My History, Her Future History
A lifelong war with depression, consisting of countless battles, some big, some small, too few of them bloodless, has left me with multiple scars, both physical and mental. The mental scars are, for the most part, invisible to the naked eye – though in my more buoyant days I like to imagine a CAT scan of my brain revealing them, like the scars left by strokes, except deeper, longer, and black as oil, possibly even pulsating with their own inner life, their own heavy thoughts and memories of how they came into being. The physical scars... Well, the physical scars, whiter than the skin they are carved into, are not so invisible, though some of them are so old now that they have almost faded to match the colour of my skin and can really only be seen if they are actually being looked for, the viewer armed with some prior knowledge of their existence. Even the deep letters of the word HELP carved hard into the flesh of my upper left arm are almost invisible, and I thought these scars would be visible forever, with the pain the razor blade caused still frightfully fresh in my mind 20 years after the fact, the teenager that I was when I dug that blade in badly, desperately needing help I didn't receive until 8 years and a dozen new scars later.
Of course, being the wounds of depression, there are more scars than those that mark my arms, others litter other areas of my body, the largest concentration of these physical scars is on my wrists, and being a right-hander, my left wrist has suffered more when the sharp edge of a razor blade has sang a soothing sense to me. It really is a frightening sight to behold, the inside of my left wrist, newer scars over old, crisscrossing and converging, like some dyslexic roadmap of hell. Unlike the scars of my arms and chest and legs, which were mostly done to elevate an unreachable inner pain, the razor cuts on my wrists were done with the sole intention of ending my life, and for that the cuts made were all the more deeper, wider, and so are not fading into invisibility as quickly as their cousins did - in fact, there are some that will never fade, the initial cuts, the birthing cuts if you will, so deep and hard, fuelled by rage and fear, that they almost damaged tendons. It is because of these scars that I cannot step outside my house without wearing a long sleeved shirt and/or a large faced watch, the strap of the watch on the outside of my wrist, its face on the inside covering my inkless tattoo, or at least as much of it as it can - realistically speaking I would need a watch big enough to make Public Enemy's Flavor Flav envious to hope to hide it all. As it is, besides the watch and a long sleeved shirt, carefully practiced moves, lightning sleight of hand, and a hyper awareness of how visible my wrist is when I am in the company of others, mean no one sees it, or if they do see it, even a hint of it, they never pass comment within my earshot, and that is good enough for me. Ignorance is bliss after all.
Those who have seen my scars, specifically those on my wrists, and more specifically my left wrist, the scars on my right wrist few enough to explain away with a well-rehearsed/oft told imaginary encounter with a glass door (which, if needed, can also be used for some of the scars on my arms), have mostly been long term lovers, women I have loved emotionally as well as physical. I have usually already given them a slightly abridged tale of my ups, my downs and my occasional sideways with depression, so they are prepared somewhat before even seeing those scars. Those who stick around after my abridged tale, and subsequent showing of said scars, I know return my love, or at least might someday, and those who don't... well, they don't (though in one case a woman immediately asked me if she could see the scars, a scary shine in her eyes, a look that I can only describe as twisted arousal - we did not last long as a couple after that), they decide that I am not worth the effort/risk that comes with dating someone who occasionally bursts into tears for no logical explanation, or is struck silent with dark moods that also define easy explanation, or understanding, and may or may not take a blade to their skin.
To be honest my physical scars have not bothered me in many years. I have accepted them for what they are: a detailed, but not quite exact, history of my darkest days. My few close friends are aware of my depression and my scars, and while they have witnessed bouts of my depression, most of them have not seen my scars, though, sadly, some of them have had to clean up after the wounds that created some of the scars – this occurrence, being regular enough, one of the reasons I have ‘few’ close friends; my level of depression does not lend itself well to maintaining close friendships (you might even say, as I sometimes do, that it does not play well with others). If I feel anything for my scars it is mostly regret and that is usually felt when insomnia is having its childishly wicked and regular way with me or I have partaken of more alcohol than is wise for someone who suffers from depression, alcohol being a tossed coin of relaxant and depressant. Various antidepressants, taken at various times during the day, and a wife who is understanding and constantly alert to my changing moods have meant that I haven't added any new wounds in 27 months. Life rolls on as life rolls on, with no rhyme or reason to be found, and I am currently happy enough to let myself roll along with it - and by 'happy enough' I mean I am not tempted to act upon the suicidal thoughts that flood my mind at least once a week, alongside the usual crying, unable to rise from bed, read a book, write a line, eat, sleep, no matter how many antidepressants I take or how much 'talking therapy' I have (tempted may be the wrong word there. I am always tempted. Likely might be a better choice, surrounded by big fat inverted commas).
Now, if my scars are not bothering me then why write about them? Surely I should leave well enough alone, my brain battles away enough stray dark thoughts as it is without purposely bringing them to the fore? Yes, I should leave it alone, but while not bothering me as such, my scars, particularly the ones on my left wrist, are occupying my thoughts more recently than they have in some time. The reason for this invading occupation is no great mystery, it is quite easily identifiable. The reason is the birth of my first child, a girl, seven months ago. In amongst all the thoughts and worries and questions that I've no doubt flood the minds of new fathers and mothers the world over, there shines bright, like a fresh new scar itself, one single question: How do I explain my scars to my daughter? I realise it isn't something I need be concerned about until she is much older, but still it concerns me; I am a worrier by nature, quite easily able to obsessively wrestle with a single worrying thought for hours, days on end, even to the point of losing sleep over it. By the time my hyper brain has turned and tossed it, even the most inconsequential worry will have been ballooned to elephantine proportions. And so it is with this worry that should not even be a worry, a concern, for several years to come that I look down at my daughter as she sleeps safely and soundly on my chest, or as she sleeps in the cot beside the bed and I stare hard at the darkened ceiling above me, I know (and worry, worry, worry over that knowing) that I will not be able to obsessively hide my scars from her, not forever. At some stage she will see them, maybe not, if I am lucky and careful, the ones on my wrist, but the ones on my chest, my arms, my leg. Nearly invisible is not completely invisible, and if she is old enough, or curious enough or both, when she does see them she will, in all likelihood, ask what they are and how did I get them. What do I say? How do I answer her? Do I say that they are self-inflicted, borne of far too many bouts of depression? No, of course not. What father wants to appear weak in front of their children? And yes, I consider my depression a terrible weakness, no matter that I know it is caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain that I have no solid control over, bar the aforementioned antidepressants which don't always do their prescribed job. This chemical imbalance, this accident of biology, is something I was born with, and it is something I will die with (though hopefully not because of – now there is a glass half full/half empty moment. I say “not” now, but I might think differently next week, tomorrow, in an hour!).Yes, I know all this, but the distance between what you know and what you feel can be immense when there are nights when sleep is but a rumour and your brain feels like it is floating in thick black oil, when it feels as though it is actually bleeding black oil. Yes, to me it is a weakness, a weakness that I do not always have the strength to overcome, as prove the scars, the stomach pumps, the stays in hospital.
So, what do I say to her? Do I lie? I suppose that is a possibility. I am an exceptionally good liar and am burdened with no fancy ideals that I will never lie to my children. It is a simple fact of life, parents lie to their children, not out of malice, at least not usually, but I would rather those future lies be along the lines of 'Yes, Santa exists' and 'No, I never considered putting you up for adoption when you were teething and cried solidly for days on end', and maybe, just maybe, stretch as far as 'Your mother and I waited until we were married and it was worth it, no, really'. Any lies dissimilar to those lies, or lies that wear the guise secrets (for what is a secret but a lie by omission), are not the lies I wish to tell my daughter (yes, in a perfect world I should not have to lie to her, but this is a far from perfect world). No, I do not want to lie to her, or keep secrets, not about something as serious as that. Maybe, at a stretch, if she does ask, I could roll out that ever reliable 'It doesn’t concern you' or some such variation, but that seems worse than lying to me and I myself heard that too many times from my parents growing up and I do not wish to repeat it to my own child (how many parents tell themselves they'll be different than their parents were? How many are successful? Good luck to me). A lot of course depends on when she asks, what age she'll be. 3 or 4 and, I can imagine, it can be easily deflected. 14 or 15, not so easy without barefaced lies or 'mind your nose'.
She's only seven months old; even to me it seems like I'm over thinking things, worrying about possibilities years down the line, but, as I said above, I've always been a worrier, and, also, that worry comes with a second worry firmly attached, another contributor to my regular insomnia, a worry that keeps itself and its fused companion fresh in my mind: beyond the scars, beyond the likely questions and resulting explanations, the possibility exists that the history of my dark days, written as it is, tightly across my skin, may become my daughter's history too. Depression is heredity, or at least the kind of depression I am afflicted with is. Depression, in all its various mutations, has run rampant through both sides of my family for generations, with various relatives, past and present, having either killed themselves or had breakdowns. None of this information was made known to me as I was growing up and wondering why I needed to constantly cut myself with razor or why I quickly progressed to feeling that the only release from the jagged mess that was my mind was to open my veins and let the life pour from mw, or, on four different occasions, taking an overdose of pills, wanting to fall into a sleep that I would never wake from. Would the knowledge of my equally ailed relatives have made any difference to me in the long term? Now as an adult and usually when I’ve had a drink or three, I look back on these teenage years and think yes, I would have liked to have known what exactly was wrong with me, that it wasn't simply teenage angst or terrible teens or whatever phrase you wish to use, that there was something genuinely, and potentially dangerously, wrong with me. I would have liked to have known that I wasn’t as alone as I felt, and that what was wrong with me needn’t define me (which, sadly it did for many years, and occasionally still does), and that it was treatable, manageable. When alcohol isn’t lubricating my thought process, and I can look at it as dispassionately as possible, which isn’t that often, I doubt the knowledge would have made too much of a difference; my brain was going to rollercoaster around my skull no matter what I knew, or didn’t know (though I still stand by the belief that knowing what I was feeling could be treated would have made some difference to my teenage years and early twenties). Now, could my parents have made better use of that knowledge themselves, knowledge that they did have? Could they have kept an eye out for the signs that their son hadn’t been lucky enough to sidestep that genetic bullet? Yes, probably. In fact, yes, definitely. But that is a moment unknown, a moment gone, a question forever unanswered. It is far too easy, and possibly unfair, to lay the blame at the feet of my parents. Maybe they didn’t know anything more than a lot of their relatives suffered from it. Maybe they didn’t know those tell-tale signs. Maybe they didn’t even know that it was heredity. One must also take into account that depression was a dirty word, a stigmatic word, when I was growing up, even more so when some of my similarly afflicted relatives were growing up; you might as well have called them mad and locked them up (for all I know some of them were). A lot of my behaviour, a lot of those tell-tale signs (mood swings, explosive anger, being withdrawn) could easily, and happily, be attributed to simply being a teenager. The cutting myself with razor blades; I obviously kept those wounds hidden very well or they weren’t seen, simply because they were not wanted to be seen... two very different possibilities, and of the two I would rather imagine the former. On top of that one must never overestimate the power and appeal of denial: 'our child won't suffer from it, we won't let it happen', etc. etc. My father is no longer alive and I do not have the relationship with my mother where such questions could be asked. In fact, no questions have ever been able to be asked. The only reason I even know of the battles with depression that my relatives endured is from overheard conversations and some detective work on my part. Added to that is the occasional titbit of information from my mother, almost given in passing, and only in recent years, which I would store away for examination and cataloguing at a later date, while biting back a dozen questions I know would not be answered, and my hurt her by their asking, as though there was silent accusation running through them, which, in a sense, there would be. The fact that this is our relationship saddens me, but I have, in my own way, and as best as I can, made peace with it, while also vowing that I will have a far more open relationship with my own child – hence my worry of when the question of my scars arises. My pen could chase itself dizzy with maybes and possibilities, with no solutions or answers ever likely to be found, while each circle takes me further and further away from thoughts of my daughter. So I bring my pen back to her.
My daughter, my sweet, sweet daughter, has the same colour eyes as me. My daughter has the same shaped lips as me. People say she is the spitting image of me, though I am at a loss to see it. I think she is beautiful and I am fully aware that I am not (only recently someone remarked that they are starting to see more of her mother in her features, and less of mine, though my eyes and lips remain. Her mother is beautiful, so this is only a good thing. With luck as she gets older she will look more like her mother and less like me).These facial similarities are the first observable traces of the genes of mine that she carries within her own genes. Approximately 50% of her genes come from me and because of that genetic passage there exists a 25% chance that my beautiful daughter's brain will lack the ability to create sufficient amounts of serotonin, resulting in depression, which in turn will result in her needing to take some variation of some anti-depressant for large portions, or possibly all, of her life. This knowledge shudders my heart more than I thought possible. Just as a father does not want to show weakness on front of his children, he doesn’t want to see them suffer either. Whenever it crosses my mind I have to quickly mentally sidestep the knowledge that that suffering could be because of me – letting that thought take hold would banish sleep forever and probably require an increase in my own ‘happy’ pills. I do squeeze some small, but still sweet, solace that the percentage is reasonably low; if they were odds against something I would not fancy my chances. So, the question is should she be forewarned of this 25% possibility, as I wasn't forewarned, as I sometimes wish I was forewarned? Would it make any difference to her as it more than likely would not have made any difference to me? Or would the knowing be detrimental as opposed to beneficial: by being forewarned will the possibility of depression be a looming shadow that may plague her even worse than any depression possibly could, especially if she is lucky and that particular chemical imbalance sidesteps her brain? Maybe the worse genetic traits she'll inherit from me will be my absolute loathing of all vegetables and my almost addictive need to pick my nose.
No, in my daughter’s case the answer is simple: being forewarned is not being forearmed, not when the chance of doing more harm than good is a distinct possibility - and maybe it is for this very reason that my parents never attempted to tell me, they were trying their best to protect me (I like it, we'll stick with that, and waste no more ink on ever erratic and increasing circles). That is how I will protect my daughter from that black dog that may or may not bite her, by omission. But not just by omission, I will also protect her by observation: what I went through I will be able to see in her, I will be able to distinguish it from natural teenage angst. If/when I recognise any familiar signs I will be able to step in and help her, and, more importantly, guide her to any help she needs. I will, if needed, only if needed, be able to make a condition that seems abnormal to the uneducated normal, just another ailment that can be treated by medication, as diabetes is treated with insulin, asthma with salbutamol or terbutaline. She need never have to look down at herself, years from now, and see scars she tattooed herself with. Never. If I can have no casting vote in the crapshoot that is genetics, I can at least make sure of that.
And now, her ‘never’ scars bring me back to what began this somewhat rambling essay: my own scars. What will I say/do when/if my daughter sees them, asks me about them? The answer is...I don’t know. I truly do not know. This may seem like an awful cop-out, especially when viewed with all I have written on the previous pages, and in a sense, it is a cop-out, fuelled by a truth, that truth being: I don’t know. What I do know is that there can be no lies, that is a given, but there also can’t be complete truths. There must be some in-between, but as to what that in-between might be... again, I do not know, not today, and maybe not tomorrow. I can lie awake at night and consider every conceivable tomorrow and still have no answer until that tomorrow dawns and I rise from bed, tired from lack of sleep, my mood a small bit darker because of that lack of sleep. Or I can stare at the scars on my left wrist until my eyes cross and the scars blur even more into each other, but they'll still be scars, they will still be there, and I will have wasted foolish time contemplating past pain, mental and physical, time that could have been better spent with my daughter, my wife, being together as the family the three of us are. I will worry, of course I will. As I said, I am a worrier, and I am also a father; my level of worry can be seen from space. Yes, I will worry, but just as I will not let those worries hang over my daughter, neither should I let them rule me, because in amongst all those worries, current and future, there are joys, and nothing should shadow those joys, nothing at all, not scars, potential depression, money… And on and on and on.
What will I tell my daughter about my scars? I don't know, but maybe when the time comes I will.
Bio: Edward Lee's poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll. He is currently working on a novel.
He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Lewis Milne, Orson Carroll, Blinded Architect, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy. His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.