Depression has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. But only in the last 4 of my 52 years did I even know it as depression and only in the last few months have I been able to acknowledge and face it. In the attempt to get better I have had to come to terms with a family legacy of affliction while confronting a dilemma involving loyalty, honor, and healing.
Two years ago I turned 50. My two older sons went away to college last fall. It seems like a “crossroads” time. I am working at home and I have a lot of time to think both on paper and in my head. This may not be such a good thing.
My newfound desire to write for a living and my ways of dealing with depression have worked together to encourage a higher level of self-examination than I have ever experienced. One of the most threatening questions anyone could ask in recent years is also the most banal and common: How are you? Torn between honesty and politeness, my stock reaction was first a shudder and next an innocuous reply. As I get older I am better able to handle this question with honesty.
My working life has had its ups and downs. The happiest years of my professional life were as a teacher, a job I would have continued to do had the onset of California’s infamous Proposition 13 not changed the local educational landscape dramatically some twenty-five years ago. A succession of positions in the business world brought a mixture of success and frustration.
After a layoff last year, I decided, with the support of my loving wife, to pursue a career as a writer. I see writing as a continuation of my life as a teacher, as they are similar occupations, and because it is a worthy outlet for my native abilities.
In some ways this new phase of my life is a living hell.
I berate myself for not being able to bring in enough money to support my large family. Increased feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and mistrust of my abilities have cropped up over the last few months.
The depression I experience changes on a daily basis. One day I feel awful that I cannot look my loving and supportive wife in the eyes and say that I am a full partner with her in making our life work. Another day I will feel more hopeful that I will come out of this phase of my life whole.
Writing is an affirmation of my talent. It allows me to build esteem related to that skill and the confidence that comes with it. The very fact that I can do it means that I am doing something that is part of me, as opposed to getting into a succession of jobs for which I have had no passion. The only other thing that I do where there is a similar feeling is when I am coaching basketball. In these circumstances, I feel a powerful connection to my inner self and a sense of suspension of the outside world in that there is no clock and virtually nothing that can distract me. Somehow this process has brought both relief and willingness to speak openly of my depression. I am told that a male speaking out about depression is unusual. To me, this proves there is a higher power.
Depression has a history in my house. My father’s father, I am told, was manic-depressive, back in the days when those words rarely appeared together or separately. He was a stonecutter by trade, which he learned in his native Italy and then continued to do when he moved to this country in 1915. My mother’s family owned and operated a granite quarry.
My cousin, the family historian, informs that from 1929 until the local shipyards came alive in 1940, “Pop” was unable to work. To his torpor was added the shame and humiliation of watching his wife, my grandmother, and her mother support the family by cooking and taking in work as seamstresses. My father, born in 1917, helped out as much as he could through the Depression, big D and little d.
The specter of this long-suffering man trying to maintain any sense of self-worth throughout that time is truly heartbreaking. But there is more to his story.
He was actually born in the U.S., in the marble region of Vermont, where his father, also a stonecutter, was working at the time to send money home to Italy. My grandfather was sent home with his mother before he was a year old. There he stayed until he attained the age of 16, and stood by in shame and suffering as his mother carried on intimate relationships with many of the townsmen in his formative years. I am not passing judgment here, only telling the story as it was told to me.
At 16 he joined his father in Vermont. One day, he broke down and told his father of his experiences at home in Italy. Two days later his father dove into a frigid Vermont river and killed himself.
My grandfather carried the burden of shame he felt about his mother and the guilt he felt about his father’s suicide into his marriage and own fatherhood. He begat two daughters and a son, who lived to be 71, a testament to the human spirit.
My father was abused all through his youth, especially by his fanatically Catholic mother, until he was big enough to fend her off. From an early age he was fat, perhaps seeking the comfort in food that he could not find elsewhere. It is no coincidence that, as a certified public accountant, he chose to specialize in the restaurant business.
Well-meaning and often charming, my father escaped his heritage as much he could by marrying a non-Italian and non-Catholic and anglicizing his name from Vittorio Giuseppe Corsini to Victor John Corsini. But the chain of affliction was unbroken. My father abused my sister both physically and sexually. My sister never forgave my father for his cruelty nor my mother for her inability to stop him. I was both physically and verbally abused whenever my father got angry and my mother was verbally abused often and in my presence. My father was an extremely harsh critic with a volcanic temper from whom I almost never heard an encouraging word. I was a very good student and athlete but nothing I could do was good enough to please him. As bad as I got, I still feel guilty because my sister got worse.
When he went on a rampage, my mother took refuge in books and quoted Aristotle. When he exploded, she recited lyrics of popular music to get back at him. I can still remember her running to the bedroom in tears, singing “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair”. My father retaliated by selling the hi-fi.
My mother was an inveterate collector of what my father thought was junk. Periodically he would sweep it all into a shopping bag and deposit it into the garbage can. I am told that the drunks of the family came from her side and that their parties were full of character and fine commentary. My dad’s folks were reserved; my mom’s were earthy, bawdy, and violently celebratory. Nice combo.
My mother lost her mother when she was 16, probably of drink. My mother rarely spoke of her, keeping the shame and loss to herself. She hated the woman her father then married, a feeling we all shared.
My parents were good people. My father loved his music, liked entertaining my friends, and was extremely well read and intelligent. My mother was as kind a person as I have ever met and many of my friends would agree wholeheartedly. She gave me succor when I was sick and gave the neighborhood kids candy all the time. But being a parent was not a natural skill for either of them.
As it was with my parents, my life has had its torments. I got married way too young the first time. I hurt a perfectly wonderful individual who didn’t understand she bought damaged goods. For that, I feel tremendous sorrow, as I do for my wife today, who has had to live with my tendencies. There are whole decades of my life, my 20’s and my 40’s, for which I felt I was in a blur of denial, that I was depressed and that I knew something was wrong, but I could not identify it.
Of all the ironies of my struggle with the legacy of depression, the one that is most vivid is the knowing that I have had the privileges and advantages that my forbears did not have in dealing with their personal demons. In addition to my college education, I have had other gifts – the awareness I have developed about depression, the education that comes with regular therapy, and the advancements in medical treatment – none of which were either available to or approved for them.
The dilemma is that I feel disloyal to them for speaking about their suffering, but feel compelled to address the truth because it is a place where healing and breaking the chain of pain and suffering begin. It is as if I am the family geologist, working on a difficult excavation, finding things that both encourage and repel me, but recognizing all the while that I am part of a family rich in experience and worthy of study. After all, I really am the son of a son of a stonecutter.
It is a gift to be able to look upon the lives of my ancestors with respect and to honor them for how hard they tried to better themselves in a time when an Italian surname was not a benefit, and against other odds. I have been able to identify and separate the layers of life that are my legacy and view them with an appreciation for the richness of human experience, rather than simply as a legacy of pain and suffering. I am now free to pass on to my children similar ways of looking at life.
So I am lucky to be able to say that the relief I feel does not come at the expense of those who have come before me. On the contrary, it is tenderness I now feel for them. Like me they are damaged, but they are more than that. They are people with depth who actually elevated my existence in ways that I did not understand.
My life today reminds me of a favorite piece of poetry, from Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There’s a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
Contact: Skip Corsini