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When Depression, Not Family, Makes You Always Exhausted

My youngest just started college. He took a train upstate for a weekend visit after his last class this past Friday. I spent the two days prior trying to build up my energy preserves before his arrival. We didn’t have a particularly eventful weekend, yet I was worn out by the time he left. It isn’t that he is exhausting. My depression is.

Even when my children were younger, I found myself building up reserves of whatever energy I could muster, saving whatever I could for them. It seemed like I was eternally exhausted, forever worn out and hanging by a thread, trying to scrounge up whatever motivation I could manage in a feeble attempt to be the mother I felt they deserved.

We took frequent long walks to parks throughout the city, and many trips to area museums and festivals. Yet I always felt like I fell short — like I never was able to do even a portion of what I wanted to do with them. More than anything else, we had quiet family movie nights or game nights at home, days spent home playing in the backyard or drawing with chalk on the sidewalk out in front of the house because I was too exhausted to do anything else.

The fact is my depression is both physically and mentally exhausting. I am engaged in a never-ending battle with my own brain. I begin most days already feeling like I am running on empty. Even my sleep is restless so I never fully recharge.

On the average weekday morning these days, I am up when my fiancé’s alarm goes off. I scurry around for an hour or so, helping him get ready for work. It gives us a little extra time to spend together on days when he’ll be gone most of the day. When he leaves, I collapse on the couch, where I spend a good chunk of my day. It isn’t that helping him get ready is exhausting. My depression is.

An hour before he is due home, I muster up what little energy I have left to somewhat straighten the house and start dinner. There’s always easily a dozen things I wish I had done throughout any given day that will get put off to another day. I truly wish I had the energy to do more. Most days, I’m amazed I managed to do as much as I have.

The truth is, I spend most of my time alone in a fog of depression. I often use up what little energy I do have on my family so by the time they leave, I am tired, exhausted, worn out. Some days, I am caught in a funk, immobile and numb. On other days, I wait until I have the house to myself to break down and cry, sobbing throughout the day. Either way, I find myself crumbling and falling apart moments after my family is out the door.

Shortly before they’re due home, I dry my eyes and paint on a smile. I straighten my hair and tidy the house. I try my best to hold everything together for them, even though I usually feel like I am falling apart inside. By the time they come through the door, I am already wishing I could climb into bed. It is exhausting.

I often do my best to keep the true extent of my struggles to myself because I don’t want my family to worry about me or to suffer over my pain. I don’t want them to question whether they are doing enough for me or whether they have been supportive enough. They know about my struggles with depression yet I still try to shield them to the best of my ability.  My mental illness is not their fault. I always feel like I must protect them from it, shield them from it, save them from the worst of it.

I conserve my energy for my family in part because I want to be strong for them. It is bad enough I feel weak and helpless – I don’t want them to see me that way as well. My family brings out the best in me so I want to give them the best of me in return. A large part of me is also honestly terrified of letting my family down, of being too broken, too much of a mess to be the person they need me to be, the person they deserve to have in their lives.

Please know they have never said or done anything to make me feel this way. I know these feelings, too, are products of my depression. I prioritize others over myself because my depression makes me devalue myself. I internalize everything, blaming and beating myself up far worse than anyone else ever could. My depression makes me feel like a failure — tells me that no matter how much I do, it will never be good enough, never be enough in any way.

Unfortunately, though, recognizing it is my depression is not enough to stop these feelings or the behaviors that result from them. Depression is an illness. Calling a duck a duck will not make it disappear. A diabetic labeling their illness will not magically balance their sugar levels any more than someone with a mental illness acknowledging their symptoms will instantly change how they feel inside. It is good to acknowledge the illness so you understand why you feel the way you do, but comprehending an illness will not make it go away.

Perhaps, in time, I will acquire more self-care and coping skills so I do not always feel like I am running on empty. Perhaps, as well, I will heal more and become somewhat more functional again. But in the meantime, I only have just so much energy to give and I choose to give the majority of it to those who reside in my heart.

I do not resent my family for soaking up the majority of my energy each day. It is my own choice to do this. I do this not because I feel I have to but rather because I want to do so. My family means the world to me. I would do anything for them – even give them the last little bits of myself I have left for the day.

Because on a lot of days, that is exactly what it is. Those little stores of energy I have managed to reserve for them are the only true sparks of myself I am able to muster. When they are used up, there is nothing left of myself for myself. All that remains is my depression.

I know many people will say I must take care of myself as well. I’ve been reminded often that, “you can’t fill from an empty cup,” implying I cannot truly be there for anyone else until I have tended to myself first. But, for me, taking care of my family is taking care of myself. It is an all too common sacrifice for those of us living with depression. We give the best of ourselves to our children, our partners, our family and friends because in our hearts we believe they bring out the best in us so they deserve nothing less than our best in return.

Depression is exhausting. Most days, I have very little of myself to give the world. I give all I can to my family, even if it leaves little to nothing for myself. I do this because I am my best self when I am with my family. I am more myself when I am with them than I ever am when I am alone. If I only have a little of myself to go around, I want to share it with those who love and accept me, depression and all.

A version of this article appeared on the author’s blog.

Photo by Dmitry Schemelev on Unsplash

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