Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Tonight, I’m sitting here with a lot of feelings swirling around in my heart and a lot of thoughts and unanswered questions in my head. At the top of that list is how to help your child survive depression and anxiety. There’s been a lot of big things happening around here. Yesterday, we celebrated Bella’s Junior day at school. How can my first baby be a senior and be leaving for college soon? Sunday will be the 10th anniversary of the loss of our third baby and it’s tinging every day this week with sadness.
Today was the day that I’d been dreading my entire life even before I had my children. The one thing I hoped would never happen, the thing that has filled me with guilt and sadness since even before thinking of becoming a mom.
Today, my daughter verbalized what most adults cannot… she told me that she no longer feels any joy in her life.
I was diagnosed Bipolar 1 when I was in my 20s and back then, I was very regularly manic. That’s how my bipolar presents mostly, I fly so high that I can’t come down so I fly erratically until the extreme irritability and anger kick in. Then, I become unbearable. So, I was relieved when I got my diagnosis because it meant I was bent not broken and that felt kind of like a miracle to me. It felt as good as being cured. But the one thing that scared me the most was the possibility of passing it along to my children. I’d rather live my life dealing with the harsh reality of highs and lows than ever let my children feel one moment of unrest but we don’t always get what we want.
Because of my own experience with mental illness, I am an advocate for my children’s mental health. I’ve raised them knowing that everyone could benefit from therapy and that there is no shame in having a mental illness diagnosis. It just is what it is and all we can do is get a good psychiatrist, a compassionate psychologist and work the plan and take our meds. We have to do the work and it is some of the hardest work you’ll ever do but it’s the only way to get through it.
Today, my worst fear was realized when I heard my child, whom I love more than my own life, say that she could feel no joy and thought maybe she needed more help than I alone could give. On one hand, I was so proud of her for advocating for herself and for being so self-aware at such a young age but on the other hand, I was absolutely terrified. How can this be happening?
I’ve done everything I could think of proactively because of living with and learning about my own mental illness. My girls have been in therapy for the past 2 years. I keep a close eye on their mental health and well-being, we talk about everything openly and I look for the signs because I know how torturous it is to go through it alone. But there are some things you can’t stop from happening. You can only be there to help them find their way and mental illness one of those things that you can’t stop from happening. No matter who you are, how much money you have, where you live or who you think you are, mental illness does not discriminate. The difference in the outcome is whether you get the help you need or not.
In my 20’s, I was very manic almost exclusively but when I was my daughters’ ages (really from about 14-18 years old) I was highly suicidal. But it wasn’t just ideation, I had a plan. I had backup plans to my plan. It was so painful to live that I often felt the only way to stop the pain was to disappear into the abyss. I wanted to die more than I wanted anything else. Honestly, I used to pray for the strength to do it but there was one thing that stopped me, my mom. I just couldn’t get past what it would do to her and the thought of me being the cause of her feeling like she wanted to disappear into the abyss was the very thing that prompted me to keep fighting. I never told a soul and the fact that my daughter discussed her mental health with me, I feel, is evolved beyond what I was at her age.
I knew that if I killed myself, I would essentially be killing my own mother and I could never do that to her so I kept living. One day at a time, some days, one minute at a time and on others, one second at a time. Living during that time felt cruel and unusual but it was my only option. I think that’s where my unbreakable (or as my daughters call it unbearable) optimism comes from. I had to find a way to keep going through the darkest time of my life, alone.
My point is that life is a struggle for all of us in its own way. Sometimes life is so hard and scary that it’s almost impossible to see clear of the darkness. But I promise that eventually, the darkness lifts and becomes bearable. Learn to read between the lines and hear what your teenagers are feeling, beyond what they are saying. It’s not easy being a teenager in today’s digital world. There is so much pressure to be perfect in a world where everything is filtered and curated.
At the end of the day, all I want is for my girls to be happy. I want them to feel loved and filled with hope and a sense of purpose. I want them to know that everything is possible and no dream is too big. But mostly, I want them to feel real, genuine joy and I will do whatever it takes to make sure that I safely get them to a place where they can and they do. It’s been one of the hardest weeks of my life but I am grateful that she felt comfortable enough to talk to me because it terrifies to think about the alternative.
Have you ever been faced with the fact that your child may have a mental health issue and need help beyond what you can offer as a mom? What did you do? How did you get through it and comfort your child in a meaningful way without trivializing or catastrophizing their situation? How did you learn to listen beyond their words?