According to the American Psychological Association, depression affects more than 19 million Americans each year. Women are at least twice as likely as men to experience a major depressive episode within a lifetime. So how does one mother when struggling with this condition?
I was first diagnosed with anxiety and depression (skewing more on the anxiety end of the spectrum) in the Spring of 2005. I was smack in the middle of my hardest year of teaching fifth grade, and I ended up in my doctor’s office after experiencing on-going panic attacks, heart palpitations, and regular “low” episodes that I just couldn’t shake. Eventually I started medication that I stayed on for two years. By 2007 I had left teaching and adopted a regular exercise routine; my doctor and I agreed that I was ready to try managing my condition without medication. Overall, our plan worked. I still had some low days (particularly in the weeks following the birth of my son), but I was always able to pull myself back up.
Until about two months ago, shortly after I left my position as editor here at RVANews and began my life as a (mostly) stay-at-home mother to my now two-year-old son. You see, my depression and anxiety seems to be triggered by major life stressors or changes. Leaving a job that felt like it was so much of who I am threw me for a major loop.
I did great the first couple weeks. I loved being with my son all the time and was stoked to be filling our days with all of the things that kept getting put on the back burner when I was working 60 hours a week. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, depression wrapped itself around me and wouldn’t let go. I felt as if a heavy weight was pushing down on me and it just wouldn’t let up. And there I was, spending my days with the child I loved more than anything — just like I had always wanted — counting the minutes until naptime and bedtime when I could stare out the window or just go to sleep. I was irritable, lethargic, and impatient. I just wanted to be left alone but was devastated by the disconnect I was feeling between myself and my family. The guilt was suffocating me.
Now that I’ve been able to get a bit of perspective on my situation, I feel like this relapse was more severe because I’m aware that I have more at stake now: I have a child who needs me. At my lowest moments, my head was filled with thoughts like…
What if I don’t get better?
What if I get worse?
What if my husband gets sick of dealing with this and leaves?
My child deserves a better mother than I can be — someone who smiles and who can connect with him.
What if I get to the point where I can’t take care of my son?
Two weeks later, I found myself sitting in a chair in my doctor’s office saying, “I cannot take one more step without some help.” And then I cried. No, wept is more like it. I wept partially out of feeling like depression was becoming a life sentence for me, but also because just saying the words made the fog lift a little. Help was on the way, and I knew I was actively choosing to take the steps I needed to be the mother and wife I wanted to be: present, engaged, and loving.
So here I am, back on medication and working on pulling myself out of the second (and by far worse) major depressive episode of my adult life — all while trying to be a mother to my young son.
It’s a constant battle, but right now, the easy days are outnumbering the harder ones. My husband is an amazing partner and support through all of this, always reassuring me that this is a medical condition that I just happen to have; having it doesn’t define me and seeking out treatment isn’t a sign of weakness.
I still worry a lot. I worry that my son can sense my tension and anxiety. I worry that he thinks he’s the cause of it. I worry that my recovery from these episodes (and there will likely be more of them during my lifetime) will interfere with our relationship. And more than anything, I worry that I’ve passed this down to him.
Oddly enough, even though my role as a mother made the situation more dire in my mind this time around, I think the fact that I have a young child better equips me for the tougher days because I have his still very concrete needs to focus on. No matter what, potty training needs to happen, lunch needs to be made, books need to be read, fingernails need to be clipped, lullabies need to be sung.
It helps that this is our go-to goodnight song…
You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine.
You make me happy,
When skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
And he is. He so, so is.
(If you think you or someone you love is depressed, reach out, make the call, do not wait. There is no shame in this and there is no need to fight it alone. To learn more about depression, stop by the American Psychological Association’s website.)