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Recognizing My Daughter’s Depression Is Different Than Mine

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

The last thing I was expecting to be doing on Christmas Day was rushing my daughter to a psych hospital. Yet, this is exactly what I was doing on December 25, 2020. While the world was grappling with the challenges of a global pandemic, I was dealing with another very real and very personal health crisis. It felt like the floor had dropped out from underneath me. My daughter, now 16, had just completed a 12-week intensive outpatient therapy program and I thought we were on the road to recovery. I was wrong.

My daughter and I talk openly about our very personal journey because we want people to know they are not alone and we hope to encourage a better understanding around issues concerning mental health. Increased education, empathy and support are needed in confronting a disease with an expression as unique as our DNA. I wish treatment could be one-size-fits-all, but no one can truly understand what’s going on with another person’s illness. Perhaps this article will be helpful when trying to create a dialogue and strategies with the people you care for most.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was 29. She was only 53. I couldn’t sleep and was struggling with anxiety and depression. I went to see a counselor, and for the first time, I learned about self-reflection. How was I going to deal with the reality of losing my mother? I still needed her. Who was going to deal with my father? My mother was everything to him. How would I find a way to function on a daily basis without falling apart? She still had time with us. The experience helped me process the grief and move on. This was my first experience with mental health challenges.

Then, a few years later, my first daughter was born, a supposedly beautifully positive, life-changing moment, and boom — it happened again. I recognized the symptoms immediately, but this time, they were much more severe. Where was the joy you’re supposed to have when you have a baby? My baby was extremely colicky, so I wasn’t sleeping. I became hyper-obsessed with nursing; my whole self-worth as a new mom was based on my ability to do what I viewed as an essential maternal task. I struggled to cope.

My doctor prescribed me antidepressants, which I didn’t want to take until I realized they weren’t frivolous “happy pills” or a sign of weakness; they were medication that would help lift the fog of depression so I could face another day. All I wanted to do was disappear, which I now know is one of the beginning stages of suicidal ideation. The medication helped. Six months later, my daughter’s colic disappeared; I was sleeping better, and this horrible chapter came to an end.

I thought I knew anxiety and depression. I thought I knew what it was like to not want to get out of bed. Does this mean I know what to do when my daughter is struggling with the same things? Unfortunately not. Hopefully, this fact will help you. Knowing what you don’t know goes a long way to respecting, loving and supporting another person who is struggling with mental illness.

“Just because we have the same thing doesn’t mean it is the same thing,” says my 16-year-old daughter, Sheridan. “Everyone’s mental health displays differently.” My daughter’s mental health issues began when she was in grammar school, and we treated it with therapy and the appropriate medication. “I knew I wasn’t like the other kids,” Sheridan says.

She was then diagnosed with anxiety and depression when she was 12, and in July 2020, started self-harming, which is why, a month before Christmas last year, she was in the intensive therapy program. Yet, here we were on Christmas Day, in the emergency room, trying to find her a psych ward to spend the holidays in. “Can’t she just come home for the night to open presents first?” I wanted her to be happy. I wanted to give her a beautiful Christmas.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said her therapist. I felt so responsible. I felt like I had failed her.

I followed the emergency vehicle to the psych hospital and watched helplessly while they took her away. I tried to follow, but the orderly stopped me. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked. “This is where you say goodbye.” I was devastated and debilitated.

I am not perfect. I am not your after-school special or Hallmark movie of the week— nobody is. There are days when my daughter, now back at home, can’t get out of bed, and the simplest task feels overwhelming. Yet, even though I’ve struggled with the same things, I still find myself sometimes annoyed and frustrated, and she feels even more isolated.

“Sometimes I don’t know what I need,” says Sheridan. “I don’t know what to ask for.” This illness is a mystery to me, so I continue to learn about it. There are periods where my daughter and I are communicating well, spending time together, laughing and having fun, and then her therapist will tell me Sheridan is experiencing increased suicidality and needs an intensive outpatient treatment program right away. With my experiences, how could I miss this? I want her to be “better,” and so I latch on to anything that “looks like” progress.

This is a lifelong journey, and one many will traverse in one form or another. Fortunately, the stigmas around mental illness are being challenged. I continue to grow in my understanding and ability to help my daughter, and in that process, I get to practice empathy, resilience and not seeing her mental illness as my fault.

When I think back to an experience where I felt anxiety and perhaps fear for my children, I look to the time I was in the hospital with a high-risk pregnancy with my twins (including Sheridan), fighting not to lose them. My doctor told me to take it one minute at a time. “Every minute is a minute closer to them being born healthy and safe,” he said.

So, today, I take this minute with you — for my daughter. I need to be her advocate, her mouthpiece, her support, her friend, her ally, until she steps fully into being her own (which she is beautifully and vulnerably beginning to do). Every story is different, but we do not have to be alone in the telling or experiencing of it. Together, we can and must support and educate one another. “The first step is realizing you need help,” says Sheridan. “The next is asking for it.”

Gerry image by Wavebreakmedia

Originally published: June 9, 2021
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