Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On motherhood and mental illness

“I feel like something bad is going to happen.”

“Don't say that, sweetie.” My mom would reply.

I would be perplexed. It was a feeling as though I knew what would happen next. A tumbly falling down feeling in my belly, like talking at the front of the class and peeing your pants and losing your new expensive winter coat the first day you take it to school. I wasn't sure if she didn't want me to say it because she felt it too, or because she didn't like what it meant. That I was broken. That I didn't know how to be happy; when everyone else was staying up late at slumber parties, I would fearfully creep off to sleep in a corner of the room, because not sleeping held an unmistakable fear of the devil, death, and horrible things that would happen to my family if I didn't close my eyes and fall asleep right then.

I think about these childhood anxieties a lot more now that I have children, and (not-so coincidentally) have been diagnosed with mental illness. I don't mean my kids have made me crazy, not clinically anyhow. But they made me seek out help, because I was scared when I felt differently about them.

I fear this legacy that I may have passed on to them. It's a thought that has only recently occurred to me, and like any parent I wonder to myself. What can I do to prevent it? And barring that, what can I do to prepare them? And perhaps most unhelpfully, what the fuck have I done?

I started to suspect I was suffering from mental illness in my early university years in Montreal, but part of me felt like my sadness was just me being romantic about my life. It had been a hard few years. My father was in the depths of substance abuse, my relationship with my mother was fractured, my ex-boyfriend had his first manic-depressive episode, and I was on my own for the first time ever.

Montreal is cold in winter. So cold that you can stay inside, huddled over your computer's cpu and no one notices that you haven't been outside in a while. I lived on chocolate soy milk and pasta. I was trying to be a vegetarian, probably so I could tell someone in a conversation and feel important and progressive, but that conversation never happened. I didn't talk to anyone. I went to my classes and I sat in the back. I didn't brush my hair. My clothes were old, and unwashed.

I hated myself and every single word that came out of my mouth.

When I look at it objectively, nothing was that bad. I was in a world-class city with lots of things to do. I was thinner than I am now, and by all rights fairly charismatic. I track this now as one of my first depressive episodes. Maybe it was situational, but it was also the first of many future incidents that looked and felt similar.

It wasn't until I was pregnant with my second child that I sought help.

I was about 8 months pregnant with my unexpected baby girl, and everything was going wrong. My husband and I fought constantly. My son had just broken his leg and was learning to walk agian. His temperament was difficult, as he was simultaneously adjusting to going to preschool for the first time. I was tired and sore, and having trouble walking. As I didn't know how to drive, this left me at home for most of the day. I started taking long naps. And sleeping in. And going to bed early. I started avoiding visits with family. I started staying upstairs in my bedroom while life went on along, in my view, perfectly fine without me. Dinners came and went. I stopped being hungry.

And then the baby kicked. And I hated it.

The feeling shocked me. When my son had kicked in my belly, I had always felt this twinge of happiness and pride. But this feeling. Annoyance? It wasn't right, and I didn't like it. So, I felt like I should tell my doctor at one of my frequent, end of pregnancy doctor's appointments. She sent me to a psychiatrist immediately, who diagnosed me with severe antenatal depression. She said I was resilient, though. She said I would make it through, because I had overcome worse. I wasn't really sure what she meant.

At first I thought maybe it was just the hormones. Women with a history of depression are more likely to suffer from pregnancy related mental illness, but some women without any history at all are struck, and I counted myself among their numbers. It was temporary. I was ok. Just like swollen feet and peeing all the time, this too would pass.

But an event like that does not come and go without rumination. It effected the whole family. We are talkers, and we talked about it. We thought about it and we talked some more. And as I came out of it, able to look up again as I walked down the street thanks to a dose of fluoxetine, I started to think about the feelings, the experience of my first 'diagnosed' depression.

And I realized that it wasn't new at all. It was a pattern, and it had been systematically effecting the pattern of my life for years.

I had to ask myself, what does that mean for me as a mom? Or even just as a person who is part of a family? Who am I to even be a mother, if I can't keep my brain together and I am at risk of falling into that pit again, regardless of my knowledge of my responsibilities?

It struck a fear into me that I have to admit hasn't gone away. Now, my daughter is one year old and I feel that darkness creeping in again. I'm not ignoring it this time, though. I'm not calling myself a romantic, or berating my self pity. I'm paying attention when news articles make me sadder than they should, when I'm mad just because I'm married and a mom and someone needs me to get them a cup of milk. Not just mad, but resentful. Like life is too fucking cruel and too hard to carry on living. When I feel that way, I know something is wrong. I have hope for a life where I can see it coming so clearly that I can head it off before it effects us too deeply as a family.

I don't want to be the one who teaches my kids that this is normal.

But maybe, I do.

I'd be lying to myself if I said that they were going to escape from my legacy of depression. It's such a scary thought, that at one point they'll be dealing with what appears to be an insurmountable bleakness inside of them. All I can do is show them that it isn't a bad thing, not judge myself too harshly, and explain what's going on as they become old enough to understand. I don't want to create a self-fulfilling prophesy: “mommy is depressed and you will be too.” but I also don't want them to feel that uncomfortable feeling that I did, where I wasn't sure whether my mom felt that same darkness too.

Because if they feel that way, I want them to know they aren't feeling it alone.

And that eventually, they'll come out the other side.