Depression is hard.
Parenting with depression is… a unique kind of hard. I’ve experienced this illness both before and after becoming a mother, and it’s very different for me on this side of the divide.
Before I had Arty, one of the first things I’d do when I was low was retreat. I would close myself off both figuratively and literally, by staying at home in my safe little nest, wrapped up in my own thoughts and emotions, until the storm subsided and I felt strong enough to venture forth again.
That’s a lot harder to do while parenting a toddler. They require almost constant attention, so the option to retreat or shut down simply isn’t there.
In some ways this can be a good thing. There have been many times when it’s brought be out of myself, and been both protective and restorative. But the flip side of it is that it’s been a long time since I’ve had the time or space to address what’s at the root of my recurrent feelings of sadness and anxiety. I haven’t been able to just sit with my feelings the way I know I need to in order to process them.
I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve wanted to do this and been hampered by a nagging child. I mean that I know these things take time, and are sometimes messy, and I’ve chosen to ignore them in favour of being “on” for my kid.
My recent depressive episode was my first since Arty was born, and it was also one of the most serious I’ve ever experienced. I think this was because I’d been telling myself to be brave, and strong, and not let my feelings get the better of me for such a long time. When they finally did come out, they’d steeped and intensified to a point where they had become literally unbearable.
Being a mother has made me determined to be strong, but it has also made me put more pressure on myself than is in any way healthy.
I’m very anxious about letting Arty see too much of my depression. When I’ve expressed this anxiety to my friends, most of them have tried to reassure me that it’s good for him to see his parents experience a range of emotions, and assured me that it’s ok to be sad in front of our kids. I agree with this idea wholeheartedly, but I think depression is different. It is by definition sadness that falls outside the range of healthy human emotions. It’s maladaptive, and dangerous, and I want to shield my kid from it as much as I possibly can.
My determination to protect him is so strong because I know what it’s like to be the child of a depressed parent. It’s confusing, alienating, and heartbreaking.
As a child, I felt very responsible for managing my mother’s emotions, and huge guilt if something I said or did triggered a downswing in her mood.
Her emotional state set the tone in our house, and the fact that it was so volatile and unpredictable made me very anxious.
Misplaced though it may have been, I also felt a deep sense of shame about my family. I was acutely sensitive to the presence and effects of stigma, without having the critical capacity or emotional maturity to call it what it was and shrug it off. All I knew was that my mum was different to other mums – she cried more, she was often socially isolated, she was inconsistent and unpredictable in her reactions to things – and I felt ashamed of that difference. I was marked out by it, and felt either judged, or pitied for it.
Most damaging and painful of all, was the fact that I loved my mother more than anything, and I couldn’t understand why that powerful and wholehearted love wasn’t enough to make her happy.
I want to protect my son from all of this, so I suppressed my depressive feelings, and ignored my warning signs. I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to be sad, and that I must exercise control over my emotions. I had to master myself, and defeat this awfulness.
As though it works that way.
As though I’d have told anyone I cared about to “just try harder” if they told me they were feeling the way I was.
But I was a stubborn, and I held on until I couldn’t any more.
And I cracked.
And it was awful.
Luckily for me, I wasn’t alone. SJ coordinated a small army of friends and health professionals who saw me through the crisis, and out the other side. And the other side isn’t perfect, but it’s got a therapist, it’s got my family, and I’m pretty sure that soon it’ll have more good days than bad ones.
I’m no longer working on being stronger, but truly healthier. And that’s hard too. It means confronting scary truths, changing long held habits, and letting go of some things that are painful to relinquish.
It won’t be easy, but I believe it will be ok.