Like Mother, Like Daughter. Sorry about that, kiddo.
My eldest daughter, Maeve, is ten. She is a fantastic kid. She's funny, smart, gentle, curious, gorgeous, and laughs at the same fart jokes that I do. In a lot of ways, she's more like her dad: her way with animals, her interest in astronomy and physics, her long legs and knobby knees, the hours spent reading and discussing Calvin and Hobbes. That's all her Dad. The fart jokes and love of the sound of a motor revving? Inability to watch Top Gear without peeing herself a little bit? That's me, baby. Me.
The depression and anxiety? Sigh. That's me, too.
I first got an inkling that Maeve might deal with some of the same issues I do a number of years ago. If any little thing happened at home or at school, she would have a complete inability to deal with it. Everything was end of the world. Everything was the worst thing that had ever happened to anybody. Everything was just further proof that she was an awful person. Everything was proof that she'd rather die.
At first, I was able to dismiss it as she was just being a bit dramatic. I really wanted it to be that she was a little bit dramatic. But the talk of wanting to die? That's when the cold tendrils of fear started to work their way through my heart.
I was nine the first time I thought about killing myself. And I don't mean wondering about it and then skipping off to play. I mean locking myself in the bathroom and gathering up every pill I could find. I remember holding the pile of pills in my hands and staring at it. I remember the weight of all of the little capsules. I remember the feeling of absolute confusion and loneliness and hopelessness as I stared at my hands and the burden they held.
I didn't take the pills. I quietly put them back where I had found them and slipped out of the bathroom. At the time, I thought it meant I was a coward. I don't remember any other reason that I decided to put the pills back. I only remember feeling like a coward.
Over the years, I have looked back on those minutes locked in the bathroom and felt such compassion and hurt for my nine year old self. And because I remember so vividly how I felt that day, it was Maeve's beginning to talk about her own death that kicked me into panic mode.
Unfortunately, panic mode for me did not equal action mode at first. I was so apalled at the thought that Maeve might be feeling like I did at that age that I buried my head in the sand. I tried desperately to tell myself that she was getting better. That she was going to be happy and okay. That she wasn't being crushed by her emotions like I had been and sometimes still was.
I told myself this even as she started exhibiting signs of anxiety when I got very sick with anxiety last year. As I struggled in my own fog, being neither the parent nor the wife I want to be, she started cleaning. Obsessively. She still does. When she is upset, she goes to her room, rips it apart, and then puts it back together. And still, even after I came out of my fog, I tried to tell myself it was just a phase. That she wasn't feeling that out of control.
This spring, Maeve developed sleeping problems. She was so exhausted that her coping skills sagged even lower than they'd been. I took her to a doctor, who examined her and looked at me and said "There is no physical reason for her not to be sleeping. This sounds like a mental health thing. What has happened this spring that might have upset her?"
Well. This spring. I went back to work. My Grandma died. Our oldest cat died. And when I looked back on it, the connections started falling into place. Her mood swings stepped up right about when I went back to work, followed shortly after by my Grandma's death. This event in particular crushed me, sending me spiralling back down into a depression that I have only recently climbed back out of. And then the cat. And then the insomnia.
And still, I stalled. If it was the deaths that were upsetting her, she'd get over it, right? She wasn't feeling THAT bad, right? Because I didn't think I could handle it if she felt THAT bad. Not my baby.
Yes, my baby. Things started getting really bad about two weeks ago. I'm talking hyper-ventilating, rocking back and forth while muttering piano fingering positions to herself, and, finally, an agonised confession that she felt like she was going crazy and didn't know what to do and was SO SCARED. And finally, my head somehow dislodged itself from my own ass.
And so I, ashamed that it had taken me so long, called Mental Health Intake services first thing the next morning. I poured out my heart to the wonderful intake counselor, and she listened and told me it was going to be good. She said she was going to immediately send out the intake forms we'd need to fill out to get Maeve into the system and matched up with a counselor, and offered to sign Chris and I up for a couple of classes on how to parent children with anxiety disorders to get us through until the match happened. I jumped at this offer. So did Chris. Within twenty minutes of calling him and telling him about the class, he had asked for and gotten those afternoons off of work. We are both so relieved that we will finally get some ideas on how to help Maeve cope.
Still a stigma
- Michael Kirby: Invest in children, and save the country money - thestar.com
Untreated mental illness in children and youth can lead to much greater problems in adulthood.
Former Canadian Senator, the Honourable Michael Kirby, is one of the author's of Canada's first ever report on mental health, Out of the Shadows at Last. Recently, he estimated that of the Canadian children and youth who struggle from mental illness and addiction issues, only 20 per cent will have their issue identified and treated. He suggests that economics plays a big role in this low number, and is advocating for changes in the Canadian Mental Health system that will make mental health services more accessible for all children and youth. I have no doubts that cost is an issue for many. I know that it is for us. I don't know that we'll be able to go the private counselling route, and will likely have to rely on the free services that are available to us.
But I am guessing that the stigma of mental illness is still a big factor in the under-representation of children in our mental health system. Stigma and fear. I know I was scared of Maeve being sick, so I pretended for as long as I could that she wasn't. Now that I've come to terms with it, I am gung ho. I'm excited that she is going to be able to get some help, and that she'll hopefully be able to start feeling more like herself soon. I'm so elated about it, I am telling everyone. And Maeve is kind of kicking me from behind and saying "Mom, shut up! I don't want people to know that I am mental!" I guess I need to remember that I am 38 and my friends are mature enough to deal with the fact that I have mental illness. Maeve and her friends are ten. It's not exactly something they talk about or understand.
As a family, we've talked about that a lot with her these past few days. I've tried to use myself as an example about how being ill does not mean being mental, but every ten year old thinks their parents are crazy. So instead, we've tapped into her love of science and explained to her how this is being sick, just like having a cold is being sick. It's nothing you asked for, you don't want it, but it is something that can be dealt with. We've stressed to her that she is not alone in this, that we will face it as a family, and that her Dad, sister and I have her back. That we'll ALWAYS have her back.
And so. Chris and I go to our first class later this week. We have received and are filling out the big stack of papers to get her rolling in the system. I have quit my job to stay home with the kids this summer so that I am here when she needs me to be.
I think it's working. Since I told her that she was going to be getting help, and that she was not alone in this, she has been calmer. She's been more herself. And as she and I were on a bike ride the other night, she asked "So, when do I get to talk to this counselor? I'm kind of tired of feeling like this." She's letting herself get excited about getting help, and I think that's wonderful.
The little girl who held the handful of pills thinks it's wonderful, too. I grew up in an era where no one talked about childhood depression. You were just thought of as being a difficult child, or a drama queen. My parents, for one, are so happy that this is not the case now. They see me in Maeve, and are glad she is going to get the help that was never available to me. So she doesn't have to feel like I did, and I won't have to feel like they did.
And until we can get her into see someone, Chris and I will learn from the classes. Maeve will still have rough days. And when she does, we'll declare that it's family Top Gear night, and we'll all sit down together, Maeve curled up on my lap, and giggle when Jeremy hurts himself or James gets lost. And I will try to set a good example of self-care for Maeve. And I will try to separate when she is having problems with her depression or anxiety from when she is, as ten year olds sometimes are, just being a bit of a jerk. I will try to not let her get away with things just because I am projecting how I felt at that age onto what she is going through now. I will try to make sure our other daughter doesn't get left in the dust by our dealing with Maeve's issues. I will try to make sure that Maeve's life centres on her being ten years old, not on her being a person with mental issues. I want that to be a normal, accepted and treated part of her life, one that she is comfortable talking about, but just a small one. I will do whatever I can to make sure that Maeve is feeling like Maeve again. Because Maeve is fantastic.