I've spent a lot of time thinking about this piece, and have started and restarted several times. This is unusual for me - usually I sit, open the laptop and the words flow. I think the difficulty this time is because this topic, even more so than everything else I've written about, is extremely raw.
As long as I've been a parent, my mental health and frequent lack-thereof has been a huge influence on our lives. If affects so much more than me alone - it has impacted on my husband, Ronan, and our two kids, Donnchadh (six) and Muireann (four). It's impossible to quantify this impact, as I have no point of reference, but there's no doubt in my mind that my frequent depressive episodes, combined with the many symptoms of recently diagnosed borderline personality disorder, have been hugely influential on how I am as a parent, how I treat my kids, how my husband and I work together as a couple and as parents, and perhaps most significantly the potential impact it has had on my kids.
Allow me to give you the potted version of the last seven or so years - I developed severe post natal depression after the birth of my son, and while it lifted temporarily it came back with force after my daughter was born two years later. Since then, I've been hospitalised twice for severe depression, tried several combinations of medication in an effort to find one that works, been suicidal more times than I care to remember, have self harmed repeatedly, and spent over eight months out of work on sick leave. I finally received a formal diagnosis of recurrent clinical depression last year, and a further diagnosis of borderline personality disorder earlier this year.
To say this has been somewhat challenging is putting it in the most diplomatic way possible. The fact that my marriage is still intact is testament to my husband's strength of character because I am not the easiest of people to live with when I'm depressed - I withdraw completely, I'm incredibly angry, I blame him for perceived problems, I become convinced that our marriage is the source of my depression... this is the merest tip of the iceberg. Like I said, his strength of character is phenomenal.
But how about my kids? How am I with them? At my worst, I'm unable to cope with them. I can't engage, I don't want to play, getting myself up, dressed and fed is sometimes beyond me. Often, all I'm capable of is sitting and staring at a wall for hours on end. I resent every demand that's made of me, I want to be left alone, utterly and completely. My only focus is on getting through the day until such a time as I can legitimately go back to bed, sleep, and escape the negative maelstrom that is my mind.
I think it's this aspect of depressed me that has stood in the way of my writing this piece. My kids are my world, end of. But since they've been born, there have been too many times when I was unable to be the mother I wanted to be, and that cuts me to my core. I feel like depression robbed me of their early years, and replaced me with a phenomenally anxious, scared, sad, easily overwhelmed, easily angered version of myself. There is so much of that time that I simply can't remember, and I find it difficult to look at photos of them as babies without going back to how I felt then. My husband has told me there were good times, and I have photos of us laughing, but all I can remember is how difficult it was, how alone and lost I felt. The one aspect of all of this that I'm if not proud of, at least relieved about, was that none of this negative feeling was ever directed towards my kids. If anything, I went to incredible lengths to protect them from it. When depression turned to anger, and anger took over, I would lock myself in the bathroom until I had it under control, although unfortunately this usually meant by hurting myself. My driving force was that my kids would not turn out like me, not ever feel the way I felt.
I think in years to come, I'll measure my success as a parent by how well my kids are able to cope with whatever life throws at them. I see in my son shadows of my own anxiety. I want to protect him from it, but that would be to do him a disservice. Instead, we need to help him learn how to cope with it. The same goes for Muireann, who is one very spirited little girl. It would be so easy to engage with her in a negative way, but that won't help her learn to manage her temper. We encourage them to express how they feel, good or bad. We encourage them to talk to us. We don't hide it from them when I'm feeling bad, as the bad days still happen. We tell them that it's ok to cry, that it's ok not to be ok. Both of them. We're trying to teach them to slow down when they get frustrated if something doesn't work they way they want it to, take a few deep breaths, and try again rather than giving up in a rage. If they're not able to do that, they go and spend a few minutes alone chilling out until they're ready to talk without shouting. Do they understand? I don't know, probably not fully. But I think some day they will.
More than anything else, I want them to know that they are loved, unconditionally, and accepted for who they are, exactly as they are. We hug them a lot. We tell them we love them a lot. Too much? Some might say so, but as far as I'm concerned they can never hear it enough. One of the biggest things I've learned from depression is self compassion, and it's something that I still struggle with daily. I don't want that for my kids. I want them to have the strength within themselves to be able to cope, emotionally and mentally, with whatever challenges they may face, as well as the self awareness to know when to ask for help. I want them to feel happy in their own skin, without comparing themselves unfavourably to those around them. I want them to recognise that self compassion is a good thing, that it ultimately helps create better relationships with those around them. Mostly, I just want them to be happy.
Depression is a cruel teacher, but in a way, I'm grateful if not for the experience, at least for the learning that came about as a result of it. I've spent over five years working with a fantastic therapist, and I genuinely believe that there have been times that she has kept me alive. During those years, I've had to face up to parts of myself that I never wanted to acknowledge. I've had to look at my relationship with my family, my husband, my friends, my kids, and most of all with myself. I've had to work long and hard to accept that for now, and for the foreseeable future, both medication and therapy are part of my life. Truth be told, I'm still working on that acceptance. My dependence on my therapist scares me, and at times I deeply resent my need for medication, and the on-going side effects that come with it.
But I have to look at the bigger picture. Without medication, as I discovered earlier this year during a brief trial off meds, I do not cope. I cannot function. I can't look after myself, or my kids, I can't work. I become a completely different person, and I don't like the person that I become one little bit. There was a time when we fully expected I'd be admitted to hospital again, until eventually I accepted that the trial was over, that I needed medication in order to be well. Since then, I'm on a new combination, one that for now at least seems to be working. I'm more stable than I have been in years. I've been on leave for the summer to spend time with my kids, and really feel like I've been given the opportunity to make up for all that time I lost when they were younger. I've not only coped, and been able to manage being home full time with them, I've been able to enjoy it. I've also been able to recognise that the more challenging days, when tempers are frayed, are part and parcel of life, and not because of anything I've done or haven't done.
I still have a long way to go, and no doubt there's a lot of learning yet to be done. I'm continuing to try and get my head around the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and all that it entails, and am slowly, slowly getting more adept at recognising disordered thinking. I'm much more aware of my triggers, and know that there are certain things I need to do for myself in addition to medication and therapy in order to keep myself well. It doesn't always work. I have slipped many, many times, and imagine I will many more times. But every single time I slip, there is something to be learned if I'm prepared to acknowledge it.
There isn't a day that goes by that I don't worry about how my mental health issues have impacted on my kids, but I can't change the past. The best I can hope to do is lead by example, and in taking ownership of my issues, recognising my triggers, asking for what I need when I need it, and doing what I can to look after myself, I'm hopeful I'm doing just that.
This post first appeared here.