Raising Richmond: Parenting through depression

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?

RR-Depression-Front

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.)

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is managing editor of RVAFamily. When she’s not oversharing her parenting struggles and successes, you can find her raising a preschool-aged boy and watching 90s television shows.

18 comments on Raising Richmond: Parenting through depression

  1. Kristi on said:

    Very well said, Val. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience.

    Love that photo — JR’s smile is pure joy!

  2. Val -

    What a brave and useful post, especially for other parents who have, are or will be going through some of the same roller-coaster rides. Thanks for sharing this slice of your story.

  3. Val, this is so admirably and refreshingly honest.

    I was just diagnosed with depression several months ago (although I’ve had it since I was a teenager). I’ve learned to accept the condition, and take strides to minimize its influence, through medication and exercise.

    But I’ve always wondered how my depression might influence me being a parent in the future. I wish there were more people writing and talking about this topic as you have, because what you’ve written is both informative and reassuring.

    Thank you for writing this.

    –Nathan

  4. Jeff E. on said:

    Thanks for sharing Valerie. I’m not a parent but I can very much relate to what you are going through. I’ve battled through depression and anxiety several times in my life as well. It helps to talk about it and it’s nice to know you’re not alone out there. Keep up the hard work and things WILL get better :)

  5. Stephen Salpukas on said:

    Valerie,

    Thanks for being brave and sharing these honest feelings with everyone. I will post this, so many more can be touched with your message.

  6. Very powerful and moving, Val. As someone who fought a lot of ups and downs in the years after my divorce, I can appreciate not only how hard it is to go through the crushing moments, but also how difficult it can be to face it down and write about it.

    Be well, and be happy.

  7. Jeb on said:

    Been there. Both directly & indirectly. I know what it sounds like to hear a 3yo say “Please don’t cry, it’s OK.” I also know how quickly one can get to snapping at the child & sending him to his room without him understanding why.

    But I also know that the best thing to do is recognize what’s going on in your head and heart, to take whatever steps you need to resolve & pull yourself up, and then to hug your kids, say you love them no matter what and you’re sorry for being so upset, and let them fill your heart back up. Yeah…I know something about that.

    Brave post, Val.

  8. This is so thoughtful and honest and clarifies the tricky business of being a parent and being depressed at the same time. Val, thanks for being brave and sharing your experience with the big wide world. It was a great reminder for me that there’s no shame in any of it. You’re a rockstar.

  9. PS CAPS LOCK IS AWESOME

  10. Anna V Ilkka on said:

    You can do it! I spent many years residing in the black in my youth. Mine manifested into a physical illness and I ended up in the hospital three times before realizing it was time to change my path. Which I did…over time. However, I was uninsured so set about finding my own cure.

    First, I accepted that I am a depressive. Society makes it seem like it is the worst thing in the world to tend depressive which puts an even greater onus on the depressed individual. Well, it isn’t the worst thing in the world to tend depressive. With that much depth of feeling comes great gifts of empathy and understanding. I also had the unfortunate(fortunate) experience of having an unintended near death experience right at the very spot I had picked to drive my car into a deep gorge and end my life when I was ready. I had already withdrawn from everyone, and, was taking care of things for my boyfriend for when I left this earth, so emerging from the car accident alive and unscathed was a real wake up call. Oh, I said, I guess I am supposed to live! Before that, I was to the point where when I looked at things, they were rimmed with black. The sun was dark in my eyes.

    So, I accepted the depression. I began to use color therapy, and, sunshine therapy, and exercise therapy. I stopped using alcohol. My favorite color has always been black, seemingly contrarily, it cheers me up. So, I wore all black for a time, but, with colorful underwear and brightly painted toes creating a happy surprise everytime I took off my clothes or went to the bathroom or took off my footwear. I also began to purchase cheerful non prescription eyewear that made me laugh when I looked at myself in the mirror. I found out by accident, the combination of enough sun (no sunblock except on my hands, and, big brimmed hats…at least 6”) and enough exercise (walking a four mile route with hills in one hour will even kick a cold viruses ass) were all great tools to combat my depression, and, in time, the black subsided to a distant ocean beneath my feet. I was 30, and, I had kicked my depression.

    Then, I got pregnant at 38. I was euphoric until the sixth week when 14 weeks of pregnancy sickness followed. But made it through. I felt I had conquered the world and enjoyed my pregnancy until the diabetes hit at six months. Okay, so, got that under control as much as possible but had to restart my personal depression therapy. My toes were barely above the black, but I was determined my baby would have a happy emotional disposition in which to develop in the event it does shape them from the start. So, I turned to the greatest tool of all. Denial. Oh I knew I was depressed, but, I denied it. I pretended I was happy, and, I pretended with a vengeance. Not even my doctor knew how depressed I was, and, only inretrospect do I see how far the black had swallowed me. I spent the last ten days in the hospital when the preeclampsia hit, and, I was blessed with kindly, loving nurses who enjoyed taking care of me. So, the traumatic birth experience came and went, and I emerged with a NICU baby that refused to breastfeed. I was euphoric for about a month, pumping for my baby, but noticed I was descending, once again, quite quickly, into the black. Luckily, we learned to breastfeed at four months, and, the depression *woosh* disappeared. So, fast forward to 12 mos, when society strongly encourages weaning. I tried for one day, and, got so depressed so fast I couldn’t believe it. So we proceeded to breastfeed. I tried to wean again at 18 mos (also encouraged by society), and, the same thing happened, only it took a week. Anyway, it was then I determined nature probably intended women to breast feed beyond my society’s dictate, and, have been ever since. My daughter is now 2.5 old and still breastfeeding. Natural weaning is commencing, and, even with greatly reduced feedings, I am not depressing horribly within a week!

    While I did not mean to turn this into a story about breastfeeding, I think, as women, we have swallowed a big load, thinking we can and should do everything at the same time. Many of us give in to our yearnings to procreate before we are mentally ready. Then, we do not give ourselves time off when we should after we work so hard to gestate and birth our babies. Many of us do not breastfeed. Many of us do not bother to get into the best physical shape possible before, let alone after, the pregnancy. And, many of us go back to paid work too early displaying more loyalty to paid work which will not be with us forever than to our children who presumably will be with us forever. If one is a depressive, this will hit us very, very hard.

    We hurry through our lives at an unnatural pace, pushing out paid work and children in relatively small amount of time at what I know now to be very young ages. We have removed ourselves from nature in this society, and, in doing so, those of us naturally depressive folk get hurt the worst and the black is always there, glad to swallow us up whole.

    Right now, I am dealing with perimenopause. I find if I don’t have enough iron for my period, I get really depressed, or very psychotic the week before my period. I’ve also just read that magnesium deficiencies do some raucous things to the psyche, so am going to try naturally increasing my intake of that mineral. I’m still dealing with the black, and, I always will. It is closer than I like, these days. But you know what? I am victorious, and, I always will be.

    If you need manmade help, get it. I may need it someday, myself. I have a friend who is normal only because of her manmade helps, but, also, please try everything I have regarding the color and exercise and sunshine therapies. Please also get your iron (both types, stored and available), and, other vitamin levels checked, including magnesium. All of this will set an excellent example to your 2.5 year old. Mommy is taking care of herself!

    When you are really down, you can explain in simple terms what you are feeling to your son. He will understand, believe it or not. I had to explain some despondent feelings regarding the WI Political Kerfuffle to my daughter just today. She was freaking out because she thought she was the cause of my freaking out…which was surprising because I thought I was handling myself really well. So, I told her what was happening, and, she told me she loved me, and, I could see in her eyes she understood. This from a 34 month old little human. Just amazing.

    Well, rambling on this long was unintended. I just wanted you to know you are not alone. You can do it!

  11. Concerned Hubby on said:

    Val, and other commenters, what are your feelings re: taking anti-depression/anxiety medication while you’re child is in utero? My wife was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She’s been off medication for close to a year now, as we are trying to conceive, but she is having a very hard time coping w/out meds.

    She is torn between her desire to return to medication ( and get her emotional stability back) and her desire to have a pregnancy free of any complication that might result from her medication (Prozac).

    Any suggestions, all?

  12. Concerned Hubby, I was pregnant during that chunk of time when I was off meds, but I do know of several women who did take anti-depressants while pregnant, although I’m not sure if any of them were specifically on Prozac. It’s just one of those situations that you need to talk about with your doctor. He/she will help you weigh the pros and cons. Perhaps someone else can speak to this?

    Best of luck!

  13. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, but there’s a pattern in my family. What really grabs me here is the bit about not wanting your child to be affected by the parents’ struggles. I really identify with the anxiety (and motivation) that produces. With two kids now, I’m starting to get the hang of it, but that wasn’t so for the first couple years.

    At the time, my therapist said (paraphrasing), “You’ve suffered a cataclysmic event. The arrival of your first child smashed the reality that you knew into pieces and you’re dealing with that, trying to put it back together in a way that reflects the new you, all while learning to care for a child.”

    I don’t want to generalize about gender differences, but I don’t seem to have the natural/hormonal instincts that might help mothers transition into their new role. For me, it was a disturbing interruption, and I spent way too much time mourning the loss of my old reality.

  14. Holly G on said:

    Val, Oh, I’m getting teary reading this. That was so brave of you to share on such a public forum. I send good wishes and correct grammar your way and offer hugs and Twitter shouting and anything else I can.

  15. Chris O on said:

    What an honest column, Val. No doubt sharing your experience here will be helpful to other people wondering what they should do when they find themselves depressed or anxious. Kudos to you.

  16. Kate Hall on said:

    So heartfelt and poignant. Good thoughts to you on this journey.

  17. Hey concerned hubby! I took anti-depressants last year while I was pregnant. I have been taking a low dose of Lexapro since 2009 and was concerned about going off of it when I got pregnant. I talked with my midwife and psychologist and we decided it was best I stay on the medication. I was just a better functioning person on the medication then w/o. I was also concerned about hormones going bonkers and not having the medicine to even me out. Lexapro is a medicine that you can typically still take while pregnant or nursing. I believe prozac is one of the drugs you can stay on as well (but don’t quote me). I feel good about my decisions to stay on the medicine, especially for the postpartum stuff. I have found (I am a doula too) that women that struggle with depression before have a hard time with postpartum depression. It hit me like a big mack truck and was hard to shake even on medication. I was glad I decided to continue with the meds through this time. Make sure you talk to docs and read up a bit on what medicines are safest. And remember to look into what ones are safe for nursing too (if your wife plans on it). Good luck!

  18. oh val…i just adore you. the mother and person you are inspires me…

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