When he was just six months old, he went to stay with his grandparents while I was admitted to the hospital for severe depression, anxiety and, most alarming for those around me, because I really felt like I wanted to die. Does he remember this? Of course not. Do I wonder if somewhere, somehow deep inside he “knows” this and is affected by it? Maybe.
My oldest child is a bright, happy and healthy boy turning 7. Like most kids his age, he loves Lego and science, and playing with his friends after school at the park. He finds his sister “annoying” sometimes and complains his 3 year old brother “always destroys his stuff.” As a family, we struggle to fit in swim lessons and soccer matches, to get out the door on-time for school and to keep our rooms clean. We are, as people would say if they peered into our window on a Wednesday night, “pretty typical.”
But, if you really know us, and the family and friends we are lucky to have in our lives do, we live with a dark ever-present shadow. I refuse to let it define us but I am here to give voice to it because I am not ashamed or afraid of it anymore.
Five years ago I was diagnosed in that poetic way that doctor’s stamp letters on your file (really, your life) with OCD and GAD, 6 troubling letters that mean I take medication every night – which rides me to sleep and makes mornings stark realizations of emptiness – that I can’t handle crowds, wig out on bridges and sometimes struggle to find the joy in life. OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and in my troubled brain it means that when I am really sick I have scary thoughts that run on terrifying repeat in my mind’s vision – harm coming to someone I love, sometimes by my own hand (no, I don’t want it to happen). I have GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) which, and I am no doctor, seems to be a catch-all for anxiety that just lives in your heart and gut. Anxiety feels like the coffee shakes, like being hopped up on Red Bulls without the positive clarity that might bring. It feels like walking along a shaky log placed precariously over a deep pit, and if you sway too much you will just fall into something more scary than death.
Parenting is hard. Parenting with a mental illness is even harder: I get overwhelmed by noise and too much stimulation. My house of 3 young people is VERY stimulating. Feeding their perpetual need while trying to maintain a balance of wellness in my own body is tricky. And a bad day is often one when I struggle to just get out of bed. I must dig deep to find the courage, and I mean this as no excuse or complaint. I mean this as education. I mean this as a gesture of solidarity to all my sisters out there who too know what I mean. Feeling like sh*t and still getting your kid to soccer practice, and making him believe you love life when you’d rather leave it, is hard. work.
My oldest child knows I have an illness that makes me sick sometimes. He knows that after I gave birth to him and his siblings, I needed some extra love and care. He knows that I take medication, and that it helps correct the “stuff” in my brain. We talk about it, not because I am a narcissist and need everyone to know what’s gone wrong with me or that I use this as an excuse for bad parenting (please don’t think that) but because I don’t want this or anything else in his world to be clouded in secrecy. I am not ashamed. I use age appropriate language, started talking to him about it only recently, and talk to him about it when I am at my brightest and clearest. But mostly, I talk to my son about my mental illness because I want him to know … “this is not about you.” When Mommy can’t come down on a Sunday to eat breakfast and play, it is not because I don’t love you to pieces. It is because sometimes I fall to pieces. And it’s not my fault, or his fault or his father’s fault. It is my body and we learn to love and live within those limits.
I also want my son to grow up understanding that we should show kindness to others, always, even when we ourselves are feeling sad or frustrated or not particularly generous. Yes, sometimes people act in complicated and confusing ways. That is because we are all complicated and confusing human beings. I want my kids to all grow in their empathy towards others so they know to say, “Let me walk a mile in his shoes.” Let me understand, and let me try to be someone’s light even when we can’t know, get or fix their dark. I am a runner and one day I came up with this analogy: “Never judge a runner when you pass her on the street. If she runs slowly or like she might be tired, you have no idea what mile she’s in.”
I talk to my child about my mental illness. I do this because there are no secrets in our household. I do this because there is no shame in our household. I do this because I love my children and want them to be protected, but not ignorant. And I love myself.