Memoir

The Night My Daughter Discovered Our Family’s Legacy of Depression

I always knew mental illness was hard-coded into our family’s DNA. But it really hit home the day my perfect eleven-year-old daughter told me she wanted to kill herself.

The Night My Daughter Discovered Our Family’s Legacy of Depression

“Do you have a plan on how you are going to kill yourself?” I calmly ask my beautiful, seemingly healthy, blond-haired, blue-eyed, freckle-nosed eleven-year-old daughter.

“Yes. I’m going to take one of those sharp knives from the kitchen and go up to my bedroom and cut off my hand and start bleeding until I die,” Leah says.

I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry. Her answer is equal parts absurd and terrifying. In what seems like an eternity but in actuality is only a few seconds, I fight back my own hysteria and respond.

“That’s not going to happen,” I say as I struggle to pull her long-limbed, sobbing body from my husband’s lap to my own. “You’re not going to die. Knobbe girls are strong. You’re going to be okay. Go get in my bed. You can sleep with me tonight, and you’ll feel all better in the morning. I promise.”

It’s not really a promise. It’s more like a prayer. I repeat it to myself as I lay my daughter down in my bed. She quiets a little. I’ve given her a double dose of her melatonin, hoping it will knock her out. I tell her I’ll be right back, as I walk out of my room and head for the phone. I grab the handset and close myself into the completely darkened family room. I clumsily dial the pediatrician’s exchange, a number I know by heart. A number I’ve called dozens of times in the last decade. Croup. High fever. Kidney stones. They all seemed like emergencies at the time.

While I wait for a phone call back, I wonder. How did this happen? But really I know. It’s me. I’m the one that caused this. I’m the reason behind Leah’s pain. I’m the defect in her genetic code. The starving serotonin pump that’s been torturing me for the last twenty years has finally found its most exquisite form of agony. No longer am I the sole victim. My beautiful, perfect child is now the new target of my broken brain. A brain so hungry that it coded itself into the DNA of yet another prey.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD for short) is a psychological disorder characterized by excessive worry. It can be crippling, it can lead to depression, and it runs in families. To treat it, many patients take medication to up the serotonin level in their brains. Cognitive behavioral counseling is also key. It involves a conscious effort to retrain your brain’s unconscious actions. I had my first go at that around thirteen years old. It didn’t start sticking until I was 33 and I decided I couldn’t live with a constant stomachache, always on the verge of tears.

Tonight wasn’t the first time I’ve witnessed the disease blindside Leah. When she was three, she refused to go into her gymnastics class alone. When she was nine, she worried constantly about stomachaches, crying about them every day until six months later, when she passed a kidney stone. I explained away all those moments of anxiety, but I was forced to take my blinders off when she had a full-on panic attack in the hallway of her grade school. I had to come pick her up. We went from school straight to the doctor. Within a half hour, I was walking out the door with Leah and a prescription for Prozac. I cried that night in the dark in my husband’s arms.

“It’s my fault,” I hiccoughed out.

“Don’t say that again,” he told me. “Don’t think it again. This is no one’s fault, especially not yours.”

But that can’t be right. Little girls with lucky lives shouldn’t be depressed. They shouldn’t have anxiety disorders. They should have crushes and make-up parties, sleepovers and sassy mouths, diaries and pet dogs. They should not want to kill themselves. That’s ridiculous. That’s outrageous. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Something is to blame. Someone is to blame.

My paternal grandfather had secrets. Secrets I’m not sure he ever told anyone. Everyone in my family knows the outline of his story. He enlisted with his brother and father in World War II. He was a sailor. His ship was sent off the coast of Japan. It was bombed. I know that the bombs were a surprise; the attack came without my grandpa knowing what was going on. He was in the engine room, or maybe he took shelter there. What I know for sure is that he got stuck there, trapped in a small space as the bombs came down. He was terrified. At least that’s what I think.

He never talked about it. I don’t even know how he got off the boat. I do know that the engine room was safe. Hundreds died that day. My grandpa didn’t. I know that when he returned home, he couldn’t stay in a room with a closed door. He always had to have an exit in his line of sight. I know that loud noises scared him. I think he had night terrors. My great aunt told me once that my grandpa, in the dead of night, woke his brothers and sisters and mother and father up and herded all of them outside, certain that the rumble of a passing train and the bright light of its engine was a bomb heading for their home. Actually, I think my great aunt said it happened a couple of times after he came back from the war.

Grandpa was different when he came back from the war. Everyone agrees on that point. Something important changed in him, according to his brothers, his sisters and his friends. No one ever says if it was a good change or a bad one. I’ve always imagined it was an ugly change — hard to watch and harder to live with. I like to imagine my grandfather was once sweet-natured and even-tempered. I think he might have even been happy-go-lucky. I hope that he was happy-go-lucky. He wasn’t when I knew him. He was impatient and angry. Grandpa didn’t trust many and saw the worst in everyone, including his son. My dad was a mystery to my grandfather and maybe, ultimately, a disappointment.

“Dad used to scream. Did you hear him say that?”

“What?” I ask my sister Hannah, a kindergarten teacher with a heart of gold and a much more severe case of anxiety disorder than me.

“Did you hear the story dad told us at dinner tonight? Oh my God, Mary. That’s really awful. It really upset me.”

I think back to our family dinner. Dad had a lot to say. Sandwiched somewhere between an explanation of why kids used to eat lead paint chips — they’re sweet like candy; he ate them all the time — and a monologue on the greatness of Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, whom he told us was a screamer. It was a weird statement. My dad had always been the not-angry-just-disappointed type. He could give a cold shoulder that put ice in your veins. Once, after finding cigarettes hidden in my closet, he didn’t talk to me for four solid days. What my father never did was scream. I guess that wasn’t always true.

“I was so worked up, that day it was all I could do. I came home, and I was so sad I couldn’t keep it in me,” he said.

“What did grandma and grandpa do?” one of us asked.

“Grandpa couldn’t stand it. He made me go in the basement.”

“Go in the basement to scream?”

“Yes. I mean I did it for a long time. Maybe like an hour.”

“What?”

“Yes, so he made me go down in the basement and just close the door so they couldn’t hear me.”

“What happened when it was over?”

“I came upstairs.”

“No, I mean what did grandma and grandpa say after that?”

“Nothing. I told you they didn’t want to hear it.” Then my dad chuckled and said something like it was sort of “that primal scream therapy” he had heard of. “I should have patented it, we’d be rich.” Then we just went on with dinner.

“How could they just do nothing?” Hannah asked me on the phone. “What kid goes down and just screams?”

“What did you expect they would do? It’s grandma and grandpa. They aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy. Plus, they had no idea.”

“If one of your kids screamed like that, you’d do something. You’d take them to the doctor, she replied. You wouldn’t let her be in pain like that. That isn’t normal.”

“I know, but the doctors today have something they can do about it. Back then they wouldn’t have known what to do with dad.”

“It’s just so sad. It makes me so sad.”

My grandparents had to know my dad’s pain wasn’t normal. Or did they?

In the best-case scenario, I imagine they were paralyzed with fear, knowing my dad needed help but dreading the possible consequences a diagnosis of mental illness would bring.

Would their only son be locked up? Would his friends avoid him? Would they be considered unfit parents? In my worst-case scenario, they didn’t care.

In the end, my dad was diagnosed with anxiety disorder in the spring of 2015. Before that, when he was 26, he was diagnosed with manic depression. Until then, he just handled it on his own, alone — no one to help navigate the tossing sea of his overactive emotions.

“Suck it up. Be a man.” That was all the support given to him, by society and his father. A father who was likely dealing with the same emotions. Instead of bonding and supporting each other through their mutual malady, my grandfather and father were at odds, constantly battling each other. I saw it every time we went to my grandparents’ house and every time they visited us. It was a constant stalemate, neither of them giving the other an inch. Combatants in the same war, never realizing they were on the same side.

I can’t sleep. It’s a constant battle. I’m always tired. Always looking for a catnap. To be honest, bedtime scares me. Even at age 37, I’m scared of the dark. Sometimes, I’ll stay awake in the glow of my Kindle screen until two in the morning. Those are the bad nights. More often I’ll go to sleep exhausted after a day of working, taking kids to soccer practice, gossiping with my friends, talking to my mother on the phone and writing. Later I’ll wake up for no good reason. No bad dream. No pressing concern. Just anxiety that has taken a stranglehold.

Insomnia started early for me. I was about eight the first time I can remember it. I’d wake in the middle of the night and toss and turn. Always, I could hear the low hum of the television coming from my mom and dad’s room. One night, when my anxiety was particularly bad, I braved knocking on the door and peeking in, only to find my dad sitting in his underwear and undershirt watching a black-and-white movie. My mom was dead asleep.

“What’s the matter?” he asked quietly in his deep voice, slouching his full six-foot-four frame even lower than it was so he could speak to me face-to-face.

“I can’t sleep.”

“Did you try lying in bed quietly and thinking good thoughts?”

“Yes.”

“Did you read a book?”

“I tried, nothing’s working.”

“Okay, well then I’m going to teach you a trick. It’s a secret, and it always works. Here’s what you do. Go to the bathroom and turn on the faucet. I want you to take three sips of water.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t take big drinks,” he said very seriously. “They can’t be too big, but not too small either. And only take three. Then go back to bed, and lay quietly. Think of your favorite place to go, and you’ll go right to sleep.”

“Okay.”

“You have to do it exactly like I told you.”

That night, I did exactly as he told me to do. I took my three sips — not too big and not too small. It worked like a charm.

I wonder if my dad knew that night, or any of the following nights when I would wander into his room awake looking for the same advice he gave me. Is this how his anxiety began? Did he make up that trick? Did his dad tell him the same thing when he woke up in the middle of the night? Decades later I still follow my dad’s advice. On my worst nights, when it seems like sleep will never come, I slip quietly out of my husband’s arms and into the bathroom. I take three sips of water, not too big and not too small. I lay back down, but instead of thinking of my favorite place, I think of how much my dad loves me. How much harder my life would have been if he didn’t understand.

As I lay in bed holding my own daughter, waiting for the doctor to call, I know my nighttime water magic won’t work this night. I’ll stay awake holding Leah the entire night, hoping my love will be enough to see her through.

When the phone rings, I jump out of bed and return to my darkened family room. This time, my husband follows me. He sits down and pulls me next to him. As I explain to the doctor what has happened, she begins to comfort me. She tells me this isn’t what it seems.

“This is just what a panic attack looks like in an eleven-year-old,” she says. “Your daughter isn’t suicidal; she just doesn’t have the words to tell you how bad she feels inside. What she wants is to kill the feelings inside her. She’s asleep now?”

“Yes.”

“Good. All she needs is a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, she’ll wake up her old self. She probably won’t even remember how bad tonight was.”

“I don’t know if I can believe that.”

“Then I’ll call you first thing, and I’ll be at my office early, in case you need to bring her in.”

As I slip back into bed and wrap my arms around my daughter, she rolls over and asks if the doctor called.

“Yes.”

“What did she say?”

“She said you aren’t suicidal. You just want to kill the bad nervous feeling inside of you.” Leah’s body quickly relaxes in my arms as she tells me, “Oh good. I didn’t want to be suicidal. But I do want to kill those feelings.”

“Don’t worry,” I say. “Just sleep. Sleep will take them away.” Leah rolls over. Brian pulls us both closer and closes his eyes. I lie awake praying, hoping that Knobbe girls were strong enough. I repeat my earlier prayer. I promise. I promise to see her through this. I promise Leah won’t fight this alone. I promise she’ll be okay.