take, warmth and companionship, love and laughter. He had done considerably more than his share of the giving, and the enormous weight of the family's well-being had too often fallen on him alone. True, my illness had devastated me, but I, in turn, grated on him. Eventually my neediness eroded a gentle and loving man, exposing the hurt and frustration within him. He had married one person, and now his mate was someone different. In time, as I showed my growing strength and stability, his good nature returned. And I have tried to be more sensitive to what my symptoms demand of him. Nonetheless, ever since those first hospitalizations, we have lived as if a dark cloth is poised above our relationship.
Neither did my daughter escape the ferocity of my illness. Her eighth birthday and her simple wish for a lemon birthday cake haunt me to this day. To the outside world, I was still a competent person, but maintaining that appearance of equilibrium took enormous energy. At home, my efforts to control my mood were not enough; there simply wasn't enough energy left over to be the person I wanted to be, the person I had been.
I made three cakes in one morning, the final one from a mix, before I managed to make one that rose properly. By then frustration had pushed me over the edge. I no longer cared about my daughter's birthday. Instead, I fought to make that cake to prove to myself that I was still able to do so. After I went on to ruin the third cake by throwing icing all over it while it was still warm, I slammed it down on the kitchen table and shouted at her, "There! There's your birthday cake!" Fortunately for both of us, I was not so far gone that I wasn't horrified by my insensitivity and brutality. In fact, I was sobbing, overwhelmed at that moment by my inadequacy as a mother. My daughter, who had every right to be terrified by the sight of her mother melting down, had backed herself into a corner of the kitchen, where she was insisting that
Even though I try (despite how I feel) to act smart, funny, and self-confident when I am with my husband and children, they have all been touched by my illness in ways that are heartbreaking.
she didn't need a cake for her birthday. Under the circumstances, I was astonished that she wasn't crying, if not from fear, then from disappointment. But that has been one legacy of my illness: my daughter rarely cries. She suppresses her emotions, including the shedding of tears. In her experience, someone who cries long and hard doesn't need a hug, she needs a hospital bed.
My son has his own demons. He fooled me for years into thinking that he had escaped relatively unscathed. Not until late in his senior year of high school did I read the letter of recommendation for colleges that his guidance counselor had written for him. Like every senior, he had been called into the guidance office to talk with his counselor about the things he wanted mentioned in this important letter. He could have named many activities and awards, and he did name some, but he had also talked to her about my illness and his efforts to be an emotional buffer between his little sister and me. Reading that letter broke my heart. After trying hard through the years, even when I was very ill, to be a good mother, I was crushed to see in black and white that my children had felt they needed to be protected from me. And I was further crushed to think that my son, while still a child, had taken that heavy responsibility on his thin shoulders.
Among the other things I've learned in the past 10 years is that I'm hardly unique in my family, although my case is extreme. Milder versions of depression have touched my mother, my grandmother, my sister, my brother, my sister's two daughters, and two of my mother's sister's sons. The worst of it is that no one benefits from the sharing of this experience. Our mutual affliction is rarely
discussed. In the end, we are each on our own.
Suffering from depression, I've learned, puts all of us at a higher risk for heart, endocrine, and bone problems. Each episode causes permanent cognitive disintegration that affects my health and my ability to think clearly. For a writer, this is a terrifying prospect. The odds also favor my life span being shortened by my depression. Suicide remains a possibility, but it's not the only way to die. My chances of having a heart attack or stroke are higher because of my illness. Your occasional tears may be cathartic, helping to rinse toxins from your body during times of stress. But my unstoppable tears indicate that my depression is in full bloom; whenever my depression goes untreated or resists treatment, I am in danger of crying my way into an early grave. Finally, my immediate family is at risk, not just of experiencing depression but of disintegrating under the pressure of this illness. The greatest terror of all is not that I may succumb to another attack—something that now seems probable, rather than merely possible—but that my children may have inherited these genes that seem to run like a river through my family.
This is why my wager of a decade ago seems outdated. The terminology has not changed in ways that would help my children recognize and treat this illness. "Depressed" is still the word used to describe the mood of high-school seniors who don't get into the college of their choice or of five-year-olds who don't get puppies for their birthdays. In most cases, however, that is disappointment, not depression. The disappointed, the grieving, and the sad do not sharpen knives and count pills. As unhappy as they may be, they get on with their lives—they do not spend their free time trying to figure out how to end them.
Four months after coming home from the hospital, as I work on this article, I still