It’s Not Always Depression: An Emotional Education

–by Laura Dennis, with much gratitude to Hilary Jacobs Hendel, to whom I owe both the title and content of this post

This is not a book review

Last month, I wrote a post previewing Hilary Jacobs Hendel’s new book, It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. In it, I promised a review of that book, which Hilary was gracious enough to send me. This is not that review.

Let me explain. In real life (IRL), reviewing books is part of my job. My field, however, has nothing to do with therapy, psychology, trauma, or anything of the ilk. I’m a French professor. I review books about French literature and film.

When I agreed to review It’s Not Always Depression, I figured I’d follow more or less the same formula I do for any review. The only problem is, it didn’t work, and it wasn’t for lack of material – some of this stuff is gold! It’s that I found myself engaging with it much more at the level of the heart than of the head, which means this will be more the story of my experience than an actual book review.

Emotions upon starting It’s Not Always Depression

I picked up this book with a sense of anticipation. I read the forward and the first chapter in a single sitting, and was absolutely over the moon. I even e-mailed Hilary to tell her how eager and hopeful I felt.

Then I stopped reading. For days.

“No sense reading it now,” I told myself. “You’ll have plenty of time during spring break.”

That, however, was not the real reason, as my reading would eventually show. The real reasons are:

  • “AEDP.” “The Change Triangle.” I’ve heard so many formulas and therapies from so many practitioners that I could line a path to the moon and back using only the empty shells of their words. All of them have come to nothing. Why should this one be any different? [This, by the way, if I am reading correctly, is a defense.]
  • I didn’t want to hear it. I can almost handle thinking about the traumas my children experienced in their birth families. I cannot deal with the pain and confusion they must have felt during the years I struggled to be a good-enough mom. I was exhausted, irritable, withdrawn, hating the person I’d become. I now know this was secondary PTSD, caregiver trauma, whatever you want to call it, brought on by raising a traumatized child with RAD. [Interestingly, at the time, it was diagnosed simply as depression…] That doesn’t make it any easier to remember those dark days. It doesn’t let me time travel to fix things for my kids. [This also, by the way, appears to be a defense. I have a lot of defenses.]

Emotions upon finishing It’s Not Always Depression

So, why did I pick it back up and keep on reading?

  • I’d promised Hilary I would and that I’d publish this post this week. I rarely miss a deadline, even if largely self-imposed.
  • I’ve talked with Hilary enough and read enough of her work to believe deep down that she’s the real deal. She’s not like those therapists who never even tried to walk a mile in shoes that looked anything like mine. Yes, there might be a little alphabet soup and yes there might be a tool with a catchy name, but the heart…and science…behind them is real. It was definitely worth a try.
  • When I lowered my defenses and read what the book actually says, I could see Hilary was on my side. She’s on the reader’s side whether he’s the parent or the wounded child. She knows how hard parenting is and that most of us don’t mean to make the many mistakes we make. Plus she gets it. She gets trauma, she gets attachment, she gets pain and loss, and she genuinely wants people to feel better.

I finished it in two more sittings. Granted, I am a fast reader, but really, the book wanted to be read. I started probing aspects of myself, my child, and our relationship. I tried my best to do the exercises and use the tools – there are many, which is one of the major strengths of the book. So many “experts” tell us therapeutic parents that we have to stay calm, centered, and connected to be effective. While Hilary does not specialize in therapeutic parenting, she is one of the few therapists I’ve read who actually provides concrete ways to make that calm connectedness happen. Some, such as grounding or mindfulness, I’d already stumbled upon myself. Others, like the Change Triangle, were new. What’s really great is there are enough that the reader can pick and choose.

Using the tools IRL

It was my birthday, and my kids and I had gone out to eat and see a movie. My child with trauma and attachment issues had been in a mood much of the day. [That my child was acting out on “my” day will not be news to other parents-in-the-trenches!] When we left the theater, he charged out into the parking lot, alone. My heart began to pound. My hands were trying to shake. Once in the car, where I could feel his icy glare, I leaned back and breathed deeply. I pushed my feet down into the floor, closed my eyes, and absorbed the sun’s warmth as it penetrated the black upholstery. My anxiety under control, I examined my reaction, which felt out of proportion given that a) he wasn’t really that far ahead of us, b) he was a good-sized kid, and c) the traffic hadn’t really been all that close. Two old memories surfaced, both of him bolting in public. One ended with him punching me in the face. The other involved arguing with a stranger. These past events had hijacked the present, and underneath it all was the core emotion of fear. Fear in the moment – someone could’ve been hurt – and fear for the future – what happens the day I fail to keep one or all of us safe? I rode the wave of fear. It subsided. I then asked everyone what they liked best about the movie. I did so…I thought…to keep the anxiety at bay. I soon realized, however, that I genuinely wanted to know. I was, as Hilary would say, calm, curious, and connected. I had returned to what she calls an open-hearted state.

Does this mean that I’m all better, that poof! I waved a magic wand and the secondary traumatic stress is gone? I’d be surprised. But at least I have a few more tools for when it rears its ugly head, and for that, I thank Hilary Jacobs Hendel.

I am a solo mother of three, all adopted as older children from India, all of whom have been affected by early childhood trauma, particularly my youngest, who was diagnosed at age six with RAD, ADHD, and ODD. We had struggled along as best we could for more than two years before that, whereupon I started learning all I could about trauma and attachment. It has changed our lives for the better. Not only has it set my son on a path that could –maybe– lead to eventual healing, it taught me the type of help my eldest would need as she dealt with her own past en route to young adulthood. Perhaps best of all, it led me to ATN, who not only helped our family, but also gave me the chance to pay it forward by helping families like ours find the support they need. In my “real” job, I am a World Languages professor and department chair at a private liberal arts college in the Appalachian mountains. I have found a way to merge my passions by researching the depiction of intercountry adoption in world literature and film and guest-lecturing for education classes about diversity, inclusion, and trauma-informed instruction. In what passes for my free time, I enjoy long walks, reading, writing, playing piano, and caring for our dog and cats.

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