Echoes from the past.

I had a painful flashback this morning. A reminder of an extremely difficult moment from the many years during which my husband was in the depths of depression, unemployed and unemployable, when we had three small children in the house, and I felt as if I were on my own and was, quite frankly, terrified.

I won’t describe the trigger or the memory. I just don’t want to go there.

Here I am, twenty years later, a full-fledged grown-up with a good life, a solid career, and new opportunities on the horizon. But that moment this morning served as a reminder that I’m still haunted by that extremely dark time.

Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I survived those years. How our marriage survived those years. How we managed to raise three truly amazing and well-adjusted children.

I suppose that survival depended a whole lot upon my dedication to taking care of myself. I learned to ask for and accept help. I learned to protect my time and my emotional boundaries. I learned to say “no” to extended-family commitments that were simply too stressful. I learned that I can only deal with a limited amount of baggage, and it’s okay to be selective about which piece of that baggage I deal with at any one time.

Today’s flashback gave me another reminder. I can’t stop taking care of myself just because today the worst of that depression in my husband is at bay. There are still plenty of issues we have to struggle through. Day-to-day life with someone who has underlying depression (and multiple other diagnoses) will never be a walk in the park.

At times I feel like the lengths I go to in order to protect myself and my emotional state are overkill or selfishness.

But today, I recognize that I have to be good to myself.

I hope you’re being good to yourself, too.

-Amy

Supportive parenting: Kids, college, and depression

I’ve spent most of my adult life working with kids and families. Through my mom blog, I get to read and have conversations with other parents who are invested in figuring out the whole “parenting” thing.

Pretty much every conversation I have with other parents can be summed up with one sentence: “Being a parent is hard work.” And moms and dads with younger kids, who are still struggling with diapers, tantrums, bedtimes or teen angst are generally shocked when I tell them that the hard stuff doesn’t end when the kids hit the college years and strike out on their own.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a study in 2011 concluded that 30% of college students reported themselves as feeling so depressed it was difficult to function. Six percent of college students reported seriously considering suicide.The college years are seriously stressful in many ways, Compounding that reality is the fact that there are several mental illnesses that manifest themselves at the ages kids tend to be while they’re away at college.

I can back one of those statistics up with personal experience. With three kids in college, we’ve had two who found themselves in need of treatment for depression and anxiety during their university years. The third has consulted with me several times regarding close friends at college who were struggling with depression and were resistant to seeking help.

I feel unbelievably lucky that all three of our children reached out to me when they recognized that they (or someone they cared about) were fighting the life-threatening illness of depression. Because, to be honest, universities are a really crappy place to fall victim to a serious illness. I don’t care how many reassurances they give you at parent orientation about the health center, the counseling services, and how well they’ll care for your kids. In my experience with four different universities that’s a crock. Not only is care from these services very carefully rationed, it’s not good quality. And, I’m sorry to say, two of the institutions I have experience with have world-class reputations for their medical schools.

I say all this not to scare those of you who have a child heading off to college in the near future. But I am a strong advocate for deliberately keeping in touch with your college student. Have a frank conversation well before move-in day about depression symptoms and increased risk over the college years. Once school starts, check in regularly – it doesn’t have to be intrusive, just sincere. Go out of your way once a week or so to send a short “thinking of you” text. “Good morning – you’re awesome!” “You’re going to rock that mid-term today!” “Thinking of you today. What’s new?”

And I don’t think it’s too much to touch base when they’re home for break. Ask some deliberate questions about stress level, what they’re doing for fun, how they’re managing their time, what kind of support systems they’re developing among other students.

They don’t need us any less just because they’ve hit that magic age of 18.

-Amy

Deflated.

All right, I’m giving in to a little moan.

Having experienced seasonal depression for several years AND having lived with my husband’s depression for most of our marriage, I’m recognizing some ugly signals in myself today. Exhaustion, lack of interest in things I care about, extreme irritability, generally a “meh” attitude.

I’m pretty clear on where this crap is coming from. An emotionally challenging, wringer of a week last week. Some disturbing news regarding my husband and the new career he loves so much – something that’s been dealt with for now but could create disaster at any point in time. A huge bombshell when I got to work this morning, which will lead to an unimaginable change from here on out (not tragic, but still – change is hard).

A Mother’s Day that mainly served to underscore the fact that my family is moving on. Which they should, of course. They’re turning into mature, healthy adults. But I’m painfully aware of the seismic shift in my role.

And, not least of all by any means, an unintended Mother’s Day surprise yesterday that completely knocked the wind out of me – a crying jag by my husband, the likes of which I haven’t seen for a few years. I walked into our bedroom yesterday afternoon to find him sobbing. Expecting to hear that something devastating had just occurred, I went into crisis mode. The real story: He’d come across a cache of notes and artwork created by our children when they were very small. And, as has happened many, many times over the years of his depression, he was instantly filled with regret and remorse for the many years of deep depression that – in his mind only – kept him from being a present and engaged father.

I’m working hard to process all this stuff without freaking out. I’ll do some deliberate damage control by getting some exercise and much-needed sunshine this afternoon. I’ll work to get a handle on some big projects looming at work.

But still, I’m a bit shell-shocked. Depression casts some long and heavy shadows.

-Amy

Mothering and Mental Health

Many of the people I care about most are genetically predisposed toward depression. That includes our three children.

As they got into their teen years, it was a subject we brought up repeatedly. Now that they’re all in college we check in with them regularly, knowing that a shocking percentage of college students experience depression and anxiety.

In the last few months, my mothering and mental health skills have been called into action for all three kids. Several months ago our oldest recognized in herself symptoms of depression and anxiety, and took appropriate medical action. Thankfully she kept us informed all the way, and we provided as much long-distance support as possible. Just over a week ago I discovered, however, that she hadn’t been coached in the importance of NOT running out of depression and anxiety meds. I used all the electronic media at my disposal to keep in touch with her, encouraging and reminding her to get her prescriptions refilled ASAP. And did my best to channel my anger toward the on-campus mental health clinic in an appropriate direction.

Also about a week ago our son broke the news that he was struggling in one of his classes. He loves the class, is highly motivated, and was proactive about taking care of the problem. But alarm bells went off in this mom’s head. It was while in college that his brilliant father, with every opportunity in the world open to him, fell off the deep end into a lifetime of depression. So we had intentional conversations with our son last week, praising him for being open with us and looking for the help he needed, reminding him that he can always come to us and that we’ll always be on his side.

Now our middle daughter has hit a low point in what has been an extremely difficult year for her. She’s at the top of all her classes, is self-motivated, and truly loves learning. Unfortunately, poor health that led to surgery a couple of weeks ago has brought her down. She’s exhausted, over-stressed, and beating herself up because just now she can’t work up to her own (too-high) standards. We had a long mental health pep talk this afternoon. I’m hoping she came away with some understanding of her need to accept where she’s at, give herself a break, and simply do the best she can under very difficult circumstances. Being all too familiar with the symptoms of depression, I’ll be watching her closely as she regains her physical health, to monitor whether her emotional health improves, as well.

Being a mother is a lifetime job. Being a mother of children who are at risk for depression raises the stakes.

-Amy

Depression and Kids

An issue Bern and I have discussed and written about fairly often is the affects of parental depression on children in the family.

We approach this issue from experience, having both been in the situation of needing to help our kids through their fathers’ long-term illness. Discussing depression with kids must always be tailored to their age and intellectual development – obviously you don’t talk about chemical imbalance, medication, therapy, and genetic predisposition with a five-year-old. Yet arming that five-year old with a framework for understanding what’s happening in the family is absolutely necessary.

In our family, we kind of fell short on that information sharing until our kids were quite a bit older – so my advice and insight are more along the lines of “how I wish we’d done it.” But at least now the topic is out there for discussion at any time, and we check in with our kids regularly about how they’re doing (knowing that a shocking percentage of college students experience depression and anxiety.)

All of this was brought back to me this morning due to a comment from our middle child. She’s living at home while in college, and she’s been the closest witness of our three kids to the incredible turnaround recently in her father’s emotional health. As he went out the door this morning the two of them shared a joke and a laugh. Once he left, she said to me, “I really like having happy Papa now.”

Her  words were a testament to how significantly the moods of a depressed person affect everyone else in the household. I’m just thankful our kids feel comfortable talking about it, and that we’re currently in a good place.

-Amy

Young, gay, and depressed

Struggling with sexual identity is a difficult challenge. Although our society has become more accepting of gays and lesbians, it still has a long way to go. When it comes to depression, being a member of the LGBT community is not a ticket to ease in dealing with it.

Depression accounts for between 20 and 35 percent of all suicide deaths each year and number more than death from motor vehicle accidents. But statistics are even worse for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

For example, we know that adolescence is a difficult time but for those in the LGBT community, it can be especially challenging. Attitudes toward differentness, cultural stigmas, and increasing bullying, teasing and physical violence lead to more LGBT youth finding the teenage years most difficult and creating a rise in depression.

A 2009 survey of more than 7,000 LGBT middle school and high school students between the ages of 13 and 21 found that, because of their sexuality, in the previous year 8 in 10 had been verbally harassed at school, 4 in 10 had been physically harassed and 1 in 5 had been physically assaulted. Six in ten felt unsafe in school. And depression lurks around the corner.

Often there is also the component of how parents respond to their teen. If a negative reaction takes place on learning their teen is gay, often the response is throwing the child out of the house or the child running away. Because of this, it is important for parents to foster healthy, positive and supportive environments for their child. They need to talk openly about any difficulties the child might be having, always watchful of signs of bullying and taking immediate action should any hint of something occur.

LGBT youth themselves can seek help through an online resource e- The It Gets Better Project – which has become a worldwide movement in which a cross section of individuals share their stories of overcoming bullying and harassment and depression, letting kids know that things do get better.

Being gay and depressed is difficult. However with understanding parents, good teachers, supportive friends and excellent resources, it can be a time of great growth.

-Bernadette

Return to Real (and new) Life

So the Big Leave is over. We’ve completed both moves (youngest to his freshman year three hours away and oldest to grad school, 16 hours away). Tear report: I was able to choke them back at the actual moments of leaving, but scattered tear storms have been reported throughout the viewing area.

Papa builds furniture item #7 for oldest, for her new house

Papa builds furniture item #7 for oldest, for her new house

The emotional gash (“wound” doesn’t seem strong enough) I’m currently dealing with doesn’t bode well for the coming SAD season – and believe me, I’m noticing every minute of sunlight we’re losing each day as the calendar marches on. Nor does the pain of the goodbyes and the removal of half the family (okay, not quite half, but since there are five of us half would be gross) bode well for my husband’s round-the-year depression. He’s had teary moments in the last week, too, and that’s always scary for me – who knows where those moments might lead?

It’s early days yet, but I’m thinking hard about what I – we – can do to keep from sinking into what could be serious depression around here. My short list:
-volunteering at one of the schools our kids attended
-digging into a book Bern and I have been toying with for a couple of years
-supporting husband to the hilt as he explores possibilities for a much-needed career change
-getting our younger kids’ new concert schedules burned onto our calendar so I can look forward to those special events
-throwing myself into a second blog, at http://www.momgoeson.wordpress.com . I’ve been looking forward to that for several months now, and had a blast putting up my first real post today.

Hope our friends in the blogosphere will be along for the ride…

-Amy

P.S. – Many thanks to Bernadette, who kept Depression’s Collateral Damage running at full speed while I was out of commission this week. 🙂