Dear Son: Mommy Has a Mental Illness
I love you. I know I tell you that a lot, but if there’s one thing I want you to know above all else, it’s that I love you. I want you to know it effortlessly, the way one knows there is oxygen in the air, allowing us to draw breath without hesitation.
There’s something I want to explain to you about that love, and about us. Your birth was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, make no mistake. However, it was also the threshold to a very hard time in my life. After you were born, I crossed that threshold and found myself locked in a battle with postpartum anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder that would continue for years. I didn’t know it at first. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal. I didn’t know it had a name. I just knew from the moment they placed you in my arms, I was afraid.
It’s not your fault, though, my darling boy. You are the light that shone on me, during even the darkest of days. I have had a vulnerability to anxiety and OCD since long before you were born. Looking back, even as far as my own childhood, I can identify both anxiety and OCD tendencies. They just weren’t strong enough back then to disrupt my life. Something about entering into motherhood seemed to turn the volume up, so they became quite disruptive to us both.
I won’t apologize for having an anxiety disorder, because I’ve learned it isn’t my fault, no more than it is yours. I won’t allow either of us to shoulder the blame for it. I want you to know mental illness is not a choice. It’s not a result of poor decision making. It’s neither the product of, nor the evidence for, someone being an inferior person. I tell you these things because, though I hope down to the depths of my soul it is never something you struggle with, I want you to understand mental illness for what it is. Namely, not your fault. Not my fault. Not anyone’s fault.
I will apologize, however, that it took me so long to start receiving treatment. I was scared and stubborn. I believed that I could fix myself if I just “changed my perspective.” Since I knew nothing about postpartum anxiety, I was afraid that if I gave voice to the terrifying thoughts that were attacking my mind, they might take you away from me. I kept silent because I was afraid, and for that I am sorry. If I had gotten help sooner, I may have lost less of my happiness to fear. I regret waiting two years before seeking therapy. But now, you have a mommy who prioritizes taking care of herself so she can take care of you. What’s more, you are healthy, happy and seem to have no notion of the nights I spent pacing the living room in tears, afraid to sleep, because I was certain you would die if I did.
You might notice as you get older I do things a little differently from other mommies. I’m a little more nervous at the playground. It might take me a little bit longer to feel comfortable with you having sleepovers away from home. I don’t handle change well. Or loud noises. I get very nervous when someone gets something as innocuous as a twisted ankle, so your bull-in-a-china-shop personality has almost ensured that I will be completely white-haired before I am 40. It’s OK, though, because that same personality, which is a delicate and endearing mixture of hardy and hearty, is one of my favorite things about you. You are so strong and brave, but you possess the gentlest of hearts. Plus, I have the bone structure for white hair.
I’m still in therapy. Still working on me, and the way that anxiety affects me, so you might pick up on some of my anxious tendencies as you get bigger and start paying more attention. Just know they are part of my anxiety disorder, and that I spend an incredible amount of mental energy fighting away the irrationality that drives the majority of my fears, because I don’t want them to affect you. Just know your mama has fought, and battled and clawed her way through mental illness for you. For us. Just know that, while you may share a birthday with my anxiety disorder, we are shaping that disorder into a lovely little bridge, and using it to cross into the lives of so many women who need to know they aren’t alone. I’d never be able to do this outreach work I love if it wasn’t for loving you enough to get help. Thank you.
Just know, like you know that oxygen will fill your lungs when you inhale, I love you, and I have from the moment they placed you in my arms.