1. Choose your parents carefully.
There are two issues here: first, genetics and, second, child-rearing practices. According to the National Institute of Mental Health’s research, there is a gene for depression and it comes in a long form and a short form. Get two of the short-form genes and you could be in for a lot of depression.
This may or may not be true. You may have a depression-vulnerable gene but it still takes something to activate it, to trigger it. Like alcoholism, you may inherit the gene but not turn it on. For example, if you grow up on a farm and then become a farmer, and the nearest bar is a long ways in town, you may never become an alcoholic. On the other hand, if you grow up in a family that drinks a lot, get a job in sales or advertising, and your office is next door to a bar then you may trigger your alcoholism gene. Genetics do not determine your life; rather, they give you a particular vulnerability.
Depression is repressed anger, so choose parents who know how to deal with anger. A young woman had a little boy whom she disciplined for doing something wrong. It made the little boy angry, which was understandable, but what the mother did was nothing short of amazing. As the angry child stomped off, his mother called him back, held out both her hands, palms up, and told the boy to hit her hands. In his anger, he at first refused but she insisted so finally he did, then went off to play. The child was too young to understand his anger and have a good chat with his mom about it, so what she did was simply acknowledge that he was angry, and accept—indeed, insist—that he express his anger. What is most amazing about this is that the woman was my sister and she had been raised in a home where anger was totally unacceptable.
My parents were both disappointed in their marriage and therefore perpetually angry with each other. Like the man said, “I can tell if my wife’s mad at me by the way she smacks the pans.” Yepper, yepper, yepper. When there is anger then its message permeates a home. My parent’s anger made me angry. I wanted to yell at them to STOP IT! Get over your anger! Love each other—love me—I can’t stand this constant bickering!
But any sign of anger from me resulted in my mother snapping “Don’t talk to me that way, young lady!” This would be followed by “Don’t use that tone of voice” and “Take that expression off your face.” So if you don’t want to get depressed then get parents who can tolerate your anger and work with it. Like the man said, “The best preventative psychiatry is having children at the right time for the right reason.” A friend of mine believes that children and their potential parents negotiate the terms of their relationship before they are born. I have no idea whether or not this is true but it certainly does raise some interesting questions. If you chose the losers who parented you, then why?
Depression is taught. If you had parents like mine then you were taught at a very early age that you were not to show any signs of anger. Americans are very ill at ease with their anger. They don’t want to feel it or know it. “Anger be gone!” is the rallying cry of modern Americans. There is the common belief that everything—marriage, job, love, life, et al—will fall apart if anger is acknowledged. There is the pretense that if you don’t see or hear anger then anger does not exist. In other words, stuff it inside and it ceases to exist. Except that it now turns up as depression. You have been taught depression and you have learned the lesson so well that you may carry it with you for the rest of your life.
You must dare to admit your anger to consciousness. So what is there to be angry about? The perception of powerlessness. That little boy who got angry at his mother didn’t see anything he could do. She was bigger than he was, and she’d disciplined him. She had power and he didn’t—but she gave him power. “Here,” she said, “go ahead and hit me.” And years later, when he grew up and got words, he could say to his wife, “Hey, lady, I’m really angry at you. We need to talk.”
Growing up is all about embracing power, and good parents carefully and thoughtfully prepare their children for having power, which is very different from simply denying them power. The kid turns 16 and wants his driver’s permit but his parents won’t let him get it because he’s “not responsible enough.” What did his parents ever to do teach him responsibility? Or did they just wait around, expecting him to acquire responsibility all by his little self? The wisest parents I knew believed that their children belonged to God and had their own lives to live, and that God had just loaned them the children for 18 years to get them ready to be independent. Contrast this to parents who believe that children are their possessions and the children’s most important activity is to make their parents look good.