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To the Moms Leaving Their Children to Seek Mental Health Treatment

I didn’t want to be here, almost 2,000 miles from my home in Vermont, my family and my children. I didn’t want this, but I needed it.

The social workers office was a bit warmer than a standard office: knickknacks and pictures on shelves. She was around my mother’s age and had a quiet and kind energy about her. She and an intern, who looked disconcertingly like Patrick Dempsey, asked me questions about my upbringing and history for a psychosocial profile. This information would be used to help form a treatment plan for my two months at this residential facility.

For hours I detailed my psychiatric history, beginning as early as I could remember, straight through to my current struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression. I held my own, reporting the information as fact, being as straightforward as I could.

But when the social worker asked me what I hoped to get out of my stay, the ache in my throat refused to let me speak and I burst into tears.

“I want to be a good mother.” It was barely a whisper, but it was all I could manage.

It’s no secret that there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, and no shortage of opinions on parenting. A quick Google search of “mothers and mental illness” gives a long list of articles and studies about the detrimental effect of parental illness on children.

Is it any wonder that there’s little information to be found on mothers with mental illness? That so few stories are shared by mothers? There’s an image we’re supposed to live up to. Mothers are supposed to sacrifice for their families. Their children are supposed to give them the drive to overcome anything. Mothers don’t have the luxury to get colds, let alone fight the urge to stay in bed for 20 hours a day when depression takes over.

A woman I know, a mother of two, had a relative ask her about her postpartum anxiety, “You’re not still dealing with that, are you?”

Another mother says that she gets tired of ADHD, which she’s struggled with for many years, being the butt of a joke.

My own mental health didn’t deteriorate when I became a mother; it happened much earlier. I was first diagnosed with PTSD and major depression at 18, when memories of childhood abuse started coming up. But the first period of depression I can remember was in 5th-grade. I felt heavy all the time, like I was trying to move underwater. Like I couldn’t take a deep breath. When I entered 6th-grade, the weight was gone. I recall thinking, “Oh, I don’t have to feel that way.”

When I went thousands of miles away and left behind my children and husband for two months, I’d been having constant flashbacks. I couldn’t sleep more than an hour or two a night. Fantasies of suicide were constant. I couldn’t be a mother as sick as I was, so I had to get better. And in my case, getting better meant going to a specific facility with a specific treatment model. It wasn’t a matter of sucking it up because I had children. If I could have done that, I would have. I felt terrible leaving: guilty and ashamed and so very, very scared. Scared that it wouldn’t work. That I wouldn’t get better. That I was scarring my children by going away.

But what it really came down to was: go away and get help, or die. There wasn’t a middle ground, not at that point.

And I did come back. I eased back into parenting and my “normal” life, which is significantly different than it was “before.” Regular therapy and psychiatry appointments. A regiment of medications and an ongoing list of coping skills to use when I get overwhelmed.

Obviously, if I could go back and not experience the traumas that caused my PTSD, I would do that. But I wouldn’t go back to two and a half years ago and stay home. Leaving my family saved my life.

And while it’s still not easy, and my mental illness will never go away, I’m a good mom. I love my children. I take care of them. We go on adventures and read stories and explore nearby parks. I give as much as I can to my children every single day.

Mental illness, no matter what form it takes, does not preclude one from being a good mother. We need to start understanding this, and start supporting struggling moms, rather than adding onto their feelings of guilt and shame.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

If you or a loved one is affected by postpartum depression or other postpartum disorders and need help, you can call Postpartum Support International‘s hotline at 1-800-944-4773.

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Creative Commons photo by Barbara W.