“…[D]epression is usually best understood not as a mental illness, but rather as a normal response to abnormal life experiences (traumas), most of which go unrecognized because of their concealment by shame, social nicety, and taboo.” – Vincent J. Felitti, M.D.
What if your depression were normal?
I can hear your mind skidding to a halt: “Whoa! Seriously? You mean I’m not this weird social pariah of a mentally ill person? You mean my doctor is wrong? And my old boss—the one who fired me? Society at large? And everyone else in my life?”
Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. You are normal. Your friends who have depression are normal. And so am I.
The truth about depression is this: According to Dr. Charles Whitfield’s analysis of nearly 300 studies of the effects of childhood trauma on adults, 60% to 70% of cases of “clinical” depression can be directly attributed to trauma experienced in childhood.[i] Dr. Bruce Perry states, “[A] range of emotional problems is common in [maltreated] children, including depressive and anxiety symptoms.”[ii] The types of traumas include the following “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs):
1) “Lived with problem drinker, alcoholic, or street-drug user;
2) Were sexually abused (overt abuse only);
3) Lived with mentally ill person;
4) Saw mother treated violently;
5) Were emotionally abused;
6) Were physically abused;
7) A household member went to prison.”[iii]
Individuals who experienced four or more of these ACEs while growing up are 4.6 times more likely to have experienced depression for at least two weeks out of the past year than people with fewer than four ACEs.[iv] How many of the ACEs above apply to you? In my own case, if one substitutes the word “others” for “mother” in ACE #4, then six out of the seven types of trauma applied to me as a child, a couple of them consistently over a 14-year period.
What does this mean for you? It means, first of all, that you are normal. It would be strange if you didn’t have depression after having experienced multiple types of trauma as a child.
Second, it means that your depression may be due more to external events that occurred during the early years of your life and less to genetic factors. In addition to deliberate or inadvertent abuse, external traumatic events can include things like car accidents or severe illness, loss of a parent or other close family member due to death, and other events not directly attributable to abuse but which have an adverse impact anyway.
Third, it means that your depression is not your fault. You have depression due to factors that were outside your control as a child, not due to a weakness in your adult self.
As a veteran of 12-Step recovery, I have sat through hundreds of 12-Step meetings over the years, in a variety of fellowships. Everyone in those rooms, to a person, had experienced multiple “adverse childhood experiences” of varying degrees of severity, from incest to rageaholic fathers, from being locked in closets to abandonment, from being forced to take care of an alcoholic parent to being told they were worthless, an idiot, not good enough. Not surprisingly, there is a high rate of depression among people in 12-Step programs.
Why is it important to understand that, more likely than not, your depression is due to trauma you experienced in childhood? Because, by acknowledging the causes of your depression, you stop feeling like an alien weirdo who doesn’t belong on the planet and start taking back your power. You do this by refusing to internalize your depression and make it “about you,” thus lessening the stigma of depression for yourself and other depression sufferers. You further take back your power by doing everything you can to heal the trauma underlying your depression. Instead of passively sitting back and accepting that you will have depression for the rest of your life, you can get back to the business of living.
Just because your depression is not your fault does not mean you get to wallow in it and blame others—your parents or whomever. Well, you could wallow and blame—but then you’d continue to remain a victim to the trauma you suffered as a child. Do you really want that? When you take complete responsibility for healing your depression, you get to design an authentic life filled with purpose, connection, and everyday happiness.
That’s good news!
(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.
[i] Charles L. Whitfield, M.D., The Truth About Depression: Choices for Healing (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 2003) p. 14.
[ii] Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., “Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: The Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood” (2001) p. 7.
[iii] Whitfield, p. 4.
[iv] Whitfield, p. 6.