I was depressed.
I can say it now, because I’m gratefully not anymore. But I couldn’t say it while I suffered through it for 10 months, probably due to shame.
I’m not alone. In 2016, almost 7 percent of the population experienced at least one major depressive episode. Yet the stigma and discrimination around mental health disorders, including depression, is still strong. According to 2017 findings from Mental Health America 56 percent of American adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment.
Labeling myself as depressed compounded my shame because it meant labeling my children as “kids with a depressed mommy.” And I wasn’t brave enough to admit that yet. So I’m writing this, hoping to help other mothers who are stuck and need a hand to pull them out.
What may have spun me into a deeper depression: My kids’ needs came first, which meant my depression came last.
Depression crept insidiously into my busy, full life and slowly robbed me of joy. I started retreating from life in the fall of 2016. First, I stopped communicating with friends and family. Then I tried to escape even while at home with my kids by hiding in the closet. Shrouded by the dark stillness of my closet walls, I tried to disappear.
My kids would find me. I’d quietly shout through tired tears of despair, “Mommy just needs some quiet time.” But they’d keep firing their demands through the closet door. “She stole my apple slice.” “Where’s the charger?” “I pooped. Wipe me, Mommy!” I even contemplated hiding in the attic because I thought maybe there I could find quiet. My husband works long hours, and so the parental onus often fell heavily on me. Hiding from the outside world and then even hiding within my home wasn’t working. I needed help.
Feeling trapped in my own home, my fear of admission was imprisoning, too. “If I can’t care for myself, people will wonder how I’m able to care for my three kids,” ages 7, 5 and 4, I thought. The potential for judgment and ridicule from my family, community, and peers scared me into silence. I questioned my stability and capability as a parent.
My dark thoughts cast a shadow on reality, even though things appeared fine on the surface. My children were fed, bathed and functioning well. Their bright spirits continued to shine. But inside, my sense of doom slowly suffocated me. Here’s what I think can help others who find themselves in a similar situation.
What does depression look like?
Depression disrupts how you function in the day-to-day. I gained weight, felt hopelessly lethargic. Formerly a steadfast runner, I no longer even walked my kids to and from school. I couldn’t concentrate on any task.
Many of these symptoms were, I rationalized, just “mom issues.” I thought being a busy mom contributed to my poor eating habits.
One hot summer night, dinnertime loomed, and I didn’t know what to feed the kids. We all go through that – one likes tacos, the other hates them, and the third won’t eat anything anyway. And after all, I’d been providing breakfast, lunch and dinner all summer long, no big deal.
But things were getting to the point where I could barely cope with dishing up another meal. So, I buckled everyone into the car and started driving. But as we backed out of the driveway, I was paralyzed with confusion and felt completely stuck. I didn’t know where to take them. I’d never felt anything like this before.
This simple task of feeding my kids had become unsettling and beyond challenging. I eventually steered us to a fast-food burrito place in a neighboring town. But I knew something was wrong.
During my depression when my children cuddled up to me or said, “I love you,” I remember thinking, “I feel empty.” I wanted distance from my kids, from my responsibilities, from my role as their mother. I thought about doing the things that I loved, like seeing friends, going on a run, reading a book, but I wasn’t motivated to do anything. I was too tired, too overwhelmed.
Instead, I cleared my calendar and retreated. A typical symptom of depression, I avoided doing the things I normally enjoyed. Isolating from life also meant my kids were isolated with me. They’d ask for playdates, and I’d say no. Tidying the house to have people over was a mountainous burden. Even being invited to someone else’s house overwhelmed me. What if my kids wouldn’t share or leave when I asked?
Yet I declined help. My family lived thousands of miles away, but we had close friends all around us. When they offered to watch my kids, I said no. Perhaps out of pride, but mostly because I felt fatigued and weak, I thought, “How could I ever repay them?”
Depression before kids
This wasn’t my first experience with depression, but it was my first time experiencing depression as a mom. I had depression in my early 20s when my parents divorced. I put my graduate studies on hold until the depression ebbed. Eventually, after counseling and time, I resumed studying social work and got my master’s degree.
With my parent’s divorce, I was able to rationalize my depression. But spontaneous depression occurs, too. This time, there was no catastrophe to readily blame for my despair.
After months of suffering and my inability to get better on my own, I sought help, but it was more complicated than in my 20s. As a 35-year-old mom, I felt like I couldn’t pause my life while my depression played out. I started seeing a therapist bimonthly and met for four months. She suggested I pay more money to be tested for attention deficit disorder. Unsettled by this and unable to handle the added expense, I eventually stopped seeing her.
Without my sessions, I continued to struggle. Friends reached out and shared their experiences of depression and anxiety. I continued to suffer and eventually found another therapist.
Looking back, I wish I’d prioritized my needs — even as a new mom. Asking for help in early motherhood is a way to get accustomed to making time and space for self-care. My stoic parenting style set the precedent for burnout and isolation. Also, I thought that since I didn’t experience post-partum depression, I was immune from depression during motherhood. This proved very wrong. In fact, for people who’ve suffered one episode, depression is highly likely to recur.
With a background in social work, I knew about the stigma around depression and mental health issues, and I wish I’d applied my professional non-judgment to myself. When my closest friends shared their stories of depression, I could’ve asked for the names of their therapists and sought professional help.
Change, in this case, did me good
My situation is different than that of many: After just two visits with that therapist, we moved from Texas to New York. And with that, everything changed. In the midst of total upheaval, the fog lifted. I realize this is not the norm. But we started a new life, and I felt liberated. We grew closer as a family, both physically and figuratively.
Driving from Texas to New York in a Passat meant that we had no choice but to connect. We arrived in New York and lived in tiny hotel rooms for weeks. Maybe what I needed was all that forced closeness. Maybe instead of trying to escape, I needed to embrace.
As we settle into our new home, I feel the wooden floors beneath my bare feet. I smell the salty water from the harbor, just minutes from our doorstep. It’s as if color is bleeding back into my gray life.
I feel like myself again.
I’m not sure how to prepare for my next episode, but I know that I’ll tell people about my depression; after all, I’m telling you.
For now, jumping in headfirst to our new life is all I can do. I exchange phone numbers with every friendly new mom I meet. I attend school events, volunteer on field trips, assist in the classroom. There’s an older lady in our new neighborhood who walks her dog at least twice a day. We know each other now, and I’m going to make sure that she and I stay connected. She will unknowingly hold me accountable — preventing me from letting my depression envelop me again without seeking help.
If the depression returns? I’ll find another therapist right away and seek professional guidance to help heal me rather than deceive myself and suffer. That much I know.
Molly England perpetually attempts to simplify her life. She aspires to be a decent mother, wife, daughter and friend. Meanwhile, she processes life’s daily chaos and beauty by jotting down her thoughts. Molly’s writing is featured in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, Salon, Babble and more.