There is nothing like being a parent to induce a need for other people’s approval and sympathy. Suddenly, your every move is held to a higher standard, by yourself and others. And when you struggle with mental illness, that standard can seem impossible to meet.
So, looking for some validation, or just to remind myself I’m not the only mentally ill parent, I searched around for blogs and articles on the topic. This one by Jane Roper is my favorite— it hits some notes that resonate very much with me. In particular, this passage:
“My thoughts were panicked and pessimistic: What if I didn’t get better this time? What if I ended up having to be hospitalized? What if this was the way I was going to feel for the rest of my life? What kind of mother could I be?”
I confess to having teared up a little reading that, because those same questions had been circling my (very depressed) brain all day, and it was relieving to have a reminder that other parents struggle with them, too. And yet, in some respects I came away more disheartened than when I started reading, because I realized anew how severe my problems are compared to many people who struggle with clinical depression, and how much that affects both my ability to parent and the way I interpret my failures.
This is not to dismiss the struggle of Roper or others who share her experience. Depression is awful and painful and destructive at any level. But I was unable to identify with most of the positive thoughts that lent the article its hopefulness.
It starts in the second sentence: “My husband watches them most of the week while I’m at work…”. Two glaring discrepancies between Roper and myself. She has a husband who actually gets up with the kids most days– a situation I’ve never enjoyed, having become a single mother almost five years ago after leaving a husband who callously neglected both my and my son’s needs. And she goes to work. Thanks to my disabilities, I haven’t had a job since a brief stint as a care worker in 2007. In total, I have worked full time for about six months of my life.
Roper goes on to say, “I’d been able to effectively manage my condition with medication. When I did have depressive dips, they were short-lived, and not debilitating.” I have never had a depressive phase that wasn’t long-lived and debilitating, and when I’m not curled up shaking with anxiety or feeling dead inside, I’m often manic, which brings its own set of parenting issues. I track several aspects of my mood on a daily basis, so I can say with certainty that with the exception of ten eustatic (i.e., “normal”-mood) days in late November/early December, I’ve been severely depressed for all of the last three months.
Of course, I’ve gone through things that precipitated that. Medication changes, and a very sad breakup. But there are always factors. Life is complicated, and mine tends to be especially complicated, partly because that’s the nature of being disabled– a lovely feedback loop. I’d have trouble looking back at any time in my life and going, “Wow, I was really doing okay for a while there.” I never was okay.
All of which means that the reassurances in Roper’s last paragraph ring hollow to me. Ask for help? I’m barely able to maintain a few loose friendships; the person to whom I turn for babysitting, my mom, is already overburdened with the task. Let the kid(s) watch TV? I already do that on a daily basis; my son goes over his theoretical screen time limit almost every day because I feel too worn down and apathetic to work at interesting him in something else. Let things slide? What things? Everything already slid, a long time ago, the cooking, the cleaning, all the responsibilities. It’s not a supermom on my shoulder, I feel; it’s just a normal mom, who looks at what I’ve turned out to be and is appalled.
When you have moderate periodic depression, it makes sense to take a sick day, or two, or even a sick week or a sick month if you are able. When you are clinically, severely depressed about 75% of the time, things get less clear-cut. What if every day turns into a sick day? I share Roper’s fear that I will always feel this way, but perhaps with better reason: in my case, it may not last forever, but how long will it last, and when it goes, how soon will it return? I already know the answers: A long time, and soon.
And as a result, I have to deal with the questions that follow. Should I even be a parent? Was it wrong and irresponsible of me to get pregnant in the first place? Has my child inherited my bipolar, and will he someday have to feel like this, too? Would it be better for him if he lived with his dad, and am I being purely selfish by maintaining custody? Is he even getting anything out of his time with me?
My reality is akin to Roper’s worst fears, and the same is true of every other piece I read. So who do I identify with? Who has answers and reassurances for me? And are there even any to be had? I was searching for evidence that I am not alone. What I found instead was more evidence that I am.