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Sunday Reflections: Today, I am Eeyore (a reflection on depression and anxiety in the life of tweens and teens)

Yesterday TLT celebrated 4 years as a blog but the truth is, I haven’t been very celebratory this week. In fact, this week has been one of the hardest of my life. Not the hardest, just one of them. And this week I had to have one of the most difficult conversations with my almost teenage daughter. It didn’t involve sex or death, it was about depression and anxiety. It was about MY depression and anxiety.

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You see, on occasion I have trouble with depression and anxiety. On a rare occasion, I have full blown panic attacks. It took me a long time to admit this to myself, an even longer time to admit it to the people I love and trust, and I never wanted to admit it to my daughter, because I don’t want it to be true. But it is true, no matter how much I don’t want it to be. It is a truth of me that I can’t escape, no matter how much I wish it were so.

I don’t like feeling broken. I want to be strong and secure because I want to provide that for my children. I want, more than anything, for them to feel safe and secure and loved and stable. But the reality of life has, at times, made that difficult for me to provide to them. Job loss, home loss, and job insecurity have all put us in a place of flux. We’ve had to move and leave people we love once. We might have to do it again. And the uncertainty of it all has sent my anxiety off the charts. The thing I want most for my children is just out of reach and I feel shaky inside my skin.

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Although I can look back now and see moments in my life where maybe there were hints, I can honestly say that the first time I experienced full blown, barely able to get out of bed depression was after we lost our baby. The Tween was 4. It lasted for months. I worked. I took care of my child. And I lived in a state of depressive fog that made everything else virtually impossible. I did the things I needed to do to survive until I came to the place where I once again felt like I was doing more than just surviving, but living.

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It was the day after my D&C that I had my first real panic attack. It was 4 in the morning. The Tween and I were visiting my mother when my chest suddenly felt as if it was on fire. As did my upper arms. I rushed to my mother’s room, sure I was having a heart attack. At the ER they didn’t even test my heart, they knew right away what was happening. It’s been 10 years and I know what is happening now, too.

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When Thing 2 was born I again experienced another major depressive episode, this time marked with more severe anxiety and some obsessive thoughts. After everything we went through to bring this baby into the world, the Hyperemesis Gravidarum, the bed rest, the longing and praying and crying and pleading, I welcomed this baby into the world with a bizarre detachment that I could not understand. When she cried at night and I approached her crib to soothe her I saw the scene being played out in my mind’s eye as if I was watching a movie on a grainy television screen at the end of a long tunnel. On one level I was aware that this was me taking care of my baby, but it also felt like I was watching someone else taking care of this baby.

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I cried a lot. And I am ashamed to admit that I kept asking my husband if we could please give the baby up for adoption because I didn’t think I could take care of her, but I have come to understand that this was me trying to let him know that something wasn’t right.

One day, I took The Tween, then aged 6, to the pool for swimming lessons. As I walked by the pool I suddenly had an image of the baby strapped in the car seat sinking slowly to the bottom of the pool. So I stepped far, far away from the edge and went home and called a friend. “I don’t know what to do,” I told her, “I don’t think I can keep this baby. Something is wrong with me.” To which she very graciously and calmly said, “Can you please put The Mr. on the phone?” She then proceeded to tell him that I had post partum depression and needed to go right away to the ER.

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In 2011, after our house flooded and a job situation was forcing us to move, I spiraled once again into another epic period of depression. I was once again put on medication. I was once again trying to survive, this time made harder because I was far away from any support network that I had built for myself. I was truly alone in every way imaginable.

It was during this time that my father and I had the only fight we have ever had during my adult years. “Just get out and do something,” he yelled,” choose to be happy.” But the truth is, one does not choose to be depressed so one cannot simply choose not to be depressed. Depression is not a matter of choice or will, it’s about body chemistry and hormones. It is an illness.

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No one would choose depression. I have lost days, months, and years to depression. I have lost precious moments with my children that I adore. I have lost friends. I have lost opportunities. Depression is a greedy monster that takes and takes and takes until there is nothing left to take.

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At the beginning of this summer, the girls and I moved into an empty apartment in Ohio with the hope that my husband would find a job so that we could move back, approximately, to the place that I have called home, the place where I felt loved and supported and whole. To the place where I was working a job I loved and am thriving. But the job market is tough and the beginning of the school year approaches and we can’t keep living in separate states. We want to be together as a family, we want – finally – to feel stable and secure and part of a nurturing, supportive community. We want our girls to be loved and mentored and supported and nurtured. We want them to feel a part of something bigger than just the four of us struggling to survive.

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A friend of mine the other day posted on her Facebook page that she doesn’t share her struggles to be judged or for advice, she shares to raise awareness, to erase stigmas, and to know that she is not alone. I share because I have to. Like her, I need to know that I’m not alone. I need to know that I am not alone in these moments of darkness.

And the truth is, knowing what I know now about depression and anxiety, there is a very strong likelihood that one or both of my children will inherit this tendency to depression and anxiety through genetics. Should this happen, I want them to live in a world where the stigma and shame has been erased. I want them to be able to go to their doctor, to reach out to their friends, and to ask for support when they need it because we now understand that mental health issues are just that – health issues. And I want them to be able to have the access to and the insurance coverage they need for the medical care they need to not just survive, but to thrive.

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On Saturday, the Fourth of July, I drove the girls and I to a friend’s house for a family celebration. This, I thought to myself, is what I want for my girls. This feeling of peace and love and tradition. The job and economic factors that work against families struggling to provide this are the subject of a future essay, or essays really. But in that moment of seeing all that we had lost, not just the things but the people, I began once again to have a panic attack. I know what they are now; I don’t go rushing to the hospital. They are a gripping moment of terror that seizes your brain and causes very real physical symptoms. My body shakes, it burns as if it is on fire, I gag, and I feel a sudden need to flee from an unknown danger. And I cry, a lot.

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It was the crying that made me realize I needed to tell her what was happening. I am by nature normally weepy. But there are times when I leak tears for days. This week has been one of those times. And underneath it all has been this general sense of anxiety. She’s almost a teenager now, she notices. I can see her noticing. So I tried to explain it to her as best I could.

“I sometimes suffer from periods of depression and anxiety. It’s a medical condition. It’s not your fault. It’s not your responsibility to take care of me or try and make me happy. Through it all I’m always loving you. Always. Your job is to be a kid and to be happy and to learn stuff and live your life. My job is to take care of you. I will never stop doing that.”

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Here’s another important truth about anxiety and depression. It makes you hard to love. And yet, sometimes, it is when you need love the most. Sometimes what you want more than anything is to know that someone cares, but you are physically unable to pick up the phone and ask for it. Part of it is the very real effects of the depression and anxiety: lethargy, physical exhaustion caused by the inability to sleep. And part of it is the very real psychological effects of the depression and anxiety: the fear, the shame, the stigma, and the feelings of loathing and self-doubt. Sometimes you try and fake it until you make it, sometimes you can’t even fake it.

And it is a misnomer to think that people suffering from depression and anxiety can’t work or work well, don’t keep a clean house, don’t take good care of their kids, etc. Just as no two people grieve in the same ways, no two people suffer from depression in the same ways. Work has always been the thing that I am best at and provides me the greatest amount of stability, fulfillment and engagement. This blog is another thing that provides me some of the tools I need in order to keep going forward on the days where I have felt like maybe I couldn’t. For others, that is not the case. We do not all love in the same way, we do not all grieve in the same way, and we do not all experience depression and anxiety in the same way.

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Photo by Heather Smith Lisenby

And, of course, I am anchored in part by my love for my husband and children. In the moments that I can, I choose to be strong because of them. In the moments that I can’t make that choice, I ask others to do it for me, asking them to love my girls and help provide them stability in the moments when I am laying in a cave of depression waiting for the sun to shine again.

And so far, the sun has always, eventually, shone again. Right now all I can do is hope that will be true once again.

Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Until then my eyes leak tears under the cloak of a dark cloud of despair that hangs over my head. Today, I am Eeyore. It is not by choice, so please don’t ask me to think positive or try harder. Instead, sit silently under that dark cloud with me and love me anyways.

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According to the NCCP, approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosed mental health issue. Most mental health disorders begin to present in the adolescent years. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among adolescents. According to NAMI, 50% of children who present with a mental illness will drop out of school.

In addition, a variety of teens are living in houses where they are being raised by a parent who suffers from some type of mental health issue. Approximately 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. These are the parents, grandparents, and loved ones of many of our teens. We have a link to lists of book lists and resources here.

Comments

  1. Katherine C. James says:

    This is a moving and important piece, as well as a brave piece. You are not alone. Losing a child is a huge grief, hard to recover from. I’m glad you had a friend you could call who could tell your husband what was wrong when you had postpartum depression. For different childhood and adult reasons, I deal with depression and anxiety, as do other people I know. There is no shame in it, but it is difficult to keep that in mind. I wish you well.

  2. Thank you for sharing your raw and moving story. There have been times where I could have written this. When the external forces of life and the internal struggle with depression and anxiety meet up, it can be overwhelming. You are not alone. The strength in knowing about your depression and anxiety comes from also knowing that it can get better.

  3. Ann Hedington says:

    Thank you for your honesty and for the mental health information . Blessings to you and your family; hopefully you can be together again soon.

  4. Thanks for this. I really admire the way you were able to share your story and I see so much of myself in it even though the external circumstances are different. I completely relate to retaining the ability to go to work and keep that area of your life at least plodding along while it can feel like everything else is falling apart. It makes it even harder to let people in on what is going on with you when you have learned your coping mechanisms so well that you CAN fake it successfully. The hardest part for me is when there is no obvious reason for an episode, when I’m afraid for no real reason at all to the point of being paralyzed. Thanks for shedding the light on this issue that effects so many!

  5. Allison says:

    Thank you for your honesty in this post– it’s so important to talk about this stuff, and so important to know you’re not alone.

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      Allison,
      Thank you. I’m trying to dig my way out, once again, and knowing that I’m not alone is so very helpful.
      Karen

  6. Jenn Siva says:

    I miss you. I don’t even remember where the road forked or why. I just feel the missing.

  7. Fred Vrabel says:

    Karen,
    Thank you so much for sharing your struggles. I am sure you have touched and inspired the people that need to hear it.

    My wife and I work in a marriage program called Retrouvialle. We share about her depression in one of our talks on the weekend – how it has affected our relationship and our four children. It still amazes me how many couples come up to us afterwards and say they are so grateful that some one is so open about this debilitating illness, that they are not alone. They are encouraged that there are couples out there who can share “their” experience and offer them hope.

    One other thing I’d like to share; I never really, fully, completely understood my wife’s illness of depression until I came down with diabetes. I didn’t ask for it, I don’t want it, it’s not “fair” that I have it. I understand now, that she didn’t ask for her depression, she doesn’t want it, it’s not “fair” that she has it – but together we can help each other along our path to a better life.

    Thank you again for sharing your journey.

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