In the winter of this year, I was hit with something that was bigger than me. I didn’t know how this thing felt before. I hadn’t experienced it firsthand. But it was ugly and it was cruel, and it terrified me to my very core. It was a bitter depression that I had no idea how to get out from under — and for a while it felt relentless. But the worst part was that, during the terrible bout, I was a shell of my former self. Which also meant I was a shell of the mother I used to be.
The depression had settled in after first, the end of my marriage the previous year, then, an even more devastating break-up from the first man I’d loved in a decade. At first, I thought the fog would lift after a few weeks, post-breakup. But no matter what I did to shake it, it wouldn’t budge. It was almost as if I’d fallen so quickly in love that my happiness had masked the other stresses of my life as a newly single mother. I never stopped to think about it ending or where I might be emotionally if that happened. So, it felt as if suddenly, the walls were crashing down around me.
Those stresses in my life were pretty big, too. I was doing a lot of adjusting, only I had only just begun to notice how hard it all was. Not only did I have two kids to take care of, I also had mounting financial burdens. All of that on top of being deeply heartbroken felt like too much to take. I had the overwhelming feeling of being intensely alone, and that made it hard to concentrate on just about anything. Anything other than how bad I felt, that is.
Being a parent felt like an impossible task because parenting, no matter how you might be feeling inside, can be relentless. What I wanted to do was to stay in bed for a month and sob until I had no tears left. But I couldn’t. I had to keep picking myself up and trying to be a mother. I had to drive the kids to school and pick them up on time and grocery shop and work. In all honesty, I wonder if I’d had more time and space to feel my feelings if I’d been able to get through them a little more gracefully. But parenthood doesn’t allow for much time and space, especially when you’re a single mom.
A few weeks after the break-up, I hit rock bottom. I had always heard people who suffered from depression describe the physical manifestations as heavy, aching. I truly understood this at that time. Everything felt heavy and everything hurt, and in the most trying times, I struggled to get out of bed. When I did, tears poured out of me, so I wore sunglasses as often as I could, even though it was the middle of winter. For the first time, I remember feeling I glad that my daughter, who had just turned nine, seemed to be entering a bit of a preteen, self-involved phase. My son, only four at the time, was a bit too young to notice. At least, they didn’t ask questions. But I’m sure they knew I wasn’t exactly myself.
I was physically there for my kids but mentally, I was checked out. I couldn’t remember things they said. After I tucked them in, I hope and pray that they wouldn’t get out of bed because talking anymore felt impossible. All I wanted to do was be left alone. I always wanted to be left alone, and realizing how much I did not want to be around me kids pained me even more.
Once they were asleep, I’d lie quietly in my own bed each night, whispering to myself through my tears. I’d say I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll do better. And then I’d try as hard as I could to forgive myself for failing. Even if I didn’t exactly believe it, I would tell myself that I was still a good mom- that this depression wasn’t all of me. In those moments, I had no idea exactly how much forgiveness I’d have to give- it would be substantial. But allowing myself to be a human-being, and believing that was okay was all I could do to keep moving forward.
Still, there was a lot to feel guilty about because there was so much I couldn’t handle during that time. I had showed up at school with puffy, red-rimmed eyes. I had ordered pizza almost constantly for a month and turned on the TV any chance I got. And not all my failures were small things, either. A few months after the worst of my depressive episode was past, my son ended up with a mouthful of cavities. I tried to believe there was no direct correlation between how much I’d let go in recent months, but I couldn’t. Other than saying “brush your teeth,” I had seriously spaced on helping him. I knew it was my fault. I sobbed over how I’d let that happen like it was the end of the world before forgiving myself for one more thing.
When spring started to creep in, I felt the worst was behind me. Thanks to therapy, help from friends and family, and a low dose of antidepressants, I started to feel more hopeful. Things still weren’t easy, but I knew there was a light on the other side and that circumstances and godforsaken brain chemistry had gotten me to this place. I could see that more clearly, even though I still had plenty of guilt to navigate. I finally felt like I could say “it wasn’t all my fault” and believe it.
It’s been about six months now since I’ve been out of the fog, though I’ve had ups and downs since. But what I learned was that self-forgiveness can be tremendously hard when you’re a mother. It’s also very necessary when you’re a mother with less than perfect mental health. We can learn a lot about forgiveness from kids, though. They don’t judge or ridicule. They take what you give them and you cross your fingers. You hope and pray it’s enough.
I’ve been making up for lost time- reading more books, taking them to the pool, and trying to be the mom I feel proud of being again. Still, I’m not perfect, and I’m probably more gentle with myself about that now, too. That might not be a bad thing. Because being gentle with myself helped me get to the other side of pain, once. Now, I think it helps me get through the day with a little more grace, self-care, and acceptance.