I blogged about this letter a while back.
Dear Annie: My ex and I got married when I was 19. We stayed together for 10 years, during which I was dealing with untreated depression. That did not make life easy for either of us. Eventually, he left, leaving me to care for the kids. He gave us some financial support but was not present in their lives.
Unfortunately, I did not give my kids the attention I know now they badly needed. I was preoccupied with my worry about being alone forever. I have tried to make up for this since, but my daughters still harbor a deep resentment for me. I have told them numerous times how much I regret my behavior and offered to hear all their sadness as a consequence of my actions without trying to defend myself. But they have both cut me out.
My son, the youngest, is still in my life and has reassured me that I was not a terrible mother. He also suffers from depression, and for years he abused drugs. I blame the fact that he had no father in the home for those important first years.
Even after all these years, I am still preoccupied with my time married to my ex. Random thoughts are always about him — what could have been — and I always feel on the verge of tears.
I’m about to turn 70. Is there a way to finally put this behind me? I’ve had much therapy over the years but still revert to the pain and sadness about the childhood I was unable to give my kids and the loss of my marriage. I think that if I go into therapy again, nothing will change. But should I try again? — Regretful Mom
Dear Regretful Mom: To the question of whether to try therapy again, my answer is always yes. In your case, especially so. You’ve been dealing with clinical depression since you were a teen. That black dog, as Winston Churchill called it, can’t just be shaken off. Therapy won’t wash away all your pain and regret, but it can help make your feelings more manageable and life more enjoyable.
Additionally, in light of your son’s drug abuse, you might benefit from a support group such as Nar-Anon (www.nar-anon.org), LifeRing Secular Recovery (www.lifering.org) or Families Anonymous (www.familiesanonymous.org). (c) Annie Lane
Today, we had this follow-up letter:
Dear Annie: This is in response to your reply to “Regretful Mom,” who has struggled with depression and regrets not being present for her now-adult children. Another choice she can look into for helping her with working with the emotional memories connected to her past is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, also known as EMDR. Although people think of post-traumatic stress disorder as being related to extremely severe accidents or traumas, psychology is now aware that for lifetime events over several years, sexual abuse, multiple or ongoing difficulties that cause extreme emotional and mental anguish can also put someone at risk for suffering from PTSD. By using EMDR with a qualified therapist, a patient can recall these past events without experiencing the anguish. It is constructive in combination with talk therapy, and, when necessary, medication, whether short term or for a longer duration.
Thank you for letting me share this information. — Lorrie Finley
Dear Lorrie: Thank you for sharing it. Controlled and randomized clinical studies show that EMDR is efficient to treat PTSD. And although this is purely anecdotal, the treatment technique has helped friends of mine.
Hmm. Let’s tear this apart:
Although people think of post-traumatic stress disorder as being related to extremely severe accidents or traumas […]
Right! Yes, let’s define it, shall we? That definition works for me! I’m on board so far!
[…] psychology is now aware that for lifetime events over several years, sexual abuse, multiple or ongoing difficulties that cause extreme emotional and mental anguish can also put someone at risk for suffering from PTSD.
Yes! Absolutely. I believe it’s called C-PTSD (chronic PTSD), referring to the trauma as having been ongoing, like an abusive situation that took years to escape, being in a war, being bullied repeatedly, etc.
But there are a few problems. One, um, the reference to sexual abuse offended me. Yes, being sexually abused repeatedly over time (and consequently developing C-PTSD) would be horrific. But it technically only takes one act of sexual abuse–one isolated incident–to form trauma. So let’s not downplay sexual abuse by implying that it has to happen to you over a long period of time for it to have an impact. Abuse is abuse.
Also, um, how did we go from discussing this woman’s depression to lumping her in with C-PTSD sufferers?
My ex and I got married when I was 19. We stayed together for 10 years, during which I was dealing with untreated depression. That did not make life easy for either of us. Eventually, he left, leaving me to care for the kids. He gave us some financial support but was not present in their lives.
Okay, so… life was hard…? I’m not unsympathetic (well, not any moreso than usual), but that’s not the same as trauma, whether we’re talking about PTSD or C-PTSD. It’s not! I’m sorry. Having a difficult marriage because you married young and had a lot of kids right away isn’t traumatic. It’s some other kinds of bad, yes; but it’s not trauma. There’s no indication of trauma anywhere in the original letter. If her husband had raped her, or if their house had burned down, or if they lost a child in a car wreck, etc., etc., then yes–trauma. But nothing like that happened to cause her misery, or she would’ve said so.
Just because something upsetting happens, like her husband leaving her, doesn’t mean that what happened was traumatic. It might have just been upsetting. If she’d reacted to his disappearance by showing signs of being traumatized, then I might entertain the notion. But she was depressed before he left. And going farther back, if something from her childhood caused her depression, she would’ve told us.
I’m not diminishing her depression simply because it’s not trauma-based. And it’s possible that EMDR has farther reaching implications than we know, meaning, who knows? Maybe it can treat depression somehow. More studies are needed. But it’s offensive to imply that this woman is a trauma victim when she clearly isn’t.
PTSD and C-PTSD are rare mental illnesses in that they require an obvious occurrence. (E.g., without his tragic car wreck, there would be no PTSD for him.) For that reason, PTSD and C-PTSD remind me of dissociative disorders that develop from sexual abuse or some such similar horrors in early childhood. There’s an obvious external causal factor. And thus it’s offensive to me that this (second) letter writer made glib references to sexual abuse AND implied that anyone who’s had a hard life would benefit from trauma therapy in particular.
Some people are derisive about people who lay claim to trauma over every little thing. “I couldn’t find a parking spot at the mall! I’m so traumatized.” (I’m sure the speaker would be guilty of being sarcastic, but I couldn’t think of a better example offhand.) But here’s the thing: if you aren’t having flashbacks that horrify you or destroy your psyche; if you don’t avoid situations or “triggers” that bring back the memory; if you don’t have ingrained issues, phobias, nightmares or other neuroses related to it; then you probably haven’t been traumatized.
That said, and this is important, if you ARE struggling with those symptoms, then I’d never want to be dismissive and say, “Really? You’re traumatized over such-and-such minor incident?” Because we don’t need to say, “Oh, that’s invalid trauma,” or, “Oh, get over it.” Trauma is trauma. But in the absense of those symptoms, it might not have been traumatic. And it irritates me when people claim to have been traumatized by something that wasn’t traumatic.
In logic class in college, we learned that A can lead to B, but just because B is true, we can’t know that A caused it. I.e., trauma can lead to depression, but just because someone’s depressed, we can’t assume that their depression was brought about by trauma. It’s basic logic. I keep trying to pinpoint where the logic broke down in the second letter, but that one sentence in the middle is so heavy that I can’t figure out exactly where the logic went off the rails. It’s a stumper! How did the second letter writer go from depressed to traumatized?
Okay, I found it. She’s referring to the original letter writer’s “emotional memories of her past,” and then she segues into sexual abuse and extreme emotional distress, as if living with depression equates to experiencing longterm sexual abuse.
I’ve been hoping for years that Annie Lane would mention EMDR, but it’s not surprising that she never knows when to mention things. EMDR is great for trauma, but the original letter writer hasn’t experienced any (that we know of). It’s also not surprising that Annie Lane let a letter writer write today’s column. (Well, that was part of the column. The rest of today’s column was a list of signs that you might have a brain tumor. I think she copy/pasted it from somewhere.)