Parenting While Depressed
When my son was just about a year old, he began to show pre-asthmatic signs. He coughed and wheezed, and it scared the life out of his mother and me. We took him to the doctor who then administered a breathing treatment. He screamed his little lungs out. It was one of the worst moments of my life for two reasons; first, no parent wants to see their child suffer. Secondly, I have had asthma since I was a kid. I assumed I had passed this on to my son. Since then, he’s shown no signs of being asthmatic, and is an active, sports-loving nine-year-old, but I’ll always remember that feeling of passing on my defects through my messed-up genes.
That feeling returned in 2014 when I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (clinical depression). I kept thinking… are my kids going to have to live like this, too? Will they be crazy like I am?
I should give some background at this point because any discussion of mental health should be contextual: In 2014, I was going through a divorce. My ex-wife is a Rockstar. The divorce was due to my actions, and I still carry a lot of shame around it. Those same shameful actions also cost me what I thought was my dream job, stifled my career, and caused a rift in a lot of my close relationships. It also meant that I was seeing my kids less and that I was less able to provide for them.
It would have been very easy at the time to assume what I was experiencing was situational, something that would pass. But spending time with a psychiatrist, I began to recognize patterns that have been there since my teenage years. For me, depression appears less as sadness and more as emotional numbness as well as being scatter-brained and lethargic. As I began to understand the inner workings of my own mind a bit better, I began to dread the thought of my kids having to live the way that I had learned to live.
Fast forward to 2019. My kids are happy!
I’m guessing most parents would say that about their kids. I mean, at least before they hit their teens. But I am often taken aback by just how much joy radiates from these little people. They laugh! They sing! They make up games! My daughter, 7, will keep me on FaceTime for an hour playing “guess what animal I am” as she gestures wildly and makes weird noises. The nine-year-old can transition from talking my ear off about football to mimicking the character voices as he quotes Finding Dory line for line. I have silly, happy kids that are full of life and I am so grateful for that.
Managing my mental illness has become less about the fear of passing it on to my kids and more about how to be a good parent while keeping the illness under control. My children are the primary reason I work as hard as I do to maintain my mental health. I go to therapy regularly and I’ve been on medication for the last five years. I’ve also tried to add disciplines like exercise and mindfulness practices to my daily routine, but I often find that the one thing at which I am consistent is inconsistency. Still, I have made my mental health a priority because I want to be as present and engaged of a parent as possible.
My spiritual life has changed dramatically since my diagnosis. While I don’t believe that prayer is a good substitute for Wellbutrin, I have noticed that my prayer life is different, particularly the listening part of my prayer life. For so long, I believed the condemning voice in my head was the voice of God. That “demon voice,” as I sometimes call it, turned out to be a manifestation of my own self-loathing. I have learned instead to listen for the voice of love and recognize that as the Divine. The biggest learning that has come out of the last five years has been that God doesn’t want me to be depressed. That should be obvious, but sometimes our faith’s emphasis on self-denial and sacrifice leads us to believe that our own misery is God’s will. I love my kids. I want them to be happy. God loves me, so…
Mental illness can make us incredibly self-focused, basically the opposite of what parenting requires. My illness compels me to withdraw, self-isolate, and alienate other people. That’s not ideal when kids want to share about their day, ask you to play catch, or need reassurance that their presence is not a nuisance. Understanding better how my mind works makes me conscious of the ways that I might check out when I most need to check in. Understanding how God’s love works allows me to extend grace to myself in those moments when my brain doesn’t allow me to be what I want to be for my loved ones.
And grace abounds! I am remarried to another Rockstar and have added two happy, silly stepchildren to my life. I have the great gift of having a partner who understands my mental illness and gives me the space I need to take care of myself so that I can love my family to the fullest. I pray that I give her the same gift.
Parenting is hard enough. Feeling like you are crazy and that your brain is working against you makes it even more difficult. The worst, though, is having that feeling and then the feeling like you’re alone in it.
Sadly, more and more of us are dealing with depression and anxiety and not finding the resources in our faith communities to both get the help we need and tend to our responsibilities as parents and partners. There is no shame in needing help either in the form of medication, therapy or both. Christ came for the healing of the world; our spirits, our bodies, and our minds. Our kids deserve us at our best so that they can grow to be all that God has made them to be. It is time for those of us who live with mental illness to step out of the shadows and into the light of God’s love, for our sakes and for our children’s sakes.
And who knows, maybe someday my children will suffer with some of the same issues that I have. At least I’ll know some of what they’re going through and feel more equipped to hold their hands and walk alongside of them.
Derrick Weston is the director of programs and volunteers for HopeSprings, a ministry working to eradicate HIV, related health disparities, and stigma. He and his wife Shannon, a Presbyterian minister, have four children ranging in age from 11 to 7. Weston has served churches in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia and currently lives outside of Baltimore, MD. He is an avid gardener and movie lover and blogs at derricklweston.com.