Depression is often passed from parents to their children. Margaret Drabble, who was a depressive child, believes that it is possible to break the chain of sufferingby Margaret Drabble / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
When I was a child of nine or ten years old, I was so depressed that I used to wish I could die in my sleep. I remember going to bed saying to myself, “enough of that, enough of that” and wishing I might never wake again. In the morning I would surface to such anxiety, darkness, and oppression that I could hardly believe I could endure the day. And what was all this about, what was it for?
There was nothing in my external circumstances to inspire such precocious suffering. I was the second child of a middle class family in suburban Sheffield, attending a nice junior school for girls, and I think I had some friends. Outwardly, my life was normal enough. I worked hard at my lessons, I read a lot of books. I went riding on Friday afternoons, I ate and slept. My only noticeable oddity was a severe stammer, but I did not cope with this too badly. I was an ordinary skinny little girl with pigtails and ankle socks. But over me hung this black cloud, this umbrella of darkness.
I recall that I had convinced myself that I had committed what I called “the sin against the Holy Ghost.” I did not know what this was, but I had heard or read somewhere that it was unpardonable, and therefore I was convinced that I had committed it. We were not a religious family. My mother was a professed atheist and my father was a half-hearted member of the Church of England who eventually became a Quaker. So hellfire was not a threat that dangled over us. Where and why I picked up this particular fear I still do not know. In my early adult life I came to believe it was connected with sexual guilt (masturbation, or some forgotten or repressed trauma), but now I am not so sure.
Whatever the cause, the effect was real. I moped, I wept, lumps of my hair dropped out. My parents could see that I was miserable: my mother’s view was that I was paying the price for my over-developed “intelligence,” that I would always be “sensitive” and “vulnerable,” and that I would have to put up with it until my real life matched my inner aspirations. My father was more practical. I remember one dreadful interminable afternoon he said to me, “Why don’t you go to the cinema down the road and see The Count of Monte Cristo? I looked at him, full of reproach. How could that help? “Go,” he said, “It will take you out of yourself.” So I went, and it did. I had two hours of relief. And gradually, through such strategies, I began to learn to trick myself out of depression; I learnt to deceive my own worse self. I can still do it. I am really very good at it now. Sometimes months go by and I forget that I have ever been depressed.
My parents were sensitive to my misery, as they were both depressive themselves. But they might easily never have noticed. Parents and teachers do not notice that anything is wrong, until extreme symptoms-bouts of weeping, bed wetting, night fears, school refusal, unnatural silence, and withdrawal-draw attention to some deep-seated problem. We tend to think of childhood as a happy time, the best days of our lives, a time of hope and play and fun and irresponsibility. We notice the intense griefs of childhood but expect them to be as short-lived as the pain of a bruised knee. Children are forever falling off bicycles and banging their heads or howling over broken toys or refused treats, and we expect them to recover and forget.
When I had my first child, at the age of 21, I knew a bit about English literature and nothing at all about children. I worried myself sick about breastfeeding and weaning and sterilising bottles, I read my Dr Spock in tears whenever the baby would not eat or sleep, and I did not know whether it was good or bad to let him into our bed when he cried in the night. I muddled through, on a mixture of Spock, instinct, and old wives’ tales, but I was acutely aware that a baby is not a resilient rubber toy but a person in the making, and that parents play a lasting part in that making. Crisis came later when we discovered that he had a heart lesion. For years the threat of illnesses, infections and operations hung over us, displacing normal anxieties about everyday disasters as my imagination leapt to the worst possible scenarios.
Infants do suffer, in the mind as well as in the body. Looking back, it is clear to me now that my knowledge of this came not only from first-hand observation but also from reading of the discoveries of the pioneers of child psychotherapy-Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby. All have stressed the fears, terrors, and needs of very small children, and their work has resulted in general changes of attitude, as well as in the rescue of individual cases. Bowlby in particular was a great influence on my generation. He wrote of the emotional deprivations of children with no reliable mother or mother figure, and of the lasting damage caused by sudden, unexplained or prolonged separations.
We all want to be perfect parents, and find it hard to face the knowledge that, often for reasons quite beyond our control, we have not even been “good enough” in a particular relationship or over a particular crisis. I remember my own mother saying to me, in her old age, recalling a dreadful period of guilt and terror which I suffered at the age of eight or nine, “I failed you then. I couldn’t comfort you at all.” It was not like her to admit failure, and I respected her for it, although late in the day.
One of the most common precipitating causes of depression in childhood is maternal depression. I heard a child psychotherapist describing this pattern, and suddenly the probable causes of my own depression became blindingly clear: of course, I was depressed because my mother was depressed. This is the kind of thing one has always both known and not known. The two concepts would seem to be naturally linked. The child of a depressed parent feels protective, responsible, yet powerless: the infection takes before the child is old enough to develop resistance, and the depression is often linked to an unexpressed and inexpressible rage. The child has no strong person to kick against, it dare not even try to destroy the weak and depressed mother, so it takes the suffering upon itself. This seems an entirely convincing scenario. Back in 1936, Anna Freud observed that, “maternal depression at any point during the first two years after birth may create a tendency to a similar depressive mood in the child.”
The child is the father of the man. My mother was mother to my gloom. Babies are dangerous: they bring danger to their mothers, they receive danger from them. But despite the high risk business of living, most children develop normally. Every baby is a new beginning, a new chance to break the old doomed pattern. We all hope that somehow our children will be freed of the worst of the family bad blood, and will take nothing on into the future with them but the good, the new, the hopeful. They have, after all, a new chance-a new set of genes with all the strengths and qualities of the partner that the “life force” chose for us. With any luck, they really will do better. This is why we smile when we see a new baby.
The parents of all depressed children have to cope with feelings of inadequacy and rejection-and as they are often themselves depressed, the cycle continues, the sense of failure is handed on like a baton. (Some families actually become proud of their gloomy heredity.) I have become a convert to intervention and an admirer of the patience and skills of the professionals. I know it can be argued that depression is creative, that it is the pearl in the oyster, that it makes great writers, great artists, great thinkers. But then I think of my mother, swallowing antidepressants until her dying day, and greeting me as I took her morning tea in bed with a cloud of dark, black, infectious misery, and I think, no, that was not good, that was not creative, that was probably not even necessary. The suffering we depressives inflict on ourselves and others is in part avoidable, and we can do our best to make sure that our sour grapes do not set our children’s teeth on edge.