OPINION: The pressure of depression
There are many opinions, articles, self-help books and medications. It took me years to accept that depression is an illness, like cancer, like alcoholism and like addiction. I have not seen too many stories from people who have been impacted by depression, but who were not themselves depressed. I know there must be thousands.
We grew up in a home with a young and loving mom who was depressed for most of our lives. We didn't know about depression and seemingly neither did she. In our community, there was a stigma attached to any form of mental illness. Nobody sought therapy. It was complicated.
As the eldest child, a teenager, a young adult, I blamed her, I wanted her to be different, I wanted her to be strong and I thought she was manipulative and domineering. She was accused of dominating our father. With hindsight he led by example, loving our mom fully even when she was unlovable. He role-modelled for us, how to accept her and support her. For four girls it was hard to do, very hard to see our female parent and strongest role model being 'weak', often insecure and very dependent on our father.
After our dad passed suddenly with our mom at his side one Monday night while having tea, depression embraced and strangled our mom. It was a dark and difficult period. Again I blamed her, I felt she didn't consider our loss of our main man, the guy who put her and us ahead of many other options in his life and his professional life.
Eventually, with advice from a grief counsellor we took our mom to see a psychiatrist. She was put on medications which changed our relationship from difficult to good. The medications never lasted longer than a few months, so there was no cycle or predictability to her depression. It just came over her like a dark cloud and swallowed her fully. We rallied around like headless chickens, feeling powerless. New medications, new cycle of happy, up, content, down, happy and so on, and round and round.
When we discovered in 2007 that our mom had cancer, it created an opportunity for us to rally around her. Her depression appeared to subside for a few months as she comforted us about the possibility that her life was threatened. We had eight years to grab the opportunities offered to us by cancer, we spent a lot of time talking, making sense of her depression, talking through our resentments, affirming her with all the things for which we were appreciative, finding the answers to questions we had as children and as young mothers and wives ourselves.
Hearing our mother's story through time spent at her sick bed is one of the most valuable opportunities we grabbed as daughters. I struggled with so many regrets about my narrow approach to depression, that it was a choice! Through this period we realised that we didn't need her to be strong, we just needed her. This offered her enormous comfort because through her depression she always felt helpless, unloved, and useless, and no assurances from us could fix that. While we cared for her through cancer we had many chances to show her, to demonstrate how much she meant to us, sick or not sick. The biggest revelation of the cancer diagnosis was realising exactly how strong she really was.
We used every living moment to create memories to last. This included opening old wounds, old opinions and tailor-making our own ending. It was sacred and magnificent.
Dealing with depression when you are not depressed is very complex; as human beings we want to fix people. Often everything you think of saying is exactly what you shouldn't say. There is enormous value in being there quietly. I found that spelling out to my mom what my feelings were didn't change her depression, but it changed a lot between us. I could be loving or angry or irritated and she knew where it came from, and either she was loving, angry or irritated and none of it mattered. We had an understanding, a bond that we created from awful circumstances.
With hindsight, cancer seemed easier to grasp and work with than depression. They are both a scourge on humanity. They chip away at relationships if you let them, or they serve as a foundation to build a space to communicate effectively, lovingly and to practice empathy.
Months after our mom passed away I felt sad, but I didn't feel like I was suffering through her loss. I felt strongly that she had achieved the freedom she so much wanted after living with the torment of depression and never feeling like she fitted in anywhere.
I made an appointment with her psychiatrist to talk through my feelings of relief, my feelings of guilt that I felt relief and the possibility that just maybe our mother would have appreciated being freed from her existence of depression medications with breakfast and sitting about counting the hours until she could have her sleeping tablet and log off from the world.
For the last few months of her life she was sent home as there was nothing more that could be done, tried or investigated to prolong her life, let alone cure her. When this happened the vulnerability we felt as a family galvanised an unbreakable spirit of what will be will be. Some days were moment by moment, some days we spoke about life after her death, we spoke about her funeral arrangements, the pew pamphlet, the plain cane coffin she wanted, who was going to look after who. It kept us in reality, it didn't prepare us for finally losing our mother. There is no good time.
I had the privilege of being with my mom when she crossed over, it was my honour to watch her human body shut down peacefully and calmly. I was overcome with sadness at our loss, complete love for a woman who always chose me and so sure her passing had none of the suffering she feared it would be. So courageous was our mom she used the words, "I am not afraid of dying, I am afraid of how I will die." She had lung cancer, a non-smoker all her life and anti-tobacco lobbyist in any social smoking venue. Instead of the anticipated suffocation and fighting for breath, she had no pain, no anxiety, and long slow breaths to her final one. Her final victory: No more torment of depression. Cancer 0 - us 1. Depression 0 - us 1. Eventually she won.
The things we learnt from depression were life changing, we got to practice acceptance, humility, deal with our fears, and accept people as they are and not as we want them to be, and mostly we learnt the value of empathy.
Depression is treatable and support for people dealing with depression is available. Those supporting the depressed must not undervalue the importance of acknowledging how it makes them feel and asking for the necessary support to help them cope. There were so many times we spoke about how supporting a mom with cancer was easier than supporting a mom with depression. These are challenging times. Depression is a lot more common than people know and we need to talk about it. There are hundreds of stories and when you share yours it gives people permission to share theirs. There is freedom in that space when you don't feel alone. Even with all the support in the world a depressed person will feel alone. Just be there.
Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn