When I watched Sam Jones’ interview with Kristen Bell, it struck a massive chord with me. The Frozen star reveals that she suffers from anxiety and depression and that at the age of 18 her mom sat her down and told her there’s a serotonin imbalance in her family line. The actress expressed how grateful she is for the “open and honest dialogue with her mom” that came from that, and it got me thinking about my own situation.
Sometime soon, I will need to talk to my kids about my mental illness. I just don’t know how to go about it.
Honesty is a big thing in our house. I encourage my kids to tell me everything, no matter what. I know how secrets and lies can tear a family apart and foster long-term resentments that are difficult to overcome.
And it goes both ways. I’m honest with them too. I don’t sugarcoat the truth. I keep it age-appropriate, but they know the world’s not always a shiny happy place. But they do think they have a shiny happy mama, and the time is coming for me to tell them the truth.
Because while I’m open and honest about death and religion and where babies come from, I’ve been lying to them for a long time about something that’s a huge part of my life — and therefore by association a huge part of theirs.
Unfortunately, my monthly prescription from my doctor has never come with the handy guide, “How to Tell Your Kids You Have Depression (and Not Completely Freak Them Out).”
Juggling depression and kids can be incredibly difficult. What do you do when you can’t get out of bed in the morning because the mere thought of lifting your head from the pillow makes you sob, but you have two children waiting for you to make breakfast and get them dressed and deposit them safely at the school gate? Over the last few years, since my kids were old enough to ask, “What’s wrong with you, Mummy?” I’ve fabricated headaches, sore throats and upset stomachs. Thanks to my medication and my ongoing dedication to self-care, really bad episodes of depression have been kept to a minimum. But anyone with the illness will know that sometimes that black-hearted bitch can just swoop in out of nowhere and floor you with one strike.
My daughter is not quite 6, so she’s too young to get any sort of handle on what it means to be mentally ill. But my son is 9 this year, and I think the time is coming for me to reveal my secret to him. I don’t suffer from headaches. I don’t get upset stomachs. I haven’t had sore throats. I have depression, which is something far more serious.
The problem is, I have reasons for not telling my children about my mental illness, and I only need to run through these in my head to put off having the Big Talk.
I don’t want them to worry about me. I worry about everything. Worrying sucks. It affects every part of your life and can destroy relationships. With so much in this world to worry about, I don’t want to add to the list.
I don’t want them to be embarrassed. Even though this is 2016, some people in this world still have 1950s attitudes towards mental health. I have people in my own life who don’t think depression is a “real” illness. The last thing I want is for my kids to be teased on the playground because their mother is batshit crazy.
I don’t want them to grow up too quickly. I can be honest with my children about some of the injustices and atrocities in the world, but I feel like I can still protect them from those things. As soon as I tell them I have depression, it’s out there, it’s in our home and it’s on their shoulders as well as mine.
But more than any of that, I don’t want them to be confused, or to jump to the wrong conclusions or to grow up resenting me, which are all possibilities if I continue to keep them in the dark.
When the time comes, I’ll tell them that depression is an illness that causes someone’s brain to work in a different way from someone who doesn’t have depression. I’ll tell them it isn’t a weakness. I’ll tell them that it affects people in many different ways. I’ll tell them that it can be managed with lots of different types of treatment. I’ll tell them that it has nothing to do with them, and it is not their job to make me better.
Most importantly, I’ll tell them to keep talking to me, to keep asking me questions, whether about depression or anything else they don’t understand, because nothing they could ever say will make me ill. And that we all need to look after our mental health by talking about how we feel and asking for help with our problems.
It’s going to be the most difficult conversation of my life, but I’m hoping it will be a positive one — an opportunity to teach them one of life’s most important lessons: that everyone has problems, and it doesn’t matter so much what those problems are, but how they are handled.
Ultimately, I hope they will see me as an example of how to face challenges with honesty and courage, and how to persevere despite adversity.
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