Caring for a parent, conversations, Love letters from World War II, Mental health, mother daughter relationship

Living with Depression

My mother has a list of physical maladies she talks about to anyone who will listen: constipation, over-active bladder, poor vision, gas, difficulty breathing at night. But never does she talk about her soul-state. Her emotions are locked away, like the letters from my father, written during wartime, kept in a footlocker.

My sisters and I know she has probably lived with depression all her life, and refused to treat it because she doesn’t believe it’s a thing. Stunningly, the hospice nurse got her to agree to a low-dose antidepressant almost two weeks ago, carefully described as being for anxiety. As we settle into rainy season here in the PNW, she is sliding into her seasonal slump, making her mood even lower in the two medicated weeks. But it hasn’t been long enough for the med to have any effect.

It’s damned hard to live with someone with depression. It used to make me angry. Why can’t she just smile more? Why can’t she be happy with all that is good and beautiful in her world? She’s had a good life, where does this come from? Why didn’t she get counseling? How did my father survive it? Why can’t she be more like me? Am I making her more depressed? And—the most frightening—is she going to drag me down with her?

I do know where it came from, and that she can’t just will it away—and believing that she should be able to is why it’s untreated. Her father was an abusive alcoholic. I can only guess what the atmosphere of their home was like. In the presence of her father’s unhealthy expression of anger, she turned her own inward. Now when she is angry or frustrated, she becomes silent, perhaps emulating what I imagine was her mother’s don’t-rock-the-boat existence. Happiness is the only legitimate emotion. If you can’t be happy, be silent.

Soon after I moved home, I found a roll of negatives in a yellow metal Kodak film canister and got it developed. One of the photos was of my grandmother looking decades older than her years—eyes hollow, face drawn, no affect—at a creek with three other women. The picture makes my chest tight. She was, even then, the woman I knew her to be later—empty.

My grandmother on the left, about 40 years old; her (older) sister-in-law with the bucket.

A manifestation of my mother’s depression is lack of emotion. I am aware of it now, but as I read my father’s letters, I can see clearly how long this moratorium on expressing feelings has defined her. Was she happy in his love of her? Scared, homesick, lonely, during the years of separation during the war? He keeps asking, and apparently she keeps not responding. Although he wrote frequently about his own highs and lows, he also praised her for not crying at the train station when he left for training, or at the base when she said goodbye before he went overseas. She tells me now she doesn’t remember he was so unhappy. I wonder if she drove that honesty from him, and she responded to his no-tears praise by staying closed up. She didn’t cry when he died.

It’s possible she has never in her life raised her voice in anger or frustration, other than during the long menopausal years. An insolent teenager back then, I thought I caused her unfamiliar outbursts. I wonder now, suddenly, were those tumultuous years a spewing forth of all the lost self she had shoved down into some dark recess of her soul; and carefully recapped when they were over?

She isn’t able to cope with my anger now, or to return it to me. It would be a relief to me, if she did. Sometimes I feel like I am goading her to anger. She tells my sister I need anger management therapy. She doesn’t want me to express my frustrations at being here. I’m the insolent teenager again, and she shuts down. The hospice social worker tells her, “Yes! It’s healthy to get angry.” I see on her face that she thinks he’s full of crap.

Sometimes I think she wishes I were not around, mucking up her emotion-free existence. I wonder again if I am the cause of her depression. I ask the hospice chaplain and social worker to create space for her to express how she is feeling about her life now, and me in it. They try, but report that she just says things are okay. I’m not surprised.

The other night, reading one of my father’s letters to her, he wrote—as he often did—of her pin-up-worthy picture hanging over his bunk in the barracks. I have become weary of his praise, but this particular paragraph made me smile with his love and the admiration of his mates.

So far I know the officers here in the barracks little more than by sight. Last night, while we were waiting in line for the movie, one of the officers came up and struck up a conversation. One thing led to another – he asked me if that’s my wife’s picture over my bunk. I said “yes,” with pride in my voice. And he, with awe in his voice, said “She’s beautiful! She looks like a movie star!” I thanked him and told him how heartily I agreed with him. That’s the honest truth – I swear it. There are a lot of good-looking girls stuck up around here, including a few pin-ups. But there aren’t any as good looking as the girl over my bed, I can tell you that.

I glanced up at her, struggling to get a bit of food onto her fork. Her face was blank. “Did you hear that?” I asked her. I couldn’t believe it brought no reaction. “I heard,” she said. “And nothing?” I asked incredulously. “How does it make you feel to hear that again?” “I don’t know why he liked that picture so much,” she finally said. “I wasn’t even smiling.” She resumed eating and I resumed reading, gobsmacked by her flatness.

IMG_1051In Bettyville, a memoir by George Hodgman, Hodgman asks his mother, “Do you want me to just treat you like some old lady who no one can hold responsible for anything or get mad at? You have your struggles, but you have to realize there are other people. I’m here, too, you know.” I don’t know about his mother, but yes, I think that is what my mother wants. I think it’s what she’s always wanted.

I try to oblige. She’s 99. She isn’t going to learn a new way of being now. The kindest thing I can do is accept her for who she is; I didn’t cause it, and I can’t fix it. Acceptance is not the same as submission. I don’t have to go with her.

17 thoughts on “Living with Depression”

  1. ” I try to oblige. She’s 99. She isn’t going to learn a new way of being now. The kindest thing I can do is accept her for who she is; I didn’t cause it, and I can’t fix it. Acceptance is not the same as submission. I don’t have to go with her. ”

    Written a year ago to the day *
    Even more relevant now. Be good to you. Say yes ! Give yourself the kudos and make sure you really hear everything that the people here who love you say. You are surrounded by a village that will always lift you up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe that’s how I know it’s time for a change. I’ve given up thinking I can somehow just accept her as she is without being affected by her myself. And if I couldn’t do it during the summer, I sure can’t now as we move into the dark night of her winter soul.


      1. As you may never really get her approval, you aren’t likely to ever get her permission either. This one I know all about. There comes a time when you fully understand what you can and cannot bear. If you are feeling that pull for something different I hope you can be unafraid as you move forward on a path to get yourself there. You yourself have described this as a mapless journey. Don’t let a little thing like not knowing how the story turns out keep you from moving forward. I have enjoyed the Daughter story but what I really, really love is the Gretchen story ♡

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, Cuz, I never knew how much our mothers, and our experiences with them growing up, were alike. I don’t know if you knew my mom suffered from severe depression as long as I knew her. But when my father went on business trips, she was different. Less oppressed, freer in her emotions. Why? I can only speculate. I think my mother’s personality was swallowed up by my dad’s “larger than life” Staebler personality. I think Aunt Ruth would agree. There was something amazing and at the same time overwhelming about the four of them.
    I learned at a very young age how to “read faces” (especially my mother’s) and learn how to manipulate her mood. At least when I wasn’t hiding in terror of doing something to set her off. My father would say to me at maybe 10 or younger, “go in there and make your mother happy. I spent the rest of her life doing that.
    Anyway, Uncle Donald told me recently, “It’s possible to live to be too old. Can’t do anything worth while, no good to anyone.” But different from your mother he is always happy to talk about the past.
    I wish you strength. I couldn’t do what your doing.❤️❤️


    1. Thank you for your comments, Linda. There’s probably a lot we didn’t know about our family, because they never talked about it! My mom has often said how the Staeblers didn’t talk about the stuff of emotions. (I think neither did her family.)

      I didn’t think of my mother as suffering from depression when i was growing up. It’s really only in retrospect that I see the patterns–like her low self-esteem–and only recently that I’m learning they are symptoms of depression. So probably our experiences were not all that similar. It was only during what I MUCH later learned was menopause, that we tread quietly. (No one talked about that, either.) What you said your dad told you to do made me smile a bit, because my dad would look at us (glare?)–he reading the paper, we girls hanging in the living room, my mom in the kitchen–and say, “Go help your mother.”

      It is definitely possible to live too long.



  3. Oh my dear. this post sounds so familiar to me in so many ways – even if the manifestation is somewhat different with my mother. there is a long coffee here. xxoo


  4. I always struggle with how to respond when I read your posts. A “like” doesn’t feel quite right. So, how about a comment? I, with parents both still alive and well and grandparents in their late 80’s and early 90’s still living independently, cannot conceive of the place that you are in. But, I admire your perseverance (even in your struggles) and dedication. You may just think that you’re doing what you “have to do” (we in my family are very good at doing the responsible thing), but there are a great many that wouldn’t. Keep on keepin’ on….there are a lot of us quietly supporting you.


    1. I love comments, LaNae. Thank you for yours. We are living too long, in my humble opinion. Children should not have to do this for parents, and parents should not have to be dependent on it. My mother is lucky, my sister and I were willing and able to be here for her. But what of those who can’t, for myriad reasons–including not willing, which is a legitimate reason? So much opportunity for emotional pain for families, at life’s end. Medical science has gone too far, with Medicaid encouraging it. Medicaid will pay for intervention, but not so much for dying without interference, which can also be staggeringly expensive. Thank you, thank you for your support. And for your lovely, joyous blog posts. They always give me a lift.


  5. This piece was so well written and provided quite an insight into depression. Just the picture of the four women says so much – three of them interacting, smiling, and the fourth, sitting by herself, cut off and her face showing no emotion.


  6. Dear Gretchen,

    Wow, this really hit home for me, both as the daughter of someone with depression, and a person with depression myself. Depression runs in my family genetically. My mom refused treatment, and angrily denied she had it because mental illness was so shameful in her generation. Her sister committed suicide when I was a girl, and no one ever talked about it, or was allowed to ask. Family life was rough sometimes. After dad died, she tried to make my sister and I responsible for her happiness and her sadness. It took therapy for me to overcome that.

    Depression affects the way you interpret life – at times, you are sure people don’t like you, don’t want to be with you, that you are a failure. In men, (and also some women) it can show as anger. I remember lying down feeling that darkness, while knowing in my rational mind that it probably wasn’t true, yet unable to shake it. The feeling of inadequacy led me to criticize others. Exercise, diet, faith, and medication have made a huge difference, like night and day.

    I have a couple of close friends whose father was an alcoholic. They were afraid to even experience emotions for fear it would enrage their dad, much less express them, and their mom modeled bearing the brunt of it in silence. Even now, the son has a hard time knowing how he feels or talking about emotions. I am so sorry your mom had the double-whammy. I wonder if your grandfather might have suffered from depression, and self-medicated with alcohol, as some people do.

    When mom developed dementia, we were finally able to get her on medication that made things so much better. It took some trials and adjustments before the wonderful parts of her could rise to the surface again. I hope the care team finds an antidepressant that helps your mom. Please be gentle with yourself, and continue to take time for fun with E and other things – like the new baby on the way! Congratulations to everyone!


    1. Thank you for your insight. I realize, reading the responses from those who have depression themselves, I have no business pretending to know something about it. You are right, I believe, about that generation seeing mental illness as shameful. My mother’s ran so deep, she didn’t even believe menstrual blues was a thing, let alone postpartum depression, which she surely experienced. She is a life-long teetotaler, saying she was always afraid if she drank she would be like her father. Something told her it was genetic, though I expect she thought it behavioral, not something in her DNA.

      You may be spot on about depression in my grandfather, along with my grandmother. My mother does talk about family matters some–or did. My father’s family, on the other hand, never talked about emotions or difficult times. I find that so sad. Lots of stuff swept under the rug. And I was not allowed free expression of hurts. Living with my elderly mother was probably not the time to get over that!

      I’m hopeful this medication will help my mother. Thank you for verifying that it’s never too late! Take good care; thank you for writing. (Do I know you?)


  7. That was a wonderful read and a great insight. I can’t speak for all, but having depression myself, all I know is that we tend to self depreciate so much that we can never see the good in ourselves.
    Which is why perhaps she doesn’t see the beauty that others see in her. (that indeed is a beautiful picture)
    It is great that you are taking efforts and trying to understand and accept her point of view. Not everyone has the patience and the sensitivity.
    I hope both of you are well. Take Care. 🙂


    1. Thank you for this. I realize, reading the responses from those who have depression themselves, I have no business pretending to know something about it. I have great appreciation for those who recognize it and are dealing with it. I’m sad that my mother never has. And yes, I have always known her to be self-deprecating. I thought it was a game she and my father played—and that I see the beginnings of in his letters. She put herself down, he built her up. I had never connected it with depression. Thank you for that insight. I wish I had more patience, but thank you, I am trying.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I could relate to her point of view precisely because thats how I have felt all my life.
        It is difficult to make someone outside its purview understand, my family hardly bothers.
        But the fact that despite the complexities you are trying is indeed commendable.
        I wish you all the best in your endeavours.


      2. Thank you again. I so wish I had known more, understood more, cared more, all these years. Maybe that is why she is still here, why I am here with her. I have stuff to learn. I can’t make it up to her, but I can keep trying to do better now. I don’t do guilt, the past is past. My mother, however, has great guilt at “not understanding” her own mother’s old age and is still trying to make it up to her. I doubt she thinks “depression” is part of her “failed” understanding. You have given me lots to think about. I almost didn’t publish this post, and I did rewrite it. I was afraid it was too personal. I’m glad I did.

        I’m sad your family doesn’t support your hard work. I suppose they would if you had cancer. People can be so disappointing. I’m going to see my mother differently now, I think. I hope.


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