I am a mother with lifelong depression, with a son who was diagnosed with childhood depression when he was 12 years old. How my son’s depression related to mine is for the scientists to determine– nature versus nurture? I only know that when my son was 12 years old, he told me he dreamed that he was holding my hand with one hand, and a tight rope stretched between the two World Trade Towers with his other hand, and he feared he wasn’t strong enough, and that I was just about to slip from his grip to the ground and death below. My son, now 21 years old, is about to graduate from college, 3 years off talk and drug therapy. Below are the questions I asked when I first heard the diagnosis of “childhood depression” nine years ago, and some answers to these questions that I subsequently learned. I hope these words help other parents.
When do you know, truly know, your child is depressed?
In one defining, inescapable moment. For several weeks, the school called me to pick my son up at noon because he was crying and could not last the day. I would take him home and watch him lay motionless and mute on the couch, watching endless cartoons on TV. And the friends stopped coming over, or asking my son to come over. Of course, I knew something was wrong, but it was not until my husband and I took my son to Disney World on spring break to “cheer him up” that the defining moment arrived, and I truly realized the depth of his despair. On the second day, walking down the postcard perfect beach, seagulls dancing overhead, he looked to me frightened and said, “Can we go home now, please, the seagulls are laughing at me and I can’t stand it anymore.” We left the next day and sought the best help we could find.
What makes the depressed child better?
Prozac, yes, but oh, so much more– love, hope, patience, perseverance, talk. And then there is the “charismatic adult” that I have since read is critical for the successful treatment of depressed children. For my son, this person was his second psychiatrist. It was this doctor who was able to reach his limbic sick soul. It was he who whispered to my son that other people were holding me as I dangled from the tight rope, he was not responsible for any of it, he was a truly good person, and no one was going to let me fall dead– all this as they played Bart Simpson games on the computer in the weekly hour.
How do you know the psychiatrist is right for your child?
In our case, it was when my son asked to stop at the hospital gift shop on the third visit to buy the doctor a present– a basketball hoop for the wastebasket so they could play together in the charismatic hour. My son playing again, my son giving again– this doctor I knew then, standing in hope in the gift shop, was right.
What more can you– the helpless parent– do to help?
Find your child a friend close in age, a Robert. Robert was the laid back, 15 year old friend of a neighbor’s son, looking for work after school. I hired Robert to watch cartoons with my son in the afternoons as he lay fixed on the couch, as I could not sit still from my horror at the sight. At first, they watched cartoons in silence, as my son would not talk, and then Robert began to bring video games, and they began to play together. Many weeks later, I cried with joy the day I first overheard my son laughing with Robert in the next room. Robert never pushed, never demanded, just took my son for who he was at the moment. He came to be my son’s faithful companion for six years of otherwise doomed loneliness and isolation. And it was Robert who opened my eyes to my son’s recovery, the day he got mad at me for treating my son like he was sick at 17, and he yelled at me, “Can’t you see, he’s not depressed anymore?” And I saw instantly that he was right, knowing that he spoke with the insight of one who watched my son and cartoons through endless dark afternoons.
What can you do to help yourself, the helpless parent?
For me, getting psychiatric treatment for my depression for the first time, at the insistence of my son’s charismatic psychiatrist, and telling my son that I was getting help, were critical for his recovery. But even the emotionally healthy need help– my husband, too, the rock of our lives, needed support to understand all that was happening around him. Take all the help for you that is offered– seek it, if it isn’t.
When do you stop blaming yourself? Probably never, but the blame can lessen, if you’re lucky, in yet another defining moment. For my husband and me, this moment came one ordinary school night when my son lay fetal like on our bedroom floor, crying inconsolably for over an hour for unfathomable reasons. Leaning over my son on the floor next to him to comfort him, my husband looked across to me and said, “There is nothing, nothing, either you or I ever did that could cause this.” And we took comfort in the thought that depression is a biologic brain disease of emotion signaling neurotransmitters gone crazy.
Does the child ever get better?
Oh my yes. And when he/she does, your understanding of true happiness is never the same. I know now true happiness comes from life’s humdrum moments– like watching my son study Chinese in college, and then taking a quick break to watch Bart Simpson cartoons in a roomful of laughing friends.
Never lose hope.
The following story contains sensitive material about a parent discussing their child’s suicide attempt that may cause some emotional discomfort.
Trying to Make Sense of the Depression
If he died, I wanted our son to be remembered for how he lived. I did not want him remembered as a kid who committed suicide. Hours later, knowing that he would survive, I asked that a psychiatrist see him. After briefly speaking with an intern, I met the first of many doctors and specialists. My wife and I never did feel certain which expert to trust on many issues such as when to leave the hospital, whether to return to school, how candid our son could be with friends about his suicide attempt, whether medication should continue, which therapist to counsel and what the future might hold. But we were able to cancel all social obligations and much of our work related responsibilities for several months in order to devote ourselves to the recovery process for our son and, later, for our family.
It would be years before I added to the list of factors that allowed our family a positive outcome from this tragedy the fact that the hospital had an adolescent psychiatry unit. I did not realize during the crisis that few hospitals offer psychiatric wards for children, a separate ward from adults. Other families have explained that witnessing the typical activity of an adult psychiatric environment would have caused even more fear and confusion for us when our son was most vulnerable. I believe that I did not recognize the depression that led to my son’s suicide attempt because he was an over achiever who enjoyed a wide group of friends.
At the same time, I do not understand how I was blind to pain intense enough to drive him to harm himself. He had more than his share of stomachaches throughout childhood and he occasionally suffered migraine headaches in puberty. The only new symptoms I noticed before his suicide attempt were irritability and a reduced reading comprehension. I assumed irritability was normal for young teenagers and he claimed the reading material was boring. If I had interpreted his irritability as frustration or determined that concentration was increasingly hard for him, his severe mood disorder might have been discovered before he tried to take his life.
Things have turned out extremely well for us. Our son is preparing to leave for college following extraordinary accomplishments in most areas of high school life. We primarily credit his school for his remarkable recovery because the school head was so clear in wanting him back and in providing open communications with the entire faculty. Talking things over was always available to him and he vented his frustrations on several occasions. In turn, the faculty was always honest with us so that we knew where we stood with the school. His classmates were very welcoming so no stigma hampered his progress. This unusual clarity helped to reduce our son’s stress and to eliminate our fears.
It was unclear whether medication was helpful so he stopped using it after the first year but he continued the talk therapy for several years. We consider his depression as well managed rather than eliminated. It is not preventing his enjoyment of life nor affecting any of his plans. He can recognize the onset of depression and offsets it by getting more sleep, working out and talking with friends.