Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Depression’s Not Your Fault

I’ve just completed producing Depression: True Stories, our newest DVD, and writing the companion Words Can Work booklet, culminating two years of work with leading experts on the subject. The DVD profiles three young adults who sought treatment and worked hard at recovery. Chamique Holdsclaw, the great professional basketball player, is one of those interviewed. In her story, she points out that asking for help with mental illness is a sign of strength, not something to be ashamed of.

For years, parents and health professionals asked me to produce a program about depression. I hesitated a long time. I worried that doing the work would strike too close to home. My mother had bipolar disorder, and other loved ones lived with depression.

Before she died four years ago, my mother told me that people needed to understand depression, so I should write about it. In the same breath, she said she hoped I wouldn’t write about her. I knew it was because at age 89 she still felt ashamed of her illness. No wonder. Even close relatives, when Mom was in her depressive phase, would tell her to just “snap out of it.”

When the depression would lift, and she was feeling better, she’d make deals with herself. She’d promise to exercise more; maybe then, she said, she wouldn’t get depressed. That broke my heart. I knew it meant, on some level, she blamed herself for her illness. “It’s not your fault, Mom,” I’d tell her. “Your disease is caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain.” Still, at her nursing home, unsteady on her feet, she’d walk up and down the hallway and report to me later that she’d done 10 or 20 laps. Inevitably, her depression came back.

This project did hit close to home. It brought up lots of painful memories, but nothing more so than my wishing I’d known then what I know now. Although, most of the time, I tried to understand and comfort her, there are times I wish I’d responded differently. I’d have tried more actively to educate the people around her, too – including those who cared for her in a nursing home during her final years.

I wish my mother could’ve heard Chamique and the others profiled in Depression: True Stories. It would’ve given her comfort; she’d have related to their stories and understood that she had a serious but treatable illness that wasn’t her fault. I believe that she would no longer have felt ashamed.

Depression: True Stories
Words Can Work: When Talking About Depression and Other Mental Health Disorders

Related Issues and Answers columns
Bi-polar disorder
Coping with stress

Related columns for young people


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