When the Holidays Are Marred by Loss and Complex Grief

Written For The Mighty on 11/19/2020.

Holidays are usually seen as a happy time, when friends and family get together to celebrate. They are a time filled with the warm glow of decorations, delicious foods to fill our stomachs and wonderful memories in the making with the people we love. 

But sometimes everything is not that simple. When you lose someone you hold dear during the holidays, it creates a dark cloud that looms over the entire celebration, making it harder to enjoy it as you otherwise would.

Loss is hard any time of the year. But a loss during the holidays can be especially painful because everyone else expects you to be happy during the holidays. It is hard to celebrate anything when you don’t feel festive inside. It can feel near-impossible to smile when all you want to do is cry. It is hard to be around others who are happy and festive when you feel anything but, leaving you to wonder if it is just better to stay home and not ruin anyone else’s time.

Holidays are often rooted in nostalgia. Current celebrations bring back memories of other times, better times, when your loved ones were still there to celebrate with you. The sights, sounds, tastes and scents alone can make their absence even more glaring and jarring. What once were joyful recollections you shared together of other years become gut punches that leave you fighting back tears.

It can be doubly hard when you carry conflicting feelings about the person you lost. People often say that you should never speak ill of the dead, disregarding the fact that rarely in life is anything solely black or white, good or bad. The vast majority of relationships in our life exist somewhere within the realm of grays, where they are not one or the other but rather a complex combination of both. When your grief is complex, it makes mourning that much more difficult. 

My mother passed away 10 years ago Thanksgiving day. 

All my childhood holiday memories revolve primarily around my mother. She was the cook, the baker, the decorator, the present-wrapper. The holidays were largely constructed and orchestrated by her two hands. Almost every holiday tradition I’ve carried with me throughout my life originates with her. There is not a single major holiday I celebrate that does not have her fingerprints all over it.

She was my mother. She taught me to cook and bake, to sew, knit, embroider, darn and craft. She implanted in me my stubborn will to keep fighting and my love for the holidays as a whole. She is a big part of the person I am today.

She was also one of my primary abusers throughout my childhood, physically, verbally and mentally. She is one of the reasons I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. She is proof that very few things exist simply as black or white. 

She is my mother. I love her as every little girl loves her mother. And at the same time I hate her. I love her for all that she has taught and given me, and I hate her for all that she’s put me through. I miss her with every fiber of my being and at the same time I could never forgive her for the darkness she put over the holidays for me. 

To better help you understand our relationship, I feel it is important to divulge a little background. Growing up, my mother was very abusive. She was struggling with often untreated, always undertreated bipolar disorder with frequent bouts of rage and I was her primary target. Our entire house was a war zone where the only way to be heard was to yell louder than the next person, and the only way to shut someone up was to lash out with the meanest, cruelest thing you could think of. After over 20 years of combat, my father walked out on our family shortly before I turned 16. My mother retaliated by driving to his work and shooting him twice. She spent the next few years bouncing between jail and mental institutions until it was ultimately pleaded out. But the damage had already been done and my life had been changed forever.

Her actions that day made it very clear to me exactly what she was capable of doing during her bouts of rage. Yet she still refused to seek help, frequently breaking down into tears or exploding with anger with no prior warning at the drop of a dime. For years, I watched in fear for my own life and the lives of my children until I finally admitted to myself that I did not feel safe. My mother and I had been estranged for a couple years when she passed away.

My mother’s death was officially listed as an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. My mother suffered from a lot of maladies and had medicine for all of them. She took dozens of different medications over the course of the day. Presumably, she had taken her medication for the day, forgotten, taken them again, forgotten and repeated this pattern multiple times before succumbing to an overdose.

I do not believe it was an accident. My mother had always been meticulous with her medication, separating it into containers designating not only days of the week, but times of the day, as well, so that she never missed a dose. 

I believe she killed herself that Thanksgiving morning 10 years ago and that, in the process, she robbed my holidays from me. 

Every year now when the holidays roll around, I struggle to enjoy them. My entire holiday season is marred by her loss.

I love her. Everything I do during the holidays comes directly from her. Yet she also hurt me worse than any other person ever has and made me feel largely unsafe in this world. She wasn’t all bad. I miss her. I feel guilty for not being there when she died. There’s an emptiness in my heart that nothing seems to fill, yet I also carry so much anger towards her. From Thanksgiving through New Years, my emotions are continuously all over the place, repeatedly being pulled one way then the other. I want to be happy, be festive, to enjoy the holidays with my family, but it’s a constant struggle.

It’s become a matter of taking everything one day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time. Allowing myself to feel everything that I am feeling because all my feelings are valid. And accepting that sometimes I’m just not in the right mindset and I need to pull back, regroup and recharge. I have learned to be gentle with myself. I do what I can when I can, and forgive myself for the things I am just not able to do during the holidays. I do my best to live in the moment and embrace the joy, but I don’t pretend that the darkness isn’t still lurking in the shadows, as well. It isn’t easy, but it is better to acknowledge and face all of my feelings, good and bad, than to shove them down deep inside and pretend they aren’t there. I celebrate when I can and step away when I cannot.

After all, none of us has to be festive all of the time — especially when we are not feeling it.

Republished on MSN on 11/20/2020.

Republished on Zenith News on 11/19/2020.

Republished on The Mental Guide on 11/2020.

More than Just a Faceless Number in the Pandemic

There’s nothing quite like those moments of enlightenment when you realize that your feelings and motives go deeper and are more personal than you previously realized or openly admitted.  Why do I care so deeply about people being responsible and staying home as much as possible during this pandemic?
Whenever I was asked, my first impulse answer was always that I didn’t want anything to happen to those I care about and their loved ones, that there are people in my life that are older or are immuno-compromised, friends who are considered high risk because they just got over cancer or who have just had a baby. I care a lot, perhaps too much at times, about other people, mostly because I know what it is like to struggle and suffer and I don’t want anyone else to needlessly go through any heartache or pain.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how much everything affects others that I often forget to consider my own personal situation. Perhaps I also struggle to consider myself among those who need extra protection, those who are determined to be at a higher risk, those in the biggest danger. I have come to see myself as a fighter, a survivor, and being lumped into that category is like accepting that I am fragile, weak, that I am less than the strong person I believe myself to be.
I have been through a lot in my life.  As a child, I endured every type of abuse imaginable.  Physical, mental and emotional abuse lent to my PTSD diagnosis.  Sexual abuse led to my doctors telling me I might never be able to have children.  Yet I persevered.
At sixteen, my abusive childhood culminated with my mother shooting my father.  I was bounced around among family members for a little over a year before finding myself on my own before I was even eighteen years old. Yet I survived.
Even though addiction ran in my family in the form of both drug and alcohol abuse, and trauma like mine often serves as a catalyst for substance abuse, I managed to avoid both and powered on.
I have struggled with severe depression my entire life, due in part to abuse and trauma, and partly due to a genetic mutation that deprives my brain of the substances it needs to adequately moderate my moods, yet I found ways to continue to function and continue to fight.
I have suffered much heartache over the years, from failed unhealthy and abusive relationships, to multiple miscarriages, yet refused to let any of it ultimately break me.
Cancer runs in both sides of my family.  It stole my mother’s brother way too young.  I watched as it slowly ate away at my father until there was nothing left of him and as it almost killed my mother.  Starting in my twenties, I have had numerous cancer-related health scares of my own.  I had two pre-cancerous atypical pap smears that required cryosurgery and was told afterwards that they were caught just in the nick of time.  In my thirties, they found a mass on the side of my breast extending under my arm that was deemed non-cancerous.  At forty, I had to have one of my ovaries removed because there was a large cyst on it with a fibrous mass inside.  Thankfully, the biopsy after my oophorectomy showed the mass to be benign.  And finally, a little less than two years ago, doctors found not one but two meningioma tumors on my brain.  Yet I continue on and refuse to lose hope.
I continue on because I am a survivor. That is what I do.  I keep going. I power on.  I fight whatever life throws my way.
And I do so with kindness in my heart.  I never want my own life experiences to make me jaded or cruel.  I know what it feels like to suffer and I would not wish my struggles on anyone else.  I try to always show others kindness regardless of whether it was ever shown to me in my own times of need.  I have always firmly believed that there is too much suffering in this world and it is our responsibility to be kind to one another, to watch out for each other, and to ease each other’s pain whenever possible.
And somewhere along the way, I rediscovered myself.  I found a miraculous inner strength, a renewed sense of purpose and even was blessed enough to have wonderful children and find a deep and true lasting love.  I have transformed my own pain into mental health advocacy for others.  I write and speak out to encourage others to keep going, to never give up.  I empathize with the struggles of others and let them know they are not alone.  My writing has been showcased worldwide, discussed on television, radio and internet media programs and shared by numerous government agencies, private practices, and advocacy groups along the way.  I have managed to reach and help more people than I ever imagined possible.  My children and my writing are a legacy I am proud to leave behind.
I have come a long way in life and I have overcome many obstacles along the way.  I am a fighter.  A survivor.
However, to the medical community, I am reduced to a simple list of stats.  Though in normal times, doctors often make an effort to acquaint themselves with their patients to better serve their needs, we are currently in the middle of a worldwide viral pandemic.  The number of infected is increasing daily by the thousands in my country.  And to make matters worse, I happen to live in New York – the current epicenter of the virus in the United States.  Doctors don’t have the time or the energy to get to know all of their patients well right now in an emergency setting.  They have to make split decisions based on medical history prior to infection.
And the simple fact is that I have cancer.  I have two tumors on my brain.  I’m honestly not sure it even matters that the tumors are benign or that right before the pandemic was declared a national emergency, my neurosurgeon informed us that my tumors have shown little to no noticeable growth in the last eighteen months’ of MRI scans.  The cancer diagnosis alone means that I am considered high risk and my treatment is considered a lesser priority than someone else without preexisting conditions.
The fact that I have continuously fought hard and survived many things over the course of my entire life is irrelevant.
The fact that I have dedicated years to helping and advocating for others is irrelevant.
The fact that I am otherwise relatively healthy is irrelevant.
Even the fact that I am a mother and a fiance is irrelevant because every single person that comes through the hospital doors is family to someone.  They are all a son or a daughter.  Many are parents, grandparents, spouses, friends.  We all have a story.
But my story can be reduced to one word, a word that makes my treatment less of a priority during a pandemic. Cancer.
As much as I want to say, want to believe, that the primary reason if not the only reason I want people to stay inside and be responsible is to protect others, I have to accept that I need protecting, too.  My health and well-being is important, as well.  I am part of that at risk, high risk group.  If I get sick, my treatment will possibly, if not likely, be deemed less of a priority.
I don’t want to see myself as someone needing protection because I don’t want to be seen as a victim. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.  I am a fighter.  A survivor.  I have beaten the odds again and again.  I have a lot of living left to do and a lot of fight left in me.  I have children who I long to see grow into their own.  I have a wedding to plan.  I have more writing and advocacy to do.  And I have this cancer to beat.
My staying home unless absolutely necessary only goes so far to flatten the curve.  I am depending on others to be responsible, as well.  Every person out there interacting is a possible carrier and the more people congregating in a given area, the bigger and more likely the spread.  The more this virus spreads, the more likely I am to get it.  Hospitals in my state are already struggling to the point where do not resuscitate orders have been put in place if somebody dies.  If the hospitals become even more overwhelmed, they will be put in the same place Italy was at the apex of their crisis – with doctors having to choose who gets treatment and who dies based solely on their prior medical history.  And having tumors means if the hospitals are overwhelmed, I might be deemed not worth saving because they don’t have the manpower, equipment, time or energy to save everyone.
It’s easy to consider terms such as “acceptable losses” or to shrug off deaths of the elderly and sick as “the thinning of the herd” when you think in terms of abstract numbers instead of considering the actual people behind those numbers.  It is different when you consider the faces and stories of those people and the families they will be leaving behind.  Even one person needlessly contracting this virus and dying should be one person too many.  We all have families and stories.  We aren’t just faceless numbers.  And many of us still have a lot of life left to live and a greater purpose left to fulfill.
I didn’t come this far to only come this far.  I’m continuing to fight the good fight because I want to eventually leave this world a better, kinder place than it was when I entered it.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want any of you to die either.

mightylogoRepublished on The Mighty on 5/4/20.

yahoonews

Republished on Yahoo News on 5/4/20.

 

The Truth About Depression and Suicide

Suicide has quickly become one of the top killers across all age groups, races, sexes and socio-economic classes. You cannot go a week these days without seeing multiple stories in the news about suicide. Celebrities. Children. Veterans. And those are just the stories the press finds newsworthy enough to report on. Across the country and all around the world, people are dying by their own hands every single day at alarming numbers. And yet it is a topic nobody wants to talk about until it hits close to home. Even then, most people would rather talk about it in hushed whispers, a shameful secret they wish would just fade away, than to openly talk about it.

I have struggled with major depression my entire life. I have been suicidal more than once. I am honestly not sure how I am even still alive today because with each of my attempts, I told no one, I secluded myself, I gave no forewarning or signs that things had gotten so bad that I wanted to give up. Though people knew I was struggling, nobody really knew how badly. I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to stop me. More than once, whether by the grace of God or some strange twist of fate, someone came through a doorway to find my unconscious body barely clinging to life. More than once, I woke up in the hospital not sure how I even got there.

I have also been on the other side of that fence, losing people I cared about to suicide. I have been blindsided by their death, torturing myself for feeling like I didn’t see the signs, not realizing how bad things were, not being there to help when they desperately needed someone. I have spent endless hours thinking back over missed opportunities that I might have been able to intervene and make a difference. I have been haunted by words I did not say and calls I did not make that might have made the difference between life and death.

Part of me, though, knows better than to torture myself with hindsight. I have been on both sides of that fence. I know all too well that unless you actually know what to look for, the signs are usually not even visible until someone is looking in the rear-view mirror. But by then it is too late. The crash has already happened. And you can’t turn back time. The best anyone can honestly do is to be proactive, to talk openly, honestly and regularly about their own mental health and that of those they care about. We need to make everyone’s mental health as much of a priory as our physical health.  As hard a topic as suicide may be, it’s harder still to bury someone you love. I believe this difficult conversation is long past due.

Please know that most people don’t normally wake up one day out of the blue and decide to kill themselves. Barring some drastic, life altering circumstance or great loss that seemingly destroys someone’s entire life in a heartbeat making them lose all hope in an instant, suicidal feelings usually develop over an extended period of anguish. The weight of the world is piled on again and again, making everything feel increasingly hopeless.  Eventually, you reach the point when you cannot take anymore. You’ve found the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and you collapse under the weight of it all.

You don’t go directly from life being fine to choosing to die like a car going from zero to sixty in a few seconds flat. It is a slow build. It begins with feeling overwhelmed with life itself. Everything feels increasingly too hard, too overwhelming. You begin to feel like you’re drowning, like you can never fully catch your breath. It feels like no matter what you do, nothing is ever going to change, that you’ve been dealt a losing hand and there’s no way to exchange your cards. The deck is rigged and you’ve lost big time.  Everything in life begins to feel like a struggle, an uphill battle, a fight you cannot win. You feel like you no longer have any control of your own fate.  You become mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, not sure how much more you can keep going, how much strength you have left.

The first suicidal thoughts that creep in are abstract. You’re not making specific plans to kill yourself. You look outside during a snowstorm and ponder how long you would have to be exposed to the elements before everything just faded to black. You look at the currents of the river coursing by and ponder what it would be like to just be pulled under, swept away. When you pass a set of train tracks, you wonder where along the tracks it might be dark enough that they wouldn’t see you until it was too late. The thought of death is more of a fade to black. A sweet escape. Death itself becomes a daydream. Those abstract thoughts are commonly referred to as suicidal ideation.

With suicidal ideation, it isn’t so much about dying as it is about wanting to be freed from a life you feel is too painful to continue. The thought of death almost feels like a peaceful, sweet release. You become increasingly consumed by the thought of ending your suffering, of fading away, of just disappearing from the story, not having to fight or cry anymore, of just being free.

Most people who are suicidal honestly don’t want to die. For days, weeks, months, they’ve been soul-searching and agonizing, looking for any reason to keep going and not give up. It isn’t a decision made lightly or spur of the moment. They’ve been secretly fighting to hold on, to live, to find any reason to cling to so they don’t give up.  They have just reached the point where they feel they cannot take anymore, cannot hurt anymore, cannot go one more day living in their own personal hell.

Neither suicidal ideation or suicide itself are a plea for attention. It honestly is not about anyone else at all. Nobody who tries to kill themselves is thinking “I’ll show them!” or “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone!” like a kindergartner contemplating running away from home. By the time someone has made that ultimate choice to give up, they aren’t even thinking of anyone else beyond being convinced that others would be better off without them. They feel completely isolated and alone, in agonizing pain that they can no longer take. They are convinced their life is out of their hands and there is no way to fix anything in their life. Death is the only exit they can see in the darkness.

People often describe a loss by suicide as “unexpected” and “out of the blue”. Those who have lost someone to suicide often feel lost and confused, bewildered about how anyone could give up on life when they “had so much to live for”. The problem is that by the time someone is at that point of giving up, they have fallen so deeply into the darkness that they can no longer see any of the light. All they can feel is hopelessness and despair. And they feel utterly alone.

It’s nearly impossible for those who have not been there themselves to understand how anything could possibly get that bad, how anything could feel so hopeless, how anyone could feel so alone. I have frequently seen suicide aptly described as a bi-product of depression, heard others refer to suicide as a death caused by a person’s mental illness. Truer words have never been spoken.

Depression is a nefarious and deadly disease. It eats at your mental and emotional well-being just as surely as cancerous tumors eat away at a person’s body. And just like cancer weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight it off, depression feeds off your ability to distinguish reality and see anything but the darkness and despair that the illness wants you to see.  It systematically breaks and devours you until there is no will left to fight anymore.

Depression is not an illness you can easily disregard. You cannot just “suck it up”. It will not go away because you spew out some tired cliches about life or insist someone just try a little harder to be happy. Depression cannot be cured by taking a walk, going for a run or getting yourself a dog. It is not mind over matter or learning to toughen up. It is a serious medical condition and one that can have deadly consequences if left untreated.

People talk about being dumbfounded by someone’s suicide, of not seeing it coming. But honestly, there are plenty of signs there if someone takes the time to actually look and listen.

Has the person withdrawn themselves from family and friends, frequently making excuses about being too busy, swamped with life or feeling under the weather?

Have they stopped doing things they enjoy? Quit groups or teams? Given up hobbies they once loved? Are they spending a good portion of their time alone seemingly doing nothing?

Have their sleep patterns changed drastically? Are they laying down and sleeping more or are they up more with insomnia, tossing and turning, unable to sleep?

Has their appearance changed drastically? Losing or gaining weight? Not showering as much or wearing dirty clothes? Keeping their hair pulled back so they never have to tend to it or not shaving for long periods of time that is inconsistent with how they used to present themselves?

Is their room or house even more of a mess than usual or are they frequently wearing stained clothes like they just don’t care anymore? Do they always seem to be asking you to “excuse the mess”?

Are they frequently talking abut being exhausted, overly tired or fed up? Do they make comments about being tired of fighting or regularly insist life shouldn’t be this hard?

Are they frequently edgy, snippy and short with everyone as if they’re trying to push everyone away? Does everything seem to annoy them?

Are they frequently uncharacteristically silent as if they’re lost in their own world? Do they seem more scatterbrained than usual, life their mind is always off somewhere else?

Are they frequently sad, overly emotional or teary?

Do their emotional responses in general seem more raw, exaggerated and over-the-top as if they are feeling everything much stronger than usual?

Are they smiling and laughing less or are they pursing their lips together when they smile as if it was forced? Does their laughter seem less frequent and insincere, as if they’re trying to give you the reaction they believe you want even though their heart is not really in it?

Do they often blame puffy eyes or stuffy noses on allergies even when it’s not allergy season or they have not ventured outsides to be exposed to seasonal allergens?

Do they often insist they’re “fine” with no elaboration and claim they don’t want to talk about it when pressed, using dismissive phrases like “it is what it is” as if they have no control over their own life?

These are just some of the common signs of depression. Though they do not necessarily mean a person is currently considering suicide, it is likely they are struggling along that path. If you see drastic changes in mood and appearance, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask whether they’re okay. If someone doesn’t seem like themselves, there is usually a reason why. Don’t be afraid to call attention to drastic changes that concern you.

And please know it should never be a “one and done”. Even if you inquired once and they insisted they were fine, you can’t shrug and walk off, telling yourself that “hey I tried”. If someone’s depression has gotten bad enough that you can see multiple signs, it did not happen overnight and it is not going to be resolved overnight either. It might take multiple times of checking in and reaching out before someone is finally able to open up.

That is because depression isolates us. It gets into our head and convinces us that nobody cares, that we are all alone in the world. It is easier for us to believe that someone is asking how we are just to be nice or to make polite small talk than to believe they’re genuinely invested in our well-being.
People struggling with depression also have a lot of trust issues. Most likely, we have tried talking to others in the past and have been shot down or had our feelings minimized. Or we have heard you or others talk dismissively about their struggles so we’re unsure how supportive you’ll be for us. We’re afraid of being seen as weak or broken or crazy. We’re afraid to let anyone in only to get hurt again. Everything has felt like a fight for so long that we’re weary about letting anyone else in, too. And we don’t want to be a burden or to let anyone down by admitted we aren’t “strong enough”.

You cannot let yourself be discouraged, though. Continue to reach out every few days, even if just to check in about how they are doing. If someone seems to be cancelling plans a lot to go out, offer to come over and visit. If they make excuses about a mess, offer to help them clean it. If they claim they feel under the weather, offer to bring soup. Whatever you do, don’t let them continue to isolate. Let them know you miss them and just want to see them. Reinforce that they matter.

Coordinate with others in their life. Take turns checking in and offering reassurances. Make it clear that multiple people care and that they are not alone. Create a united front where everyone can face the depression together.
Most importantly, make it clear that it is okay to talk about whatever they are feeling and to get help. Don’t further stigmatize doctors or medication.  Don’t suggest it’s all in their head or tell them to suck it up and get over it. Don’t treat them like they’e crazy or broken. Remember that they are sick and need help. Be supportive. Be part of the solution not part of the problem.

If you are seeing yourself in these words, if you are exhausted and struggling to keep going, tired of fighting, tired of hurting, wanting to give up, please realize that those feelings are not reality. Your depression is lying to you, making all the bad in your life feel exaggerated and overwhelming and is snuffing out the light. Please know that you are not alone and there are others out there who understand completely what you are going through. You’ve got to fight this. Don’t give up. Reach out. Talk to friends, family, a therapist, a pastor. Someone. Anyone. Just don’t give up. Don’t shut everyone out. I know all too well that siren’s call that death will bring peace but it really won’t. Not for you and not for everyone in your life that you’ll be leaving behind. You can get past this.

Looking back, I am grateful I never succeeded. I feel blessed to still be here. Because now I have the ability to reach out and help others, to be the voice that shines like a beacon to light up the darkness. I am in a unique position where I understand not only the great loss that comes with losing someone to suicide but also the steep descent into the hopelessness of depression myself. Suffering in silence for years almost killed me multiple times. I can only hope that by finally speaking up, speaking out, I can help save others from succumbing to that darkness themselves.

Depression and suicide have robbed the world of so many beautiful souls. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, friends. They have stolen so many lives from us far too soon. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich then claim later that we didn’t see the signs, didn’t know things were that bad. We are one society, one world. We have to start acting like it. We must start looking out for one another, be there for each other, truly listen and hear. The signs are there. We just have to take off our blinders and see them. We cannot pretend everything is fine because we don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation. Inaction kills. We need to be proactive, not only with our own mental health but towards those we care about, as well. We all have the power to save lives if we are willing to actually reach out and try.

Having a Family Isn’t Exhausting – My Depression Is

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, many day 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 that 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 fiance’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 that 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 that 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 that they have never said or done anything to make me feel this way.  I know that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that I must take care of myself as well.  I’ve been reminded often that “you can’t fill from an empty cup”, implying that 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 that 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.

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Republished on The Mighty on 11/2/18.