A couple of years ago I started trying to understand my mother by writing about her life. It came out of a conversation with a friend – I was telling my usual story about how I had been emotionally neglected as a child because of my mother’s clinical depression. “Why was your mother depressed?” she asked. At first I thought it was a strange question: depression is an illness that can befall anybody and to me it was simply part of who my mother was – a woman whose state of mind ranged from low-grade gloom to downright suicidal misery, with a throbbing undercurrent of unacknowledged anger. As a child, you breathe in the the emotional atmosphere of your family like the air – no matter how damaged or damaging it seems normal, its variations and troughs part of the weather-system of home. But why was my mother depressed? I began to think about her life and her family history a bit more closely. To begin with, there is a susceptibility to mental illness that runs directly through my maternal line. My great-grandmother sufffered from what was called at the time ‘religious melancholia’ – she would prostrate herself in prayer for days without sleeping or eating, until she began to hallucinate and hear voices. Perhaps in an earlier age she would have been considered a mystic, but in Victorian London she was hospitalised and died young in an asylum; her children barely had a mother. That thread runs down the female line: the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of her youngest daughter – my cousin – has schizophrenia.
Mental illness may be partly hereditary, but so is trauma. My mother’s father spent four years in WW1 on the Western Front as a stretcher-bearer, whose job was to scrape up wounded and dying men, carry them across mud-and blood-drenched battlefields to the dressing stations, all the while trying to keep them alive long enough to get treatment. It must have been one of the worst jobs in wartime and of course, like most soldiers of that terrible war, he never spoke of it. Whatever trauma he had suffered – and I’m assuming there was plenty – was buried deep inside and only manifested in occasional outbursts of temper. But we now know that buried trauma does not go away, it resurfaces throughout the generations until it is fully dealt with.
My mother’s early childhood, although she always remembered it as a golden era, was no doubt overshadowed by this trauma of war, not to mention a strict upbringing with little tolerance for expressing personal feelings. Then when she was twelve, Europe went to war again and her world was shattered – in a sense literally as living in London, she was at the heart of the Blitz bombings. This war blighted her teenage years, destroyed her school and thereby her chance of a decent education, depriving her both materially and pyschologically and leaving her with a lasting sense of foreboding and fear.
She became a young adult during the 1950s, probably one of the worst decades to be a woman, when in addition to contentedly performing the role of domestic goddess, women were supposed to be sexually attractive at all times and even seek personal fulfilment through pleasing men. Their choices in life were severely circumscribed – my mother got married and had children almost despite herself, possibly as one of the only ways open to her to leave home.
Depression seems to have set in with a vengeance at the point where she became a mother – she suffered from both pre- and post-natal depression which went untreated. When she finally sought help, the only treatments on offer to her were strong anti-depressants, tranquilisers or electro-shock therapy. At no point did anyone suggest, or she know to ask for, psychotherapy or counselling. How different might her life have been if someone had been able to explore with her what was wrong? On the other hand, having been brought up not to express or even acknowledge ‘bad’ feelings, it might have been impossible for her to open that Pandora’s box.
Taken altogether, then, there are many factors that make my mother’s depression unsurprising. We still have a tendency to view mental illness as an individual pathology, divorced from personal history or life experiences; a chemical imbalance which can be medicated out of existence. Even psychotherapy, while focussing more on the early life of the individual, rarely looks further back into family history to trace the threads of who we are and where we come from And who we are is, inevitably, bounded and to an extent created by the society within which we live. What started out as a personal exploration turned into a work of forensic research into the social, emotional, and political history of our past hundred years.