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