Published on April 25th, 2014 | by Amy Jane Helmericks
The Necessary Fight: Helping My Depressed Child
When we first consider that our child may have some sort of brain-brokenness, it is terrifying. Or it can be.
In a case like mine, I’ve already accepted the brokenness in my own brain and given it a name: depression. I have fought for my self-perception, the respect of others, and even how I perceive the respect of others. I have fought to feel “smart” and “worthy” (whatever that means) when I know my brokenness is in my brain, and my self seems so tied to that physical organ.
So while I did have to deal with several layers of clutter when I started considering my children could be depressed, I had a bit of a head start—a vocabulary and experience.
Even so, I kept my guess to myself at first. I felt guilt, that somehow my depression had caused theirs, that I hadn’t guarded them enough from triggers that might have brought it on. I looked at the stressful circumstances of their life when symptoms manifested, and I felt guilt because I didn’t pull them out of that school at once.
(Even though I was still weak from my two-year fight with depression, and homeschooling would have placed exponentially greater demands on me before I could carry them.)
Then I had the questions of perception, as voiced by a family member: How did I know this was a real problem, and not a normal passage or behavior of childhood?
I had to have enough conviction for the whole family when I knew it was depression. That effort on top of the grief, guilt, and personal disappointment was so draining, I couldn’t do anything beyond the naming. I felt helpless, and was silent.
As has been true in so many areas of my life, it was a story that brought clarity and gave me the images and language to move forward. Bearskin, a picture book illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, crossed our collective laps at this very opportune time.
The title character is raised by a bear, and early in the story he chooses to fight a dragon (“I will go myself if nobody better is to be found.”). The interesting thing is that his Mama Bear does not fight for him. She’s not that sort of mama bear.
She has raised him on bear milk (making him strong), and before his fight, she provides him with armor and weapons, but then he faces the dragon on his own.
I remembered the dragon that stalks me.
Recognizing that it was now going after my kids, my first response was fear, because I knew I would not be able to fight the dragon for them. Even if I had unlimited strength rather than my present weakness, there is not enough “environmental shaping” or help I can give them to keep the dragon away. It attacks from inside them.
Somehow I had to train them. I had to make them strong. And how could I do that when I can’t slay my own dragon?
A few days after I’d named it “depression” to myself, my middle child was slumped on the couch, pencil in hand, tears running down her cheeks. “I want to, Mama. I really, really want to, but I can’t!”
For years, their entire lives actually, my children have not been allowed to say “I can’t.” (Clearly they still do, but it’s not something we do in our home, generally.) When they say, “I can’t,” they are prompted to rephrase the complaint into the phrase, “I need help.”
This slumped child, looking scarily like a rag doll, didn’t even have the strength to ask for help.
And all of a sudden the sight raised up the Mama Bear in me. The soggy grief I’d felt over months, watching the slow growth of irritability, anxiety, and lethargy in my children, was vaporized in a startling heat of righteous anger. I burned with a fierceness that had nothing to do with an eight-year-old who wouldn’t write her spelling words.
I scooped her into my lap, tear-damp cheek against the skin of my chest, skinny bare arms cuddled under my own bare arms, skin on skin. With all I had in me, I willed my fierceness into her, a desire to struggle and to live, the same way you infuse life into a baby prematurely born, separated from the safety that at her age should be a promise.
“This thing you are feeling inside,” I said, holding her tight. “You have to fight it. You don’t have to fight alone, I’m right here; but you can’t let it win. You can’t let it train your brain to think you’re powerless. You are strong. You are crazy strong. And that doesn’t mean you have to do everything, but you aren’t helpless. You have to fight.”
All I could think was how depression eats your brain. How it chews up the parts that help you see through it and resist it on your own. How it becomes this veil of helplessness that blinds you, and a pit that will swallow you up—and how the more times it wins, the harder it is for you to fight back.
Here was this dragon, starting after my child so soon, so young. She had no idea what she was up against or the stakes of this early fight. How the outcome in these early years could set her up for greater vulnerability and confusion later.
There was a part of me afraid I was scaring her, but then I thought about the normal scares that parents must choose to share: the story of a kidnapped child, the admonition not to take candy from strangers or get in their cars without a lot of noise.
I realized I was more scared of her being “kidnapped” by depression than I am afraid of her being taken by that faceless stranger.
I ache that I cannot keep them from experiencing depression like I have, but as a result of being there myself, I know how to take it seriously, and I find that the only thing I can do is also exactly the right thing to do: I model.
This is how I am helping my depressed child. Just as in every other meaningful area in the child-parent relationship, I invite her to see what I have learned and what I am still learning. That it is possible to fight; that the victory comes in not-surrendering.
Photo by Heriberto Herrera