This article is part of the Here. Now. essay series, which seeks to de-stigmatize mental health treatment, and improve accessibility to treatment and support for teens and parents in metropolitan New York.
We all have strengths as parents. I might not be great at getting the laundry done or doing a DIY science lab kit, but I have my wheelhouse—lunch notes. I rock at lunch notes. The food I pack might have GMOs but the notes, they have LOVE.
Since my son was 4, I have been writing him notes every day (well, now I share the job with his dad since we’re divorced) but still, I’ve written over 500 notes to my son, everything from knock-knock jokes about the new Star Wars:
Finn-ish your lunch.
To reminders like:
Remember: It is never OK to punch someone in the face.
It is OK to drink punch and get some on your face.
To the easy laugh:
Here’s your last note before break, so I better make it a good one, here it goes:
All of them end with the same love-filled sign off.
In addition to the lunch notes, I’ve also written him 20 letters, all of which were goodbye letters. Well, those are the ones I wrote on paper. How many I wrote in my head, I’m not sure, but it was at least 365.
Because every day, no matter how I’m doing or what I’m doing, whether I am alone in my room or deep into a light saber battle with my 9-year-old, the thought of killing myself is always there.
You know that friend who started juicing or marathon running and won’t stop talking about it? That is how my brain is with suicide, and as far as I can remember, it has always been that way.
When I was 16 and a newly licensed driver, I received my grandma’s old car. I felt the freedom all teenagers feel. I also thought, finally, now I have a way to kill myself.
And the thing is, I was happy, had lots of friends, and no signs of depression that anyone, myself included, saw. Yet part of me wanted to die. I never talked about it with anyone and didn’t think much about it—it was just there.
As college ended and the real world was about to hit me, I decided I didn’t have what it took to be an on-my-own, independent adult, to go into the real world, so I decided to take my own life.
Spoiler Alert: I survived.
I sought therapy, took meds, continued on with life. I got married and moved back to my hometown, where I would find a new therapist, and though the thought of killing myself remained in the background of my mind, for the most part, it didn’t nag at me, maybe because I knew it was always an option.
But then I brought a child into this world, and the whole ending my life thing left me with something else to consider—how it would affect my son. I love being a mom. As certain as I was that I would end my life, I was that certain that I would be a mom. But the thing is, those two ideas, they just don’t go together.
During my pregnancy and my son’s first year, I felt the healthiest I ever did in life. Nursing him brought a much needed serotonin boost, a boost so big I’ve wondered if I should become a wet nurse.
When he was in preschool, the depression and suicidal thoughts returned, worse than ever, and my son knew none of it. I would pack him his lunch, note and all, and send him off to school, and then I would wonder, will I pick him up today or end my life?
But I was committed to getting better—sometimes committed in the literal sense. Surrounded by a support network I built, I fought, I went to outpatient programs, I got my brain shocked via electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and I was healthy again.
I even wrote a play about it, saying I was better, I was healed. And then I learned what probably seems like an obvious lesson. Apparently writing a play that says you’re healed from depression doesn’t mean you’re healed from depression.
Nope, it came back. Louder. Harder. And scary as shit.
So I went back to ECT. And it didn’t work, so I tried a stronger variety. One that obliterated my memory. Between the ECT treatments, three more hospital stays, and a variety of outpatient programs (Yelp reviews coming soon) my son began to become aware I was having some medical issues. Being 9 and mostly invested in his own life, he didn’t ask too much. But I wonder what I would say if he did.
I’m not one for lying to my child, but I’m also not one of those moms who says things like, “My son turned 5 today so I thought I better tell him about the 1980s AIDS crisis and the horrors of Rwanda. After all, he is a citizen of the world.”
But ask me a direct question and I’m into giving a direct/age appropriate answer, especially since I’m plugging this whole get rid of stigma, have no shame thing.
But I don’t really think it’s necessary for him to know a lot about my health right now, as long as he gets the part about how we should all be trying to make healthy choices. Between his desire to create a beautiful loogie and see every episode of Clone Wars, he has enough to focus on in his own life. But still, a small part of me hoped he asked.
Because I was running out of time where he’d still think it was cool that the fact I got Electro-Convulsive Therapy means Princess Leia (or at least Carrie Fisher) and I have something in common.
And so we talked about me going into the hospital—how brains work and how they need help. And because he is a kid and his world is a lot more logical than an adult’s, he got it. It was the same as talking about any other medical problem we told him about, like his dad getting a tube in his ear or his grandfather having hernia surgery. He even paid me a visit while I was there, and thanks to art therapy, I always had the chance to make him fun souvenirs.
Right now I am still fighting this disease, or at least learning to peacefully co-exist with it. Many times a day, I remind myself that just like how writing a play didn’t cure my depression, I know no matter how many letters I write to my son, none of them can make killing myself OK for him. Plus, if I did kill myself, I wouldn’t get to put any more fart notes in his lunch, and for this moment, right now, that is getting me through.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.