If He Gets It: Teaching My Son How to Handle Depression
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
Like a variety of diseases, family history indicates that depression—which, at age 26, led me atop and nearly off of a six-story building—is hereditary. Among other relatives, my late uncle, Steven Dale, struggled with deep, often lengthy depressive episodes throughout his life.
As he matured, my uncle built a sort of depression mitigation playbook. The ultimate pragmatist against depression’s stupor-inducing fog, his “whatever works” strategy employed life-affirming devices to combat a potentially life-destroying disease. Always, the goal was to approach depression actively, keeping the mind and body moving away from a malady that wants us mired in misery.
He shared this playbook with me to prodigious results. Our symptoms were so eerily similar that I’ve referred to Uncle Steve as my depression doppelganger. As such, he served as my mental illness mentor, providing sterling examples and sound explanations that, along with therapy and proper medication, allowed me to overcome the worst of my depression after a decade-long battle with despair and, eventually, alcoholism.
A blood relative suffering from a shared disease—especially one as complicated and dangerous as depression—is invaluable. My experience is that Uncle Steve and I shared not only the same disease but similar strains.
The blessing of learning from the generation before me led directly to there being a generation after me. Nicholas Li Dale was born in 2016.
As he’s grown from wobbling toddler to rambunctious boy, Nicholas’ near non-existence has made fatherhood all the more fulfilling. Divorce, drug addiction, or death easily could have negated Nicholas from being even a consideration, let alone a living, loving being. Nicholas is that much more precious for his former precariousness—a Legos-building, tricycle-riding milestone of my ongoing recovery from depression.
I still have episodes, yes, but they are shorter and shallower as I continue to follow a path of wellbeing that, typically, is no more complicated than asking myself, “What would Uncle Steve do?”
As I watch Nicholas gleefully go about the business of boyhood, however, a far less centering question comes to mind.
“What if he gets it?”
What if this beautiful, carefree little boy is destined to be burdened by my genes? What if I’ve placed a controlled-release stain on his soul, one that metastasizes into a depression so deep that, like his great uncle and father before him, it threatens to ruin or even end his life before it truly begins?
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I cannot, I realize, dictate whether or not Nicholas develops depression. Depression is not a state of mind but rather a physical disease.
Any parent who feels he’s potentially poisoned his child will search for an antidote. I feel responsible for my son’s increased risk of depression, a fear deepened by my family’s debilitating experience with the condition.
What would Uncle Steve do?
He would be prepared and proactive. He would understand and accept the enhanced risk of Nicholas developing depression later in life, and start taking steps to mitigate the disease’s potential impact. He would emphasize the tools that helped alleviate his affliction—the same ones he taught me.
Even if Nicholas inherits my demons, they don’t need to lead him to suicidal gestures, hospitalization and addiction. As he continues to sprout, here are three lessons, pulled directly from Uncle Steve’s playbook, that I’m trying to instill in my son now toward the goal of diminishing depression’s damage later.
Empathy brings you out of yourself.
With young children, teaching moments often intersect with correcting inappropriate conduct. For now, then, most of Nicholas’ lessons regarding empathy tend to start with “No! How would you feel if (insert poor behavior here)?”
Little kids are short-term, self-centered thinkers; they are attuned to their own wants and needs and seek immediate gratification. Empathy helps children learn how to share toys, take turns speaking and keep their hands to themselves. It is the Golden Rule in action.
For those battling depression, though, empathy brings an added benefit: it takes us out of ourselves.
Depression thrives on hopelessness, numbness, bafflement. As I’ve developed defenses against my own familial strain I’ve learned that, when fighting through an episode, attempting to feel others’ feelings is a useful technique. It isn’t failproof, mind you—there is no panacea for this disease—but I’ve found it a valuable device.
Granted, it’s important to empathize with positive people—that is, someone for whom you have warm feelings. Unsurprisingly, empathizing with someone’s anger, fear, or general disgruntled disposition just makes matters worse (I’ve been there).
In practice, depression-combating empathy looks something like this: take someone you love or respect (my wife, a close friend, Uncle Steve) and place yourself in their shoes. They won’t mind—they love you right back. Try to ignore the gray-tinted goggles of depression, and look through the rose-colored glasses of a healthy person who, in turn, wants you to be healthy.
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And most importantly, don’t quit on yourself. If Nicholas develops depression, a workhorse mentality may help him avoid the near-fatal bottom his great uncle and father both endured. Why? Because as he slips into depression, he’ll try to climb out. And when he finds he can’t – because few can arrest clinical depression by themselves—he’s more likely to continue searching for a solution. Combined with knowledge of his hereditary history, this will, I hope, help Nicholas seek help rather than quit trying to address what he knows to be a serious problem.
For example, my AA sponsor is among the most grounded, optimistic persons I know. I have leapt inside his head more times that I can count, through depression-triggering crises ranging from suffering a small stroke to losing loved ones (especially, in a point of tragic irony, Uncle Steve) to the protracted pandemic’s swath of death and economic turmoil. Though I don’t always want to digest it, typically the telepathic takeaway is along the lines of “this is a growth opportunity.”
The point: we don’t need to sit alone in our depression. We can borrow someone’s ears, eyes, even mindset. Get out of your own brain for a while and latch onto the saner and safer perspective of someone trustworthy.
Effort: Let your head & heart follow your feet.
At my lowest, depression eradicated my ability to give effort because it so completely shattered my self-confidence that I saw no point in trying. I was doomed.
But of course, I wasn’t. I was just very, very sick. I now know that descending so deeply into depression’s pit wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Like many illnesses that impact both physical and mental wellbeing (including my own concurrent condition, addiction), depression’s bottom is not preordained.
As I slowly climbed out of my darkest days, my Uncle Steve gave what on its face sounds like hackneyed, eye roll-inducing advice: “Just try.”
He didn’t mean that my own willpower alone would overcome this disease. He meant that action trumps inaction. Take your meds, be honest with your therapist and sponsor, and keep moving forward despite setbacks. It’s okay if your heart isn’t into it. Push yourself in what you think is the right direction and let your intentions and intelligence follow your body.
Don’t think, because your thinking is screwed up at the moment. Do. Even menial tasks as simple as washing the dishes or folding the laundry can be valuable “proof of progress” for a depressive’s stubborn psyche. Take the next right action, however small.
Right now, for Nicholas, all that means is this: you are entirely welcome to fail. Failing is wonderful, and that’s how we learn. But you are not allowed to fail because you didn’t try. Don’t quit at academics, in athletics, or with following your passions.
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Depression wants us to quit. Nicholas must not be a quitter. Problems get worse the longer they go unaddressed; and depression, as we know, is one hell of a problem.
Self-esteem is built through estimable acts.
Worthlessness is depression’s largest, most insidious deception. Those of us who suffer from it know the distinct difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is when you feel you’ve done something bad; shame is when you feel you are bad – that you don’t deserve love or even life.
Over the years, I’ve learned that depression doesn’t like to listen to reason. My only weapon against it is cold, hard fact. I have to prove my depression wrong, one good deed at a time. Estimable acts are a means of lifting depression’s dark curtain, letting the light in and exposing the disease for what it is: a liar.
Simply put, worthless people don’t do worthwhile things. They don’t deliver groceries to an elderly relative during a pandemic. They don’t visit rehab facilities to help those struggling with addiction, per the pay-it-forward “takes one to help one” concept of group-centric recovery.
So I do those things. And if I can’t—if my depression’s blockade makes larger exploits temporarily unfathomable—I start smaller. I make a donation to the organization that brought us our wonderful rescue dog, or check in with a friend dealing with an ongoing problem, even if I can only lend an ear rather than a hand.
Today, part of the reason my depressive spells are less acute is because I’ve accrued, out of necessity, a track record of positive, progress-building actions. This has led not only to a healthy self-esteem but, recalling empathy’s depression-damping effects, an appreciation for others in need, neglect or pain.
Ideally, teaching Nicholas to default to doing good—construction over destruction—will forge a shield of self-esteem, one that makes any depression he develops less penetrating. Had I been aware of the simple effectiveness of estimable acts before my early 30s, life would have been a lot easier leading to that point.
These lessons are not cure-alls. They will not eliminate, or necessarily even diminish, the likelihood of Nicholas developing depression. My hope is merely to make my son as well-equipped as possible to face whatever mental illness monsters are hiding under his bed. If he gets it, I pray his path to recovery is shorter and less steep than mine, courtesy of second-hand instruction from his Great Uncle Steve.