THEORY OF ORIGINS: "I KNOW THAT THIS FEELING I HAVE, IT . . . GOES BACK TO . . . MY CHILDHOOD."
When I asked Lena what her experience with depression had been like and the ways in which it had affected her life, she replied, “I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember. Like I’ve been pretty uhm like unhappy even when I was even when I was very young.” One of her earliest memories was when she was nine years old. Lena and some family members were headed to a popular, crowded tourist site within a major city when she became very distressed. This event stuck out in Lena’s mind as perhaps the beginning of her battle with subjective darkness, although it is possible that these feelings predate her conscious awareness.
I just remember like fighting on the train with them and and becoming like agitated and like I can’t remember why, but I knew it had something to do with like the crowds, the people, I don’t know if I was just overwhelmed by it or what but I was just very agitated I was very like distressed and (sigh), I was sort of like upset by it that I just started crying, on the train. And I mean once we were there, like I just like I just I couldn’t enjoy myself. . . .
In this memory, Lena could not locate the cause of her distress. Her description of her feelings mimics Bion’s concept of nameless dread (1962), an ominous cloud of dis-ease that hovered over her childhood and made its presence known despite an enigmatic quality that defied any attempts at articulation. Despite this, Lena was quite articulate and insightful during our meeting, and she felt very strongly that the origins of her struggles lay within ongoing familial conflict, the negative environment she grew up in, and the hostile ways in which she had been and continued to be treated:
I know that this feeling I have it just . . . it goes back to ah, my my childhood, uhm how I was treated by different people in my family. And it . . . uhm, it affected how I like thought of and like felt about myself, about like a lot of, how I thought about like a lot of things.
At the time of our interview, Lena was living in the house where she had grown up with her family. Therefore, the negativity in her immediate environment continued to affect her on a daily basis. “Almost everyone is like, thinks like really negatively and I still live at home with some of them and, it it’s just it’s really bad. It just it affects, it just, it affects how I do everything.” When I asked Lena to elaborate on her home environment and the ways in which her family members interacted, she said, “It’s very hostile. And cold, uhm . . . they don’t care about a lot of things, uhm . . . just just very uhm, I I don’t know like everyone’s on edge all the time like my mom’s always saying stuff like ‘I just want to die already.’ ”
I just want to die already. “I just want to die already” is a sentiment that could be spoken in the voice of the dead mother within Green’s (2003) dead mother complex. The dead mother might claim deadness already—or claim nothing in her absence—but inhabiting this wish leaves little distinction between wishing for death and being emotionally dead already, just as Winnicott (1974) suggests that when one fears a breakdown, the breakdown has already occurred. This is the statement of someone for whom suffering is such a dominant theme in her life that suicide would be a relief. Lena’s mother was preoccupied with mourning her own unnamed losses, making her an effectively dead, or emotionally unavailable, primary object. Such a strong statement also represents the transmission of intergenerational trauma. Through these words, Lena’s mother passed on her pain to her daughter. Therefore Lena was dealt two simultaneous blows: She was burdened with the unspecific knowledge of her mother’s suffering and she was forced to carry the early catastrophic loss of a mother who was unable to be emotionally available to her.
Lena did not know the details that might explain her mother’s agony, but she did witness firsthand the tumultuousness of her parents’ relationship. These dynamics set the tone for relationships within the rest of the family, and it had a deep impact on Lena’s emotional world. When I asked what it had been like for Lena to witness her parents’ fighting, she replied:
Uh, when I first, when I first saw this, I was uhm, I was stressed out, like really overwhelmed, uhm I can’t remember if I ever tried to stop them, I just it was it was too much for me uhm, I just remember it made like my stress go up and like I just I didn’t want to like be there any of those times.
In addition to being subjected to her mother’s distress and her parents’ fighting later on in life, Lena suffered an earlier loss at the age of five when she and her siblings were separated and placed in foster care. Lena and her twin brother were placed in the same home, but they were separated from the rest of their siblings and parents. The explanation Lena was given for this rupture was that financial issues had made her parents unable to provide the proper care for all of their children. However, questions still lingered for Lena regarding what other circumstances might have contributed to the need for this early separation:
That’s something (money), that that’s been like a problem for for like a long time. Uhm I, I just know that- well my mom told me this, like we were on welfare when I was very little and my siblings and I were all sent to like different foster homes, because of financial problems. I, I don’t know if there were any other reasons that we had to live in foster- that we were put in foster care I’m not sure, like welfare, like you know I remember times when we wouldn’t eat enough.
Lena did not remember much of her experience in foster care. She said, “That was bef- I was like younger than 5, that’s all I can remember. It was like at this apartment with this family, a small family. Uhm it it’s like nothing, I don’t remember anything bad happening.” Although she could not recall specific events from that time, she said she did
remember feeling like confused and sad. Like I, I had no idea what was going on, uh, I was uh scared. (Pause) But I mean at least like now I know like why,
I mean I was like told a reason like. Just I guess more than 10 years ago.
One of Lena’s older sisters, however, held a different view. This placed a seed of doubt in Lena as to whether or not she was being told the entire story:
Uhm because uhm my parents were having problems with money I mean, well that’s what they say it was. I have no idea. But I know well, some- a few things that my s- one of my sisters revealed to me, uh the one that lives at home with us, she she told me that she she’s like called the cops she and my other sister have called the cops on like our parents, like many times like brought them to court, over what I don’t really kn- I’m not really sure exactly, but I know like just a lot went on, like maybe before I was born and like continued after I was born.
Part of the reason for the mysterious quality of these early childhood events was the air of secrecy that pervaded painful family memories, and another was that given what Lena already knew, a part of her was hesitant to find out more:
I don’t know too much because- I mean I don’t know I I think I don’t really . . . part of it’s that I don’t really want to know and, and like my parents I mean they’re unwilling to discuss it with anyone and uhm, it just I was really young at the time and you know I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember seeing or hearing anything.
In addition to the hostile atmosphere of fighting, separation, and unmourned loss, financial struggles continued to significantly affect Lena’s family in negative ways, and this contributed to her ongoing worries about money:
Uhm, just a lot of things and like we live in this apartment, like we’ve been living there for about ten years and like the landlord’s very negligent, like abusive, like he, just uh, just a living situation, I guess why we worry about things like money because, but I I guess well money, I guess we’ll go with that, just like everyone like they- they all sabotage my- they all sabotage themselves.
When I asked Lena to clarify what she meant when she said that her family members “all sabotage themselves,” she proceeded to describe a situation in which poverty and the stressors that often accompany it prevented her family from emerging from a cycle of pain. Unemployment was a problem for several family members, and some of the ones who could find work were holding jobs that would not help them improve their economic position in life. Substance abuse was evident in at least three of the five siblings (Lena included), and medical issues were also a prevalent source of concern. Lena’s family struggled to cope with their circumstances and seemed unable to improve their situation. The following is a clear description of the spiral of worries that Lena carries with her from day to day:
Just really messy, like uhm, my my father’s like 65, his health is not that great because he hasn’t taken- he hasn’t been taking care of himself enough like a lot of his teeth are decaying, like a lot are missing, like my mom has like chipped teeth, like just a lot of different things and like my eldest sister, the one you know who wants to spend time with me like form- like have a- be closer to me, like she’s done like a lot of drugs. And like she’s living there because she was like evicted from like her last apartment. And just my, they uhm, how she’s supporting herself now is like this like minimum wage job like it’s doesn’t pay enough it just- my older brother, he has like an okay job but he he’s been putting off a lot of things he hasn’t finished other things and now he has to get dialysis three times a week because his kidneys are like uhm because of his uh poor diet, and like my twin brother, I mean he works, he works in a drug store, that’s what he does now, uhm and he’ll also like drinks a lot sometimes. My parents continue to fight, uhm my mom, she just you know we have to help her do these different things because she has like diabetes, give her insulin, like get blood from her but like uhm she hasn’t been on top of that and like, and like now she can’t see that well out of one of her eyes and like she has like these other problems, so it’s like we’re all, like you know not like taking good enough care of ourselves.
Lena felt very strongly that being raised in this environment had affected her deeply, and it contributed to her ongoing struggle with depression. Her family members treated her in accordance with the ways they knew how to communicate, which left Lena feeling attacked, unsupported, and unseen. This contributed significantly to the development of overwhelming feelings of despair:
I was telling you . . . like what I think could be like the cause of what started like how I was treated by some people in my family I was ah, treated like poorly. Just emotionally, like psy- psychologically like they they they hurt me. Just they just abuse me. And like my my feelings uhm like I realize . . . years ago that uhm, that like I think that they do care about me but but they don’t they never really they’re always like very dismissive, like of my feelings, like things I say.
So I like I you know it- that’s that’s why I can, that’s why I was like always unhappy and also because like it was like I didn’t I wasn’t able to open up about anything for a long time.
In this statement, Lena expresses one of the core aspects of her struggle with depression: her family’s inability to create a space for the symbolization of her feelings. In addition to the emotional and psychological abuse she experiences on a daily basis, the dismissive and invalidating responses of the people in her immediate social network serve as an exacerbation of the original assault. In addition, Lena identified the toxic relationships in her family as a source of ongoing conflict in other areas of her life. Interpersonal relationships pose a great difficulty for her, and maintaining them is something that she very much wants but is often unable to sustain.