I am-in general-a pretty happy person.
I take after my mother-who used to announce every morning over her coffee: “I have a sunny disposition”. This as she took a long drag on the first cigarette of the day.
I was like her. And life for me in the 50s and 60s was pretty hunky-dory until I hit 13-and the clouds closed in.
That’s normal one might say-the hormones of adolescence. But mine was not just hormonal-it was situational. And as I had no way to change my situation during those years in high school and college, the situational depression went on for years, untreated, and cast a long shadow over my youth.
Why was I depressed? Well, for one, I didn’t get praised for anything-ever. My parents emulated their own parents, who believed praise spoiled a child. Yet while praise was to be avoided, criticism was abundant-how else to raise obedient children with the right values? To avoid criticism, which felt lacerating whenever I received it, I did all I could to placate adults expectations, both at home and at school. My dogged efforts did keep me out of trouble: but that lack of praise left a real hole in the center of my young growing self.
I was also in single sex schools that thrive on the kind of competition our society encourages. While I did well at school I am not a competitive person and I remember being dogged by a constant malaise that I did not understand: what was always making me feel so uncertain? I think it was the constant jockeying for dominance-academic, social, athletic-and my own confusion about how to handle it.
Finally, I remember feeling constantly let down by my friends. I am sure they felt just as disappointed in me-but this led to a feeling of loneliness even in the midst of a large peer network of girls that never stopped telling secrets and pecking at one another.
My one last hope for fun-and validation-was boys. My parents warned me to always “stay aloof” but I couldn’t do that. Flirting was fun! But my own lack of self confidence meant that I was approaching first love with deep unmet needs for unconditional love and appreciation-what young man, equally insecure-is going to offer that? Heartache was inevitable.
By the age of 21, I was living in one of the world’s most romantic cities-Paris-and feeling utterly dejected. I still have my journals to prove it! My pain was deep and penetrating. I was getting no help for it. Today, in my mid-60’s, I feel very sad about it.
Finally, after college, I really collapsed-and went into treatment with a psychiatrist. He put me on the anti-depressants of the time. Then, slowly, things began to change, as I began the slow process of detaching from the environment that had depressed me for years.
To find my inner strength-and allow the situational depression to lift-I had to let go of almost everything-my home city of New York, the schools that had been confining, in short, the way of life that I had always known. I met a young man through work who was also on a journey of self discovery that involved cutting ties with the past. We became each others port in a storm. He was from a whole other world and that was just what I needed.
A 2nd bout of psychiatric treatment as a young parent in Boston finished the healing process for me. By my mid-30’s the situational depression was gone. And it has never returned.
Since then I have relied on the sunny disposition I inherited from my mother to get me through all sorts of challenges. Life has not been easy, but even with unemployment, divorce, family illnesses and deaths, the things we all encounter in life, I have been able to hold up and grow through the pain.