Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bearing the Sorrows of our Parents

So is it true? Because if so, then there is every reason for my taking 10 mg of Lexapro every morning and 30 mg of Mirtazapine in the evening.

For those not in the know, the two drugs above are antidepressants. And you may, as many people do, think they make the world a brighter place. But to a depressive, they actually do much more.

There is a cognitive aspect to depression that is every bit as real and destructive as the affective aspect. And so, the depressive will say, “why should I get out of bed and make breakfast, when after all, nothing I do will make any difference in the world? Is anyone reading this blog? Aren’t we all going to die in the end? So why bother?”

In fact, I read somewhere that this particularly depressive way of thinking is just a shade more realistic that non-depressed thinking. In fact, very few lives will make any significant difference in the world. True, some of us may be a Gandhi or a Jonas Salk; some of us may be parents or ancestors of such folk. But the vast majority of us simply go along until we die, and then that’s that.

Depressing, right?

I’m thinking this way because of Rachel Yehuda, who discovered that parents who had survived trauma had a molecule affixed to one gene that changed the expression of that gene. OK—that made sense. But what was really interesting is that the same molecule was also present in their children, even though those children had never gone through the stress.

It was something we vaguely knew—there was talk for years about how the Holocaust children were somehow different than regular kids, even if they were growing up in the US, even if their parents never talked much about the Holocaust. But everybody noticed it: the Holocaust survivors’ children were moodier, and more prone to anxiety. Now, for the first time, we may have an explanation for it.

Yehuda studied the children of Holocaust survivors, as well as those children who were in utero of September 11 survivors. OK—neither one applies to me, but I wonder if I am not, in a sense, also the child of a parent who had survived an horrific event. Consider the picture below:

There was, according to many sources, no way of keeping the dust out. Yes, in the 1930’s, people in North Dakota were putting wet towels against window frames, but somehow, inevitably, the dust got in. Nor was it just in your house—it was in your lungs, it was in your food, it was everywhere. How could it not have been, when you consider the photo below:

My father was born in 1909: he was just 20 when the stock market crashed. And though he never said it, his parents must have been hit hard by the depression. And so, he left Carleton University and went out to North Dakota, where his parents had land.

The family communicated feelings through stories, by which I mean that my father never said he was desolate, young, alone and terrified. What he told me was that there wasn’t any wood for fuel, so he hit on the novel idea of cutting down telephone poles. Or that he was stuck with feeding new-born lambs: his strategy was to section off the two rooms of the house, feed one lamb, throw it over the partition, and stafrt in one the next. Oh, and there was the time the hailstorm came, and completely destroyed the wheat crop. He stood in silence with his mother and father, and watched as an entire year’s income went down the drain. The field was covered with ice; his father went out, gathered some up, and made ice cream.

The dust bowl provoked the greatest migration in the history of the United States: people got in their cars and headed—for the most part—west, to California. My father returned east, to Minnesota, but there was a part of him that never left North Dakota. He never quite believed his later good fortune: that he had married the love of his life, that he had had the job of his dreams.

He told me once that he had spent a large part of his childhood seeing his father off on the train: the family business required frequent travelling to North Dakota. And the sound of a train whistle, my father told me, filled him with sorrow, and brought tears to his eyes. He was, in short, a marked man ever after.

My question: am I?