My journey of depression and anxiety has been a family legacy. Family members have each handled it in different ways. Some through gritting their teeth and pushing through. Others handled it by denying that there was anything to address. It is a legacy that has been handed down. Cycle after cycle…one of anger and loss of control and violence. Emotional and physical battle scars ding my family tree as vividly as hearts and I love you’s carved in others.
The origins of the story don’t really belong to me, so I can only tell my side. I knew very young that there was stress and pain in our family. I knew it at two, in my first memory of a fight at home…I knew it when at eight. I was called downstairs in my father’s desperation to help my suicidal mom see who she would be hurting if she swallowed the pills scattered before her. I knew it in my father’s stories of him own youth… I knew it, when at 10, I felt like the only way out for me was to take my own life.
My father was used to a world in which you handled your own problems. He would ask me what I had to be depressed about. Really dad? As if I needed a reason with the bile in my veins and the fear in my heart, but sure…here goes. The fights, the lies, the “being used as a pawn”…the secrets told to me and then held against me to keep my silence. The rejection from friends whom I clung to just a bit too tightly because I was lonely and they were oh so kind.
I was diagnosed with manic bipolar at 10 by a psychologist who would screw his “lady in red” on the therapy couch right before our appointments. He guiltily once told me he and his wife were having some problems. When my father wanted to remove me from therapy, they were told that I would be given to the state if they did so. Sometimes I don’t know if I am grateful for the threat or not. It got me the care I needed but it also made me think…maybe someone else’s life wouldn’t be so bad.
My mother shared the diagnosis with me and we struggled together on the same cocktail of medicine being told that we were to blame for the problems in our family…it was our illness…our inability to cope. The reality, of course, is far more complicated. The reality is having to defend the way you feel, and if you are able to articulate it, then you must not be really ill.
There are classes and classes of mental illnesses, and many just don’t know how to deal with them. They walk on eggshells or they blast suggestions: Pray, meditate, read this self help book, go to that doctor, try that drug, oh my sisters third cousin had depression. Most of these are like bitters…they aren’t applied in great supply, but when blended with self doubt, and recriminations, memories, fear, and skewed perceptions they make for one hell of a cocktail. Fast forward through years of trial and error I had enough! Enough medicine, enough of my family, enough of everything and I decided that when I was 18 to strike out on my own.
I started a new life with one thought in my head. My children would never have to go through what I went through. I married a man who understood my past. He does, however, hold me accountable for my behavior. He never accepts my depression as justification for me hurting others. It isn’t that he doesn’t understand my reasons, he just wants me to see myself as strong enough to separate the pain within from who I am.
As gentle parenting teaches, hurt and anger are valid feelings, but I am learning to not hurt others or myself. A few years ago I was told I am, in fact, not manic bipolar. Only raised and taught to react in that fashion. I don’t know if that’s true, but the distinction feels moot. CBT helps me to control the worst of my symptoms, but it is my oldest daughter who inspires the real change within me.
My father could never handle being corrected or challenged by his children. My children are more empowered than I was. They are allowed to tell me when they feel I was wrong. My oldest has even put me in time out, and recommended hugs when I am bottled up emotionally. When depression tells me I will never change, never get better, I look at the faith in her eyes. I look at how far I have come.
She asks me why I am sad and she asks if I would like a hug. She heals me…she makes me work harder. Depression is an individual journey. No one can tell another person how to get better or just get over it. For me, the only way to face it is to be actively working towards change. My story comes full circle, as most cycles do. When I was pregnant the first time I had a particularly bad depressive episode. After my third attempt at suicide in one day my husband asked me, “What happens If you succeed but the baby lives? What will she think of herself? How will that break the cycle? What happens if you fail, but the baby dies? If you think living is hard now, it will only get harder.” My heart broke. All of my feelings are my own. They are valid and I will teach my children then same. But, my actions create a ripple effect. I will teach my girls the same: Honor their hurt but do not pass it on. Do not let it steal your joy, but know that it is ok to to be selfish and find your peace!