“Mom, whatcha doing?”
We were standing in the bathroom first thing in the morning. I was barely awake, but my then 8-year-old was wide awake. And curious. Normally, I answer her questions without any hesitation, but that one was a little different. See, I was taking my anti-depressants and I knew this question wouldn’t be cut and dry. And I knew the way I handled it could affect her perspective on mental health for the rest of her life.
I could pass it off as vitamins, which wouldn’t have been totally false. One of my pills is Vitamin D, so yeah… I could rationalize the shit out of that. But in the back of my head, it would still be lying to my kid and I am never cool with that.
I could tell her that it’s medicine and not explain anything further. She had severe asthma when she was little, so daily medication isn’t a big deal in her world. It’s kind of par for the course. But she wouldn’t let me get away with that kind of over-generalization and I knew it was a cowardly approach anyway.
I could flat out lie and tell her it was for allergies or some other such nonsense. But again, with the lying to my kid. It’s just not in me, and really … what kind of message does that send?
I’ll tell you what message it sends: that depression is something we have to hide and that medicating for it is something bad or dirty. That is the last thing I want her thinking. Depression already has enough of a stigma in society; my little girl doesn’t need her own mother silently pushing that stigma onto it as well.
“I’m taking some medication that helps me feel better,” I said. “Sometimes, I have a hard time being happy, even when I should. This medicine helps me feel more normal and enjoy every day more.”
She looked at me for a few seconds before nodding and saying OK. She asked if I was happy right that moment, and I smiled, hugged her and said yes. It wasn’t a lie.
The hardest part of being a depressed parent is the fact that this illness can steal away the joy of watching your kids grow up. My littles are still really young: 9 and 5 right now. They are going through some huge milestones right now: losing teeth, riding bikes for the first time, going off to kindergarten, sleepovers, and on and on and on. They are constantly filled with joy and wonder. And they are exhausting little buggers when you are trying your best to just hold your life together as it threatens to fall apart at the seams. This discussion definitely counted as one of the more exhausting aspects of parenting.
It didn’t end with the med talk, of course. She’s not a rapid fire interrogator. She likes to let things marinate. So we revisited the topic several times that week. It went a little like this, spaced out over several days.
Q: Why aren’t you happy when you should be happy?
A: Well, that’s kind of complicated, honey. I have something called depression and it sometimes makes it hard for me to be happy.
Q: Hold up. What’s depression?
A: (We googled that shit. She wanted a technical definition and I needed help.)
Q: But if you’re supposed to be happy, why aren’t you? I don’t get it.
A: Yeah. Me either. And it kind of sucks. *This was met with giggles and a little disbelief. But I assured her I was not pulling her leg. I really didn’t fully understand what was wrong with my brain. Which led to this next gem.
Q: Is your brain sick?
A: No. And yes. That’s complicated, too. I’m not sick like you are when you have an asthma attack. But yeah. There are chemicals in my brain that aren’t in the right balance and that is why I take medication to help equalize that.
Q: Does it hurt?
A: (This was hard for me. If you have depression, you know it fucking hurts. But she’s my baby and I don’t want her worrying, which she would. But lying again… So here is what I came up with.) It hurts that I see other people happy and I know I should be but I’m not. It hurts to fake it sometimes when I can’t actually be happy. And sometimes, I get a little overwhelmed. But it isn’t exactly physical. (Yeah, that’s a little bit of a lie. But I’m ok with it, because that’s protecting her… And no, that’s not a rationalization. She doesn’t need to worry that I’m aching inside.)
Q: When’s it going to get better?
A: Just like you’re always going to have asthma, I’m always going to have depression. But some days are better than others. Some days are really stinking awesome. And some days just stink. But I’m doing the best I can to not let it affect me being your mom.
The end of all of this was that my daughter and I had a really open and honest discussion about mental health. I want to talk more about how the decision to be upfront with her affected my depression and anxiety, but this post is already hella long. And so, Part 2 will post in a day or two. Stay tuned!