I’ve had issues with anxiety and depression all my life. According to my mother, I was the only newborn in the maternity word who refused to eat and just screamed her head off, instead. The pattern continued when she brought me home, as I never slept for more than an hour’s stretch at a time and suffered from what the doctors kept insisting was colic long past the period when colic should have been merely a horrible memory. As she remembers it, I basically didn’t eat or sleep for the first two years of my life. (“Don’t force her,” one doctor advised. “She’ll eat when she’s hungry.” My mother tried that. I didn’t eat for 48 hours. Then I asked for a slice of bread. Then I didn’t eat again for 48 more hours. She gave up.)
And things didn’t get any better once she tried taking me to nursery school. I didn’t eat or sleep there, either. I did scream, though. My mother eventually ended up pulling me out and staying home. Because, as she explained, “It’s one thing when you drop a child off at school, they scream for 20 minutes, then stop. It’s another thing when you drop a child off at school, they scream, and, when you come back eight hours later, they are still screaming.”
So, I was a high-strung little girl. To put it mildly.
I’m pretty sure that picking me up at the age of 7 and dragging me across half of Europe and eventually to the United States over a period of five very stressful months probably didn’t do wonders for my sense of attachment and security. But, it couldn’t be helped and is something for which I am still grateful to this day.
My anxiety attacks continued in America. When I switched schools in the third grade, I alternately sobbed and vomited until my parents returned me to my original one. When I graduated from my small, private elementary school to a massive, public, magnet, high school, I freaked out and refused to go back after the first day. My parents took me to see a therapist. Who I found so insipid and patronizing that I essentially forcibly overcame my fears and proceeded to attend school merely to prove her wrong (so if that was her clever therapeutic technique, good work!).
By high school and into college, depression came to join anxiety (maybe it had always been there, but I just didn’t have a word for it). I would literally have days, weeks when I didn’t want to see anyone or speak to anyone, when any sort of human interaction proved too emotionally exhausting and the simplest tasks–ones I’d had no trouble with prior–loomed infinitely unmanageable. To make matters even more fun, my emotional state would sometimes turn physical as my blood-pressure dipped so low that my head spun and I grew too dizzy and weak to so much as sit up.
By the time I was living on my own in New York City in my mid-20s, I was taking swigs of Nyquil to self-medicate. The combination of alcohol and sedative helped me get to sleep when my thoughts and fears were spinning out of control and I couldn’t think of any other way to stop them.
I tried prescription anti-depressants for a while, but all they did was make it impossible for me to sleep (as opposed to merely very, very difficult on average days) so I stopped. I tried holistic treatments, too, but didn’t see much of a difference beyond getting nauseous on an empty stomach (and I’m no better of an eater now than I was as a kid, so every nutrient I can keep down is precious).
Eventually, I just resolved to live with it. To approach the semi-regular bouts of crippling depression and anxiety the way I did seasonal colds. They were physical, they happened, they sucked, there was very little I could do about it, they went away. It was just a matter of riding out the wave until the fever broke.
But, here’s the thing: Post-my initial freak out in high school, no matter how bad things got, I still dragged myself out of bed, got dressed, and went to work. I may have come home afterwards and literally sat in a near-catatonic stupor, back on the not-eating/not-sleeping treadmill for the duration of the weekend or, when unemployed, even longer; but I still dutifully–if perfunctorily–executed all of my responsibilities.
It’s the same now that I have three kids. Periods of depression and anxiety with kids around are no fun. When every ounce of your fragile self-control is focused on not collapsing into a puddle of bedridden despair and/or flinging any object within reach about the room, it’s tough to summon up the patience for a kid who’s just spilled their juice. For the eighth time.
When your thoughts are literally fragmenting like ancient, hand-blown glass as you try to connect the start of your sentence to a reasonable end despite having forgotten what you wanted to say in the first place, answering your toddler’s infinite litany of whys, much less actually conveying some important piece of wisdom to your child, becomes a Herculean task that, more often than not, fails. Spectacularly.
And yet, I still try to carry on without the children being any wiser.
I’ve been told that’s the wrong thing to do. I’ve been told that by keeping my periods of depression and anxiety a secret and carrying on as if nothing were wrong, I am making it something to be ashamed of. Also, that I am depriving my kids of the chance to take care of me and thus hone their empathy skills. That I am not being open and honest and that I am encouraging a family culture of secrecy and stigma that might ultimately prove toxic.
I have my reasons for that.
My mother also went through periods of depression. (In her case, I am sure that having a child who didn’t eat or sleep, picking up and moving across Eastern Europe and ending up in a new country where she didn’t speak the language or understand the culture, and then being forced to live for a time with her mother-in-law and the mother-in-law’s sister probably didn’t help, either. In fact, it’s ridiculously understandable. Compared to what she went through, I have absolutely nothing to complain about. Which is why I do my very best not to.) And my maternal grandmother had a habit of threatening to toss herself out the nearest window.
I remember my mother flinging herself onto the floor, sobbing; throwing pots and pans and, once, even picking up said mother-in-law’s sister and flinging her out of the room (she had it coming). I remember how that made me feel. (Spoiler: It did not make my perennially churning anxiety go down.)
And I do not want that for my children. I want to protect them from seeing me lose control in such a manner.
Plus, my needing to put on a façade of everything being alright and keeping it together for them is, on some days, the only thing that actually does allow me to keep it together for myself. Who knows where I’d be today if I didn’t have someone to fake it for.
Maybe that’s selfish of me. It probably is. But, right now, it’s my lifeline