Parenting a teenager with depression has nearly broken me. It has cracked me open, so that I thought the pieces would never come back together. But, like the daisies and coneflowers that I hack down to the ground in preparation for spring, the places that are cut are the places where new shoots grow.
I didn’t sign up for this. Hiding the knives. Locking up the household cleaners. Checking his room for anything sharp, for hidden meds he didn’t take. Noticing new cuts on his arms. Wondering if I will find him dead in his room in the morning. Sitting with him in the doctor’s office waiting for the results of the drug tests.
Letting go of the expectations and hopes and dreams. While other parents share proud news about their kids’ accomplishments ― honors classes, sports achievements, a date to the prom ― I am happy the stealing seems to have stopped. That he can, very occasionally, laugh again.
It is a heartbreaking thing to know that your child does not want to live anymore. This sweet soul who used to sing and dance around the house, to canter like a horse around the yard, to lead the neighborhood kid gang in complex games with plastic swords—now wants to die. Now he cuts himself just so that he will feel something. And nothing we do seems to help.
And it takes its toll. Living with a severely depressed person is like living with a black hole. When at its worst, everyone is sucked into the blackness. Nothing escapes. Nothing breaks through the darkness.
It takes a toll on the family, on the friendships, on the marriage, but most of all on me, the main caregiver, the mom. Most of the time I am able to marshal all of my forces and do what needs to be done, whether it’s monitoring his meds, giving a hug when I really don’t feel like it, or knocking on his door to see if he’s OK.
Not to mention the endless appointments and phone calls: psychiatrist, psychologist (both an hour away), teacher conferences, school 504 meetings, family doctor, health insurance company, massage and physical therapy for the anxiety he carries in his body, and never-ending expensive trips to the pharmacy.
It is like its own part-time job, and I don’t know how a parent could possibly have a successful career while trying to manage all of this, this endless list of stuff that your child desperately needs. On top of all that is the burden of the medical bills.
Most of the time I am able to push through. But sometimes, I hit a wall. Sometimes I shut down. Like the time he said, you can take me to all the therapist appointments you want, I’m not going to talk, I’m not going to try, it’s stupid.
My face fell and something in me snapped shut like a clam. I went to my bedroom and did not make eye contact with anyone for 24 hours. I had to hide. I was sucked dry and weary to the bone.
It turns out parental love is not as unconditional as we thought. There is a breaking point. There are in fact many breaking points. Because we hide and we cry and pull our hair and if we’re lucky we talk to someone. But then we pick ourselves up off the bathroom floor and we go back.
And that—that is the courage, the heroic courage of the parent and the caregivers, the quiet warriors of our weary world.
It’s hard to find other parents of kids with a mental illness, because who the hell wants to advertise it? Oh, your kid is on the debate team? That’s great. My son was nearly institutionalized for being suicidal and I had to take away anything sharp and his belts from his room. Want to meet for coffee and chat about it? No, not likely.
Thank God when we hit bottom I had someone to reach out to. A desperate plea to friends to watch my 6-year-old so I could take the teenager to an emergency therapist and doctor’s appointment after discovering evidence of just how much he wanted to die.
I laid it all bare. Desperately. Just being able to share it and feeling supported kept me from sinking. But thank god again, one of the friends had a daughter who struggled with depression. We met for drinks. She introduced me to a private online group of moms of kids with mental health issues.
It was such a comfort to know that I was not alone, that these moms get it, that I had a place to pour it all out to parents who had been there and survived. These parents are my lifeline and my heroes. It is critical for parents to have a supportive community of some kind, but the lingering stigma about mental health so often prevents this.
It’s still hard a lot of the time, though he’s doing really well right now thanks to a fabulous support team of doctors, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, family, friends and community.
Sometimes I fear that he will never fight his way through to have a “normal” life. Sometimes his irritability and moodiness make me want him to just go away. Sometimes I fantasize about having a sweet, “normal” kid, or no kids at all.
But it’s funny how the heart has to be cracked open in order to grow so much. There’s just no other way. I used to be judgmental of some parents of kids with behavioral problems. Out of sheer ignorance I often unconsciously blamed the parents. My heart is so much bigger now.
Where there was judgment and annoyance now there is only love and compassion. Now I want to reach out to parents who are trying to cope and offer love and support (and alcohol). Now I want to love the kids and teens I see struggling. Now there is no such thing as other people’s children.
Soon I will dig up the hostas and the coneflowers and the daisies, and I will viciously slice them down the middle with my shovel, laying bare the white roots, the soft wet insides. And I will put them back into the dark ground, knowing that they will grow bigger for it.
Previously published as ‘Mothering Through the Darkness’ in The Wild Word magazine. www.thewildword.com This piece was chosen by the NHS in Britain as part of their Mental Health Awareness campaign.
MichiganMom lives with her family in Lansing, Michigan, U.S.A.
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