What My 6-Year-Old Son Said About My Depression Filled Me With Hope
I knew, one day, I'd have to talk to my kids about depression. I’ve been depressed since I was 7. I developed a severe anxiety disorder from the same time: I thought no one liked me; I obsessed over being accused of cheating; I thought drug dealers would break in my house and kill me in my bed. I thought my entire family would unexpectedly die. Not surprisingly, I had insomnia. In high school, I thought my friends hated me. I cut my wrists, the first time, in French class, with a plastic ruler. I stopped eating in hopes that someone would notice, then "upped my game" with bulimia. No one noticed, at least not in the way I needed (with psychological help, possibly inpatient treatment). College was better, but I still had episodes of cutting and disordered eating. I didn’t get better until I met my husband.
But “better,” for a major depressive, is a relative term. I was medicated, and for a while, I was happy. But what the drugs don’t tell you is this: eventually, they will probably stop working. And you will need more. And more. And more.
By the time I was 34, with three sons aged 6, 4, and 2, I was on six separate psychiatric medications, including a potent antipsychotic with a secondary treatment for depression. I’d been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, severe anxiety disorder, then treatment-resistant depression, then ADD, then bipolar disorder, type 1. I have good days. I have bad days.
The good days look like this: We wake up and have breakfast. I write; my three sons watch cartoons. We homeschool, so we start with math on the computer, then an Arnold Lobel emergent reader book (our favorite is Frog and Toad). We read a book for social studies and go outside for science. Sometimes, some composition occurs on the kids’ part. I make scrambled eggs for lunch and write some more. We go out in the afternoons. I work on training our puppy. Life is good, and quiet, and runs on smooth-tread wheels.
My whole life, when I told someone about my depression, that’s all I wanted to hear. I heard it from my husband. Now I’d heard it from my son. I felt tears prickle.
Then there are bad days. I wake up pissed off and put out by any request by my kids. That includes normal requests for breakfasts. I rant about how messy the house has become; I won’t let my 2-and-half year old nurse. We do school, but I am impatient when Blaise, my oldest son, forgets his words. I begin to feel worthless, like I am a horrible parent, like I am failing. I feel like as though I should put them in school. I often think I should kill myself, because I’m no good at any of this and they’d be better off without me. Sometimes I cry in the back room. I fantasize about driving off a bridge as we cruise down the interstate. I don’t notice the dog destroying our personal property in the corner, or the kids drawing on the walls. When my husband comes home from teaching, I toss him my kids and run back to bed.
My oldest son knows some of this. He has to; I change so radically, and the bad days come about once a week. He needs to know about what happens and why.
“You know what depression is, right, buddy?” I ask.
“Not really,” Blaise said one day.
“It’s when Mama gets really, really sad. And that means that Mama gets really, really cranky too, because she’s so stressed out it comes out in crankiness. It means I sometimes yell when I don’t want to, or shout when you don’t deserve it.”
“Like yesterday,” he says. I'd had a particularly bad day the day before, full of yelling. When I explained to Blaise my moods and feelings, together we make a pact that no one in the house would yell or put their hands on each other. I made the kids police me just as I policed them. It worked, somewhat. If I yelled, they told me sternly, "Mama, this is a no-yelling day!" I did the same thing for them, and they took it very seriously.
To make me a good parent is the first goal, the most important goal. But in the end, my son loves me the way I am. The good, the bad, the mess. He loves me. And I can never be grateful enough.
“Depression is when Mama’s sick,” I said. “Like if I had a cold or the flu. It just sort of never ends. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It just means I’m sick.” He thought for a minute. I watched his face. His brow furrowed. He chewed his lip. “It’s OK, Mama,” Blaise said. “I still love you.”
My whole life, when I told someone about my depression, that’s all I wanted to hear. I heard it from my husband. Now I’d heard it from my son. I felt tears prickle. “I love you too, buddy,” I said.
“Mama, are you crying? Is that your depression?” Blaise asked.
“No, baby. It’s a happy cry,” I said. And it was. I had spent my whole life looking for people who accepted me the way I was, and frequently, that meant accepting me at the depths of my depression. I had only found three people so far: my grandmother, who died when I was 13; my best friend Smith, who died when we were 19; and my husband. But now, my eldest son was offering something precious, something amazing. Something he didn't understand, but gave anyway.
My children will grow up with a depressed parent. This will put them at risk of certain disorders themselves, including anxiety and depression themselves. In response, we watch them carefully. We watch for OCD. We watch for overly-obsessive sadness. We watch for excessive worry. But most of all, I visit my psychiatrist. To make me a good parent is the first goal, the most important goal. But in the end, my son loves me the way I am. The good, the bad, the mess. He loves me. And I can never be grateful enough.