Christina was seven months pregnant when her boyfriend, and the father of her baby was murdered. She thinks now that it may have been drug related, but at the time his dealings in the drug world were completely unknown to her. Needless to say, this event threw Christina into a major depression. She had all the classic signs, lack of energy, and a change in her sleeping and eating habits. Like most depressions, this one lifted by itself after about 6 months. The baby was born and Christina’s life found meaning once again.
The second depression happened about three years later. Her little boy was a handful and money was tight. It seemed she couldn’t regulated, either financially or emotionally. She was always tired and there was a constant list of things to do that she couldn’t quite get around to completing. Like the first depression, this one also lifted on its own. She never got back to her “good old self”, although she had times when she felt okay, when she could enjoy her work, son and friends.
When I met Christina, her son was starting kindergarten, and Christina could barely move. She had painted the room she now shared in her mother’s home black and covered the windows. She found it difficult to get out of bed to send her son to school with breakfast, no less go to work. She ruminated for most of the day in her dark room, thinking of ways she could kill herself to make this pain end. For the most part, it was the thought of leaving her child that gave her the strength to continue. Not only was this depression not lifting by itself, Christina wasn’t really sure what had caused it to start in the first place.
According to researcher Ellen Frank of the university of Pittsburgh, almost all first episodes of depression are reactive, they happen in reaction to painful life events, such as the murder of a boyfriend. But after that, for many people, depression becomes organic in nature. The second depression will happen in response to a much smaller stressor, financial trouble for example. And the third depression will be sparked by something even milder, and so on. It’s almost like the person’s brain has been sensitized by previous bouts of sadness and stress, and the depression seems to take on a life of its own, striking at will. Like Christina, once we have been hurt often enough it becomes easy to plunge into depression over a problem that would barely register upon a happy person.
Sometimes the source of the problem is not even known, but that doesn’t mean the depression does not exist. Depression, even mild depression, is a slippery slope. Once we are on it, a stoic soldering is not the answer. Depression must be addressed.
For Christina talk therapy seemed to hold the answer. She had always been encouraged to “buck up’ under her problems, to “grin and bear it”. Consequently, she never spoke of the devastating effects of her boyfriend’s murder or how hard it was to be a single parent. Ironically, just talking about her troubles was enough to help her depression lift. After several months of weekly therapy sessions, Christina’s life started to improve. She would come to therapy dressed in colorful clothes, she painted her room, and found time to actually play with her son. By the time we parted, Christina had enrolled in a sign language class at Phoenix College. She wanted to interpret for the deaf, an idea that would have been totally out of the question a few months earlier.
As you will see in my next article, talk therapy isn’t the magic bullet for all depressions, some types may need a little more help. But, according to research reported by James Pennebaker in his book, Opening up, the Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, talking or writing about ones deepest thoughts and emotions can result not only in improved moods, but a more positive outlook on life and greater physical health.