Depression isn’t a disease; depression is a normal response to abnormal life experiences.
The medical team, and all their friends, expected these people, who had been restored to health to react with joy. Except they didn’t react that way. The people who did best, and lost the most weight were often thrown into a brutal depression, or panic, or rage. Some of them became suicidal.
Was there anything else that happened in your life when you were eleven? Well, Susan replied that was when my grandfather began to rape me.
“Overweight is overlooked, and that’s the way I need to be.”
What we had perceived as the problem, major obesity, was in fact, very frequently, the solution to problems that the rest of us knew nothing about. Obesity, he realized, isn’t the fire. It’s the smoke.
For every category of traumatic experience you go through as a kid, you are radically more likely to become depressed as an adult. The greater the trauma, the greater your risk of depression, anxiety, or suicide.
Emotional abuse especially, is more likely to cause depression than any other kind of trauma, even sexual molestation. Being treated cruelly by your parents is the biggest driver of depression, out of all these categories.
We have failed to see depression as a symptom of something deeper that needs to be dealt with. There’s a house fire inside many of us, and we’ve been concentrating on the smoke.
When the women first came into Dr. Vincent Felitti’s office some of them found it hard to fit through the door. These patients weren’t just a bit overweight: they were eating so much that they were rendering themselves diabetic and destroying their own internal organs. They didn’t seem to be able to stop themselves. They were assigned here, to his clinic, as their last chance.
It was the mid-1980s, and in the California city of San Diego, Vincent had been commissioned by the not-for-profit medical provider Kaiser Permanente to look into the fastest-growing driver of their costs, obesity. Nothing they were trying was working, so he was given a blank sheet of paper. Start from scratch, they said. Total blue-sky thinking. Figure out what we can do to deal with this. And so the patients began to come. But what he was going to learn from them led, in fact, to a major breakthrough in a very different area: how we think about depression and anxiety.
As he tried to scrape away all the assumptions that surround obesity, Vincent learned about a new diet plan based on a maddeningly simple thought. It asked: What if these severely overweight people simply stopped eating, and lived off the fat stores they’d built up in their bodies until they were down to a normal weight? What would happen?
In the news, curiously, there had recently been an experiment in which this was tried, eight thousand miles away, for somewhat strange reasons. For years in Northern Ireland if you were put in jail for being part of the Irish Republican Army’s violent campaign to drive the British out of Northern Ireland, you were classed as a political prisoner. That meant you were treated differently from people who committed (say) bank robberies. You were allowed to wear your own clothes, and you didn’t have to perform the same work as other inmates.
The British government decided to shut down that distinction, and they argued that the prisoners were simply common criminals and shouldn’t get this different treatment anymore. So the prisoners decided to protest by going on a hunger strike. They began, slowly, to waste away.
So the designers of this new diet proposal looked into the medical evidence about these Northern Ireland hunger strikers to find out what killed them. It turns out that the first problem they faced was a lack of potassium and magnesium. Without them, your heart stops beating properly. Okay, the radical dieters thought, what if you give people supplements of potassium and magnesium? Then that doesn’t happen. If you have enough fat on you, you get a few months more to live, until a protein deficiency kills you.
Okay, what if you also give people the supplements that will prevent that? Then, it turns out, you get a year to live, provided there’s enough fat. Then you’ll die from a lack of vitamin C, scurvy, or other deficiencies.
Okay, what if you give people supplements for that, too? Then it looks as though you’ll stay alive, Vincent discovered in the medical literature, and healthy, and you’ll lose three hundred pounds a year. Then you can start eating again, at a healthy level.
All this suggested that in theory, even the most obese person would be down to a normal weight within a manageable time. The patients coming to him had been through everything, every fad diet, every shaming, every prodding and pulling. Nothing had worked. They were ready to try anything. So, under careful monitoring, and with lots of supervision, they began this program. And as the months passed, Vincent noticed something. It worked. The patients were shedding weight. They were not getting sick, in fact, they were returning to health. People who had been rendered disabled by constant eating started to see their bodies transform in front of them.
Their friends and relatives applauded. People who knew them were amazed. Vincent believed he might have found the solution to extreme overweight. “I thought my god, we’ve got this problem licked,” he said.
And then something happened that Vincent never expected.
In the program, there were some stars, people who shed remarkable amounts of weight, remarkably quickly. The medical team, and all their friends, expected these people who had been restored to health to react with joy. Except they didn’t react that way.
The people who did best, and lost the most weight were often thrown into a brutal depression, or panic, or rage. Some of them became suicidal. Without their bulk, they felt they couldn’t cope. They felt unbelievably vulnerable. They often fled the program, gorged on fast food, and put their weight back on very fast.
Vincent was baffled. They were fleeing from a healthy body they now knew they could achieve, toward an unhealthy body they knew would kill them. Why? He didn’t want to be an arrogant, moralistic doctor, standing over his patients, wagging his finger and telling them they were ruining their lives, that’s not his character. He genuinely wanted to help them save themselves. So he felt desperate. That’s why he did something no scientist in this field had done with really obese people before. He stopped telling them what to do, and started listening to them instead. He called in the people who had panicked when they started to shed the pounds, and asked them: What happened when you lost weight? How did you feel?
There was one twenty-eight-year-old woman, who I’ll call Susan to protect her medical confidentiality. In fifty-one weeks, Vincent had taken Susan down from 408 pounds to 132 pounds. It looked like he had saved her life. Then, quite suddenly, for no reason anyone could see, she put on 37 pounds in the space of three weeks. Before long, she was back above 400 pounds. So Vincent asked her gently what had changed when she started to lose weight. It seemed mysterious to both of them. They talked for a long time. There was, she said eventually, one thing. When she was very obese, men never hit on her, but when she got down to a healthy weight, one day she was propositioned by a man, a colleague who she happened to know was married. She fled, and right away began to eat compulsively, and she couldn’t stop.
This was when Vincent thought to ask a question he hadn’t asked his patients before. When did you start to put on weight? If it was (say) when you were thirteen, or when you went to college, why then, and not a year before, or a year after?
Susan thought about the question. She had started to put on weight when she was eleven years old, she said. So he asked: Was there anything else that happened in your life when you were eleven? Well, Susan replied that was when my grandfather began to rape me.
Vincent began to ask all his patients these three simple questions. How did you feel when you lost weight? When in your life did you start to put on weight? What else happened around that time? As he spoke to the 183 people on the program, he started to notice some patterns. One woman started to rapidly put on weight when she was twenty-three. What happened then? She was raped. She looked at the ground after she confessed this, and said softly: “Overweight is overlooked, and that’s the way I need to be.”
“I was incredulous,” he told me when I sat with him in San Diego. “It seemed every other person I was asking was acknowledging such a history. I kept thinking, it can’t be. People would know if this was true. Somebody would’ve told me. Isn’t that what medical school is for?” When five of his colleagues came in to conduct further interviews, it turned out some 55 percent of the patients in the program had been sexually abused, far more than people in the wider population. And even more, including most of the men, had had severely traumatic childhoods.
Many of these women had been making themselves obese for an unconscious reason: to protect themselves from the attention of men, who they believed would hurt them. Being very fat stops most men from looking at you that way. It works. It was when he was listening to another grueling account of sexual abuse that it hit Vincent. He told me later:
“What we had perceived as the problem, major obesity, was in fact, very frequently, the solution to problems that the rest of us knew nothing about.”
Vincent began to wonder if the anti-obesity programs, including his own, had been doing it all wrong, by (for example) giving out nutritional advice. Obese people didn’t need to be told what to eat; they knew the nutritional advice better than he did. They needed someone to understand why they ate. After meeting a person who had been raped, he told me, “I thought with a tremendously clear insight that sending this woman to see a dietitian to learn how to eat right would be grotesque.”
Far from teaching the obese people, he realized they were the people who could teach him what was really going on. So he gathered the patients in groups of around fifteen, and asked them: “Why do you think people get fat? Not how. How is obvious. I’m asking why. What are the benefits?” Encouraged to think about it for the first time, they told him. The answers came in three different categories. The first was that it is sexually protective: men are less interested in you, so you are safer. The second was that it is physically protective: for example, in the program there were two prison guards, who lost between 100 and 150 pounds each. Suddenly, as they shed their bulk, they felt much more vulnerable among the prisoners, they could be more easily beaten up. To walk through those cell blocks with confidence, they explained, they needed to be the size of a refrigerator.
And the third category was that it reduced people’s expectations of them. “You apply for a job weighing four hundred pounds, people assume you’re stupid, lazy,” Vincent said. If you’ve been badly hurt by the world, and sexual abuse is not the only way this can happen, you often want to retreat. Putting on a lot of weight is, paradoxically, a way of becoming invisible to a lot of humanity.
“When you look at a house burning down, the most obvious manifestation is the huge smoke billowing out,” he told me. It would be easy, then, to think that the smoke is the problem, and if you deal with the smoke, you’ve solved it. But “thank God that fire departments understand that the piece that you treat is the piece you don’t see, the flames inside, not the smoke billowing out. Otherwise, house fires would be treated by bringing big fans to blow the smoke away. [And that would] make the house burn down faster.”
Obesity, he realized, isn’t the fire. It’s the smoke.
One day, Vincent went to a medical conference dedicated to obesity to present his findings. After he had spoken, a doctor stood up in the audience and explained: “People who are more familiar with these matters recognize that these statements by patients describing their sexual abuse, are basically fabrications, to provide a cover for their failed lives. It turned out people treating obesity had noticed before that a disproportionate number of obese people described being abused. They just assumed that they were making excuses.
Vincent was horrified. He had in fact verified the abuse claims of many of his patients, by talking to their relatives, or to law enforcement officials who had investigated them. But he knew he didn’t have hard scientific proof yet to rebut people like this. His impressions from talking to individual patients, even gathering the figures from within his group, didn’t prove much. He wanted to gather proper scientific data. So he teamed up with a scientist named Dr. Robert Anda, who had specialized for years in the study of why people do self-destructive things like smoking. Together, funded by the Center for Disease Control, a major US. agency funding medical research, they drew up a way of testing all this, to see if it was true beyond the small sample of people in Vincent’s program.
They called it the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, and it’s quite simple. It’s a questionnaire. You are asked about ten different categories of terrible things that can happen to you when you’re a kid, from being sexually abused, to being emotionally abused, to being neglected. And then there’s a detailed medical questionnaire, to test for all sorts of things that could be going wrong with you, like obesity, or addiction. One of the things they added to the list, almost as an afterthought, was the question: Are you suffering from depression?
This survey was then given to seventeen thousand people who were seeking health care, for a whole range of reasons, from Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. The people who filled in the form were somewhat wealthier and a little older than the general population, but otherwise fairly representative of the city’s population.
When the results came in, they added them up, at first, to see if there were any correlations.
It turned out that for every category of traumatic experience you went through as a kid, you were radically more likely to become depressed as an adult. If you had six categories of traumatic events in your childhood, you were five times more likely to become depressed as an adult than somebody who didn’t have any. If you had seven categories of traumatic events as a child, you were 3,100 percent more likely to attempt to commit suicide as an adult.
“When the results came out, I was in a state of disbelief,” Dr. Anda told me. “I looked at it and I said, really? This can’t be true.” You just don’t get figures like this in medicine very often. Crucially, they hadn’t just stumbled on proof that there is a correlation, that these two things happen at the same time. They seemed to have found evidence that these traumas help cause these problems. How do we know? The greater the trauma, the greater your risk of depression, anxiety, or suicide. The technical term for this is “dose-response effect.” The more cigarettes you smoke, the more your risk of lung cancer goes up, that’s one reason we know smoking causes cancer. In the same way, the more you were traumatized as a child, the more your risk of depression rises.
Curiously, it turned out emotional abuse was more likely to cause depression than any other kind of trauma, even sexual molestation. Being treated cruelly by your parents was the biggest driver of depression, out of all these categories.
When they showed the results to other scientists, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who cofunded the research, they too were incredulous. “The study shocked people,” Dr. Anda told me. “People didn’t want to believe it. People at the CDC didn’t want to believe it. There was resistance within the CDC when I brought the data around, and the medical journals, initially, didn’t want to believe it, because it was so astonishing that they had to doubt it. Because it made them challenge the way they thought about childhood. It challenged so many things, all at one time.” In the years that followed, the study has been replicated many times, and it always finds similar results. But we have barely begun, Vincent told me, to think through its implications.
So Vincent, as he absorbed all this, came to believe that we have been making the same mistake with depression that he had been making before with obesity. We have failed to see it as a symptom of something deeper that needs to be dealt with. There’s a house fire inside many of us, Vincent had come to believe, and we’ve been concentrating on the smoke.
Many scientists and psychologists had been presenting depression as an irrational malfunction in your brain or in your genes, but he learned that Allen Barbour, an internist at Stanford University, had said that depression isn’t a disease; depression is a normal response to abnormal life experiences. “I think that’s a very important idea,” Vincent told me. “It takes you beyond the comforting, limited idea that the reason I’m depressed is I have a serotonin imbalance, or a dopamine imbalance, or what have you.” It is true that something is happening in your brain when you become depressed, he says, but that “is not a causal explanation”; it is “a necessary intermediary mechanism.”
Some people don’t want to see this because, at least at first, “it’s more comforting,” Vincent said, to think it’s all happening simply because of changes in the brain. “It takes away an experiential process and substitutes a mechanistic process.” It turns your pain into a trick of the light that can be banished with drugs. But they don’t ultimately solve the problem, he says, any more than just getting the obese patients to stop eating solved their problems. “Medications have a role,” he told me. “Are they the ultimate be and end-all? No. Do they sometimes short-change people? Absolutely.”
To solve the problem for his obese patients, Vincent said, they had all realized, together, that they had to solve the problems that were leading them to eat obsessively in the first place. So he set up support groups where they could discuss the real reasons why they ate and talk about what they had been through. Once that was in place, far more people became able to keep going through the fasting program and stay at a safe weight. He was going to start exploring a way to do this with depression, with startling results.
More than anyone else I spoke to about the hidden causes of depression, Vincent made me angry. After I met with him, I went to the beach in San Diego and raged against what he had said. I was looking hard for reasons to dismiss it. Then I asked myself. Why are you so angry about this? It seemed peculiar, and I didn’t really understand it. Then, as I discussed it with some people I trust, I began to understand.
If you believe that your depression is due solely to a broken brain, you don’t have to think about your life, or about what anyone might have done to you. The belief that it all comes down to biology protects you, in a way, for a while. If you absorb this different story, though, you have to think about those things. And that hurts.
I asked Vincent why he thinks traumatic childhoods so often produce depressed and anxious adults, and he said that he honestly doesn’t know. He’s a good scientist. He didn’t want to speculate. But I think I might know, although it goes beyond anything I can prove scientifically.
When you are a child and you experience something really traumatic, you almost always think it is your fault. There’s a reason for this, and it’s not irrational; like obesity, it is, in fact, a solution to a problem most people can’t see. When I was young, my mother was ill a lot, and my father was mostly gone, usually in a different country. In the chaos of that, I experienced some extreme acts of violence from an adult in my life. For example, I was strangled with an electrical cord on one occasion. By the time I was sixteen, I left to go and live in another city, away from any adults I knew, and when I was there, I found myself, like many people who have been treated this way at a formative age, seeking out dangerous situations where I was again treated in ways I should not have been treated.
Even now, as a thirty-seven-year-old adult, I feel like writing this down, and saying it to you, is an act of betrayal of the adult who carried out these acts of violence, and the other adults who behaved in ways they shouldn’t have.
I know you can’t figure out who these people are from what I’ve written. I know that if I saw an adult strangling a child with an electrical cord, it would not even occur to me to blame the child, and that if I heard somebody try to suggest such a thing, I would assume they were insane. I know rationally where the real betrayal lies in this situation. But still, I feel it. It’s there, and that feeling almost stopped me from saying this.
Why do so many people who experience violence in childhood feel the same way? Why does it lead many of them to self-destructive behavior, like obesity, or hard core addiction, or suicide? I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. When you’re a child, you have very little power to change your environment. You can’t move away, or force somebody to stop hurting you. So you have two choices. You can admit to yourself that you are powerless, that at any moment, you could be badly hurt, and there’s simply nothing you can do about it. Or you can tell yourself it’s your fault. If you do that, you actually gain some power, at least in your own mind. If it’s your fault, then there’s something you can do that might make it different. You aren’t a pinball being smacked around a pinball machine. You’re the person controlling the machine. You have your hands on the dangerous levers.
In this way, just like obesity protected those women from the men they feared would rape them, blaming yourself for your childhood traumas protects you from seeing how vulnerable you were and are. You can become the powerful one. If it’s your fault, it’s under your control.
But that comes at a cost. If you were responsible for being hurt, then at some level, you have to think you deserved it. A person who thinks they deserved to be injured as a child isn’t going to think they deserve much as an adult, either.
This is no way to live. But it’s a misfiring of the thing that made it possible for you to survive at an earlier point in your life.
You might have noticed that this cause of depression and anxiety is a little different from the ones I have discussed up to now, and it’s different from the ones I’m going to discuss next.
As I mentioned before, most people who have studied the scientific evidence accept that there are three different kinds of causes of depression and anxiety, biological, psychological, and social. The causes I’ve discussed up to now, and will come back to in a moment, are environmental. I’ll come to biological factors soon.
But childhood trauma belongs in a different category. It’s a psychological cause. By discussing it here, I’m hoping childhood trauma can indicate toward the many other psychological causes of depression that are too specific to be discussed in a big, broad way. The ways our psyches can be damaged are almost infinite. I know somebody whose wife cheated on him for years with his best friend and who became deeply depressed when he found out. I know somebody who survived a terror attack and was almost constantly anxious for a decade after. I know someone whose mother was perfectly competent and never cruel to her but was relentlessly negative and taught her always to see the worst in people and to keep them at a distance. You can’t squeeze these experiences into neat categories, it wouldn’t make sense to list “adultery,” “terror attacks,” or “cold parents” as causes of depression and anxiety.
But here’s what we know.
Psychological damage doesn’t have to be as extreme as childhood violence to affect you profoundly. Your wife cheating on you with your best friend isn’t a malfunction in your brain. But it is a cause of deep psychological distress, and it can cause depression and anxiety. If you are ever told a story about these problems that doesn’t talk about your personal psychology, don’t take it seriously.
Dr. Anda, one of the pioneers of this research, told me it had forced him to turn his thinking about depression and other problems inside out.
“When people have these kind of problems, it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with them,” he said, “and time to start asking what happened to them.”