The Real Ugly Duckling
I remember a story my mother, Minnie Lee, loved to tell about herself as a child. She would reminisce about when she was a teenager and none of the boys liked her. They would call her “ugly”. In the mist of the story, her face would light up. She would then proudly say, “Now all of the same boys want to get with me. The ugly duckling has turned into a swan.” And I would laugh along with her because she indeed had become a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman who on December 1, 1994 took her own life.
Today, many of us together can reflect on a loved one who we remember as a beautiful person, who is or was always smiling and happy on the outside, but on the inside a storm is brewing. A person that no one would ever begin to imagine has a mental health challenge because they were always smiling and happy. If you have any familiarity with someone who suffers from a mental illness, you know that while the person may appear happy, the terror of mental instability lingers. This mixture of happiness on the outside and pain on the inside leads me to refer to the person I love who suffered from mental health challenges, my mother, as “The Happiest Depressed Person in the World”.
Yes, I am now very familiar with the complexities that a mental health disorder can bring into our lives and the lives of a loved one. I can still visualize looking into the eyes of my mother, Minnie Lee, and see a big smile as she told her somewhat unpleasant account of at one point being and actually all the time living the life of “The Real Ugly Duckling”. She had lived the horror of depression and mental instability all by herself.
As a child myself, I remember reading the once popular children’s book, The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson. Ironically as I was reading it again over 30 years later, it reflects the characteristics of “The Real Ugly Duckling”. Depression is “The Real Ugly Duckling”. Throughout the book, there are symbolic mental health references of loneliness, suffering, feelings of awkwardness, ridicule, self- condemnation and a need for acceptance. In some odd way, I cannot help but think that my mother, a victim of mental illness, knew that the story of The Ugly Duckling was a true reflection of her life. But even more ironic, Hans Christian Andersen was also believed to suffer from depression.
My mother always took a bad situation and turn it into an adventure. During my childhood, our utilities would get turned off quite often. I remember one month our lights got turned off for a day or two. Instead of mopping around in a state of hopelessness and complaining about what we do not have, at night that terrible time of darkness turned into fun games of hide and seek. We had so much fun in the dark. Deep down inside, I know the lack of resources for her children caused a lot of internal guilt.
Synonymously, in the beginning of The Ugly Duckling, the mother duckling shows undeniable love for her duckling. Even though she knew that something was terribly different about one of her eggs, “she did not worry herself about it much”. And like those who suffer from mental health disorders, the victim will often cover up the suffering in order to appear normal. But deep inside, the suffering is brewing into something that once it surfaces can be detrimental.
Two themes that are prevalent in depression is feelings of hopelessness and lack of support. My mother showed signs of hopelessness by making two suicide attempts and ultimately a completion. Her actions were clear cries for help. If she had the appropriate support available to her, she may have been able to manage her symptoms of depression differently.
A support system is important when trying to overcoming depression. While many people carry unrealistic expectations of what depression looks like, it only takes one person to give the hope and faith needed. It only takes one person to believe and give the needed support to know that there is hope and life is worth living. When the duckling felt hopeless about laying eggs, the old woman was there to offer encouragement. The old woman expressed her faith that the duckling will lay eggs while the cat and the hen expressed relentless feelings of doubt.
Being surrounded by others who can identify with the same experiences of depressive symptoms offers cathartic relief. Catharsis provides a motivational push to defeating feelings of hopelessness. There is a social- emotional healthiness in sharing the same feelings, thoughts and experiences with someone who can understand. The duckling eventually found hope when surrounded by other ducklings who could identify with him. One miserable day, the duckling raised his wings and stretched beneath the warm sun. And at that very moment, he “saw a flock of the same beautiful birds”. When dealing with depression, support in the form of support groups is beneficial in knowing that loneliness is of the past. Identifying with others who share their stories and sharing personal stories increases hope.
My own personal story of my mother not defeating depression relates to a lack of awareness. Awareness is key. Family and friends can only offer help to those suffering from depression when aware of all the aspects of depression. I know that if my siblings and I were aware of the signs, symptoms and outcomes of depression, we could have attempted to rescue our mother from the self- destruction she experienced alone. I’m not placing blame on anyone but something as simple as the attending psychiatrist making an effort to notify and involve the family in such a dangerous health condition would have been one way to reach a level of awareness. If we had been aware of the seriousness of her condition, we could have been an important part of her prevention plan. If we had been aware that she should not drink alcoholic beverages while taking prescribed psychotropic medications, my siblings and I could have supported her in making wiser decisions about medication compliance.
There are so many areas that awareness could prove beneficial for anyone to provide adequate support.
Having these three support factors available offers rescue and escape from symptoms of depression: someone showing belief, identification with others and support systems of family and friends.
My mother’s story did not have a happy ending. At the end of The Ugly Duckling, after countless trials and tribulations, the duckling broke free from the stigma of being ugly. In a glorious moment of coming to terms with who he really was, he became known as “the best” one in the flock. The ugly duckling turned into a swan.
In conclusion, how can someone PUSH PASS the stigma and hopelessness of depression?
1. Find refreshment within the spirit, dreams and life
2. Possess hope, self- worth and beauty
3. Boldly greet support, strength and stamina
In the end, just as the ugly duckling, someone/ anyone suffering from depression can “[rustle] his feathers and [raise] his slender neck aloft, [and say] with pure joy in his heart, ‘I never dreamed of such peace’”.