When I was seven years old, my mom and I were on a roadtrip to my oldest brother’s college football game. I was studying my mom’s face, acknowledging that she never smiled. It made me mad, so I asked her why. She just looked at me and shrugged. That’s my first clear memory of resenting what I later learned was my mother’s depression.
My mom’s depression manifested in a variety of ways. She would wake up to get us off to school, but when we got home in the afternoon she’d be asleep in the dark basement bedroom. She’d then get up to feed us dinner and head straight back to bed.
The first playdate I went on made my realize just how different my mom was than other moms I knew. I vividly remember my friend’s mother asking us how our day was, what we learned that day, and what we wanted to do that afternoon. I recall the tears that stung my eyes in that moment because my own mother never asked me these questions. I felt sad and ashamed of how different she was.
The more time I spent with friends’ moms, the more hurt I felt by my own mother’s apathy in comparison.
The more time I spent with friends’ moms, the more hurt I felt by my own mother’s apathy in comparison. I grew painfully aware of the birthday parties she never threw and the meaningful conversations that never occurred.
As children, my brothers and I fought for the little attention that my mother offered. We ached to be near her. When she was awake, we wrestled each other to sit on her lap or hold her hand. When she was asleep, one of us slept by her, just to feel closer. After a while, I gave up — it hurt too much to keep fighting for her attention.
I began coping with my mother’s emotional neglect by imagining my future. When she hurt me, I envisioned how different I’d be as an adult. I viewed my mother as someone who gave up — on herself, and on us. Instead of fighting for joy or meaning, she dwelled in darkness. But I’d be different. Witnessing her complete and utter despair instilled in me a deep devotion to light and life that’s so resolute, it’s life or death. Her imprisonment made me that much more committed to choosing life and freedom, and to be the mother I ached for my entire life.
I’d live with passion and enthusiasm. I would care about the details. My children would never doubt my love for them nor the importance of their every interest to me. I would be successful outside of my children; I wouldn’t rely on them for my identity. I would make an impact on this world. I’d create my own path and design my life exactly the way I wanted it to be. I had no idea how I’d go about this, but I held no greater conviction than to live a life opposite of my mother’s.
I was failing classes, sleeping 18 hours a day, and isolating from anyone that cared about me.
By the time I entered college, I had very high expectations for myself. But as my first semester persisted, I realized the cycle of depression didn’t stop at my mother — it creeped into my own psyche as well. I began fighting my own battle and, at times, it crippled me. I was failing classes, sleeping 18 hours a day, and isolating from anyone that cared about me.
I was so terrified that my genetic predisposition had already decided my fate that I pursued help like my life depended on it because, in my mind, it did.
I made an appointment with the university’s wellness center and spent months figuring out the right medication and dosage. I surrounded myself with positive, supportive friends, narrowing my circle to only those people who inspired me. I gave a voice to my childhood experience, and worked on releasing the shame that I carried from my dysfunctional upbringing.
With the help of professionals and supportive friends and family, I’ve realized how critical it is to my mental health to do fulfilling work and have hobbies. I make sure to set firm goals for myself and to always keep my mind engaged. Fitness also plays a massive role. Running marathons, competing in bodybuilding competitions, and becoming certified in Pilates all serve to make me feel strong and capable.
I still feel shitty sometimes, but no matter how shitty I feel, I find strength in the life I’ve always dreamed of for myself. This vision gives me resolve. It makes challenging decisions for me prior to meeting them. I fear mediocrity in a way that many face fear of risk. Surrendering is not an option — I’ve seen that surrender and I’ve watched a life stolen by the capture of depression.
My mother’s depression taught me that we are on this earth to live fully and with joy. Of course, life can be beyond hard at times. But no matter the circumstances we’re given, we have the power to make our life what we want it to be with the right vision, dedication, and commitment. That’s why I’ve never stopped envisioning my future self. It has always been, and continues to be, my guiding light.
My own hardships made me realize that my mother’s mental illness was not so simple.
I’ve been married now for 10 years and we have adopted three children. Having gone through my own mental hardships to get to where I am today made me realize that my mother’s mental illness was not so simple. She didn’t have the resources I have. She didn’t have a support system — my father was hard on her, diminishing her self-confidence. She had my oldest brother at a very young age, and she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college and create an identity for herself. She suffered in silence, without options, and it breaks my heart to think that she carried that burden alone.
Today I know that my mom loved my brothers and I very much. She kept us safe. She worried about our future and wanted us to be happy. My childhood experience is mine to claim, but I have tremendous compassion for the pain she endured and the subsequent strength her pain provided me. It’s a compassion that I hope my children will carry on for us both.