Hope and Faith in Times of Sadness

She had every reason to be happy. So why wasn’t she?

By Elizabeth Sherrill, Hingham, Massachusetts

As appeared in

My father’s work as a private detective sometimes took him overseas. The case he was working on in January 1929 meant a lengthy stay in Paris, a long-awaited chance to take Mother with him. Her parents agreed to come north from Florida to care for me–an ideal arrangement for all concerned.

“Except,” Dr. Kazan pointed out, “for the ten-month-old that was you.”

My parents simply disappeared one day and never, as far as I knew, were coming back. “Four months later, when they returned, they would have been strangers. Emotionally, you lost your parents as surely as if they had died in a car crash.” Worse, for me, he believed, since the “loss” went unrecognized.

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Would this small episode really be enough, I wondered, to account for lifelong feelings of insufficiency?

I think of people I know who suffered actual trauma early in life–whose parents really did die, or who were abused, neglected, abandoned–yet emerged as self-confident adults fully in charge of their lives. Could parents’ absence for a few months really cast such a long shadow?

Dr. Kazan, at any rate, believed it could. “Babies are self-centered little creatures. To a baby, if the mother goes away, it’s his fault. The message to the psyche is, ‘I’m no good.’”

I’m no good. How many of us–for reasons as apparently slight as mine–tell ourselves this lie in childhood! And having told it, we latch on to every negative that comes along as proof.

In Paris, my mother had become pregnant again. Desperately seasick all the return trip, she could barely stand by the time the ship docked in New York.

Her parents had brought me to the pier to meet the ship. While she was gone I’d not only started to walk, but as Mother recalled, was running up and down the dock, grandparents in pursuit.

“I looked over the railing and saw you,” she told me years later, “and I just groaned at the idea of running after you.” I understood that groan; at the time of this conversation I was chasing my own toddler. And I understood a little more about the melancholy that envelops some of us in childhood.

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We’re the ones who are quick to interpret every parental groan, with its cause in an adult world we know nothing about, as dissatisfaction with us. My brother, for instance, was born in November 1929, the month right after the stock market crashed.

To my not-yet-two-year-old mind, my parents’ distress–actually over financial hardship–was my fault, the new baby a better replacement.

Children handle a low self-image in different ways. Mine was to withdraw behind an imaginary door, retreating into books and solitude. Later, my choice of writing as a profession enabled me at least part of the day to close a literal door on the world.

Our various coping mechanisms keep us going, often for many years, till too many ingredients of depression–chemistry, personal history, outside pressures–occur together. For me the crisis in 1955 was part hormonal, part grief over my father’s recent death, part old feelings of worthlessness.

And a crisis, when it shows us our need for help, can be good news.

It had sent me to Dr. Kazan. By the time my daughter was born, in February 1956, he had found medication that allowed me to venture beyond the house. It was a shaky equilibrium at first, and the place of greatest threat was the supermarket. Simply stepping inside, I’d feel the panic rise.

So many choices! In the indecision which marks depression, I would pause and consider, walk on and return, grab something, put it back, select something else. 

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Your Comments (7)

I have enjoyed your stories in the annual Guideposts books for years. My daughter gives me one each Christmas. I was never treated for depression until my dad passed in 1996, but have been on medication since that time. Your story made so much sense to me, things I've thought, could not share with others, things that seemed like such small concerns would snowball into such large fears to me. My depression doesn't keep me from doing daily activities but sure keeps me from enjoying them. I pray that reading your story about your depression will help me see a light at the end of the tunnel. i force myself to continue, but I make it really hard for my husband because I can't discuss it with him Maybe I will be able to now. Thank you again for sharing your story.

Dear Elizabeth, My mother sent me a copy of your story, which she was extremely excited for me to read. She told me she'd found the answer and reason for the depression I've suffered with all my life. She was right! While it won't cure the depression, it certainly helps to finally understand the real root cause, in a manner that makes so much sense. My father committed suicide a few months before I turned two and it makes so much sense that a child at that age would think that it was because of them. I've always been the over achiever when I wasn't in a deep depression, the same as you suffered at times. Thank you, so very much, for sharing your story!

Dear Elizabeth...I had a divine appointment with
your story tonight. I went to my weekly counsellor
appt Tues morn. Very depressed after sorting
through Mom & Dads picture albums. I've known
for years there are no baby pics of me. Born in
1950, second daughter, mommy had a nervous
breakdown! She shared with me from the time I
was small that Daddy had cheated on her and neglected
her! He took her to doctors and they gave her shock
Treatments and how horrible they were! My Dad had
Friends who were willing to take me for a while . Mommy
Made my Dad take her to ck on me after 2wks because she
thought they had put me in the oven for supper!
I was a small baby. I am a depressed woman who,
Right now is wondering what leftover stuff I have
actually carried around from going through this period
in my life. I see pics of her and daddy holding my sister
Who was born in 1948 and my bro who was born in 1952.
Happy pics! I was born on 1950. It's like they disappeared .
And me too, until I was 3. What input can you share ? Thanks

Thank you.

Thank you for sharing your story. About a year ago, at age 55, it was determined that I suffer from low self esteem. I assume it was brought on by being adopted and from being terribly shy as a child. I have always felt that I had to do 110% to be almost good enough. I have been working every day to quiet the destructive voice in my head and with God's help (and others) I am beginning to see that I too am a valuable person in God's Kingdom. I keep this verse with me always to remind that God loves me. 1 Corinthians 15:10 "By the grace of God I am what I am..." Thanks again for remind me, I'm not alone.

Thank you - I really needed to see this today.
When I was about 2, my mother had a miscarriage and then experienced severe depression, compounded by migraine. From what I know, she had already found me to be overactive and demanding, and certainly her health did not help matters. This story helps me see how this may have factored in to other concerns in my life.
We were never close, not at all, and I feel that gap again, even more, as my dad is now in final stages of dementia. An unexpected twist is that she is now moving in next door to me - I am anxious about how this will go.
My sister asked me how I felt about her becoming my new neighbor, and I said Maybe it will give her a chance to appreciate me.
Prayers, please, for my mother and I to find connection and forgiveness.

You are precious. Just be your self and show her love and kindness. Sounds simple, but love is a winner no matter what.