Although some people are born with clinical depression, I’m pretty sure I was not. I’ve heard people use “chemical imbalance” as a synonym for clinical depression, but according to Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications, “chemical imbalance” is a gross simplification of real clinical depression. The aforementioned webpage states that a clinically depressed person may have multiple chemicals that are imbalanced, and there are neurological, genetic and situational factors that also come into play. My doctor believes my brain was altered by trauma, which resulted in what I call “acquired clinical depression.” Remember, I’m not a doctor. I’m just making up a term to help me convey my experience.
From the peer-reviewed articles that I’ve read (and I have read too many over the last 10 years to cite), I learned that clinical depression relates to how one’s brain regulates and produces hormones. These articles explain how, for example, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland work in people who have clinical depression and those who don’t. People who don’t have clinical depression (or a history of drug or alcohol addiction) may experience situational depression after a loved one dies or after they were fired unexpectedly, but they move through the depression, and their brains, for the most part, continue to function like normal. Their hypothalamus does not “react” to the death or job loss as a “circuit-damaging tragedy” (my term), e.g., their hypothalamus will continue to synthesize oxytocin (the love/trust hormone), and their pituitary gland continues to secrete it. This helps them feel love and trust for the important people in their lives. The memory of the painful event may arise, but it will eventually feel less devastating. People who are clinically depressed may have a hypothalamus that doesn’t function as it should. My hypothalamus interpreted the childhood trauma as a circuit-damaging tragedy. She has to bust her ass to produce oxytocin, and she doesn’t produce as much as the hypothalamus of someone who’s not clinically depressed.
The way my hypothalamus functions definitely affects my relationships. When I tell people that I have trust issues, they never believe me, but eventually they ask me, “Why don’t you open up more?” or some cliché shit like that. I always wanna say, Fool, I told you I have trust issues! You didn’t believe me.
By the time I was in high school, I had seen enough talk shows and read enough about basic psychology to know that my aloofness and lack of trust was, in part, a repercussion of trauma.
One night at the Christian depression support group that I go to, we talked about our experiences. I spoke about the trauma, my brain functioning and how I’m dealing with depression now. I’m ridiculously succinct when I talk about all this. I should be. I been talking about this shit in therapy for more than two-thirds of my life.
At the end of session, someone told me, “I’m sorry it happened…Just remember, it doesn’t define you.”
In true Angèle form, I shut down all emotions, smiled and politely said, “Thank you.”
I thought about that discourse the entire way home. Am I sorry it happened? The trauma helped me develop some amazing survival skills. People often compliment me on being resilient and empathetic. When things don’t work out the way I want, I bounce back like no body’s business. When I taught at the college, I worked well with the difficult or troubled students. I made myself available for them; I set high expectations and clear boundaries with them. I never made things easy on them just because they wrote a reflection essay about having a disability, being beaten as a child, being raped or witnessing their family being shot and killed by soldiers. I said, “I’m sorry you went through that,” I listened if they wanted to talk, suggested they speak to the campus counselor, and in the next class, we moved forward with the curriculum. I didn’t treat them like they were doomed. I treated them like survivors.
Does the trauma define me or doesn’t it? My entire day revolves around alleviating the effects of anxiety and depression. I would love to sleep later every morning, but I have to meditate, or the anxiety will take over. I have to think about every morsel of food I put in my mouth because the wrong foods can tip the hormonal balance, and the depression will take over. I still suck at eating right. I have to force myself to go to the gym, or the depression and anxiety will fuck with my head (releasing enough endorphines is not optional for clinically depressed people). I hate this one. I had to develop a system for taking my ayurvedic supplements (for my hormones) because I used to zone out and forget whether or not I took them. Every night I have to wear a mouth guard because the anxiety is worse when I sleep, and it manifests in me grinding my teeth. I even cracked a tooth from grinding and chomping down so hard when I sleep. I have to talk myself out of leaving my husband about once every six months (That’s actually an improvement.), not because he’s hurtful but because I love him and he loves me and my psyche believes love is dangerous. It leads to trauma.