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The Legacy of Depression: My Father's Story
Every Father's Day I think about my children and grandchildren, but most of all I think of my father. He was a wonderful man who suffered most of his life from depression and manic depressive illness. As a therapist I thought I was immune from the family inheritance. Many of us have to deal with a family legacy of depression.
My father was born in Jacksonville, Florida December 17, 1906. He was one of eight children whose parents had been born in Eastern Europe and had come to the United States in the late 1800s. From what I heard growing up, he was emotionally sensitive, artistic and talented. He wrote stories, poetry, and put on little plays for the family.
Unlike most of his brothers and sisters, who either went into business or married business men, when he was 18 my father went to New York to become an actor. At first things looked bright. New York in the 1920s was full of glitter and glitz, a great place to be for a young man seeking fame and fortune. But that ended in 1929 with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.
It was in New York that he met my mother and they married on her birthday, October 5, 1934 after a somewhat stormy courtship. Economically things were difficult, but they were together and ready to weather the storm. When all money ran out they would invite friends and acquaintances to their small apartment and my father would put on a show—readings from Shakespeare, his own poetry, or short stories. The price of admission was a can of food.
But as the economic situation worsened so did his mood. He would snap at my mother. Small things irritated him. How she cooked, cleaned their apartment, or made the bed became points of discord. Recalling the times, my mother told me, "He was always on edge. I couldn't seem to do anything right. No matter how much I tried to support him and let him know I cared, he still got mad at me."
There were increasingly heated arguments and fights. He would accuse her of being interested in other men and "sleeping around." She would proclaim her innocence and feel hurt. They would make up, make love, and everything would seem all right. And they would be all right, until the next time. There was always a next time.
My mother was always able to find work as a secretary. She had excellent skills and even in bad times people needed her talents and experience. However, there weren't a lot of people looking for my father's skills and talents. Not feeling comfortable at home, my father spent more and more time away. "He'd stay away for hours at a time," my mother said. "Sometimes he wouldn't come home until early the next morning."
His brothers tried to convince them to come home to Florida and sell insurance like they were doing. My father laughed. "I'd rather die first." It was a prophetic outburst. He nearly did die. Most of what I know about his life I learned from my mother and the journals that he kept in the last three years before he tried to kill himself. A lot of my own life has been spent in fear that I might suffer from the same illness as father. As is true in so many other areas, until we confront and deal with legacy of our parents, both good and bad, we are trapped by truth we are afraid to acknowledge.
In the preface to his book, Depression Decade, author Broadus Mitchell describes the historical period this way. "The years of our national economic life here described were crowded with emotion and event. They registered the crash from 1929 super-confidence and the descent into the depression—at first dismaying, then disheartening, then desperate." These last words would be an accurate description of my father's slide into the deep depression. Kay Redfield Jamison, an expert on mood disorders, uses an analogy from the animal kingdom to describe the difference ways men and women react to the stresses of life that leads to the Irritable Male Syndrome (IMS) and depression. "Young male elephants go out and they are quite solitary," she observed. "The only times males get together is during the breeding period in an adversarial role. They're not talking about anything, they're competing.
"Conversely, the female elephants are drawn together and are constantly communicating with each other. Female elephants have a system set up if one is in distress," she continues, "and they are more likely to be there to serve and help one another. Like male elephants in an adversarial role, human men have an 'irritability' that is 'part and parcel' of depression," she says. "It's one of the diagnostic criteria for depression and mania, more common than not," she explained. "Emotions get so ratcheted up, it's often we see men with short-tempered fuses. It makes depression difficult for others to be around."
Here is a note from my father's first journal, written when he was his old self, full of confidence and joy for life:
"A traveling troupe is putting on a show not far from us. I know them from earlier times when I first came to New York. They are gay and exciting and have an enchanting flavor of holiday. I look at Kath and marvel at her sweetness and beauty. You often forget how lovely feminine youth is. The cream-like texture of skin, a verve and a buoyancy. Henry is a perfect type of company manager. He has great big floppy ears, that inevitable cigar, and a certain softness. Charm is not the exclusive province of youth. Henry has it as well as Kath.
"Kath has that wonderful spirit of newness about her, that same wide-eyed wonder that a child has when he is seeing the circus for the first time. She sits at the feet of the elders who have been around the block and have makeup rubbed into their soles. She reminds me of my little boy [I was five at the time]. He has a wonderful impishness, a beautiful delightful growth about him. He has a suppleness of mind and body, a rapt attention as he looks for animals and calls to them.
"I feel full of confidence in my writing ability. I know for certain that someone will buy one of my radio shows. I know for certain that I will get a good part in a play. Last night I dreamt about candy. There was more candy than I could eat. Does it mean I'll be rewarded for all my efforts? Has it anything to do with sex?"
Journal number ten was written three years later. The economic depression of the time and the depression going on within his mind had come together. His entries are more terse, staccato, and disheartening. I still get tears when I feel how much was lost in such a short time.
Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it's enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.
Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.
A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.
I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I'm battering, trying in the same field I'm trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.
Six days after his November 8th entry, my father tried to kill himself. Though he survived physically, emotionally he was never again the same. For nearly 40 years I've treated more and more men who are facing similar stresses to those my father experienced. The economic conditions and social dislocations that contributed to his feelings of shame and hopelessness continue to weigh heavily on men today.
Does this sound familiar? Drop me a line and let me know what you have experienced.
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This article first appeared on Gordon Clay's MenStuff Web site, http://www.menstuff.org/