Friday, April 8, 2016

My Best Effort: Existential Depression, My Kid, and Me

I had a really good talk with Katie's therapist this afternoon. Our nine-year-old, Katie, has been struggling at school with her peers. She has temper tantrums when her peers don't act respectfully toward her, and lately even when they don't act respectfully toward others around her. She vacillates between feeling intolerance and disgust for her "immature" classmates and feeling like no one likes her or cares about her and that she's worthless and alone. Things are getting worse instead of better. Today, my husband Will had to go pick her up from school because she was biting herself and talking about how she wants to run away. She told the school social worker that she didn't "want to be part of this world."

Shit. My poor baby.

Shit. That was me when I was a kid. But I'd always attributed my depression and anxiety to my shitty childhood in general and to specific traumatic events such as being sexually abused as a preschooler and being sent to Weight Watchers in third grade. I thought my depression was a product of my upbringing, not my genes.

But it makes sense. My mother had episodes of depression so severe that she received shock therapy a couple of times before I was even born. Her mother was agoraphobic for decades, and she abused my siblings when they were under her care while Mom worked after she divorced their dad. My family tree is fertilized by a cocktail of booze, pot, and sertraline, with a side garnish of God and binge eating junk food. Even if I'm not fucked up because of my fucked up childhood, but because of my genetic quirks, it's those genetic quirks that probably led to my mom's and my grandmother's less than stellar parenting decisions, and, now that I'm a mom, I can join that club, too.

Nature or Nurture? Both.

Despite my husband's and my best efforts to raise Katie to be confident and happy and kind, to protect her from abuse and to teach her to love her body and herself, our kid is hurting.

Shit. I thought all I had to do was be a "great mom" and we'd all live happily ever after. Turns out, I'm not a "great mom," just a mom putting forth my best effort.

Maybe my grandmother put forth her best effort. Maybe my mom did, too. Maybe I should quit blaming bad parents for producing fucked up kids and accept that no one understands completely why life is full of suffering and the best thing we can do is love each other and hang on.

More and more, we suspect that Katie has inherited my depression and anxiety. Not my proudest parenting moment. I'm proud that she inherited my funny face and my smile. I'm proud that she inherited my philosophical nature and my goofy sense of humor. I am not at all proud that I probably gave her the genetic propensity toward depression and anxiety.

Parenting is so hard. And, simultaneously, the most important work I've ever done. Maybe my job is to prepare Katie for this ambiguous life.

Anyhoo, her therapist and I suspect that Katie is gifted, and that she's experiencing what's called "existential depression." Here's a good overview of what that means:

"Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. Traditions are questioned or challenged. For example, why do we put such tight sex-role or age-role restrictions on people? Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing and then do another? Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others? How much difference in the world can one person’s life make?

"When gifted children try to share these concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. They discover that others, particularly of their age, clearly do not share these concerns, but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others’ expectations. Often by even first grade, these youngsters, particularly the more highly gifted ones, feel isolated from their peers and perhaps from their families as they find that others are not prepared to discuss such weighty concerns...

"...The reaction of gifted youngsters (again with intensity) to these frustrations is often one of anger. But they quickly discover that their anger is futile, for it is really directed at 'fate' or at other matters which they are not able to control. Anger that is powerless evolves quickly into depression."

Read the full article here.