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A daughter's life rekindled


Candle framed by handsMy daughter comes to me in the early evening, when the summer sun is still elevated and the azaleas flourish in a profusion of fuchsia outside the kitchen door. 

'I need to speak to you,' she says. 'Will you come to my room?'

They are interminable, the minutes that follow. Long, slow-motion minutes which transform the trivial concerns of the day – a looming deadline, uncooked dinner – into something far graver: please – please – don’t let her be pregnant, I think. 

I follow my daughter into her bedroom, sit down beside her. She looks me in the eye, gathers herself and draws a breath. 'I think I’m depressed,' she says.

Bewilderment and relief sweep over me all at once: my daughter is not pregnant, she is not addicted to drugs, she is not in trouble with the law. Instead, she is depressed and, superficially at least, this does not come as too great a surprise.

Now that she has put a name to this pall that hangs over her, certain things come into focus, things I must surely have sensed but which were blurred, lacking in clarity: the dark rings beneath her eyes, the melancholy swimming within them, the empty space where joie de vivre once lived.

But I am riven with alarm, too. My daughter is 16 years old and embarking on her final year of high school. She is young, beautiful and confident. She has a boyfriend and plans that would break an older person’s heart: study, parties, travel. It blindsides me, this news that she is afflicted by an illness that will sap her of the joy and optimism on which I have tried to raise her, an illness which threatens to snatch away her spirit just as she blossoms into adulthood.

The next day we sit in the consulting rooms of my doctor. This is where we will begin, I tell my daughter. She is disarmingly cognisant, given the circumstances. She has consulted the Internet, drawn up a list of her symptoms, armed herself with questions, and is ready to tackle this problem. If anyone is swimming blindly in this sudden, unanticipated quagmire, it is me. 

'This happens sometimes, to teenagers,' the doctor says, sliding a packet of Zoloft across her desk. 'There’s no knowing why such chemical imbalances occur.'

The doctor can't tell how long this treatment will last. 'Possibly for life,' she says with a shrug. My daughter sits beside me; I can almost feel the retreating of her spirit, the slow extinguishing of her spark. She is sinking into herself, like a whirlpool collapsing back into its dark and treacherous centre. 

The antidepressants sit on the desk between us with their promise of relief; they may well resolve my daughter’s problem, but the doctor’s prognosis has not placated or reassured me. I had expected a more thorough examination of her symptoms, a broader approach to her treatment.

'What about therapy? I ask hopefully. 'Shouldn’t she see a psychologist?'

But the doctor is adamant. Chemistry cannot be altered by mere words, she says.

We drive home in cold, foreboding silence. My daughter throws the packet of Zoloft into the back of the pantry cupboard and retreats to her bedroom. She feels weak, she tells me; she feels like a failure. 

The next day I make an appointment with a registered psychologist. At the first meeting my daughter holds in her hand the list of questions and symptoms, but she carries in her bearing this time the stoop of defeat. There is a quiet desperation in her demeanour as she sits before this man on whom all her hopes are now pinned. It will be up to him to unlock the dungeon inside which her contentment and sense of self have been sealed.

They drag on, the weeks following her diagnosis. The psychologist confirms that my daughter is depressed, that she will require weekly therapy sessions, that there is every possibility she will benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy.

I pick her up after school on Tuesday afternoons and drive her to her appointment; I sit in the car and try to focus on my laptop computer screen as the hollow minutes tick by. I have become unhinged by this, for I am the person who birthed this child and cared for her all of these 16 years. Surely I bear some responsibility for this alteration in her state of mind, for the quiet desperation that has seeped into her psyche? 

And there is something else, something strangely disquieting. Slicing through my consciousness is the realisation that I have seen all this before, in my own self, as a deeply melancholic teenager, and years later as a young mother and migrant grappling with an overwhelming sense of dislocation, exclusion and grief. My daughter's depression is a dark and inhospitable valley in which she has lost her way, but it is also a mirror held up before me, forcing me to acknowledge the deep troughs into which I myself have fallen, and to recognise the needlessness of having clawed myself out of them alone. I tell my daughter that she is not weak, that she is by no means a failure. Indeed, she is stronger than any other person I know. 

The cognitive behavioural therapy is not a magic trick; it requires adherence, it demands hard work and practice. It is like some form of aerobics, I imagine, for the soul. I am ever watchful of my daughter, terrified that she will self-harm. I tell her that there is no shame in taking medication for her condition – she need just reach into the cupboard and she will find there the discarded packet of Zoloft. 

But the pall is beginning to lift, and beneath it I can see the glow returning, a dying flame coaxed gently back to life. One day her psychologist calls me in. 'She has done beautifully,' he says. 

My daughter is sitting beside me, a sweet smile illuminating her face. She will reduce her sessions and then discontinue them altogether. She will complete her final year of high school and take a gap year, working, travelling, partying, feasting on life. And then she will return home and enrol in university as a student of psychology, the subject for which real life has prepared her best.

Catherine Marshall

Catherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. Follow her on Twitter @zizzyballord

For information about depression visit the Black Dog Institute at www.blackdoginstitute.org.au. Catherine's daughter gave permission for the depiction in this article.

Image source is shutterstock.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, depression, family, therapy



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Existing comments

What beautiful, compassionate mothering. Thank you, Catherine.

Cecily McNeill | 22 August 2014  

An interesting, open and heartening article, Catherine. From my experience GPs in general know little about psychiatry and mental problems. I can remember, years ago, a very decent, honorable GP passing me a container of pills when I was depressed. Very Scottish and stiff upper lip. Wanting to help, but, despite medical degrees from Melbourne and Edinburgh, unable to say anything at all. The ideal treatment is, I think, pills and therapy. Psychiatrists tend to be experts in brain chemistry and the effect of drugs. Psychologists more into therapy. Depression can recur. Both you and your daughter are probably aware of that. I wish you both well.

Edward Fido | 22 August 2014  

Thank you, Catherine for sharing this brave and loving story. I hope it can touch the hearts and minds of others who need such wisdom. I feel sure your daughter can regain her' joie de vivre' and grow in wisdom from the experience.

Anne Doyle | 22 August 2014  

I had an identical experience! My heart went out to you both as I read your account. I can see from your conclusion that you have learnt so much as did my daughter and I. We are better for the experience but would not wish it on anyone. My daughter now has a baby daughter of her own. I'm convinced that there is a time in the hormonal life cycle of young women that causes a depression which does lift over time. The key is to be there for them, to share the difficult journey they have to embark on and celebrate small milestones. And also therapy and possibly medication. Congratulations on recognising that you had a key role to play, many people told me to give my daughter space to work it out herself. Later she told me that they were wrong and that she clung on to my support like a lifeline. Thanks for sharing your experience, its so much more common than many of us would think.

Carol | 22 August 2014  

A beautifully written depiction of the pain & challenges we face when our child has depression. I love the description of the mirror! It's my experience too, facing the reality that, all too unaware, I modelled the negative thinking that I now see in my adult child. You remind me too that GP's often don't have the skills to address depression. They're gatekeepers & need to know how to respond, not pathologise

Sue | 22 August 2014  

Its beautiful that you care about your daughter Cathrine. Instead of me writing a long message describing my own opinions, or relfecting those that actually treat without dismal failure, may I simply recommend a book by a Therapist, & a link? 1.Healing through the dark emotions: The wisdom of fear, despair & grief" by Miriam Greenspan.

Felix | 23 August 2014  

Little scary about the prescription for Zoloft when it is known to increase suicidal ideation in people under the age of 25.

Grace Darling | 25 August 2014  

Catherine, I have just read your article. Beautiful. You do know that mothers go straight to heaven...their daughters too. Phil

phil crotty | 31 August 2014  

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