My dad's side of the family has a pretty extensive history of depression. So extensive that I literally don't know it all; they don't like to talk about it to the point that my dad has two cousins who I never even knew existed, because no one ever talks about them. They killed themselves in the 70s, and I only know what happened because I was in the room a few years ago when Dad filled my new therapist in on the family background. That was a fun conversation.
"So, any family history of depression? Suicide?"
"Depression yes, suicide no…"
I always thought my dad had a pretty small extended family. It was a bit disconcerting to learn that it was originally larger, and we've willfully forgotten the uncomfortable ones. It extends to closer issues too; I always thought my brother went through counseling in elementary school because of issues stemming from a neurological condition he has. It turns out that's not strictly true. He threatened to kill himself.
Shock value aside, even that not so bad. I know my brother, he's fine now, and the information was offered once I asked. Really the issue comes from the family tendency for erasure. Because in true family fashion, my grandmother won't talk about her father, and I'm fairly certain depression is to blame.
My grandmother will only say three things about her father: he had this profession, he used to eat there, and (her words) "he was not a nice man." That's it. Fill in the blanks at your own risk. I willfully ignored that last statement for a long time, but there was a moment when something clicked, because pre-medications-and-treatment, that's how I'd describe my own father.
My father is currently a human marshmallow. That's the only way to put. Before he started the medication and therapy, however, he was terrifying. I was genuinely scared of my own father. He wasn't abusive or anything, not by a long shot, but there was a cycle where he couldn't cope with my four-year-old tantrums, so he'd yell at me to stop crying, which would make me cry more, etc., and I hated him for it. I remember not liking him. I remember deciding that if I had to pick one parent, it was supposed to be difficult and you were supposed to feel guilty, but I would pick my mother in a heartbeat. It was terrible. And I remember there was a shift when I was five or six, when my dad started becoming nicer. He stopped yelling so much and started mellowing.
When I asked my mother about it years later, she told me that was when he started getting help. He started going to therapy and taking medication, and it made a world of difference. His depression kept him from being able to cope, and the result got taken out on all of us. That was why he'd decided to start therapy, in the end. It wasn't enough that he was miserable, but he had to do something when he realized that it was hurting us too.
The switch was ages ago, so it took me a while to connect my father's story with my great-grandfather. But it fits. My father, inner marshmallow that he is, was only able to get better thanks to therapy and medication, but especially medication. It's to the point where you can tell if he skips his happy pills for a couple of days. He won't revert back completely, but he gets grumpy and irritable, and it's easier to set him off.
Depression medication saved my family, but it wouldn't have been available for my great-grandfather. Antidepressants weren't a thing until the 1950s, and even if modern treatments had been available earlier, would a working-class immigrant really be able to afford therapy and medication during the Great Depression? Would it have even been an option? My brother and I recently asked my dad to fill in the blanks on his grandfather, and all he'd tell us was that "he was a lot like me, apparently." He didn't mean marshmallow-Dad, he meant the bad old days when his own children didn't like him.
My dad inherited his grandfather's depression, and we got lucky. My grandmother had to grow up with her father's depression, and it apparently affected her to the point where she can't or won't talk about it (a point that almost certainly did not help my father whenever his depression began to manifest). It's a vicious cycle, but I think we've broken it, and I think it's important that we broke it. When it came to my depression, at least, I got through it because my family recognized what was happening and got me help.
My depression is different from my dad's, it makes me withdraw from everything and stop taking care of myself (frankly the best description I could give is Allie Brosh's accounts of her depression - that's pretty spot on, plus trouble with school work and minus the suicidal thoughts). But even though they're different, my dad's experiences absolutely informed the way my parents tried to help me. Depression is a heritable illness, and frankly that family history, the willful silence on the subject, affected my own experiences just by value of omission. You can't just sweep it under the rug, you have to show it to your kids and tell them it's okay.