All That Makes Us Whole

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and ever since I decided to write here about being a mom, I knew I would have to write about my family and depression.

It’s simple really: I have suffered from anxiety and depression my whole life, finally addressing it with therapy and medication in my mid-twenties when I realized I couldn’t go on as I had been. I accepted that something was very wrong, but I somehow had faith that whatever it was could also be made right.

My son, Isaiah, suffers from anxiety and depression, too.

I cried in his therapist’s office one afternoon because I read too much, so I know that there is a hereditary component here. I gave this burden to him, I said.

“Yeah. There’s a lot that you can blame yourself for as a parent,” Scott offered. “Why not save the guilt for something you actually did.”

So, the guilt is out of the way. Mostly.  

And, I’ve been struggling with how I should write about this. First, with my son’s permission—got it. Second, with honesty. But third… should I do some research so that I can educate my readers about the issue? Or should I detail the difficult episodes of his acting out, the devastating and painful crying spells where I just held him because it was all I could do? The times he yelled, “You don’t love me!” and “I hate my life!” The time when he was in third grade and I called his bluff on running away from home on a cold night in February? (I encouraged him to dress warmly and offered money which he turned down, then said goodbye and went back to ironing. He walked out of the door. His big sister dashed out from their bedroom when she heard the screen door rattle shut, jammed on her shoes, and ran outside to get him. She found him sitting at the bottom of the steps leading to our apartment.)

I’m still not sure exactly what I want other parents to know about kids and depression except that just like you take your kid to the doctor when he has a recurring fever, or a stomachache, or when your gut tells you to get an x-ray after he twisted his ankle at soccer because it might be worse than a sprain… know that you might be on to something when you sense that your kid is experiencing something more than bad behavior, or growing pains, or teen angst. He might not be acting up, but acting out. And we shouldn’t hesitate to seek therapy for our children if that’s what they need to be healthy.

Isaiah has been in therapy for several years now, ever since he was about eight years old. In the beginning, he had weekly appointments, but after a while I started extending the intervals between visits. Now, he goes every four to six weeks. I must confess that during middle school—and he’ll soon be in high school—I look at his therapy as parenting backup. Just in case the teen years get a little more hectic than I can anticipate.

And then, there is this.

In all of this time, the only disagreement I have had with his therapist regarding his treatment has been that he doesn’t want to explain to Isaiah that he suffers from depression. He feels that it would place a burden on him, and perhaps create more anxiety where it’s unnecessary. But, I offered, my son also has food allergies-- in particular, a nut allergy that could be fatal. He was about three years old when he was diagnosed and the doctor said, “I don’t even want him to know what a nut looks like. And you will have to always, always check the ingredients.”

I explained all of this to Isaiah. I didn’t agonize over my choice of words. You could die, I told him. We have to check the ingredients. Always.

So, whenever we purchased food, or I presented something to him, he would say, “Did you check the ‘gredients, Mama?” I still hear that in his pre-school voice: “Did you check the ‘gredients, Mama?”

“Yes,” I’d say. “I checked the ‘gredients.”

That came back to me as I thought about my journey through depression. And, I think of it often as I watch my son mature. Because we’re all made up of a bunch of ingredients, some more difficult than others to identify and sort out. None that can, or should be discarded.

I used to get on my knees and pray for God to take the pain of depression away from me. I don’t do that anymore because I see my experience as a blessing. If I hadn’t experienced depression myself, perhaps I wouldn’t have recognized it when it really mattered for my son. I see the blessing all over it—through my depression and anxiety, I’ve learned to be more compassionate, more transparent about my feelings and what’s happening in my life, and more accepting of what makes us each unique, even when that quirk makes me uncomfortable. My depression has made me a better mother and sister and friend and daughter. It’s a part of me that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I was made this way for a reason.

And, even though I disagree, I haven’t gone against Scott’s advice. I don’t talk about his depression to him. (Shh… I do talk about my depression to him. Just so that he might see himself in me and see that it’s okay.)

Now, I look at my thirteen-year-old son and I check the ‘gredients.

Just today I noticed new changes in his body. He’s taller and his jaw is square. He’s lean, with taut muscles, and his veins pop from his arms even when he’s relaxed. And today, for the first time, he got a haircut without putting up a fight and without it ending in tears. He’s smart as a whip, funny and clever, kind, athletic, an old soul with a streak of nonconformity. A classic introvert and the proverbial glass half empty kind of guy. He has a keen aversion to noise and risk (which from a mother’s perspective is a wonderful trait for a teen to possess.) He hates even fun surprises and has to know what time we’re leaving to go someplace to the minute (and suggests that if we’re leaving at 3:00, we should actually be in the car at 3:00 so maybe leave the apartment at 2:57. Aarrgh!) He likes to flip language on its head which sometimes tickles me and sometimes annoys the crap out of me. He loves Star Wars and anime. He adores his sister. He still sits close to me for a bit of a cuddle before he gets his day started. His smile is slightly crooked and charming as all get out. He’s growing strong and resilient.

Somewhere in the middle of all that makes up his whole self is a bundle of anxiety and depression that he is learning-- with love, faith, and a good therapist-- to manage.

I guess that’s what I wanted you to know.


Here are some resources: