My grandma received a kidney transplant when I was nine years old. Months after her surgery, I sat at her kitchen table wide-eyed as she peeled the foil back from her medicine, freeing it from the plastic. She showed it to me in the palm of her hand. It was the biggest pill I had ever seen.
“I’ll have to take one of these everyday for the rest of my life, but at least I’m alive,” she said before popping it in her mouth and swallowing it with a gulp of water. Years later it was this moment from childhood I would recall in the office of a psychiatrist.
“Having a mental illness is no different than having diabetes or asthma. You have to take medicine regularly to feel healthy. So what? You shouldn’t feel anymore ashamed than someone who needs insulin or an inhaler,” she assured me. I could tell it was a line she repeated often. I didn’t want to believe it.
I wasn’t mentally ill. I was just going through a rough patch, but I took the pills. Months went by. I felt better. I stopped taking the pills. “I don’t need these,” I thought. A few weeks later I stopped getting out of bed. I started taking the pills again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It was a vicious cycle. Sometimes it is still a vicious cycle.
I have struggled with depression for most of my life, but only in the last year have I begun to identify it by that name. For many years I was just having a bad day. No, week. Okay, month. I was just lonely. My career was wrong. My weight wasn’t right. Then the time came when I was married to a wonderful and supportive man with whom I had two beautiful, healthy children. I was making a living doing what I loved and my jeans fit nicely and yet … I was still hopeless.
It was my children that led me to take a seat in that psychiatrist’s office, the one who told me what I was suffering from had a name and a treatment. I was parenting from a pit of despair. Quality time with Anders and Danica had become an episode of Dora the Explorer in a dark room. They would push aside the pile of tissues, crawl under the covers, and nestle their way beneath my arms.
“Are you sad again today, Mommy?” my son asked one afternoon. It was the “again” that got me. Children miss nothing. The swollen eyes over breakfast, the days spent behind locked doors (Mommy is napping. Let’s leave her alone.), the general disinterest in, well, everything — whether I liked it or not it was affecting them.
Depression is a hell on earth, but being a mother with depression? It was fuel to the fire and I wasn’t the only one burning.
While I still have the occasional relapse — mostly when I foolishly decide I want to try life without the meds — the best decision I ever made was to seek treatment. Stigma be damned, I know joy. I laugh. I delight in the presence of my children. I step out into the sunshine. I smile.
I may have to take a pill everyday for the rest of my life, but at least I’m alive.
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