Why I Worry About Passing Depression On To My Children
My oldest, Tristan, is 9. I watch him the closest because he’s becoming more complicated every day. But the problem is, he doesn’t give away much about his feelings. Sometimes I catch him in his room, looking down at a book, his eyes a little glossy, and I wonder what he’s thinking. I worry that he’s beginning to struggle with depression. I was about his age when it happened to me.
Tristan comes from a long line of depressed and anxious adults—at least on my side. My mother struggles with it. So did my father. He drank and took painkillers to deal with his depression. He died at 49. His mother took Xanax. My maternal grandmother didn’t take anything that I know about. She just shut herself in a room most days.
I worry a lot that my three children might inherit my mental illness. When I think about my children struggling with depression, it feels like I didn’t wash my hands and ended up passing on some horrible disease. It feels like I should do something, but I’m never quite sure what that is.
But the funny thing about children is that they are never what you expect them to be. People always comment on how much my son and I look alike. And it’s true, we have the same short slender hands and flat feet. Our eyes are blue with a little yellow, and our hair is straight and brown. But the fact is, we are very different people. He is more patient than I am. He likes to read and fold origami, hobbies that take a concentration I never had at his age, and even now, don’t fully possess. And he’s not nearly as gregarious as I was. He’s more reserved, like his mother.
My wife doesn’t have any problems with depression—at least not from what I can tell. We have three children, two girls and one boy, and it’s my hope that her genetics will water things down some. Perhaps her happiness will overshadow my depression and help our kids to turn out normal. But when I say that—”normal”—I’m not really sure what it means. All I do know is that I’ve never really felt normal.
I’ve always felt to the side of myself. Oftentimes I feel like an actor playing a happy version of myself. But I suppose if I were going to try and define how I want my kids to feel in adulthood, it would be this: I want their default state to be happy and not fearful, because that’s what I struggle with the most. I feel like happiness is at the top of an icy mountain, and if I don’t concentrate on my steps, I will easily slide down.
But even knowing about our differences, I often look at the physical similarities between my son and I and project my past mistakes on him. I come down on him for doing a half-assed job sweeping the kitchen floor or cleaning his room, and assume he’s doing it for the same reasons I did when I was his age, but rarely is that the case. He almost always has different reasons because he’s a different person.
And when I see him looking like I do sometimes when I get depressed, I feel really nervous. I feel responsible, and I have to assume that many parents who struggle with depression have these same feelings. I want the best for my son. I want him to grow up and be free from whatever pain I felt growing up. I assume I will feel this same way about our two daughters as well, but they are 6 and 2, so we just haven’t gotten there yet.
Just a few days ago I found Tristan in the living room with his back down on the sofa, gazing up at the ceiling fan. His eyes were a little watery, and he reminded me of all the times I’d lay down and looked up, lost in a void of frustration and sorrow.
“How are things going, big guy?” I asked.
He looked up at me, and smiled, and told me about a friend of his who can do two cartwheels in a row. “It’s really cool,” he said. “Sometimes he gets so dizzy he falls over.” Then he placed his hands over his stomach and laughed, long and hard.
And in that moment, I wondered if he didn’t really know what feeling sad means—I mean really sad. I know that’s he’s felt disappointment. And I’ve seen him frustrated. But I don’t think he’s ever had a several day depression streak of feeling hopeless and worthless—the streaks I find myself in from time to time.
Perhaps it’s too early. Perhaps he’s too young. Perhaps I really do have nothing to worry about. Maybe this all comes down to nature vs. nurture. Perhaps my depression is part of having an absent father and the stress that not having him around placed on my mother. If that’s the case, then Tristan is going to be OK, I think.
Some of the happiest times in my life have been with my children. They often pull me out of slumps with something as simple as a lame joke or a warm hug. Maybe that’s where I can make the difference. Mel and I love each other very much, and my father’s early death really scared me away from drugs and alcohol. I don’t use either of those things. Maybe just me being there, and watching out for him, knowing what I know about depression, will be enough to help him work through it.
If I give him a happy enough life, will he never feel the depression I’ve struggled with?
I don’t know.
But moments like the one Tristan and I had in the living room make me wonder if I’m getting worked up over nothing. Honestly, living with depression and anxiety often looks like taking little things and blowing them up and overanalyzing them until I feel hopeless.
I laughed with Tristan. “That’s awesome,” I said. “I thought you might be feeling sad.”
He thought for a moment, sat up, smiled, and said, “Nope.”
“Good,” I said. “That makes me happy.”
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