In 2014, a picture of my son and me made the elementary school yearbook. We are at his book fair, and he is wearing a striped t-shirt and a proud one-big-tooth smile—and there is a twinkle in his eyes that says “I got a couple chapter books, but I also scammed my mom into buying me a cat poster.” He looks darling.
I, on the other hand, do not look darling. In fact, I don’t even look like myself. My normally too-big toothy smile is unnatural and lip-stretched, and I am hunched behind my son in a way that seems like I’m trying to hide. And I’m sure I was. The most striking thing about me is my eyes. There is no sparkle, no expression in them. They look more like black marbles than human eyes. They look dead.
Every time I even think about that picture I feel sick to my stomach, unbearably sad. It brings me back to a time of dark pain that I almost can’t bear. I have to force myself out of that hole and remember that those years were eons ago. I know what I have to do to stay well; life now isn’t life then. (“Then” was a soon-regretted time when a friend encouraged me to go off my antidepressants—a semi-coerced decision that I will never forget no matter how long I live. And that is not hyperbole.)
I started to descend into clinical depression in January, when the boys had started the second half of their school years. My oldest was a firmly established 5th grader, my youngest a thoroughly entrenched second grader, and pretty soon I was a mom barely holding on.
One of my most pronounced symptoms was psychomotor retardation, which is broadly defined by the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) as including “slowed speech, decreased movement, and impaired cognitive function.”
But an eight word description does not really sum up what was happening to me.
When people think about the “decreased movement” associated with major depression, they fall back on the “can’t get out of bed” trope. And, of course, not having the energy to actually roll over and put your feet on the ground is a huge impediment when you have to get up and walk the kids to school.
Movement issues for me were so much more than that. My gait became stiff, mechanical, like I had been built from bolts and iron rods. Worse, though, was when I got “stuck.” I would take 5 or 11 or 42 steps, but then the next wouldn’t come. It was like my feet became anvils or nailed to the ground. This glitch could last a few seconds (if i was lucky) or what felt like forever. When the attendance bell would ring and we were still two football fields away, I’d have to give up and tell the boys to run. And then I’d feel an exhausted relief and slowly, clunkily make my way home.
And cognitive impairment? That is such a broad, abstract term that I’m not sure most people grasp it without googling it. For me, it primarily meant having problems, big problems, with memory and concentration. I didn’t have to worry much about helping my oldest with his studies (he has always been type A to a fault); my youngest was more of a wildcard and you never knew if his assignments would be in a folder or stuffed in the side pocket of his backpack, wrapped around a already-licked Tootsie Pop. That was the first hurdle.
The second hurdle was unfathomably difficult: I had to help him with his homework. I never imagined that I, a seasoned English teacher, would be unable to help my son write a paragraph about puffins, that I wouldn’t be able to retrieve words as simple as “flight.” Two- or three-syllable words didn’t even have a chance. And basic math? A nightmare of jumbled number salad. He was better off if I left him to it, especially when it came to the word problems.
“Slowed speech” sounds pretty self-explanatory—but compromised speed was just one part of my garbled mess of words. I think the boys got used to the kinks and peculiarities when I spoke, but parent-teacher conferences were unadulterated hell. I’d stumble, halt, and sometimes rat-ta-tat-tat strings of words that didn’t really work when rapid-fired. I’d try to faux-smile and nod enough to look like I was participating, although, simultaneously, I would try not to over-participate so that I wouldn’t have to stay there a minute over our allotted conference slot. While the teachers would explain test scores or the importance of drilling times tables, I would be practicing what I was going to say next in my head, much like the timid grade school kid who counts down the paragraphs until it’s their turn to read aloud.
I remember years ago, when I was still in the classroom, a group of teachers talking about a student who was being home-schooled because of her depression. They stood there, wondering how the administration could possibly let a kid skip school because she was “sad.”
They didn’t “get it,” but the problem isn’t that most people don’t understand clinical depression; the problem is that they’re convinced they do.
If I had spent those years being “sad,” that would have been a relative delight. My illness, and that of many others with major depression, is not so simple. I had sorrow combined with desperation and guilt and stutters and back spasms and sleep issues and defeat and headaches and fear and hopelessness and fatigue and self-loathing. Not generally the most optimal ingredients for a mother.
When I ask my sons about those years, they say that I was “on the couch a lot.” But then they trail off into stories: how McKenzie M. tried to kiss every boy in gym class; how Mrs. Moroni gave out Jolly Ranchers when you learned the states; how Mr. Litner always used the expression “you have to go back before you move forward” to make kids feel okay about mistakes in math; and how Titus fell off the swings backward and somehow skinned his forehead.
I am lucky that both boys, now a high school sophomore and a college freshman, have grown and thrived and experienced many of the great things school had to offer—academics, of course, but all the tangential, unforgettable stuff too. And, in the end, I am doubly, triply grateful that their memories of those elementary years are so different from mine.
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