On Depression and Parenting

Opal drives a lackluster Ford pickup, its faded paint more of a burnt umber than the original Santa-suit red. With her dogs riding shotgun, Opal leaves Ohio one day without notice, driving west through the skinny states and a few of the wide ones.

The journey ends in Montana or maybe Idaho. Somewhere in big sky country where the open landscape sweeps up feelings of confinement, loss, agitation and more before tossing them into the atmosphere to become painterly clouds.

Opal settles in a town small enough to be quiet, but big enough to ignore her and the dogs. She rents a room by the month in a weather-worn, single-story hotel and hires on for the 5 a.m. shift at a local diner. Her afternoons are spent wearing out the dogs with walks alongside rivers and writing without interruption.

Like Eleanor Roosevelt’s Griselda, Opal is my personification of depression.

Years go by with no word from Opal, and then something, or even nothing, will trigger her to make contact. Mostly, like the wisps of steam rising from a cup of morning coffee, she quickly dissipates.

But when Opal plops down for a good long stay, she unpacks insomnia, headaches, weepy bouts and intermittent nausea. Worst of all, she’s a master ruminator. Thoughts about past events, comments made the day before, lists of things needing done — these and more she turns over and over like rocks in a polishing machine.

Were I to accept Opal’s standing invitation and drive away, my feelings, thoughts and moods would simply accompany me like Opal’s dogs do her. And yet there were times, especially in my 30s, when her siren’s call was potent.

As a child, I was my mother’s favored receptacle for her wellspring of rage. I struggled with depression and suicidal ideation starting in middle school, if not earlier.

While other children played games or gossiped during recess, my best friend and I sat with our backs on the sun-warmed bricks of the school. Her father was also abusive and we talked, day after day, about our lives after we could escape our parents.

When that day arrived, I sought professional help, both psychological and psychiatric. While this was enormously helpful, it wasn’t a cure.

A baby who has colic for nearly six months can give any parent or caregiver mental health issues. Hugo was such a baby when I was first prescribed Zoloft. By his first birthday, Hugo had become as happy as he was cherubic, and I no longer needed an antidepressant.

According to the National Institutes for Health, in any given year 1 in 10 American mothers suffers a major depressive disorder. And yet, even though a federal law (passed in 1996) requires parity in funding for mental and physical health issues, there is still a large coverage gap for mental health care.

Perhaps the lack of affordable treatment options is why there are few statistics for mothers having mental health episodes that are not major enough as to require hospitalization, but are difficult nonetheless.

I belong to a closed Facebook group in which all the members are women. In this private space, one woman timidly described her mental health difficulties but also her fear of taking Zoloft. For weeks thereafter, dozens of women from all walks of life recounted very personal stories about depression, therapy and medications.

Qualified professional help is the most important step in managing depression and other mental health issues. If a therapist seems “meh,” try again. He or she may be perfect for someone else, but the therapeutic relationship is just that — a relationship, which is why it’s important to find a therapist with whom you click.

And while antidepressants are not a panacea for all sufferers, they have helped countless people get to the other side of an episode. And just as diabetics need insulin to live, some people need to take antidepressants indefinitely, or always.

During my tortuously long divorce, I never needed, nor took, Zoloft. But after Max was laid off in 2015 by the only law firm for which he’d worked, he remained underemployed for three years. The chronic stress over finances affected my physical and mental health. Zoloft helped.

Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health concerns is still significant. Increasing awareness of the benefits of active treatment reduces the perception that having a mental health issue is somehow a character fault.

This is why I applaud Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and late-night comedian Conan O’Brien for speaking publicly in recent months about seeing therapists and, in O’Brien’s case, accepting pharmaceutical treatment.

For parents who are not flattened by their depression, caring for children can itself be helpful (along with professional care). Parenting requires thinking of someone else and helps the ruminating brain to pause, if only temporarily.

Children know their parents better than anyone knows anyone else. When he was 8 years old, my eldest son was aware that I was depressed. He did not have the language for it then, but he does now and he’s shared with me the concern he felt as a boy.

On one hand, that breaks my heart a little. I wanted my children to feel always secure with me in charge of our lives and never worry about me. But nobody’s life is eternal days of sunshine. Rain falls in them all.

How parents deal with life’s rainy times is fundamental. Our children are watching, even when we don’t know it. And when they become adults, how we handled our struggles will inform how they handle their own.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 20, 2019.


A House without Teenagers Isn’t the Same

Because Hugo was home, Claude came over more than usual. We played euchre three nights in a row, once after having dinner guests, including two of Hugo’s vocal instructors.

The house was full of cooking, laughter and yelling. For four days, my life reconstituted to the familiar — a large, opinionated family under one roof. For nearly 13 years, I have lived with one or more teenagers. Then, this fall, our house was emptied out of teens.

My friend Edna Young, who’s been gone many years, taught me much about raising children. She was a grandma when my big boys were born. “Just wait until they hit 13,” she told me, “you’ll not be able to keep enough milk in the house.”

She was right. For years we called Claude “the gaping maw,” his appetite akin to that of Audrey II’s in “The Little Shop of Horrors.” The fact that he was (and still is) a distance runner contributed to his high caloric needs.

One summer, we stayed in a hotel where Claude ran on the facility’s treadmill. When he finished, I looked at the read-out. In one hour, he’d burned 1,700 calories, more than I (should) eat in a day.

Like Claude, my third son, Jules, is also a distance runner. He stayed with his grandparents last summer and I worried he’d throw off their food budget. “No, it’s wonderful,” said my stepmom. “With Jules here we never throw out any leftovers.”

We’ve long had a membership to BJ’s Wholesale Club where we buy bulk items at a lower price per unit or ounce than in traditional grocery stores. Unfortunately, my $50 annual membership renewed in August before I understood how much less we would need with no teenagers around.

Without teenagers we do not need as much toilet paper, laundry detergent, toothpaste, shampoo or conditioner. Even cleaning supplies last longer.

Jules alone goes through five or more pounds of apples a week, which I happily supplied. Without him here, that many apples last closer to a month.

Not having teens also affects how much I cook. For many years, I doubled or tripled recipes and while that’s no longer necessary, some habits are hard to break. Leftovers routinely go bad now.

But with the departure of my last teenager, we also lost something we’ve long enjoyed and perhaps took for granted, especially Max who didn’t know differently: built-in babysitters.

When most parents have their first baby, a rude awakening follows. Footloose adults who could run out at any time for any reason become parents who must decide whether it’s worth bringing baby, getting a sitter or just staying home. Grocery stores alone can be an ordeal, particularly when toddlers are involved.

For nearly 10 years, Max and I have enjoyed long walks, child-free shopping excursions and dinners out, either the two of us alone or with friends. All this was done without requiring, except on rare occasions, someone to come to our house and tend our two littles.

But perhaps the biggest adjustment with no teenagers at home is losing roommates. Easily two, if not four, years before they graduate high school, teenagers are someone else to talk with about politics, art, science, the comics, people we know, things we want to see and do. Without any of them under our roof, it’s a little lonelier than before.

I wept when dropping off Claude, and then Hugo, at college their first year. But once I left them, I was fine. When Jules returned home for Labor Day weekend two weeks after I’d taken him to OSU, tears coursed down my face. “I can’t believe you don’t live here. It’s so good to have you home,” I told him.

Max pointed out my extended sadness may be due to something other than missing Jules. “Jules leaving home is an end of an era for you, Holly.” It’s true. For more than a quarter century, my identity has been entwined with mothering those first three children of mine.

When we first dated, Max told his family about “Holly and the boys.” Shortly after I met his now 97-year-old uncle, Bascom, he told me, “I thought Max was dating not a woman, but a Broadway show called ‘Holly and the Boys.’ ”

The father of my big boys hasn’t laid eyes on any of them in nearly five years. Even when I was with their father, it was mostly just Holly and the boys. Back then, a friend who often came for dinner told me, “I get help from family and friends because I’m a single mom, but few realize that someone, like you, can be a virtual single mom.”

In a “Pearls before Swine” comic strip, the crocodile son asks his mother what’s the most important part of raising children. She tells him it’s having them grow up and successfully lead their own lives. He then asks his mom what’s the hardest part of being a parent. She replies, “That one day you’ll grow up and successfully leave us.”

And so it is.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 6, 2019.

john pavlovitz

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