Leora Skolkin-Smith: Breaking the bonds of depression

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Leora SkolkinI grew up seeing my mother battle depression and it changed my life. From the time I was four, my mother lay inside her bedroom in a bottomless sadness. I remember seeing her through the door crack, numbed by hunger, and remorse, childlike. Her eyes receded beneath two mounds of puffed eyelids that buried their hazel luster, her skin looked bleached, bloated. She had put herself on a rigorous grapefruit and lemon juice fast for an entire week, as if for atonement, and I remember staying out of her way, loving her, yet fearing her, and feeling, at those times, that I was being pulled towards a magnetic dragon. The sound of her favorite show, Perry Mason, was blaring from her favorite SONY TV which she perched on her belly.

I asked my father in the hallway, “what’s wrong with Mom?” and he gave me a remote, strangely haunted look. “Your mother’s depressed,” he said. There. It had a name. But still, my mother would never really talk about it. When I asked her about it, she said depression was contaminating her system and that it was something that could be expunged, flushed out of her system like a virus, or bacteria. She emerged after a day in bed, talking about her incarnation, she had been cleansed and could start over. “You still love me, don’t you?” she always asked.

I did love her, but I couldn’t wait to reach an age where I could leave her and the uncomfortable feelings I had for her. I loved her, this was clear to me, but I also wanted to get as far away from her as I could. To cut the cord, I became a writer, a person she wouldn’t ever be, writing in a language she knew as a partial enemy: English, the language that she felt exposed her as an inept and inadequate foreigner without the correct words.

The funny thing was, by tearing away from my mother, she became my subject– the person and thing I most wanted to write about. And her depressions became the subject I most wanted to write about. Maybe I just needed to understand her and depression and it was far easier to do it on a page then in person. I wanted to write about how her depression had impacted me, how I didn’t comprehend or empathize with its extremes, how different I was from her. I wanted to write about those times when I was a child, as if by writing about my mother, I could drive her out of my thoughts and system. My aim was to break the symbiotic bond that had felt so problematic. What happened, though, once I started writing, about her was something very different.

As I wrote, I created a story around my mother, much the way I did with characters in fiction. I wrote about how when she lay in bed dieting I had felt so lost making my own dinner, but writing from her point of view, I imagined what that must have felt like for her. I wrote about her mood swings, which seemed to fall like the other short-lasting storms that rained down into the vast maple-scented country air, blending into sounds of rushing waterfalls and winds inside the forests. She was not a dangerous person to me, she didn’t beat me relentlessly, or set fire to our living room, but her punishments were confusing and came out of nowhere. Short-lived and impulsive, she ended up loving me even more for bearing them. The reasons for her outbursts were only known, perhaps, to herself.

Once she told me to lie still and alone on the floor of the hall closet because she decided I was too “rough”. This was just something she decided because I had thrown a basketball into the woods, which, ripped and deflated, would no longer bounce for me on our gravel driveway. And she didn’t want me to be her she explained, not too “rough” and explosive. I needed a sort of time-out to ponder my “roughness” in the closet with the hanging coats and umbrellas. But she also weaved a path of scents through the house, baking her angel cake for me from scratch, whipping out a frosting made of the richest chocolate fudge, melted over the stove from square of imported Swiss chocolates. I didn’t see her as a dangerous person but as an encompassing, loving mother who had unexplainable moods shifts and enormous depth.

I wrote about how, at times, she felt she could be reduced, humiliated, possibly even annihilated by others. Guests who arrived for ordinary cocktail parties in my home were amazed at how changeable she would become if they corrected her pronunciation, and asked her how well she knew English. She would redden and bruise, she would go into the kitchen. She cried and over-ate. And her tears were angry tears. “Are you making fun of me, too?” She asked me, both in accusation and defense.

As I wrote, I tried to think back to her own history, to understand her more. My mother was born in the ancient city of Jerusalem in a British Palestine. She had joined the Jewish underground by fourteen. In the photos of I have of my mother in our Westchester years ago, she looked as if her body simply did not translate here in America, or into the Westchester fashions: the A-line shifts, the boxy suits and jackets, and the Capri pants all conspired to make her look often like a misfit in a landscape of white colonial houses and big American station wagons.

Her face, in the early photos, seemed to take on the tension lines of a woman who was terrified of ridicule and pity. But, like her personality, there two contradictory sets of photo albums in our house, radically different from one another. In the album of my mother in her own homeland, Palestine/Israel, I viewed my mother as a younger woman before she married my American father, leaning against the Jerusalem limestone arches and pillars, full and smiling and dangerous it was true — but everything was dangerous in my mother’s native country, and she, wearing her elegant cardigans and European-style plain cotton dress with necklines of lace, had looked like the most civilized, sophisticated object in the picture. It was how I saw and felt her, too. A fighter, not anyone’s victim, proud and combative and yet quite beautiful, womanly against rugged landscapes, restless with a sense of impermanence about her life. I understood her unpredictable outbursts. She was to me, very much a reflection of the costs the war in her own country accrued; she was like its volatile boundary-less geography and lands which were sometimes violent, undefined, contrasting against elegant, white-pink limestone of beautiful, balconied Jerusalem houses like the one she had grown up.

Writing about my mother and the confusing feelings she seeded inside me was a way to integrate this all-powerful, larger than life person who was my genesis but who could, alternately, fracture my world as forcefully as she could nurture and support it. And writing about her was my own alchemy. I could imagine her the way I had yearned for her to be, and I could also show her as the way she really was. She existed both as a figure in my imagination and as the sometimes too-real mother whose short temper and impulses could become dangerous to me. As I kept writing, something odd and miraculous began to happen. I began to understand her, to know what it was to have been her. And the more I wrote about my mother, the closer I felt to her.

The mother Helen in my second novel, Hystera is much like my own mother. Helen is dangerous and seductive, but a mother whom her daughter, Lilly, quietly begins to emulate despite of, (and maybe because of), the wounds and conflicts Helen create inside her. Lilly was much like myself. Art here is imitating life. In the book, Lilly, feeling her own internal turbulence and instability, desperately hides herself away in a college library. Needing to write, she feels the driven but sustaining energy that had once anchored Helen, bringing Helen also to a place of creating and transforming the world around her. And from this place, my character saw both the exit from her mother and the entrance into understanding her.

My mother was, for all these reasons and more, a starting point for my own becoming a writer and for my understanding that creating characters was to try to capture the confusing, contradictory parts of them, to understand the depth of their human fragility.

It followed that, in trying to write about mental illness directly, I was again writing about my mother. Heavily stigmatized as a “mental illness,” depression brings shame, and isolation, and limits our understanding of it as a place within that asks, as a child might have once, encountering a storm within her, what are the really intangible questions about being human and fragile? Without romanticizing depression as they did in the centuries before us, I thought of it in a broader realm and context, and, instead of repudiating the troubled bond I had with my mother, and seeing her suffering as something apart from me, as “ill”, she became the guide towards my own wholeness.

Perhaps, too, writing, was a way she became less dangerous to me, and permitted me a closeness and understanding which I needed as much as her attention and love. If I had a less confusing and (therefore less stimulating) mother, I have often wondered if I would be a writer at all.


HysteraLeora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Hystera. You can learn more about it at our website. This article was originally publishing in Psychology Today.

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