Parenting While Depressed: Navigating a Battlefield (Part 2)

Last post I was telling you about my discussion with my daughter. There’ve been a few other discussions since that big one, but mostly she’s just accepted that depression is just part of who I am like asthma is part of who she is.

It was a little scary to be so honest with her. She’s still a baby in many ways. She depends on me to be the adult, to always have everything under control. And if you suffer with this disease, you know that that isn’t always possible. Some days it takes every ounce of energy just to paint on a fake smile and zombie-walk through the day. And I didn’t want my baby reading through that war paint to see the pain.

drowning

I struggle with the fear that she’s going to feel responsible for making me “happy” every day. The truth is, she and her brother do make me happy every day. Seeing the people that they are becoming is incredibly rewarding. It isn’t always as simple, however, as seeing happy things when you get into a depressive state. And I really didn’t want my girl to see the way depression eats at me and feel like it’s somehow her fault.

It’s easy to say that depression isn’t caused by outside influences and that it is no one’s fault, but that is a really hard concert for a child. Especially one as sensitive as my daughter. She hasn’t come right out and asked me yet if she is what makes me sad, but I do my best to tell her as often as I can how truly happy I am to be her mom.

I think it’s so important for those of us suffering with mental illness to make sure the people in our lives know they aren’t responsible. And it’s hard, because sometimes our actions say otherwise. Sometimes, when we just can’t handle being around others, or when our depression saps our patience, we lash out without cause. Those actions can wound a child or loved one for a very long time. While they might understand that it isn’t really us, it doesn’t stop the hurt.

The secondary hurt that depression can cause is one of the things I struggle with most. They call it a family disease, because everyone suffers with you: family, close friends, even your pets. But I hate that. I hate that there are days I don’t want to get out of bed and my kids see that and think that I don’t want to spend time with them. I hate that that thought is ever in their heads. No amount of open discussion will change that, either. It is there and it is a real side effect of suffering with this disease.

But being honest with her during that discussion was actually really empowering. When I am having a bad day and end up being short with her, later I can go back and apologize and explain what happened. It’s no excuse, and I make sure to tell her that. But it helps her understand, and hopefully will give her a vocabulary to voice her own emotions should she ever be in the same situation.

Of course, part of the worry that accompanies depression is that one or more of my kids will end up suffering with it as well. Clinical Depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, has been linked to a recently isolated gene, known as the Depression gene. It means that if you have a parent diagnosed with Clinical Depression, you are five times more likely to suffer from it than someone else. And that scares the shit out of me.

No one wants their kids to suffer. Ever. And knowing that there’s a possibility one or both of them could suffer from this illness makes me lose my mind. There is nothing worse than suffering from invisible demons that tell you all day long how much you suck. I’m wrong. There is something worse: knowing your kid is suffering from that as well.

children

I can’t stop it from happening, and as a mom that infuriates me. Yes, I let my kids do karate and climb rocks and do all manner of things that might cause injury. But standing by while they get their hearts broken day in and day out? Nope. Not a happy momma bear. The best I can do, however, is give them a vocabulary to ask for help. To know that they are not weak or damaged if their brains one day betray them with a lack of serotonin and cause nasty, depressive thoughts. I can show them the ways to get help: with therapy, the support of family and friends, and medicine if that’s what it takes. And I can be brave when they ask me for honesty.

It’s the best I can do, and I just hope it is enough.

If you think that your child may be suffering from depression, here is a link to some resources that outline symptoms to look for, case studies on some of the medications that are out there, and where to find help. Don’t ignore your instincts; if you think your child needs help, seek it out. It could be the best thing you ever do for them.

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Parenting While Depressed: Navigating a Battlefield (Part 1)

“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.

girl

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.)

mom and daughter

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!

My People; My Arsenal

I have this friend. Really, she’s the sister that I never had growing up. We just met like three months ago, or maybe now it’s three years (that’s an inside joke, by the way). Anyway, in the grand scheme of things, we’ve known each other only a fraction of our lives. And yet, she is one of the most important people in my life. And I’m going to tell you why.

I was having one of those weeks. If you have depression and anxiety, you need no further explanation. For the rest of you, let me expound. Something triggered my anxiety. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I was revved up beyond even what I normally consider high alert. It was really bad: cold sweats, heart racing painfully, irregular breathing, and this overwhelming inability to concentrate on anything.

anxiety

It’s exhausting, physically and mentally. When you get that way, you cannot come down. Simply holding it together for an hour long play date is like running a marathon, but no matter how tired you get, you can’t get into low gear enough to truly rest. Sure, you might sleep, but you wake up just as exhausted because the entire time you are running away from the voices in your dreams. The anxiety follows you everywhere.

When it gets bad like this, I will admit that my coping mechanisms are not the healthiest. I stress eat. I drink more than I should. I’ve engaged in cutting behavior. But it all boils down to the fact that I hide. The stress of dealing with that anxiety is so extreme that I go into self-preservation mode. And I tend to pull away from friends and family. I know that I’m in no shape to be a good friend to anyone and I can’t summon the fortitude to ask for help. So I just wait it out in the bunker of my subconscious until the tornado passes and I can pick up the pieces.

At least that’s how it worked before I had a person.

Do you watch Grey’s Anatomy? I actually don’t, but I kind of love the friendship between Meredith and Christina. I’ve seen enough of it on Tumblr and Pinterest to know the gist of it, but my favorite part of their friendship is this little phrase that they pass back and forth to each other: “You’re my person.” It’s kind of become a thing for my best friend and me.

I’m lucky enough to have a couple “people” in my life, not just my surrogate sister. They work in very different ways to keep me semi-sane and functioning. The truth is I’m not easy to work with. In fact, I’m kind of a bitch. I fight against help when I’m in a bad place and I seldom reach out when I really should. I wear this mask, exhausting though it may be, to hide the pain and appear normal. It protects me from the reality that I’m really not coping well. It protects me from the knowledge that in those moments, I’m about as far from OK as one could get.

My people can see through the mask with little more than a glance and keep me from self-destructing. Everyone needs different things in life and in the midst of anxiety attacks; knowing what one person might need is an incomparable gift. Sometimes, it’s as simple as pulling the person out of their own head for five minutes so they can just breathe.

I’m not saying that it always works. There are times when they try their best to pull me out and I only retreat further. There’ve been times when they’ve tag-teamed me just to get a result. In the end, I’m here. I’m writing this blog for you. And in many ways, I owe that to my people: my personal arsenal against a truly badass opponent.

friend

Thank you. I know you know who you are.

Battling Invisible Wraiths

As I poured the second tall glass of whiskey into my tumbler last night, I knew I was in for a long one. I’d been here loads of times before: mind rushing in fifteen different directions with no end in sight. Anxiety, man… It’s a bitch.

Yup.

I don’t come across as the anxious type most of the time. I’m a laid back mom when it comes to my kids’ choices, electing to let them make their own mistakes as long as they don’t break their necks in the process. But I have a monster inside of me, nonetheless. Or perhaps monster is too big of a word. Wraith might be better.

 

It’s so quiet, the way the thoughts take over. One minute you’re having the best time with someone you love and the next, this insidious voice in your head has convinced you that you’re a stupid buffoon who no one wants to be around. It’s the same voice that keeps me smiling and laughing at a party long after I’ve exceeded my delicate introvert tolerance for people and noise. And the same one that keeps me from calling up old friends because “why in hell would they want to talk to me?”

 

The combo of anxiety and depression is a double whammy that so many people live with. I’m not here as an apologist for my quirky behavior, or even to make you understand other people’s behavior. They truth is, everyone’s experience with these illnesses is unique. I am here to write about my experiences with this disease and try to understand my own recovery process. And if my journey toward recovery helps someone else, all the better. If, perchance, my experiences help you to understand me or someone you love better, I will be thrilled.

 

What we want

 

I know I can’t speak for everyone here. Hell, I barely know what I want on a day to day basis. But I think I have a generally sound idea what depression suffers most want from people they love. And it isn’t a cure, surprisingly. It seems that everyone assumes that, because as soon as you tell someone you’re depressed, they give you a laundry list of things you need to change in order to “get better.”

 

It probably seems to those on the outside that we don’t want to get better. After all, you hand us these nuggets of wisdom about positive thinking and the power of choice and we just stare at you as though you are speaking a foreign language. The reason I look at my “positive thinking” friends so deridingly when they say things like this is because I fucking am being positive. You see me standing here, right? I’m out of bed! I’m dressed! There’s something that resembles a smile on my face! Do you have any idea the amount of positive thinking I had to do to accomplish that? I want a damn medal.

 

What we want, what I want, is validation. When you feel like everything inside of you is being held together with pins, needles, and a little bit of week old duct tape, you can’t see that on the outside everything looks normal. You feel on the brink of falling apart. You feel like you are two steps from the hospital because everything hurts, nothing feels good, and you just want to curl up in the dark and let it all fester. So when we reach out and say, “I am hurting,” all we want is for someone to tell us that they can see the pain, it is valid and true, and that their friendship won’t go away.

 

I know what you are probably thinking right now. If I tell my depressed friend that their pain is valid, that it is ok, they will just continue feeling that way. I need to fix it.

 

Newsflash: we’re gonna keep feeling that way whether you validate it or not. Chronic depression is not something you turn a light switch on and magically make disappear. It is not something you can tickle out of someone. And despite what you may think, it doesn’t go away just because the sufferer is smiling and happy. It’s a cancer that eats at us, as real as any disease that eats away at a human, just silent and deadly invisible.

 

The greatest gift a friend ever gave to me was acceptance. I struggle terribly with feeling weak. Most people do, but I pathologically fear appearing weak in front of people that I value. So the decision to let someone inside these walls, to show them just how bad it can be, takes weeks of indecision and anxiety. I have about two people on my inner circle. And it was the last person I told who gave me my greatest gift.

 

I expected pity. I expected to be met with understanding and perhaps sympathy. I never expected the words that I received. “Jen, I know you’re fucked up. I’m fucked up too. And I love you because of that, not in spite of it.”

This is lovely.

Do you see what they did there? “I love you because of it.” Holy shit, they love me because of my depression and anxiety! What a jerk!

 

No, not exactly. They love all of the parts that make up me: the quirky, inappropriate humor, the indecision, the fear of being forgotten, and yes, even the depression. They love me because those things make me into the person that I am. And they saw that and accepted that. It was a first, and it started me on this long journey toward finally accepting it in myself.