what she was asking as I have never considered myself to be 'in-ed'. Or do I need to say 'closeted'? Whichever, I agreed to be identified. It's nice not to be worried about people knowing; fifty years ago this was not the case.

In fact, it is forty nine years since my beloved aunt, in the grips of depression, hanged herself, leaving her pubescent daughter to my parents' care and causing such grief and guilt as I still cannot adequately describe. From the vantage point of the 21st century, it is possible to speculate that my maternal grandmother and all her daughters had varying degrees of bipolar disorder that in my aunt's case, exacerbated by the menopause and the sudden death of her husband, sent her over the edge into clinical depression, undiagnosed and untreated in accordance with the practice of the times to tell such sufferers to 'pull themselves together'. Her death was of benefit to my mother and her next younger sister in that they did learn to recognize menopause as a time that they would be vulnerable and to take steps to get support. My aunt, thirteen years younger, was able to benefit from hormone therapy. My mother took the unprecedented decision in her life to put herself first, tried out tranquillizers and finally returned to university to do a master's degree, thus keeping herself fairly stable.

My family used to describe their depression as 'the black dog'*, a condition that caused, for example, my grandmother's withdrawal from the world into the cocoon of her bedroom for almost a year when her mother died. I clearly remember talking one of my aunts down from an alcohol fueled threat of suicide when I was in my early twenties. You see, my positioning in the family was that of 'the little ray of sunshine'. I was always seen as the happy, lucky, stable golden child whose path through life, if not strewn with roses, was at least anticipated to be free from thorns. And when post partum depression hit me like a hammer after my elder daughter was born, I followed my mother's recipe of keeping busy and exercising my mind, took a university course and, deliberately, got pregnant again as soon as possible. I clearly remember crying big salt tears onto the fuzzy head of my younger daughter while frantically thinking about how I could hide my misery. I was not supposed to be sad -- I had a mild case of 'the baby blues' and a few days would clear it up.

I navigated that choppy and iceberg dotted sea with limited help from fairly unsatisfactory counselling and medical help and managed to hold onto my 'ray of sunshine status until I was in my early forties, when a combination of stressors tipped me into depression. I spent a few months in the basement weeping, watching television and snarling at my nearest and dearest and pulled myself sort of together again, partly out of the necessity of caring for my parents, especially my mother whose physical illness and growing dementia required, it seemed to me, a show of strength. Ignoring the well meaning advice of hospital counselors who told me to step back, I did my best to help as she became critically ill and died, struggling to fulfill my role as little friend to all the world and bringer of hope and good cheer.

A few months after her death I went to a doctor for help to stop smoking through hypnosis and in our first session I lost it. 'You have a clinical depression' said this wonderful man and he quickly arranged for most effective drug therapy and counselling. I went onto the first of the SSI's and for the last nineteen years I have been on one form or another of these drugs and feel, mostly, very well. I do have 'ups and downs', as they say, and some of the drugs' side effects, such as lowered libido and fluid retention, are frustrating, but mainly I function well.

One of the ways to fight this disease is to try to know yourself, to accept what you are and celebrate what is good about it, to tolerate mistakes and move on from them, to take responsibility where you can but not to be afraid to ask for help. I cling to the old prayer in which one requests that God grant you the skill to change what you can, the courage to endure what you must and the good sense to know the difference. Another is to be disciplined about diet, exercise and way of life. I do fairly well at the first of these, I think, but I suck at the second. (Finished a box of chocolate liqueurs last night at bedtime. Blush!) Humour helps a lot! As does time and maturity. In TH White's marvelous book, The Once and Future King, he talks about the benefits of time and maturity in a wonderful metaphor, equating the angst of the growing adolescent and young adult with the fledgling bird and the self knowledge of the mature adult with a grown bird, the oil on its feathers allowing it to ride the waves with serenity.

I find that I think of my vulnerability to depression as a medical condition of the same type as bad allergies, a little less serious that Type II diabetes, a physical condition that requires me to be aware of my health and to take medication without guilt. That's a long way from my diagnosis. It's also a long way from the attitudes that caused my husband's family, in the late 1950's, to relegate one of his aunts to the upper floor of a house that several of them shared and to refrain from mentioning that she was there. There's an interesting body of work developing on the changes in attitudes to all types of mental illness but there are, unfortunately, stigma still attached to some of them. Lately I have been reading about a lawsuit brought against his employer by a sufferer from bipolar (?) disease who was let go from the fear that he could not do his job**. Fifty years ago he would not have dared to tell them. Even thirty years ago he would not have had medication that allowed him to function well.

We've come a long way but there is still an even longer journey to go. If publicizing my history of illness will help that, even a little, I am 'out' and will try to do so. And hugs to my friend for doing so too.

* a very quick Google search of this term leads me to believe it's British, probably Irish, in origin. And that Winston Churchill was the most famous user of the metaphor.

** A second quick Google does not find this. I may have the wrong disease.


  1. This is EXACTLY why I think stories like yours are so provides historical insight but it also quiets those cries of "Depression is a modern invention due to our hedonistic and selfish lifestyles." As if it is a choice, an acting spoiled and indulgent.

    And what a complicated and challenging history it is, as your personal story shows.

    I just wish I could give your hand a squeeze right now.

  2. thank you for sharing this. i have not had to struggle with this personally or up close, but I know this will help and strengthen those who need it.

  3. OH, thank you, Mary. Thank you.

    I'm not ashamed to admit that you've made me cry. It helps so much to know that others are like me. While there may not be as much stigma attached to diseases like depression now, this -

    "I was always seen as the happy, lucky, stable golden child whose path through life, if not strewn with roses, was at least anticipated to be free from thorns."

    That was me as well. I just had lunch with a friend today who told me she was floored when I took my leave of absence and she heard about my depression. In her words, "I always look at you as the woman who has everything." I guess I'm too good at hiding it. And so hearing your story, your families sad story, helps more than you know.

    It's familial with me too. My mother's family. Her brother tried to kill himself, my mom and my brother have both been on medication for as long as I can remember. It just took a little longer for the gorilla to move into my house.

  4. Mary,
    Both my sisters suffer depression. Thanks for this. I will be sure to include it as a gift in next month's JPs.

  5. The courage to know the difference - if only more of us had it. A tremendous message- thank you

  6. Good for you. And for all of us who have the opportunity to read you.

  7. I've heard depression called 'the black dog' as well. I don't think you have it wrong.

    When I became a mother myself, I asked my mother how she coped with two babies, only a year apart, she said, "Tranquilizers." She wasn't joking.

    I still feel like a failure for being on anti-depressants. How do I know I really need them, that I'm not just getting sucked into a trend? (I don't expect you to answer that.)

  8. That gorilla sure gets around. One of the great things about a post like this is that someone who has said gorilla in her living room and who has thought hers was the only living room he visited, will read it and realize she is not alone. Well done!

  9. WoW. wow. I have so much to say to this and then find it's all been said. Thank you for putting this out there. As for Justmakingitup's comment-- exactly what my mother told me! "You should have the doctor put you on a mild tranquilizer" (and then drive your precious cargo on Englands' narrow winding roads...)
    Thank you for this post.

  10. I'm so glad you all dropped by. I think that those of us who struggle with various mental problems need the support but we have to be 'out' to get it. 'Mental' problems is also the wrong terminology as more and more it becomes clear that what is the matter is caused by chemical imbalance.
    Inviting the neighbours in to meet the gorilla felt scary and I am so grateful for the positive feedback.

  11. I just found yoiur blog today when I was searching for other people who enjoy watching birds at their birdfeeders. This post of yours is just fabulous! I too have depression and have never "outed" myself because I have never thought of myself as "in." Except for close friends and family members who have known me during times when I have not been on medication, people are always surprised that I have depression and have been treating it with various SSRIs for 10 years (thank god for the medications!)

    I'm not sure I'm ready tpo address my own depression on my blog, but maybe at some point I will. For me, when I feel good I don't think about my depression very much, and when I feel bad I just withdraw. I'm just lucky to have a very supportive group of friends and family, and a wonderful husband who has learned alot about depression in the past 3 years we've been together (boy have I enlightened him and his family!!)

  12. I'm glad that all of our gorilla's and dogs are getting to know each other. It makes it a little less lonely.

    While i "survived" post-partum depression, it came at a price. I lost the joy that should have been there for my daughters first year. It is a time that i can never get back. Depression runs in my family as well, and I am on the look out for it in my children...