Today, Mommy is sad. I don’t know why. The sun is shining. It is a warm, balmy summer day. My son is in daycare, and my eight-year-old is playing with dolls. She is laughing and living her so-called best life. And things are going well. Work is steady; life is “good.” But I’m not. I haven’t been for quite some time.
Why? Because I have a mental illness. I live with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and PTSD, and one of the symptoms of the former is depression. I cycle through periods of helplessness, hopelessness, sadness, and apathy, and today, I’m struggling.
Of course, I’m not proud of this admission. Saying it aloud — or writing it — fills me with guilt and shame. I’ve been living with mental illness for 20 years, for Christ’s sake. I should be able to handle these moments better. Part of me still believes I should be able to snap myself out of it, especially now that I’m a parent. Now that I’m “Mom.” Because my children need me. They depend on me. And seeing Mommy sulking about the house — and crying in a ball on the couch — isn’t ideal. It makes me feel like a bad mom. Plus, depression robs them (and me) of fun and frivolity, of joyful moments and happy memories we are failing to make.
But a dear friend recently gave me a much-needed reminder that I’m not a bad mom because I have depression. I’m just a great mom who happens to have depression — and yes, there is a difference.
You see, depression is a part of me, but it isn’t all of me. It is an illness, one which I treat daily — with pills, medication, and therapy; diet, exercise, and consistency. And while it is “mental” in nature, it is a valid condition, just like cancer or heart disease. And I need to know that and accept it. I also need to acknowledge that, in treating my illness, I am a good person and parent who is doing the best I can with the tools I have.
Does that make me feel better? Yes and no. Knowledge is key. Knowing I am not alone helps, but on days like today, it’s still hard. I feel guilt over the pictures we didn’t draw, for the games we didn’t play. I am ashamed when the weight of depression literally holds me down and I cannot get out of bed. I am heartbroken when my kids say “I love you” and I don’t feel anything. When I am so numb I cannot experience the gift they are giving me, and I beat myself up over the anger. When I snap at my children for no reason because Mommy cannot handle the stress. Because Mommy cannot handle life, or the situation at hand.
That said, there are benefits to my illness. In some ways, depression makes me a better mom because, when I’m not sick — when I’m not sad and cycling or paralyzed by my feelings and fear — I am fully present. I appreciate every moment we spend together, every second I am able to breathe them in. When I’m not sick, I’m vulnerable. I talk to my children about emotions and feelings. I explain that sometimes Mommy is sad. And when I’m not sick, I am active, in their lives and my own. We run and ride bikes; we swim, walk, and hike. And this, in turn, makes memories.
I show up when I can, and that counts. Plus, because of my illness, my children have learned the meaning of empathy, and the value of an apology — because, trust me, I apologize a lot — and this is invaluable. They are able to grow in the eye of my mental illness storm.
Make no mistake: I wish I didn’t get depressed, or have depression. I wish I was able to enjoy my son’s presence this morning when he slept on me or when he placed a cool, wet kiss upon my cheek. I wish I didn’t have to nap today just to function and be semi-conscious — and semi-present. I wish I weren’t parenting from the bedroom this week, and with the TV. I cannot tell you how many hours of “Jessie” my daughter has consumed. And I wish … well, I wish for a lot.
But I keep going because I need to. Because I have to. And I keep going because my children deserve a parent who is present and persistent. They deserve a mom who doesn’t give up. A mom who, despite her depression, is a really good mom.