Friday, September 9, 2011

Shared burden

Here's an email I recently sent to a woman, also a mother, struggling with depression and whether or not to begin medication. I met her through a blogger friend. I don't know her and, other than my Ninja Mom blog, she doesn't know me. But it appears we share a burden. It was helpful, for both of us, to compare notes about how we feel and act when we are depressed. I asked her if I could share my letter to her through my blogs. I've omitted her name.

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Dear ____,

So glad you got back to me. I can relate to a lot of what you're saying here. 

I don't think I struggled with depression before marriage and kids. I imagine some of my problems started in college when my father died. He'd been divorced from my mom since I was 5 and I was his only child. At the time of his death our relationship had already been very strained for years; I was twenty then. But, as his only daughter I was responsible for his burial and had to plan it under less than ideal family circumstances. Plainly put, his family (my grandfather and uncle and aunt) are nuts and, truth be told, they were not kind to me. Meh. 

I mention that only because I think it probably set the stage for my depression later. I think the real trigger was having my first child. She's 6 now, but she was born prematurely (by 6 weeks) and was a tough baby. Healthy enough, thank God, but a terrible sleeper, colicky, and had some food intolerance issues, in addition to being a peanut (she only weighed 3.5 lbs at birth), she was a trial, for sure. A couple of years later I got pregnant with (surprise!) twins. I was depressed for 6 straight weeks (though I didn't realize it then) because I imagined two babies just like my first: colicky and tiny. I was afraid I'd not be able to handle them. Add to that the fact that my first was 2.5 years old and a real tantrum queen, well, I was suffering a bit. 

That's when I started yelling and screaming at my first. I had no patience for the toddler things that toddlers do and I was in her face, raging. I'm not proud. I'm horrified, really. But I think it's helpful for me (and maybe you?) if I'm honest about it. I was so angry all the time. And I was scaring and scarring her, I could see it. She was afraid of me and I hated myself for it (just a tad familiar, right?). I wish I'd been wise enough to seek therapy then. I didn't. 

A couple of years after the twins were born---they turned out to be healthy babies, good sleepers, and not colicky!---we got pregnant with my son. I had a healthy pregnancy and a beautiful baby boy. Unfortunately, he was born very shortly after my father-in-law died. A tough time around the house, for sure. But we were managing better than we had at the birth of our twins. 

When my son was about 10 months old we moved from our home in Georgia to Indiana. In the winter. It was, well, rough and cold and lonely. That's when I started feeling angry again and despondent. I would unload the dishwasher some mornings and fantasize about stabbing myself in the thigh over and over again with the chef's knife. I would imagine the kids and I having horrific car accidents while we are out driving to the grocery store, so that we might all die and be done with this. When my husband got home we'd feed the kids and put them to bed and I'd silently retreat to my bedroom to hide and cry. Any of this sound familiar? 

It occurred to me, thank God, that I needed help. My husband was about to start an accelerated MBA program that would take him out of the house every Friday night and all day on Saturdays, as well as some weeknights for study group, for nearly an entire year. I knew I couldn't go on like that in those circumstances. But still, I didn't think I was depressed. After all, I was happy at some point nearly each day. I still laughed often and still enjoyed reading and writing and cooking, some of the things I'd always loved.

When I went to the therapist, as I mentioned already, I told her I wasn't depressed. I thought I just needed some talk therapy to pull through. I told her about my stabbing fantasies; that's when she asked me to complete the depression self-assessment. It hit me as I filled out the form (do you think about hurting yourself? you you have feelings of guilt?), that I was, in fact, depressed. And when the doctor confirmed it, instead of making me more sad, it made me feel empowered. I felt like the confirmation was enough to give me the strength to take some meds and get on with getting better. 

That said, the next day I had cold feet. I filled my prescription, but I didn't take the pills for a week or so. I hemmed and hawed about it. I thought I would be a zombie. I thought I wouldn't feel things deeply: the good and the bad. I thought I'd get fat and tired. I thought I'd cease to be me. I also began to doubt the diagnosis. I'd had a string of good days. Maybe I wasn't depressed after all?

When I woke up one morning and started crying as soon as the light hit my eyes, I seized upon the reality that I was sad beyond my own control and took my first pill. I sent a text message to my husband who'd been a supportive soul and an invaluable sounding board: "I took the pill." His response? "I'm proud of you." That night he came home with a bouquet of flowers to celebrate my good decision. 

Since that first pill nearly a year ago, he's continued to be my emotional mirror, as have my my incredibly supportive mother and father. He's the one who assures me that I was a shell of a person then and that I'm so much more like myself these days. Even my children have been less afraid of me, of the mom who might rail at them in a fearsome rage. 

I still think about getting off the meds some day. I still have breakthrough depression. But mostly I live an improved life because I acknowledged the depression and gave myself permission to be happier, instead of giving myself the unimaginably difficult command to be always happy. Along with that, I stopped telling myself to be always perfect, always in love with my children, always grateful to stay home. It's my preference to be an at-home mother and my great privilege. But it's also sometimes an immensely difficult thing to do, as you know. So, I take those difficult days and realize that it's just one day in a stream of many and that perfection is not only impossible, it's unfair. I don't expect my kids or my husband to be perfect. I can at the very least give myself the same breathing room. 

Keep in touch, please. Any time you want to vent or let me know how you're doing, I'm here. 

Best, 

Nikki