If I have to pick a time in my adult life when depression began to set in, that would be when.
Chronologically it was a long time ago – September 2003. But unresolved and/or traumatic events tend to repeat on us each time the going gets tough. Pain builds on pain.
I give everyone around my grandmother's dying the latitude of shock. She passed away four months after her liver cancer diagnosis. I think that's too quick for most people to wrap their heart around about an otherwise fit 78-year-old. It was certainly too quick for me.
I was raised in my grandparents' house with my mother and so my grandmother had a parental role with me. She was the one person in my life who always championed me, no matter how well or how poorly I might have done, and my grandmother died the same month that my ex-husband moved out.
Friendship might have been what fooled my ex-husband and I into marriage. We were very good at being friends. But after eight years together, we drifted apart as wedded people and it was just a matter of time before one of us found the gumption to ask out.
There was an extreme juxtapose going on for me. It didn't seem right to seek support about my failing marriage from my grieving family, and my ex-husband couldn't help me grieve while we were pulling apart as people do when break-ups happen.
I didn't feel I had someone to talk with but maybe more importantly, I didn't think I needed to talk. I thought I was coping. With hindsight though, I think the reality is that I was just plain numb.
Thomas Scheff, Ph. D., professor emeritus at the University of California, SantaBarbara, says, “The phrase shutting down (of all emotions) seems particularly apt for describing the experience of depression: depressed persons often describe the experience as feeling blank, empty or hollow.”
In his article Emotions and Depression: Finding and Facing Intense Emotion, Scheff writes about avoidance and defines “emotional loops” that contribute to depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“This kind of avoidance also may have still another kind of looping effect: emotional backlogs. The more avoidance, the more the bodily buildup of emotional tension. The more backup, the greater the pain that is anticipated, which can lead to a further kind of avoidance loop,” says Scheff.
My grandmother's dying while my marriage was ending, was also when my relationship with my mother began to undo and that culminated in estrangement by 2010. We just couldn't relate to one another in grief and it started a major divide between us.
All the while my mother and I slept on my grandmother's living room floor next to her hospital bed as she was dying, we couldn't seem to comfort one another. We just robotted along and around.
It took me along time to recognize the injury resulting from the hit of triple loss: my grandmother, my husband and my mother. It had a major long-lasting depressive affect on me and that took me years to figure out.
I can't say I have all the answers for how divorce, family breakdown and death* all at the same time might have gone better for me. It seems elementary now that I ought to have reached out for professional counseling support. But I mistakenly believed that because other people seem to experience even worse in their lives and seem to manage, that for me to not be able to cope was a flaw.
I didn't know that professional help is not as complicated as it sounds, and it helps surprisingly more than I expected it could.
I'm telling this story as a real life example of one of the major stumbling blocks that can contribute to depression. That block is pushing pain down and away, rather than learning how to constructively get through hurt and how to let it go. Dealing with it, as they say, instead of pretending to be alright.
I thought I had moved on because of the appearances I was projecting. I asked for a divorce, bought my ex-husband out of the house, transferred to a detective position at work and gave my grief to God.
What took me a very long time to figure out was that I hadn't processed, I had merely compartmentalized. I pushed my pain away to somewhere where I could deny it.
The experts want us to express our pain however, and take responsibility for it. Some recommend venting to a friend, journal writing or writing letters you don't actually send as some ways to help you understand what is hurting you. Along with counseling, the idea is to identify your hurt points exactly.
The benefits of opening up about hurt became more clear to me about two years after my ex-husband and I separated. He came to help me work on a house I'd bought and we finally talked through our marriage. We apologized to each other and some weight came off me I didn't know I had been carrying.
But while I may have been working through my failed marriage, and my grandmother's passing, the relationship with my mother became increasingly difficult. It seemed the more I tried to work it out, the less I understood what was going wrong.
According to Joseph Nowinski, Ph. D., clinical psychologist in Tolland, Connecticut and author of The New Grief, death of a loved one usually brings people together. He talks about how death generally leads to family, friends, co-workers and even professionals rallying around the bereaved to lend support. Support like this helps people gradually move on.
Nowinski says isolation is one key difference between grief and depression.
“People suffering from major depression tend to be isolated and feel disconnected from others, and may shun such support and assistance. People who don’t get such support, or who avoid it, may be at greater risk for slipping into clinical depression during the grieving process,” Nowinski notes.
Since blogging is a platform to tell a story, I'll pause this part of my story here. In the next few installments I'll write about some of the same coping I've personally noticed people with depression experience. I'll write about over-achieving and bad decision-making.
*Telling long stories in short spaces is hard. But while this story is essentially about my maternal grandmother's death, I want to add that my father's mother died eight months later. And these were the first deaths in my family.
Grohol, J. (2014). Learning to Let Go of Past Hurts: 5 Ways to Move On. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 30, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/07/22/learning-to-let-go-of-past-hurts-5-ways-to-move-on/
Nowinski, J. (2012, March 21). When Does Grief Become Depression: Is There a Point at which Grief Morphs into Clinical Depression? Psychology Today. Retrieved on February 1, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-new-grief/201203/when-does-grief-become-depression
Scheff, T. (2011, July 15). Emotions and Depression: Finding and Facing Intense Emotion. Retrieved February 1, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/lets-connect/201107/emotions-and-depression-0