Growing Up With A Depressed Parent
They may never have been diagnosed, but you knew. Almost from babyhood, you knew something was wrong with your parent. They were glum. Unsmiling. Depressed.
As a baby, they tell me I ignored my depressed parent. As a toddler, I worried. As a young child, I jollied them along. As a teen, I turned comedienne to tease a smile from them.
Depression doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you’re the child of a depressed parent, it affected you…tremendously.
I know it sounds crazy, but yes! A baby/toddler/very young child can already be codependent. Addicted to their parent’s emotions. Worried about them. I know because, like Kilroy, I was there.
It’s one of my earliest memories. It was Thanksgiving, so the depths of Seasonal Affective Disorder season. I must’ve been three or four. I won’t go into details, but it was supposed to be a funny thing that had been done to me. I remember being worried. Was my depressed parent laughing? I vividly recall craning my neck, peering into their face to see if they were laughing at the hilarious scenario.
Years later, I asked my other parent, “Hey! Remember when…did they laugh?”
“Of course they did!” I was told with a smile and simper.
But I don’t believe it. Because I’d looked, on purpose. There was no laughter. It worried Baby Me.
Fast-forward four years. I was seven years old. It was some scenario involving drying the dishes. It was winter again. My parent was, as usual, morose. Sad. Depressed. I remember putting on a funny spectacle. Acting. Trying desperately to jolly them along. To elicit a smile. A chuckle. Anything other than this sad, potentially angry person.
Things were better in Summertime. They didn’t have S.A.D. then. The cloud lifted for a precious few months, but the sad, angry person was never far away.
My other parent compensated as much as they could in their extremely codependent way. They were so upbeat, people thought it was weird. You couldn’t be calm, peaceful or blasé at our house. Oh no! No monotone answers or blank expressions allowed. I had to be happy, happy, happy at all times…or I’d get The Lecture: “You need to be as happy as you can possibly be for the sake of those who are forced to be around you. You have B.O. of the personality, Lenora!” So I learned to act happy, happy, happy. It was a special kind of Hell. The Hell of Perpetual Happiness.
But my depressed parent was allowed to be depressed. Silent. Morose. Even on my birthday. Oh, I appreciate that they tried to seem happy, but I saw right through the act. My worry about their depression on my birthday coupled with my codependent parent saying, “Are you happy, Lenora? Are you having a good time? Are you happy?” made birthday joy impossible. There was so much pressure to be happy…how could I!?! I got tension headaches on every birthday. To this day, I hate my birthday and refuse to celebrate it.
“They’re very depressed,” my codependent parent told me. “We have to do everything we can to make them happy, to make them laugh.”
I was seventeen. Seventeen! Instead of focusing on growing up myself, I’d suddenly been made responsible for the emotional health of a forty-three year old adult. Instead of becoming my own person, I’d been given an obligation to elicit smiles from them. I was seventeen, but parentification had happened. Suddenly, it was I who was responsible for them.
So I did it. I cut up. Cracked jokes. Developed my skill for acting and mimicry. In the words of Tallulah Bankhead, “Dahling, you have no idea what I will do for a laugh.” That’s me to the proverbial “T.”
And it worked! There were smiles. There were chuckles. There was laughter.
And it felt good. It felt like approval. For those few glorious happy moments when my depressed parent laughed, the stress and fear lifted. But it didn’t cure their depression.
Why Didn’t They Try!?!
From the perspective of time, I look back on those years and shake my head. Sure, they finally bought a full-spectrum lightbox to counter the effects of Season Affective Disorder, but it only helped a little.
Why did my depressed parent never seek professional help? Why!?! Their depression caused their family inestimable pain. Didn’t they see that!? Didn’t they care!?
They say that depression is anger turned inwards. From experience, I know that to be absolutely true. Instead of lashing out at their parents who rejected, criticized and in every way caused their depression and narcissism, my depressed parent lashed out at their spouse and their child.
How I wish the internet had existed in the 1980s. Now, we can privately research our own problems and come to conclusions. But back in the 80’s there were libraries! There were books! There were psychologists! Surely, instead of miring in a cesspool of misery and anger, they could’ve swallowed their pride, stopped projecting onto us and helped themself to healing.
But then again, how much is Nature and how much is nurture? I too suffered from depression, but I doggedly pursued the solution…and won. I studied psychology privately. I swallowed my pride and went to professional counseling. Depression rarely bothers me anymore, because I’ve addressed the nurture part and the nature part. Where fluoridated water was causing Seasonal Affective Disorder, I took steps to only drink pure, well water…and my S.A.D. magically disappeared. I swallow capsules of herbs (Nerve Control it’s called…tames the PMS from you-know-where) and stir inositol into my drinking water. I try for the sake of my husband, my friends…even my dogs prefer their mommy to be happy.
The damage of having an undiagnosed, untreated depressed parent has been done though. I was a codependent baby, child, teen and I’m still a codependent woman today. I don’t like it. I fight it. But I expect my gravestone will read: “Beloved wife, well-licked dog-mom, pathetic gardener and scintillating codependent. She tried, she tried, she tried, she tried and then she died.”
Other people are my trigger. Without even realizing it, I go into my happy-happy act. Jollying everyone along. I’m still the comedienne, cracking jokes, doing and saying anything to get a laugh.
Then the Other People leave and it’s like someone flips a switch. Suddenly, I’m “me” again. Quiet. Mild. Craving peace above all else. Happy to spend my days as a hermit. Because having the Happy-Happy Act triggered is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy. It’s the antithesis of peaceful. I never feel quite authentic when Other People are around. I can never just be myself around Other People.
Luckily, my husband understands. With him, I can be blank. I can be monotone. I can creep away to be alone, to recharge my batteries. He understands.
Do I Know You?
Here’s the weird thing: The last time I spoke to my codependent parent on the phone, y’know the happy one who forced me to be happy, I didn’t recognize their voice. It was so calm. So monotone. It was the tone of voice I associated with “something is deeply wrong.” Naturally, I asked what was wrong. They insisted nothing was wrong.
And I believe them.
I’ve come to believe that the codependent parent created a falsely happy-happy atmosphere at home to compensate for the gloom of the depressed parent. Through sheer force of the will, they acted happy, happy, happy to give me a pseudo-happy home to grow up in.
Believe it or not, I was a very happy carefree child (most of the time). When I think of pure happiness, I think of my childhood and aim for that feeling of pure, unconcerned joy.
When I moved away, my codependent parent struck the set of the play, Happy Happy Family. Took off their costume. Washed off the grease paint. Dropped their happy-happy stage voice.
Naturally, I don’t know them anymore. For over thirty years, we smiled, simpered and grinned at each other. Playing at Happy Families. When I was finally allowed to move out, we both dropped the act. The Charade. The Drama. The Lie. It was just too exhausting.
If You Have Depression…
Times have changed. Everyone is much more psychologically savvy. There’s no longer a stigma around having a psychologist or taking anti-depressants. Still, if you have or suspect you have depression, for the sake of your children I beg you to seek help. If it’s nurture that’s causing you to turn your anger inwards, then acknowledge that your upbringing was lacking and work through the pain of your childhood. It’s tough. It’s hard for all of us and it can take years, but it sure helps the depression get better. Been there!
If it’s nature, then invest in some herbs, some inositol, unfluoridated drinking water, a full-spectrum lightbox, Vitamin D, anything and everything to make you feel brighter. (Except alcohol! That will not help. Personally, I’m not a fan of anti-depressants either, but that’s a matter of personal opinion.)
But don’t make your children responsible for your emotional well-being. Don’t make the mistake my parent’s made by making your mood the children’s responsibility. Don’t parentify them. Don’t project your misery onto them. Don’t force them to play codependent Happy, Happy Family to compensate for your depression.
Get help! Your children will thank you.
Thompson, L. (2017). Growing Up With A Depressed Parent. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 22, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/narcissism/2017/03/growing-up-with-a-depressed-parent/