What Parenting During A Depressive Episode Is Like
There are days I wake up and don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to “adult,” I don’t want to put on clothes, eat or drink, brush my hair, even get out of bed. I don’t want to live. It seems harsh when I put it that way, when I admit there are days and even weeks when I want to die, but it’s the truth. I don't idolize death and I don't think there is glory or dignity in suicide, but there are days the pain is so great and so overwhelming that I can no longer stand living. Why? Because I live this depression. It is a reality I face every day — a reality I've faced for 15 years and counting — and it's a reality I now face as a parent. I had to learn how to parent through my depression, and during depressive episodes, because giving birth didn't magically "cure me" of my depression.
I just want to be normal. I just want to be at peace. I just want to make it stop: the irrational thinking, the irritability, the rage, the loneliness, the isolation, the tears, and all my fears. Because that is what depression is: overwhelming, all-consuming, end-of-the-world emotions and extreme, all-or-nothing thinking.
For many years, this was fine. I mean, physically and emotionally, it sucked, but I could withdraw. I was able to take sick time or vacation time. I was able to stay in bed, with the blinds down and the curtains drawn, and I was able to “ride it out” (with or without the help of medication and my therapist). But when I became a mom, all of that changed. There was no way to hide. No way to explain to my toddler that I didn’t want to play dress-up; no way to explain to her that I couldn’t — I just can’t — sing another repetitive jingle about school buses or spiders or the bubonic plague.
There was no time to heal.
When you're responsible for another life, there are no timeouts. There is little to no time to meditate or self-medicate. When you're responsible for another life, there are no quiet moments. No reflective moments. And when you are responsible for the life of a toddler, there is barely time to eat — let alone time to text a friend for support or call your therapist for a follow-up, or advice. So what do I do when my daughter what's to play while her mom is in the midst of a depressive episode? What do I do when I wake up in the midst of depressive episode and my daughter wakes up equally as moody and volatile as I? How do I handle a toddler when I can barely handle myself?
I’d like to say that I had a plan, that there was a specific way I'd planned to fight my crippling depression, but I didn't then, and I don't now. Some days I get up because I want to, because her smile and laugh are a beacon of light in these dark and lonely times. Some days I get up because my husband fails to, and someone needs to get her to stop screaming and stop crying, and some days I get up because I have to, because I have a 2 year old whose life depends on my own.
Recently I found myself breaking while watching Sofia the First. I’d been struggling for a week, maybe two, but up until that moment I was pushing through. I was working, cooking, cleaning, and keeping up with most day-to-day tasks. But something hit me that morning, and as we sat on the couch — my daughter singing and dancing to the opening song — everything hurt. I was exhausted. I was empty. I was numb. And while I wasn’t having suicidal thoughts, I wasn’t having any thoughts ... at all. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t speak. All I could do was cry, long silent tears into the sleeve of my leopard print robe.
I don’t know why it hit me then — I didn’t know cartoons and cuddles could act as a catalyst for my depression — but the “when” made it worse. Why? Because I should be thankful. Because I needed to be better, to be a good parent. Because I wanted to be happy. But I couldn’t handle the idea of getting off the sofa and smiling for my daughter. I couldn’t handle the idea of getting off the sofa and sobbing in front of my daughter. I couldn’t handle the idea of taking care of my daughter — alone — for another minute ... and it scared me.
I cried out of fear. I cried out of anger. I cried out of guilt. And I cried because I was crying. Because I felt like I was a bad mom. Because I couldn’t get it together.
My daughter didn't notice. (When she watches TV, she really watches TV.) And I stopped trying to fight it. I allowed myself to feel the breadth of my emotions. I allowed myself to just feel, and eventually my mind calmed and my body settled. Eventually, the tears stopped. But the exhaustion remained. The emptiness remained.
Now that I’m parent, I have to face the reality that my daughter will see things I wish she wouldn’t, learn all too young about matters which she shouldn’t. I have to wrestle with the guilt and sadness that I am not — and may never be — the kind of mother I want to be. And I struggle with the shame that I could be destroying her youth; I worry that my depression will directly (and negatively) impact her. But I also know that, despite all this, I am still her mom. I am present when I can be: celebrating every new word she utters, every song she sings, and each and every sassy little comment she makes. (Seriously, my daughter is two going on 13.) Make no mistake: parenting through a depressive episode is hard. But thanks to my depression, my daughter is learning the power of an apology. She is learning accountability, she is learning empathy, and she is learning forgiveness.
She is learning it's OK to ask for help, and it's OK to cry.
It's estimated that 350 million people suffer from depression and approximately 19 million of those suffering are Americans. This means nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population struggles with depression, and since the rates of depression are twice as common in women as in men, this means there are many, many mothers out there who feel the same way; who face this reality each and every day.
So what do we do?
I’m lucky, in a sense. I have a gorgeous, outgoing little girl and a supportive spouse, one who tries to help even when he doesn’t know how. I have things to be thankful for, and a life to be thankful for. And while these “things” will not cure my depression — while there are days when I've plopped my daughter in front of the TV to sneak away and cry or when I leave my husband at the kitchen table so I can scream into toilet paper as tears stream down my face — without my family, I'd be worse. Far worse. They are my rock, my anchor, and my calm in this chaotic storm.
So I take it one breath, one moment, and one minute at a time.
Images Courtesy of Kimberly Zapata (3)