A few years ago, during a particularly rough patch, I decided to give therapy another try. To aid me in my search I turned to Google, the source of all knowledge, and amassed a list of potential candidates before whittling them down using the usual criteria—too far away, too expensive, smug face, wearing an ugly sweater in their profile picture, etc. Finally, I landed on a therapist we’ll call Dr. X. Dr. X had decent credentials, my ailments were in his wheelhouse, his office was right above my favorite bar, and, well, I’ll just say it—he was so, SO pretty. Like Jeffrey Dean Morgan with a touch of David Duchovny and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. I know what you’re thinking—wow, choosing a therapist based on your attraction to them is all kinds of fucked up—but I figured, hey, maybe this is the incentive I need to keep attending sessions. Well, in all that time spent on his profile, skimming its contents, but mostly staring into his dreamy blue eyes, I failed to notice one key piece of information—he wasn’t just a therapist, he was an analyst. Unfortunately, this discovery wasn’t made until my first session with Dr. X. To his credit, he responded with good humor to my assertion that Freudian psychology was a load of out-dated, illogical, patriarchal bullshit, but that didn’t prevent him from attempting to interpret my dreams or asking probing questions about my early childhood.
The thing is, aside from the depression itself, my early childhood was trauma-free, exceedingly normal, and idyllic in a way that would have had Normal Rockwell scrambling for the oil paints. But Dr. X was on a mission and, upon hearing that my mom also suffered from depression—something I had been aware of from a young age—his stupid, handsome face lit up like a Christmas tree. He proposed a patently ludicrous idea, one that, had I known my mother would latch onto in the way only a Jewish mother eternally riddled with guilt could, I would never have shared with her. (Foolish, I know, but I only shared it to remark on how preposterous it was.) Dr. X, having known me all of 20 minutes, suggested that perhaps having witnessed my mother’s depression at a young age was the root cause of my own.
I don’t know if that lush hair of his had grown so thick that its roots were now strangling his brain, but this proposal was insane for a number of reasons. Firstly, depression is an illness of the brain, not a contagion or modeled behavior. Secondly, this idea is contrary to the true reality of the situation—my mother’s experience with depression is one of the reasons I made it through my own. Having traveled that path before and recognizing the landscape (That burning pile of garbage looks familiar… Hey, I recognize that river of shit!) my mother understood what I was facing. Her struggles endowed her with the knowledge, compassion, and wisdom to help me in a way someone who hasn’t personally experienced mental illness never could. While I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone, I am so grateful that I grew up with a mom who had that understanding. When you’re embarking on an arduous journey, you don’t want a guide who says, “Well, I haven’t climbed this particular mountain before, and admittedly it does look difficult, but have at it—-you’ll probably live!” No, you want a guide who can say with confidence, “I know you’re going through hell, but you can survive this—I’m living proof.” She never—not once—placed her troubles on my small shoulders, but dealing with her depression openly, not treating it as though it were something to hide, allowed me to approach my own depression without shame or fear of judgement. I never had to wonder, Do other people feel like this? Am I some sort of freak? From the start I knew, yes, other people do feel like this and, yes, I come from a long line of freaks.
Sure, not every house has a designated crying chair, but maybe they should. There’s real value in knowing you have a safe place to express difficult emotions, and that having those emotions isn’t wrong. Upon explaining to my mother that each night, as the sun descended, I found myself filled with an ineffable dread, she told me that she and her college friend already had a name for this—Quaking Evening Terror (a term still embedded in our lexicon to this day). It may seem like a small thing, but being able to name something gives you a sense of power over it. It becomes a knowable entity—a shared experience—rather than an unspeakable, indescribable horror. And growing up in my household, mental health days were an accepted part of school and work life, no different than sick days. I never once had to plead or justify my need for them—my mom already understood.
So yes, my mother’s depression did have an impact on me. It was a map, drawn by someone who had charted this difficult terrain before me so that I didn’t have to stumble blindly through. It was an understanding that begged no difficult explanations—it was simply there at my disposal when I needed advice or a compassionate ear. It was never having to feel shame, never having to wonder what was wrong with me. And it was having an extraordinary role model to aspire to, one who had taken her pain and forged it into the incredible strength and wisdom it took to guide me to safety so that I might one day do the same.
It just goes to show, rugged good looks don’t make up for being a tremendous dolt and you shouldn’t choose doctors based on their resemblance to attractive celebrities. Lesson learned.