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The Heartbreaking Moment I Realized I Had to Tell My Daughter About My Depression

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There are some memories that latch onto your heart with a particular ferocity. The day my 4-year-old daughter promised to never be bad again is one of those memories.

We were sitting at my mom’s house. It was the spring of 2004. The past year-and-a-half had been a blur of part-time jobs, full-time college course work, single parenting and a complete breakdown from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. I’d tried to die and — luckily — failed, but now I was cycling through hospitalizations, therapists and an endless barrage of medication. I was unable to parent and it broke my heart.

My parents and I decided the best course of action was for my daughter to live with them while I got well. After all, I lived with my parents for the first few years of her life, they were a mere 20 minutes up the road and she routinely spent the night at their home when I needed more time to study. Our plan was to make everything normal and act like this was a whole heap of fun. “Cool! Fun times with Grandma and Papa!” I would exclaim with the biggest fake grin I could muster when I left her with my parents. On the drive back home I would weep with loss. I thought I was being brave and doing the healthiest thing for my girl.

What none of us realized is that children are amazingly emotionally intuitive. All the plastic smiles and fake fun we could conjure did not disguise the fact that I was her mother, I wasn’t there and something was seriously wrong.

Sure, I was there as much as possible. I called every night and visited each weekend. I left the room when my sobs racked me. I knew she was spared hearing me cry and scream from the nightmares that visited each night. It was 100 percent in my child’s best interest for her to not be with me while I fought to get stable. Even 12 years later I can attest to that. Where I went horribly wrong was not telling my daughter the truth.

That spring day, my bubbly little girl sat beside me at her grandma’s house and looked at me with her large hazel eyes and said, “You can spank me if you need to.” I was, understandably, confused. “Honey, why would I need to spank you?” I said. Then, in a tiny, solemn voice, she promised to be good and never be bad if she could just live with me again. “I’m sorry,” she said over and over while I sat dumbfounded and crushed with heartache. My sweet girl truly thought she was living with her grandma because I didn’t want her. All the attempts to protect her from the ugly truth resulted in her own search for answers. She felt unwanted and unworthy.

That was when my daughter learned about Sad Brain. I explained to her what I should have been explaining from the beginning. “Sometimes people are sad when sad things happen, but there are people who also have Sad Brain. Sad Brain means that Mommy gets sad sometimes for no reason. It makes me tired and scared, too. I was gone to the hospital when you first came to Grandma’s, so the doctors could help my Sad Brain. Now I take medicine, but I still need lots of rest and to talk to other doctors about my feelings to help. Grandma and Papa are helping me love you while I get better.”

She sat for a second, looked at me, gave me the biggest hug and asked to watch “Bob the Builder.”

I won’t pretend this automatically healed all the hurt and loss, but it opened the door for us to talk about it and for her to understand that she was never the problem.

We’ve talked about my Sad Brain from time to time. Depression is something I will always battle, and this past Christmas it reared its ugly head again. Now her younger siblings know about mommy’s Sad Brain. There certainly isn’t Sad Brain talk all the time, but all of us talk about our feelings regularly. Learning about my battle with depression has opened my children to discussing feelings without shame and fear. My 5-year-old explains to me when he is “Sad Mad,” the 2-year-old asks me about the “Feelings Doctor” (my therapist), we practice coping skills together like taking big breaths and we often gather around as a family for some de-stressing time with crayons and coloring books.

My openness with my children and my husband about my mental illness bonds us as a team; we look out for one another. Because we fear of being judged, Sad Brain sufferers often isolate in an attempt to hide our illness, but when we do that we push away those closest to us. In telling my children about my illness in an age-appropriate manner, I’ve also opened communication and created a safe space for them if they ever feel Sad Brain approaching. My kids and I are in this together, and being together is what their hearts desire most.

woman smiling with teenage girl
Amanda and her daughter

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

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Follow this journey on Fig and Thistle.

Originally published: January 29, 2016
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