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Parenting, Depression and Mental Illness (Guest Post)

October is Depression Awareness Month and October 6 to 12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. To help raise awareness about the challenges of parenting while depressed, I'm pleased to welcome Kristin Craig Lai to the blog to share her story.

Parenting Through the Madness

Painting by Kristin Craig Lai. Used With Permission.

I have been dealing with depression for most of my life: not just one period in my life that I’ve left behind, but as an ever-present part of who I am. I am constantly monitoring my moods, assessing if a bad day is just a bad day or the precursor to another fall down into the rabbit hole.  I have to be ever watchful, always on the look-out for triggers, and I am painfully aware that my child is at a greater risk of developing depression later in life. More recently I've come to understand that my mental health picture is a bit more complex, in addition to depression I am also living with Complex PTSD which manifests in many ways including social anxiety and hypervigilance.

When I started trying to get pregnant I had been on anti-depressants for about a year and a half.  Before I started my meds I was really struggling. I felt like I was floating just below the surface, just barely able to get my head above water every once in a while. I couldn’t enjoy anything, I obsessed about how useless I was.  I had to leave work early or call in sick more than once because I kept bursting into inconsolable tears for no apparent reason.  When my meds kicked in it was like a switch had flipped. I was out with my best friend, the one who knows me – and my illness – inside out, and even she could see that something had changed. I was talking and laughing and I looked at her and said, “Oh my God I feel happy! I think my meds just kicked in!”

So when I started thinking about pregnancy I had to seriously consider whether or not I should stay on my meds. After doing a little research and talking to my doctor it was an easy decision. We all agreed that the very real risk of me going into a major depression was much worse than the mostly theoretical risk of the drug crossing the placenta.  I was still worried about post-partum depression so I worked out a plan with my therapist and my ob-gyn.  I was guaranteed a private room at the hospital (covered by Medicare thank God) so that I could get my rest, and I had constant support from my mother and my partner for the first four weeks.  With all of that, I don’t think I would have been able to avoid PPD if I wasn’t already medicated. As you can see, even before I was pregnant my mental health was affecting my parenting.

I never wanted to be on meds for life. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of having my brain chemistry constantly altered. Psychoactove drugs are less like a scalpel and more like a hammer: they may know which neurotransmitters to target but they flood the whole brain and they affect all the functions performed by that neurotransmitter. So yeah, I would prefer not to have my brain soaking in a psychotropic soup for the rest of my life.  To that end I started researching alternative treatments for depression.  I found out which supplements to take, got into a regular exercise routine and bought a book on mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and last spring I convinced a psychiatrist that I was ready to try to be weaned off of my meds.

When I was down to about 50% of my original dose I imploded.  I would spend my days trying to hold it together for my daughter and my nights sobbing and hyperventilating on the couch. I was unable to leave the house for fear of weeping the moment anyone asked me how I was doing, just talking to a barista could set me off. I was drowning and my four-year-old was watching.  Shortly after I increased my dose the world shifted back into focus, one day I was in the fog, the next I was back to being me.

When someone says to me, “Everyone goes through depression” I want to smack them.  First, it’s just not true, the estimates I’ve seen put the rate of depression in Canada at about 8 or 12 percent, depending on the source and that’s accounting for everyone who’s ever had a major depressive episode.  My depression is of another kind.  I was thirteen when I broke.  I remember the night; I had been in a low level depression for about a month at that point but that night I cracked.  I was alone in the house and recently out of an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship. I became so overwhelmed with abject pain and despair that I was wailing and throwing myself at the walls, wishing that someone would just strike me dead.  This was the first of my many “flip outs” as I affectionately called them.  I would walk the halls at school feeling an almost physical weight pushing me down, that feeling is what makes the word depression so apropos. My depression was cyclical, I would move through various degrees of depression, from low-level dysthemia to full blown misery. My baseline was a kind of numbness, not feeling quite connected to the world around me. I cried a lot.

I have been living with depression, or the fear of depression for most of my life.

Living with chronic depression means living in a constant state of vigilance. Any time I cry I wonder if it’s a sign of an oncoming relapse. I recently got assessed at the mood disorder clinic and was told that because of my history of recurrence, even if I get the best non-pharmaceutical therapy I still have a 50% chance of relapse if I go off of my meds.  I was also told I need treatment for my anxiety. This is part of my life for the rest of my life. I will never be like other people.  I will always know that the next relapse could be around the corner like the sword of Damacles.  Even with medication my mind works differently. I still have regular periods of profound self-doubt. I am plagued by patterns of thinking that make it markedly more difficult to get on with my life.  I must constantly remind myself that at least half of my energy goes to being well.

I bring all of this to my parenting.  During my relapse I had to explain to my child what depression is.  I told her that mommy had a sickness that made me sad for no reason. I thought a lot about how to tread the fine line between making her feel responsible for my well-being and making her feel powerless in the face of my illness. I told her that I just needed to rest and it was hard for me to go out places.  I told her that it was not her fault that I was sad and it was not her job to make me feel better. Her response was to let me lie on the couch while she played independently and give me cuddles whenever I asked.  She took care of me in the only way she could.

A year and a bit later she remembers nothing of that summer but I still talk to her openly about depression. I tell her that mommy has depression, but I’m not sad now because I have medicine that helps me.  I have also spoken to her about anxiety, especially in the context of her own anxiety after our house fire, this of course only feeds my fears that I might pass it on to her.  I don’t think that I behave in an anxious way around her. Thankfully, I have not developed anxieties about her safety, but my coping mechanism, which largely consists of avoiding situations that might make me anxious, means that I am leading a pretty dull and circumscribed life. 

The question I keep asking myself is: how will it affect her if she sees me taking no risks in life.  My mother was – and still is – a storm chaser (I am not being figurative, she spends every summer driving around the Midwest and the prairies chasing tornadoes and lightning). She has always been a model of bravery and wise risk-taking. I’ve often wondered how I, with my long list of “won’t do’s”, could have come from my parents.  So what am I implicitly teaching my kid about taking risks? I believe that it’s important to take risks in life, I just don’t know how to do it in the ways that others do.  The risks I do take are not self-evident to a child. 

This is what parenting with mental illness is all about.  You have to do the constant work of managing your illness while also figuring out how to minimize the impact of your illness on your kid(s). And when you’re really on a role you might even find a way to turn it into an asset.  I’ve been trying to heal myself for twenty-four years. The very fact that I’m still here and still fighting is a testament to the work I’ve put in.  That kind of self-healing and advocacy doesn’t come without some serious self-awareness.  The things I have learned on this journey are some of the most important lessons I could bring to parenting. 

Without these experiences I wouldn’t be able to respond so empathetically to her sadness, no matter how irrational it may seem.  Thinking thoroughly about how to manage emotions and how to best take care of myself is like breathing to me.  What my kid is learning from me is that it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to feel your feelings and it’s okay to take care of yourself, no matter who’s depending on you.  So yes, I often feel crazy and I sometimes feel broken but do I wish that I’d never had to fight these battles? Not on your life.

Kristin Craig Lai is a blogger and feminist life coach living in Toronto. She writes about intersectional feminism and mental health at www.shutuplucille.com and can be found on Twitter at @shutuplucille or @kristincraiglai.

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Reader Comments (13)

Too often we suffer more deeply in silence to spare others the discomfort of our truths. It is the braver thing to speak the truth and broach the discomfort of others than to bear the crushing weight of darkness alone. Your honesty breeds empathy, a gift of comfort and illumination. Thank you for that, and may the light always find you.

October 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda Rose Adams

Thank you so much for sharing. Your story really resonated with me and with my experiences--I've had many of the same thoughts (sad day? downward spiral? what do they know about x medication and pregnancy? PPD?) and a very similar experience trying to wean off of medication. I don't have children yet, but I think a lot about my mental illness in the context of parenting and it is very meaningful to be able to read this piece.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMoose

This post is so close to my heart.
To many suffer in silence.
The biggest step is the first step which is the hardest x

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEmma white

Thank you for writing this post. I too struggle with mental health problems and am on medication while I parent. This is a topic I think a lot about everyday. I too think I will be on meds for the rest of my life but it makes such an enormous difference for me that to be without... I can't imagine being a healthy parent without them. Thanks again.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBarb

I was depressed all throughout my son's pregnancy and his first year of life. It took me a long time to figure it out. He's now nearly two and I'm doing better... though it's a very hard struggle.
I wrote a book about the holistic treatment of parental stress and depression: http://www.authenticparenting.info/p/books.html

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Schuerwegen

Hi Kristen and Annie - thanks for posting this personal vignette about planning for a post-partum mental illness incident. You are so wise to be pro-active to include your mental health in your birth and postpartum plan. A wise and practical step. You are a role model for the reality of living with and caring for a mental illness. Your attempt to wean off medications was well described as well. Thanks for including this picture of yourself, an intelligent and caring person, just like us. take care, Kathy,

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Morelli

Kristin, thank you for sharing your journey! I too struggle with depression and worry about how to prevent it from affecting my children. I empathize with your feelings about being on anti-depressants long term as I have similar concerns. And even while on my meds, I still struggled with PPD after the birth of my oldest. The two things that kept me going was the thought that she needed me and the support of my husband. He may not always understand what is going on in my head, but he is really good at just being there until I am able to explain.

Also, I think it is great that you are open with your daughter about this. My own mother struggled with PPD and depression while I was a child, but it was never explained to me. I grew up thinking that my mother's mood swings and anger were all my fault. Rationally, I know now that this is not true, but emotionally I am still processing that. Stay strong and take care of yourself!

Amanda Rose: wow, what a beautifully written post!

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKerrie G.

Beautifully written. Living with depression, (My first real dive down was at age 5) you also live with guilt about what you have given to your children. I had my worst episode when PP after my third child, in the days before the God given SSRI meds that gave me some life. I have a video of me changing him on about day 3...I look like a robot, going through the motions of caring for him without any feeling for it. Both he and my middle child, my daughter, struggle. The daily vigilance, the need to check and prepare for each day, is tiring. Thank you for putting words to it...yes, thats right...half my energy goes to merely surviving.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

Way to go, Kristin. Thanks for sharing. You're doing tremendous good for a lot of people, including your daughter. : )

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I, too, suffered from depression off and on all my life, and I hit some really rough spots after the births of my children. We always said "depression runs in our family" when I was growing up, so I accepted it and dealt with it as best I could. Many years down the road, well into my 40s (I'm 51 now), I discovered how much my food choices could impact my physical and mental/emotional health. If there's one thing I wish for the author of this moving guest post, and anyone else experiencing chronic pain and depression, it's that you would look into an anti-inflammatory, gut-healing way of eating. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett has done great work exploring the conection between chronic inflammation and depression, which supports my belief in the importance of eating a carefully chosen diet as a way of diminishing the worst symptoms of depression. Cutting out grains (and most sugars and starches) has been a life-changing, amazing move for me. Please look into diets like the GAPS Diet--it could allow for the gradual (or immediate) cessation of medications. Changing the way I eat has improved my quality of life immensely.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKari

Thank you so much for writing this. Yes to everything.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLyla

Thank you so much for sharing your story and your challenges. I love this at the end, "What my kid is learning from me is that it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to feel your feelings and it’s okay to take care of yourself, no matter who’s depending on you. So yes, I often feel crazy and I sometimes feel broken but do I wish that I’d never had to fight these battles? Not on your life."

You and your daughter are indeed learning many valuable lessons.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

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January 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKeto aHolics

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