Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Will I ever be free from bouts of severe depression?

Dear Virginia, I had a hard childhood. My mother was an alcoholic, my father beat me, and my only friend, my brother, died two years ago. I have managed to become a teacher, and enjoy my job. But I suffer bouts of severe depression and I think my immune system is very low – I get every cough and cold going. My therapist says that until I experience the trauma of my past, I'll never feel really well – but it seems an impossible task. I know you've been depressed in the past. Can you help? - Yours sincerely, Rodney

Therapy is like religion. There are hundreds and hundreds of different kinds, and many of them are directly opposed to each other. You've got re-birthing therapy, psychodrama, psychosynthesis, Jungian, Freudian, CBT, neuro-linguistic programming – and that's just a tiny fraction of what's on offer. I say this because I think that the moment has come when you actually have to question whether the therapist you're seeing is the right one for you. Maybe it's time to stop. Or maybe it's time to change to a different type that would be more helpful.

There are several ways to deal with your wretched past. One is to deny it completely and not think about it at all. Oddly, this works extremely well for some people. Others find that the pain of it pops up in odd ways, such as dysfunctional relationships or illnesses. Another way of dealing with it is to try to forgive your parents and abusers for their actions and then try to move on. Another – the one your therapist favours – is to relive the trauma and deal with it as the adult you are rather than the child you were. This is a seductive model and one particularly favoured by therapists who like to hang on to their clients in a state of permanent misery. Another way is to say to yourself: "That was then, now is now." Or you can try to simply accept that you had a ghastly childhood, feel sorry and sad about it, but realise there's nothing you can do about it and try to start living.

Of all those I prefer the last. And of all those the one I hate most is the one your therapist is encouraging. There is a theory now that reliving these experiences is actually damaging. All you are doing is re-traumatising yourself, again and again, keeping yourself stuck in a cycle of pain.

You're a bright chap, clearly. You've managed to become a teacher and no doubt, by helping young children, you are in a way trying to heal yourself. No bad thing. Most people in the caring professions have this agenda going on underneath it all. Nurturing is what they are good at, possibly because they want to pass on to others what they didn't have themselves, or because they have spent a lifetime trying to heal unhealable parents. The nurturing instinct is a gift that sometimes comes through received pain.

Sticking with this therapist is rather like sticking with an abusive parent. You are constantly trying to fit in with her model and tie yourself in knots to undergo some epiphany of pain that will make her feel her theories are correct. Breaking away from him or her and towards a therapist who is more nurturing and supportive of you will actually be one of your first moves towards a life less dogged by depression. Rather than visit someone whose model you can never quite satisfy, who always makes you feel like a therapeutic failure, try someone who likes you for yourself, and tells you positive and more realistic aspects of yourself, and the surprising gifts that have come through your wretched past.

Readers say...

Get a new therapist

I really congratulate you on forging ahead through the debris of your difficult past and becoming a teacher. This is commendable and you are very brave. I think you are with the wrong kind of therapist. You don't need to go through your past again. Although this sort of therapy (probably psychoanalytical) might suit some clients who are in denial, this isn't for you. You need to be with a therapist who can build up your self-esteem by celebrating your strengths and bravery.

You are intelligent, with will power and initiative. With the right therapist, possibly a Rogerian one who encourages "Unconditional Positive Regard", you can begin to believe in yourself again and let go of the past. - Stephanie Sorrell (MA psychosynthesis psychology) By email

You can forgive

My heart goes out to you. When I read your letter I immediately identified with your situation. My childhood was spent dealing with my father's alcoholic mood swings and the ensuing poverty that resulted from his drinking. As an adult my immunity seems to have gone downhill. I have often thought the two are connected, this being the emotional expressed through the physical.

You are feeling low but I think you need to remind yourself how far you have come. Don't underestimate the importance of your achievements. You are grieving for your brother as well as the childhood you lost and you need support. I am not sure your therapist's advice is very helpful.

Whatever has happened in your life you must come to terms with in your own space and time. A book that helped me immeasurably is Louise L Hay's, You Can Heal Your Life. She offers practical solutions to what often feel like insurmountable problems. I am still working on forgiving my parents (yes, this includes my mother, too) and building a life for myself. I feel you have a great deal of strength and potential to heal the past and come to terms with those memories. You are a survivor and will find your own way, but please make sure you have the right support there for you. - Nae B, By email

Learn to heal yourself

Like you, Rodney, I became a teacher, and enjoyed it. This was only small relief from persistent bouts of depression – until the last few years. I could go back to my relationship with my mother and her inability to express love – which didn't stop her from loading onto me expectations of success and achievement to help compensate for her life's "defeats". I say all this to show that I knew all I needed to know, without having to experience the trauma of the past.

If you've any self-awareness – and you clearly have – ask yourself whet-her you (or your therapist?) will benefit more from the journey into your past. Like you, I was always either ill or "fighting something" and it was suggested that I should do the type of confrontation being proposed for you. Instead, I opted for CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and the active "busy-ness" of this therapy worked far more favourably for me than the relative "passivity" of the therapy being suggested for you. - Dr Peter, By email


Dear Virginia,

I've been with my boyfriend for two years, since university, and we've talked about moving in together. But I feel he's getting cold feet. He keeps making excuses, saying he wants to stay in his flat until the lease runs out, and that he wants to go abroad on his own for six months before settling down. At a party, I actually saw him taking down the number of another girl. He said he was just drunk, but I was upset. I love him so much, but feel he doesn't love me. What shall I do? - Yours sincerely, Sheena

What would you advise Sheena to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to, or go to Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a Belgian Chocolate Selection by Amelie Chocolat (