Jun. 7, 01:44 EDT

Growing up with a secret

Denise Davy
The Hamilton Spectator

Gary Yokoyama, the Hamilton Spectator

Her mother's mental illness had a profound effect on Nancy Graham who has battled booze and is regaining her self esteem with the help of therapy.

She is racing across Buchanan Park, clutching her brother's hand. Her four-year-old brother is sick and the school can't reach their mother. Nancy Graham is only six but she's been pressed into action as her brother's caretaker. She races, races, races across the field trying to get home and back to school before the bell rings.

Home is a brick bungalow a short walk from Buchanan Park School on the west Mountain. Home is also the place where Graham grew up in the shadow of her mother's depression. On that day, like so many others, she knew that when she got home she'd find her mother curled up in bed, door closed, her spirit broken down by depression.

"What I remember most (about that day) was the panic," said Graham.

"And I remember the shame I felt when I passed a school mate and I was doing what my mother should have been doing."

It wasn't the first time Graham was forced to fill in for her mother. Nor would it be the last. From the outside, life in the Graham household mirrored many in this middle class Hamilton neighbourhood in the 1960s. Her mom was a stay-at-home mom, her dad worked as a draftsman. They had two children, a boy and girl.

Behind the closed drapes, however, was a woman suffering from such severe depression that, over a 20-year period, she would be hospitalized more than 40 times, subjected to countless rounds of shock treatments and given enough drugs to fill a hospital ward.

As doctors wrestled with her demons of depression, the family suffered in silence. They were a family in turmoil, living on the edge, always waiting for the mother's next breakdown. Graham, now 41 and living in Toronto, has chronicled her experience into a compelling memoir called Afraid of the Day; A Daughter's Journey (published by Women's Press.)

Graham is a soft spoken woman with close cropped hair and eyes that reveal the pain she endured as a child. Although writing the book was a painful seven-year odyssey that reopened old wounds, she wanted to put her experience on paper to help others who grew up with a parent or sibling who suffered from depression.

Her book takes us through her childhood and adolescence and illustrates how growing up with a depressed parent has affected her as an adult. More than anything else, the book illustrates how everyone else is forced along for the rocky ride when one person suffers from depression.

As Graham writes: "Growing up in the shadow of a depressed mother conditioned me to be on the lookout for the telltale signs of her illness recurring. Throughout childhood, I would feel like a spy, scanning for clues that mom was not far from relapse."

Graham was only three months old when her mother had her first depressive episode. Years later she recognized the breakdown was triggered by severe post partum depression.

Throughout her first 20 years, Graham knew her mother as a sad, lonely figure who spent much of her time in bed.

Black and white photos show Graham's mother with a mostly vacant look. In one photo she's holding her newborn daughter, looking bewildered. In a holiday photo, she's staring off into the distance.

"Sadly," said Graham, "I don't remember my mother as anything else...."

Growing up, Graham says she was "always looking for signs that she was slipping. I was always waiting for the other shoe to fall."

Her mother had many hospitalizations and was subjected to endless rounds of shock treatment. Her last one in 1982, consisted of a torturous nine and a half weeks of shock treatments administered twice a week. Graham still remembers seeing her mother return from the hospital completely emaciated.

"She couldn't walk. She just wanted to die."

Although her mother's depression was finally brought under control, it didn't mean life was normalized. "..Those currents virtually stripped mom of her memory, both short and long term," Graham writes. "She has virtually no recollection of my brother Barry and me growing up. She was robbed of years no mother would ever willingly sacrifice."

Then there was the lasting impact on family members. Graham's father had been forced into the role of a single parent, working full time and caring for his children. It took its toll.

"Right from the beginning it was hell on him," said Graham. "He's not an easy-going guy by nature. It was like this. When my mother got sad, my father got mad."

The children, meanwhile, went from being depressed children to troubled teens. Both escaped into the world of substance abuse which continued well after high school.

Graham drank for 25 years, trying to drown out the shame and guilt of her childhood.

"I was trying to smother all those feelings rather than talk about it."

Graham finally bottomed out and entered an outpatient treatment program at the Jean Tweed Treatment Centre in Toronto. She's been sober for four years and, with the help of a therapist, is learning to build up the self esteem that was chipped away by her dysfunctional home life.

She realizes her mother's depression wasn't her fault and with the help of therapy she's learned to feel compassion for the woman who stole her childhood. Graham also knows that without her father, her mother might have become one of the homeless bag ladies Graham saw every day while living in Parkdale for two years.

Her relationship with her parents is still strained. Her father is proud his daughter has written a book although he's yet to read it.

Her mother came to the book launch but they still haven't talked about her depression.

The family that grew up together, in fact, interacts like strangers.

"One of the major legacies is that our family does not know how to communicate with each other on a healthy level," said Graham. "It's as if we have nothing in common but a "trauma bond" if you will, for happiness was ever so fleeting."

It may be too late for her family to heal.

"It's still the white elephant in our house. But I hope it helps other people realize they're not alone and that they need to talk about it."

Afraid of the Day is available at Titles Bookstore at McMaster University or it can be ordered through Chapters or online at www.womenspress.ca.

Nancy Graham will be reading from her book at the Westdale Public Library on Thursday, June 26 at 7 p.m. Call to register at 905-546-3456.


The phone number for Rainbow Moms, a lesbian moms social/support group, that appeared in last week's column was incorrect. The correct number is 905-627-8368.

ddavy@thespec.com or 905-526-3317

Where to get help

The following agencies can help if you or someone you know is suffering from depression:

Community Outreach Assisted Support Team -- 905-972-8338

Canadian Mental Health Association, Hamilton branch -- 905-521-0090

Distress Centre Hamilton -- 905-525-8611

Suicide Prevention Crisis Line -- 905-522-1477

Telecare Burlington -- 905-681-1488