The ship “Cruelty”
Leaves selfishness as its wake
It swamps your boat. Swim.
In 1989 I was diagnosed with chronic depression. And I had no idea I was depressed. I just thought I was sad, and lonely, and lazy.
My mother was ill most of the time I was growing up. As the eldest, I bore the brunt of the extra housework she could not handle and childcare for my sisters and brother. My father was a teacher, who tutored in the evenings—and he got mad a lot. He drank a six-pack of beer every night, an alcoholic who kept a steady job but terrorized his family on the emotional downswings of that addiction cycle. He’d moved us away from when I was a toddler. The move hid his addiction from family members. It isolated us.
So my mother slid further into depression. And we children were not only terrorized and abused by an active drinker but could not get what we needed from a depressed mother. I think it would have been enough to trigger depression in a healthy person.
Of course, I had no friends. When I played over another child’s house I was expected to eventually ask them over my place. But I could not bring them home: Mom was sick and dad worked two jobs and was tired was my excuse. We were also poor—“debt poor.” Much of that was the fault of my father’s inadequate insurance, but even more of it was due to my parents’ overspending. Mom bough clothes to make herself “feel better,” and dad bought big-ticket items we could not afford, like new cars.
At an early age I found I could not make my parents happy, and I could not make my peers happy. So I stopped caring what anyone thought of me.
You can’t do a good job
When you are constantly panicked
Always looking over your shoulder
For the next shoe to drop.
Shoes were dropping
The whole time you grew up
Paranoid defenses were a necessity then
But they get in your way now
And old habits die hard.
“Did I do something wrong?
Will I be yelled at?”
But that’s what you’re used to.
The hell of it is
That you feel more at home
In abusive companies
Than in ones that treat you well.
The more unpleasant the circumstances
The better your coping skills work.
You can set yourself up,
Thinking you heard what you didn’t hear
Worried that the rug will be
Pulled out from under you.
(But it always has been before)
You haven’t a leg to stand on.
My isolation got worse when I hit puberty. And I wonder how differently my life would have gone if I had gotten a straight answer out of the Sunday School teacher when we were studying the 10 Commandments and I asked, “What’s adultery?” She was too embarrassed to tell me. I was 12.
I was a victim of sexual abuse by a relative for three years.
You stole my smile, and
Left staggering darkness,
Then blamed me for it.
All of this caused me to shut down, to sleepwalk through the motions of living and be emotionally “dead.” We lived in constant fear of my father’s temper. Dad would break things to hurt our feelings and control us. I learned not to tell my parents when I wanted something because it would get used against me. (Eventually, I learned to stop wanting things at all.)
My parents’ chaos still infiltrated my life; I managed to get away from them for a year of college, but dad lost his tutoring due to a bad economy and mom nearly died, so I came home and paid their grocery bills and nursed her back to health. I cried every September—school meant so much to me. But I was unable to get back to college for 20 years.
I was still damaged by my past, and it mostly manifested itself in my relationships. I carried this into my first marriage, where I married a man who had been raised by the daughter of two alcoholics. My ex-husband was not Darth Vader, but he taught me that the opposite of love was not hate, it was apathy.
Then my ex abandoned us. My doctor finally diagnosed depression. I spent about seven years using Prozac, and then Zoloft, until 1996 when I finally beat depression and my body started making the correct neurotransmitters on its own. And counselor finally told me that my father dinking a six pack of beer a night was not normal. He had been an alcoholic, and I should join Al-Annon’s Adult Child program because I needed to deal with something called codependency.
I tell you all this so you will not dismiss the symptoms of depression as mere “sadness.” You or the person you love may not have been through things like this, but I want to state that the biochemical disease is the same. It’s an invisible illness, but an illness nonetheless. Just like a diabetic lacks insulin, depressed people have neurotransmitter chemicals out of whack. Telling a depressed person to cheer up is like telling a quadriplegic to stand. But you can get better, and life will go on, beautifully.
(All poems from Plant a Garden Around Your Life, by Wendy S. Delmater.) Wendy S. Delmater is the long-time editor of Abyss & Apex Magazine of Speculative Fiction. Poetry quoted is from her chapbook about dealing with depression, Plant a Garden Around Your Life.