“I’m just a waste of space,” says my mother over morning tea. “I’m no use to anyone, except when I help you with the children.”
I stare at her, dumbfounded. The raw anguish, the utter desolation of her words strike me like a blow to the head.
I try to think of a reply, but what can I say that wouldn’t sound like a feeble platitude? I look around her lounge room. It’s overflowing with piles of clutter and it hasn’t been vacuumed for weeks. Not that I am one to cast aspersions about sloppy housekeeping, but my mother used to be obsessive about keeping a clean and tidy house.
It’s 11am and she’s still in her pyjamas. It doesn’t matter because she won’t be seeing anyone today, apart from me. She makes excuses to avoid social functions and when the phone rings and there are no long distance beeps, she knows it’s me, because I’m the only person in town who rings her. She eats erratically and compulsively, and sits for hours, sometimes days on end in her reclining armchair, reading and watching television – anything to blot out the numbing futility of her existence.
My mother has been bitten by what Winston Churchill called the “black dog.” She has suffered from frequent episodes of depression over the past few years and has been treated with medication, with varying results.
I probably know more than the average layperson about depression. I worked in welfare for many years where I often came into contact with depressed people and I have read widely on the subject. I know it’s a common misconception that sufferers can beat their illness if they just stop feeling sorry for themselves and pull themselves together.
But that doesn’t stop me from feeling so frustrated that sometimes I want to shake my mother and shout at her: “You can beat this if you really want to! Go out and get a life!”
My frustration stems partly from feelings of helplessness, from wishing there was a magical cure and realizing that there is little I can do to restore my mother’s shattered self-esteem, to make her want to live a joyful and worthwhile existence. I can be there and listen, but somehow it doesn’t seem enough.
But if I’m honest I have to admit that part of the frustration I feel is based on fear – fear that one day it will happen to me too. Statistics show that there is a two to threefold risk of depression among first degree relatives of sufferers of depression.
Of course, statistics prove nothing when it comes to individual cases and at present, being in a state of depression seems to me as inconceivable and remote a possibility as living on Mars. As a working mother I lead a busy and productive life, with a supportive partner, a solid network of friends and goals to strive for.
But although depression is often a result of circumstances – for example, death of a spouse or loss of a job – it can also strike out of the blue for no apparent reason. That’s the scary part – what defences do I have against it? What can I do to ensure that it doesn’t happen to me? What can any of us do? There are no answers, no certainties.
Research has shown that there are certain personality types more prone to depression – in particular, perfectionists who set high standards for themselves and others and who find it difficult to adapt their ideas to changing circumstances. Whoever figured that out must have spent the past few decades spying on my mother. Her high standards and inflexibility were the cause of many a clash between us in my adolescence and young adulthood. But that’s not me, I reassure myself, no-one has ever accused me of being a perfectionist.
My mother talks a lot about the past, much of it negative. She talks about her repressive upbringing under a mother who meted out heavy discipline untempered by affection. She gave up her own aspirations to follow the career her parents wanted her to follow, and broke off her engagement because her family disapproved of her fiancé. Years later, she found herself in an unhappy marriage, but stuck it out because she felt she had an obligation to do so. The marriage ended in divorce, although at my father’s rather than my mother’s instigation.
She is haunted by ghosts of the past, tormented by feelings of guilt over mistakes she perceived she made in her children’s upbringing. We all make mistakes, I say. I’m sure I’ll make just as many with my children. I also point out that despite her mistakes the three of us have grown up to be responsible, well-adjusted citizens. She acknowledges what I am saying, but she is not reassured.
A wave of sadness washes over me. It seems that my mother has spent a large part of her life living up to other people’s expectations. She never felt she had the freedom or opportunity to follow a course of action simply because that was what she wanted. An acquaintance in her late 50s sums it up succinctly and with a tinge of bitterness: “My generation didn’t have a chance to find our identities.”
I wonder if this is the reason that depression is a common problem among older women. When you’ve spent a lifetime putting everyone else’s needs before your own, there may well come a time when you realize it’s left you with a feeling of emptiness rather than fulfilment.
“When I look back on my life,” says my mother in a moment of insight, “it seems that I’ve spent a lot of it being depressed and haven’t realized it.”
That’s definitely not me. But it is my mother. And until she can chase the black dog away with its tail between its legs, I and the rest of her family will continue to share the heartache.
The Weekend Australian