I Never Understood Depression Until My Mom Died From It

by Alexandra Owens
kieferpix / iStock

Growing up with a depressed parent was normal. Does that make sense? I didn’t know any difference. I thought every parent cried themselves to sleep, that all mothers ended up in the psych ward at least five times a year, or that most parents had addiction issues and thus slip-ups happened every now and then — because that was my normal. Depression was our family’s normal. We didn’t live by days of the week so much or special events; I measured time in the dark and light bouts of her illness.

My normal was doctors and meds being prescribed to her, her lazy Susan of pills that sat upon our microwave, and the AA and NAA meetings that I sat and coloured through. My normal was a mother who sat in her room for hours and hours on end alone and weeping, with zero laughter, very little excitement or enthusiasm for life, and almost no physical touch. It was almost as if the zest of anything had been squeezed out with such violence that only a shadow of a person prepared meals and drove me places.

I thought everyone at 14 had mothers who cut their faces in a fit of rage within their depression. Then I visited my best friend and realized that wasn’t true. So I didn’t say anything. Talking about it only deepened the realization that depression not only consumed our household but stalked me in my mind. I was always pretending things were better then they were, never sharing the intensity behind the abuse that came with this mental illness, this illness that I despised, that I hated. It wouldn’t ever touch me.

So forgive me. I didn’t understand depression. I wanted to. I really did. It missed me in the passing of genes, and I’ve never experienced it myself. I’ve lived it; I’ve been a one-woman audience to the chaos it brings. But the actual all-knowing feeling isn’t something I am intimately in tune with. Just like I can’t comprehend not being able to take care of your children, or cutting your wrists because the pain is so bad, or requiring your child to parent you through another psych ward intake as you beg the doctors to admit her because you can’t do another night of suicide watch.

It doesn’t make sense to me. And if that comes across critical, please know that’s not the purpose. I genuinely cannot psychically fathom those feelings and emotions. I don’t think I ever will. But I have dug deep and done the first-hand research of this disease. For most of my life, I had zero empathy for my mother and her “issues.” Why couldn’t she snap out of it? Often in her darkest days, I would scream and scream for her to figure herself out, get her act together, and move on. Why did it haunt her day in and out? It looked like such a weakness to me…until the depression killed her, and she committed suicide. And then something clicked.

I’m embarrassed to say for many years I judged — full on “gavel in hand” judged. And I am sorry, so sorry, because I was without empathy. And THAT is the worst thing you can withhold from someone suffering.

Maybe it was because I was so full of rage that even as an adult, I struggled to have empathy for friends with depression. I always had sympathy, but never empathy. And that’s not the same at all. Brene Brown describes the difference as “sympathy being the pity we feel for someone else’s hardships, whereas empathy is the ‘me too,’ the act of putting yourself in their shoes.”

I cringe at the thoughts that once ran through my mind, how high on my horse I sat. Because in my head, if I judged it, twisted it, or mocked it, then the “it” didn’t have any weight or value — which meant they were just sad. And anyone can stop being sad.

Depression isn’t sad. It isn’t a sappy movie that triggers some tears or a really good cry. It’s not Adele on a rainy day with a glass of wine. It’s not the weepy feeling we get when our monthly cycle comes or the tears we weep when missing our best friend.

It’s torture. It’s absolutely pure and utter torture. And I am not using that word lightly at all. It attacks the brain in ways in which those of us who aren’t struggling can’t imagine, and then we expect you to snap out of it and make dinner, as if you have any control over this all-encompassing pain that you can’t shake off. It enters your soul and refuses to leave — or allow you to get out of bed, or pick up your crying child, or have a shower.

Imagine an open sore on your arm or leg, one that was cut long ago. It oozes and weeps through whatever bandage you place on it. Sometimes the pain is more than you can handle and you just have to lay there, while other times you can still move but only in a fog because the throbbing is still there. It’s always there. And yet you carry on. You try to wake up, get dressed, and smile. You’re mostly pretending, always pretending. That is depression. The sore that may scab, and hopefully scar, but it’s always there.

Here’s what I know to be true now about my mother who suffered and about my friends who are suffering: They aren’t sad. It’s not just a rainy cloudy day. And I’m sorry I ever thought that. I’m sorry if I ever pushed you to “just smile.” I wish now I hadn’t pushed so hard with my mother. As a child, I didn’t comprehend it, but as an adult, I think she could have used some empathy, some “me too” in my words and actions.

I couldn’t do it back then, but let me now. To my friends that are struggling to push past the pain, to the mothers out there crying themselves to sleep, to those of you who struggling to wake up in the morning and start your day: I’m sorry. Your pain is your own. I won’t try to fix it, change it, or band-aid it. I won’t offer you 10 tips on how to smile, and I don’t want to tell you to buck up. I want to hold your hand in silence. I want to scream at the world with you and rub your back as you weep. We both know you’re strong. We both know you can push past this. And if you need me to remind you of this, I always will.