Talking to my kid about depression
I was first diagnosed when I was 23, although I suspect it began much earlier than that. It was only after experiencing panic attacks, heart palpitations, chronic insomnia, and regular and profound “low” periods that I sought medical treatment. I started taking anti-depressants and stayed on them for a little over two years. By that point, a change in careers (from teaching to a regular old office job) and a more rigorous exercise routine made me feel more comfortable managing my symptoms without medication.
I did quite well for a long time—almost four whole years! But in mid-2011, things started to fall apart. Well, I started to fall apart. What I used to just call “sadness” was being joined by other more malignant feelings: guilt, self-loathing, hopelessness. It…was bad. So bad that I have a hard time remembering the months leading up to the moment I found myself sobbing in my doctor’s office as my then-almost-three-year-old squatted on the floor, gleefully emptying a box of tissues.
“I cannot take one more step without some help,” I whispered to my doctor. He took my hand and nodded. We talked. We made a plan. A plan that included new medication.
I’m doing great these days. It took a few months to find the right dosage and to get to a point where I have more normal-to-good days than bad ones. I still experience “dips”, but I can’t help but think that those are more the result of challenges inherent to adult life and parenting than a chemical imbalance. Right now it’s all about maintenance. And, for me, a huge part of that maintenance is honesty—with myself and with those I love. I still worry about the stigma that comes with mental illness; no one wants to be thought of as The Crazy Lady. But I need to worry more about my personal well-being.
I will say though that being honest with myself has gotten easier as I’ve gotten older; after many years of practice, I’m getting better at recognizing and articulating what’s going on in my brain and how it’s coloring my response to the world. I think age and experience has also equipped me to open up about my experiences to friends.
But explaining this condition to a kid? To my kid? That requires a little more finesse. Depression doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As much as I’d love to be able to just put on a happy face and let my son think everything is fine, it’s not realistic. Kids have excellent bullshit detectors; they can sense tension, sadness, and anxiety. And if my emotional struggles could potentially affect my son’s daily life, I owe him at least a heads up as to what’s going on.
We parents walk a fine line with our children when it comes to sharing our emotions with them. On one hand, we want to encourage honesty; modeling it for our kids makes them more likely to reciprocate. On the other, we don’t need to give so much information that our children feel scared or burdened with the task of managing our emotions.
So what do we do? My short answer: I don’t know, at least in the long term. But what’s working for us right now with our almost-first-grader is answering questions as they come in the most simple (but honest) way possible.
To give you an example, here’s an interaction my son and I had recently…
My son pointed at the little blue pill resting in the palm of my hand. I popped it into my mouth and washed it down with a gulp of water.
“It’s my medicine, remember?” I answered, tucking the pill bottle back into the medicine cabinet.
“Do you have a cold?” A look of worry washed over his face.
“No, it’s not that kind of medicine. Some people take medicine because parts of their bodies don’t work correctly, and the medicine helps fix that.”
“What part doesn’t work on you?” he asked, giving me a series of pokes to assess the situation.
“My brain,” I replied, keeping my tone nonchalant. “Sometimes I get very, very sad, and it’s not always because something bad has happened. Being sad can make it hard to do the things I want to do or need to, like play Minecraft with you or go to work.”
“Your brain makes chemicals that keep you from being sad,” I explained. “My brain has a hard time doing that, so I take that medicine to give my brain a little extra help.”
My son peered up at me, his head slightly cocked to the side, slowly nodding.
“Ok, Mama. Can we play Minecraft now?”
I realize our conversations about my depression will probably get deeper and more involved as my son gets older. But for now, it seems that he sees it for what it is: a real medical condition that requires medication to help me not be sad. He sees no reason for shame or stigma.
If only we all could see it like that. Myself included.
(Image by Christopher Paquette.)