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Legacy Story: Looking Back on the Struggle (1989)

 

Our mental health coverage in 2024 is made possible by the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health.

“You were pampered and trained to please, and you did what was expected of you. First you were Daddy’s girl, and then you got married and belonged to your husband. You didn’t have a self — you were a product.” – Kathleen Kidder

The following story appeared in the May 10–25, 1989 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press. Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. In tandem with our “Mental Health” print issue, our May focus is on mental well-being.


“It is funny how you can stand more than you thought, and feel yourself inside get stronger, and taste the salt of your own wounds, and the weight of the things that have happened to you.”

– Meridel Le Sueur, from “O Prairie Girl, Be Lonely”

Many women who have experienced depression believed the mental health system could “fix” them and make them well. This blind faith made women dependent on mostly male psychiatrists who didn’t have all of the answers. Some women ventured beyond the limits of traditional treatment and found their own path out of the darkness. These are the stories of three such women.

Ask Kathleen to describe the Southern landscape of her childhood, and she recalls a lush, beautiful world where the heady fragrance of honeysuckle and roses filled the air for months. But, curiously, where she lived, the blossoms never bore fruit.

She describes her childhood the same way.

“Girls blossomed, but didn’t go anywhere,” she says. “You were pampered and trained to please, and you did what was expected of you. First, you were Daddy’s girl, and then you got married and belonged to your husband. You didn’t have a self — you were a product.”

Although depression runs in her family, Kathleen blames her disorder mainly on her repressive Southern upbringing.

As a teenager, Kathleen, now 72, says she was “obsessed with ideas” about the world and interested in the arts. But, society imposed limitations and women, and Kathleen was powerless to change those rules. 

She wanted to be involved. She joined the Navy during World War II, and for the next several years, busied herself with traditional concerns — college, marriage and raising two children. Her first child was born deaf, and Kathleen stayed home to take care of her.

Eventually, the stress of a “bad marriage” (she was divorced in 1969) and raising her daughter became unbearable, and she was hospitalized for depression when she was 56. 

“I tried to do too much,” conceded Kathleen. “I over-extended myself.”

To Kathleen, hospitalization mirrored her protective childhood, but being “mentally ill” gave her a freedom that she didn’t have as a young adult.

“It was a relief,” she says. “The rules were simple. You could invent your own craziness, since that’s what everyone expected of you.”

Kathleen took up painting and was discharged after three months. By then she was seeing a psychiatrist whom she calls a “marvelous sponge.” He prescribed antidepressants, which she stopped taking a few years later. 

“I kept thinking that a pill would solve my problem, but it didn’t,” she says. “You can’t treat your environment with pills for anxiety.”

Kathleen ran into a similar problem with medication a short time later when she lived in a small Virginia town.

“My elderly doctor decided that he wanted me on Valium. [The drug store] just kept refilling the prescription. I stopped taking it after a couple of years, because I didn’t like how it destroyed my judgment.”

Since moving to Minnesota a year ago, Kathleen has received support from the University of Minnesota’s women’s studies program. She is currently involved in several projects that relate to “finding [her] spiritual self.”

Kathleen compares her lifelong battle with depression to a broken bone that never heals properly. “Mental illness makes you tremendously vulnerable,” she says. “It’s painful, but it passes. It’s only when you start facing yourself and facing the problems that your depression lifts.”

***

Mary would do anything to please the man she loved — she left college, married and raised a family. Along the way, she also had surgery on her breasts, was afraid to leave her house, became addicted to pills, had electro-convulsive therapy and thought about suicide. 

“I lived in a fantasy world that wasn’t real,” remembers Mary. “I put my husband at the center of my life, and I gave him a lot of power. I wasn’t working on myself, and little by little, I became isolated.”

Mary, 58, canceled her plans to finish college in the late 1940s, when her husband was accepted into medical school in Chicago. She followed him to Maryland and had two sons; they moved a half-dozen times over the years.

Mary wanted to be the perfect wife. In 1958, she agreed to her husband’s request to have her breasts enlarged. She developed an infection after the surgery, which was performed by her husband at their house. She was hospitalized, had two blood transfusions, and both breasts were removed. 

Mary says it was stressful living with a man whom others saw as “a god.” The pressure affected her in two ways: she was afraid to leave her house and became addicted to tranquilizers and sleeping pills. 

She remembers taking as many as eight different prescriptions at one time, some provided by her husband. She says her second son was born addicted to tranquilizers prescribed by her doctor. 

“I’ve done what a lot of women do,” says Mary. “To lose weight, I would take amphetamines, and because I was so wound up, I needed barbiturates to calm down. It was a roller coaster that had taken over my life.”

She tried to talk to her husband about how she was feeling, but he wouldn’t listen to her or go with her for counseling.

“My husband liked himself the way he was,” says Mary. “He didn’t want to change. Anywhere along the way, I would’ve liked to see a tear in his eye, but I never did.”

Mary began seeing a psychiatrist, and that helped for a while. But the pills she was taking to calm her down had the opposite effect whenever she drank alcohol. She says she often thought about suicide. 

But she stayed with her husband for another 17 years before she gathered the courage to leave.

“I knew that if I stayed in that house any longer, I was going to die,” she remembers.

She went to South Dakota to enter a treatment center to kick her prescription pill habit. She also joined a 12-step program, which she says changed her life.

“Having someone there made a difference,” says Mary. “I didn’t have to do it alone.”

In early 1983, one week after she entered treatment, she left her husband. She stayed at a halfway house for several months, went into a treatment center again, and had a series of a half-dozen electro-convulsive treatments (ECT).

Her memory of ECT is fuzzy, but she remembers that, afterwards, she felt better than she had in years. She moved to Minnesota and became active in various 12-step groups.

For the first two years, Mary says she attended six 12-step meetings a week. Now she goes less often, partly because she also is active in an overeater’s support group. She divorced her husband three years ago.

Mary has to work now because she won’t be eligible for Social Security; she worked for her husband’s answering service for nearly 25 years, but never received a paycheck. When she’s not working as a part-time receptionist, she enjoys spending time with her four grandchildren. 

She still takes anti-anxiety medication, and is seeing a psychiatrist who she feels is genuinely concerned about her well-being. But her attitude toward life is different than it was in the past.

“Before, I took medication to escape from reality,” says Mary. “But, now I take medication to say in reality.”

 

***

As a younger girl, Pam says she was “dramatic, creative and intelligent.” But, no matter how hard she tried, she could not please her parents.

“I was not an expected baby,” she says. “Ever since I was born, I was told ‘Don’t be.’”

Pam was married at 15, and her first son was born one year later. At 20, she was divorced and pregnant again. 

Now 54, Pam says that even though she had no support system and raised her children by herself, this period was her “happiest time. When I cared for my children, it brought out a sense of love for myself.”

Her happiness was short-lived. When her oldest son was four years old, he was diagnosed as having diabetes. Her world became a “downward spiral.” Pam had to quit beauty school, became “doctor addicted” to Valium and sleeping pills, and tried to commit suicide. 

“When I got depressed, I wanted to be invisible,” she explains. “And the only way to be invisible is to kill yourself.”

At this time, she says she was drinking “up to a half quart of brandy a day.” She drank in order to cope with the pressures of raising a handicapped child alone. 

“I had a very deep loneliness that had been there for most of my life,” says Pam. “All drugs cover up pain and lower your pain threshold. The paradox is, because of the chemicals, you feel more outside pressure and less able to cope. You want to be a perfect mother, but your perception is that you’re the worst mother in the world.”

After her third child was born in the late 1960s, and after additional suicide attempts, Pam ended up in a locked psychiatric ward. Over four years, she had a half-dozen electro-convulsive treatments of which she remembers very little.

What she does remember is how she “gave away [her] power” to the psychiatric system.

“There was nothing wrong with me when I went into that locked ward,” says Pam. “I needed support, and I was not able to cope. I was afraid. The only haven I had was the hospital. In those days, hospitals were a safe place to be — or so we thought.”

Thirteen years ago, Pam went into treatment to stop drinking because she was “tired of being numb.” She became active in a 12-step program and discovered her own spirituality. Since then, she has become experienced in a variety of holistic healing techniques, including massage therapy.

“I have a choice to go further on my spiritual path, or I can be destructive,” says Pam. “Spirituality keeps me going. It allows me to heal myself.”

“I’m a survivor,” she says. 

— May 1989