I’ve been wondering, can clinical depression lurk dormant in your DNA and suddenly appear out of the blue? Maybe it can be triggered by a relatively small event that gets transformed into something large and unsolvable by the sudden change in chemistry, rendering the person unable to think like his old self. Or worse, the new circuitry creates menu options for the problem at hand that have never been there before, options like suicide.
If you’ve seen The Thing – the early ‘80s horror movie directed by John Carpenter – you’ll recall the scene where the isolated and snow-bound scientists try to determine which person’s body is playing host to the horrible alien that is out to kill everyone in the camp. It’s a very tense moment and this thing could be in any one of them. No one can be trusted, everyone is suspicious of each other, they all look OK from the outside, but inside one of them lurks a dark and unforgiving monster.
That’s similar to what I’ve been feeling lately but it’s not a scary alien that may or may not be inside me – it’s depression. Something millions of normal people live with every day, including my wife, sister-in-law, countless friends and family, and my very own mother.
Why is this troubling me now? I’ve never been diagnosed with depression and my brief blue spells are not emotionally debilitating and are spaced out way too far on any timeline to raise a flag.
Here’s my best guess: I’m pushing 50 and I need to know what secrets my body is keeping from me.
Let’s rewind. It’s 1954 – the US has closed the book on the Korean War and many young men return home with their combat ghosts. My maternal grandfather was one of them and it’s too late to find out exactly what he went through in the war and what was troubling him when he got home. He killed himself at the age of 29 – my mother was only 5 years old. My grandmother turned 26 the month before he took his life which suddenly forced her and her young daughter to brave this unpredictable world as a duo.
According to family lore, besides his mood swings and reported dependence on alcohol, he was a funny and outgoing person, a cut-up. For whatever reason, he chose his holiday leave back in North Carolina as the time to park beside the local water tower with a length of hose in his tailpipe and asphyxiate himself in his car. It was December 29th – his life ended, but a field of questions was sown which still blooms decades later in the heads of his descendants.
So I ponder: What was going on in his head? Not all depressives are suicidal, and not all suicides are depressives. Just because my grandfather killed himself, doesn’t necessarily mean he was “depressed” – which seems counter-intuitive to me as I type the words. The mystery is compounded by the fact that my grandfather’s suicide happened 65 years ago. The people impacted most directly and who knew him best are deceased, out of touch, or have unreliable memories. My grandmother died five years ago and can no longer give answers. Besides being so young when he died, my mother now suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease, burying the memories ever deeper. (Why do our biggest questions come too late?)
While it is known that he was depressed from time to time, was this true, clinical depression or merely fits of sadness brought on by other factors? He was, after all, a young man serving in the Army during the Korean War and had a wife and child – all of those intense and adult variables surely added extra burden to an already complicated and troubled personality. Moreover, veterans are facing a suicide epidemic. Is warfare a component of this story that deserves more of the spotlight than depression?
If I requested my grandfather’s medical records from the Army and found “Depression” checked on a box, would that confirmation mean anything? Would it prove there’s a deep sadness inside me that may emerge at any moment and cast everything into shadow? My mom has fought a dark melancholy her whole life and has taken anti-depressants for decades, is it only a matter of time for me? Can someone fight genetics and predisposition with sheer denial or ignorance? I like to the think that I decide how I feel and my family tree doesn’t have a say in the matter. But it’s even more likely that I know it’s been there the whole time and I just keep forgetting, or have stopped listening to what’s bubbling up, since I’m distracted by own noisy life and thoughts.
Perhaps that’s the key to understanding and managing those inner tendencies – keep busy and focus on finding your answers, even if they are not easy to come by. There’s always tomorrow to finally put it all together, you just need to stick around for it. Maybe my grandfather’s answers were not as far away as they seemed that night by the water tower.