When life is a dark, sad place to be, something’s very wrong
was in first grade when I first felt like I didn’t want to live. It wasn’t even a new feeling exactly. It was more like an intensification of a feeling I’d always had. I was very, very sad and I didn’t want to be alive anymore. But I didn’t say anything to anyone about it.”
Even small children can become enveloped in a cloud of gloom. Sometimes, their sadness has a reason. They may be living in a hurtful environment or they may have experienced loss. When children aren’t guided to speak about their emotions, the feelings of pain tend to build in the psyche and in the body, creating an inexplicable heaviness, a darkness of the soul.
Sometimes, this same feeling occurs for no reason. Nothing bad is happening in the youngster’s life beyond the normal frustrations of childhood. Parents frown occasionally. The answer is “no,” quite often. There are disappointments in everybody’s life, at every age and stage. Deep depression is not the normal response to these sorts of experiences and yet, some children feel it. They have inexplicable sadness.
“This feeling accompanied me throughout grade school and high school. I just thought that everyone feels this way. I didn’t know anything different. Sometimes I tried to talk about it to my mother but I could never really explain it properly.
When I was a teenager, I’d say something like, ‘I hate school and I have no friends.’ Mom wouldn’t get it. She’d say, ‘What do you mean? You are such a great student and your friends call you all the time!’ ”
Like adults, young people look for reasons for their unhappy feelings. There’s always an ample supply. Some teachers are mean. Parents are too strict. Hair is frizzy and uncooperative. Friends are fickle. Math is hard. Later on in life, the neighborhood can be wrong, a good friend moves away, parenting is exhausting, a spouse is inattentive. There’s always a slew of things to be unhappy about and no one needs to look very far to find them. And, should anything improve, it doesn’t really help; when one issue resolves, another pops up to explain the void.
“By the time I was a young adult, I was a professional ruminator: I dwelled on my misery constantly. My head would be filled with thoughts — about what people thought about me, about the emptiness of my life and my future. My sleep was disturbed so I was never really rested or refreshed.
“Last year, after the birth of my second child, I finally crashed. The doctor said I had postpartum depression and sent me to a psychiatrist where, after a few sessions, I finally learned that I had been suffering from depression all my life. This feeling that I always had — it turns out that it isn’t normal. The doctor told me that I can actually feel good with the right treatment. What a revelation! I never knew there was a way out of it.”
Endogenous depression is caused by internal factors (the state of the body or mind) as opposed to external factors (stressful events). However, once a person starts to act on biologically induced low mood in terms of thinking, feeling, and acting, she will create a neurological “expertise” in depressive thinking, feeling, and acting. Fortunately, the same process works when it comes to curing depression: Just as the brain can learn to master depression, it can learn to master happiness.
Parents can help their children avoid needless years in isolated misery. Talking about their feelings and the feelings of family members, builds a “feeling vocabulary” that can help children articulate their own pain. “I have no friends,” becomes “I feel empty.” Attentive parents can then more easily identify and respond to chronic, intense feelings of unhappiness.
A healthy child is interested in life, excited about her activities, smiley, able to concentrate and apply herself in school and at home. It’s important for parents to intervene when they see anything amiss rather than discount it as “a phase” or “normal for teenagers.” Intervention can include arranging for professional help, bringing home mental-health literature suitable for young people, and becoming more skilled at emotional coaching. A child depends on her parent’s help. When it is given, her journey of inexplicable sadness can be halted and she can begin her journey toward joy. The sooner, the better.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 650)