What Parenting Taught Me About Mental Health
I had my first child in 1987, my second in 1988, and my third in 1990. My husband and I called it the “Go nuts now, go broke later” plan. In the early 90’s, the Internet started becoming available to mere mortals at home, and not just to scientists and engineers on the job. We got a computer with a modem, and I set about exploring the world of Delphi forums and Usenet News, and gained a whole bunch of smart, interesting pen pals who were mostly software engineers and scientists and also raising kids. I was drawn to the parenting forums, and also to an email list about dealing with intellectually gifted kids. Hubby and I were both smart kids raised by smart parents, and it was clear that our kids were following suit.
It had never occurred to me that having bright kids might be a problematic state of affairs. We were raised post-Sputnik, when there was a push in U.S. schools to make the most of the best students. We were taught by brilliant women for whom the only other professional opportunity was nursing. In the interim, things had changed. The teaching corps was only attracting some of the best and the brightest – the rest were taking advantage of new opportunities in previously foreclosed arenas like science and business. Schools had backed away from “tracking” children by ability, citing the very real problems which ensue when children are mis-identified and placed in slow-moving groups that never do catch up to where the average-ability kids are. The combination of curricula which moved too slowly for the brightest kids and a teaching corps which was extremely unclear about how these kids’ needs differed from those of others was creating problems for kids (and sometimes turning them into “the problem kids”) in classrooms. The “gifted lists” on the Internet were a place where parents could compare notes on strategies, schools, and testing approaches.
One of the things that surprised me on these lists is how many of the women attributed their children’s intelligence to the genetic endowment from the childrens’ father. I had had the great good fortune to be raised by parents who were very clear about their own intelligence and celebrated the intelligence of their daughters. I knew damned well how smart I was – I’d done well in challenging academic situations from the very beginning. But not everyone had had my opportunities or supportive parents, and for many of them, it was the way their children’s experiences were beginning to remind them of their own that shed light on how intellectual ability had influenced their own lives.
Little did I know what my kids’ experiences were about to teach me about myself!
My parents (and, to be fair, the society in which they were moving!) were not as conversant on the subject of mental health as they were about the ins-and-outs of being smart. The message I got, growing up, is that we come from “good stock” and are strong, and equipped to muddle through things. That psychotropic drugs had serious and scary effects (Mom had experimented briefly during the period that doctors were handing Valium out to stressed-out housewives in the 60’s, and was very shaken by that experience.) My folks held that many people’s lives had been seriously derailed by bad experiences with psychotherapy. That message was reinforced when a college friend’s mother reported that her therapist recommended that she cease interacting with her son, a choice which hurt him deeply and made no sense to me.
So when I found, in 1990, as a woman with a pre-schooler and a toddler, at a time when all my husband and I had been working toward was coming together – he was finally in practice, we’d bought a beautiful home, and were expecting a much-desired third child, that I felt miserable and could barely get out of bed in the morning, I did not know what was happening. I had heard of post-partum depression, but I was pregnant, so it wasn’t that. I just felt shame, that I was so ungrateful for all that was happening that I could feel miserable. Fortunately, depression was replaced by mere exhaustion after the baby was born, and I started to feel better.
As I raised my children, the gifted lists, and the burgeoning literature around giftedness, was a huge help. I learned about Asperger’s Syndrome, and how some kids need extra coaching around social situations. I had one of those. And then realized, “Oh! I am one of those!” I learned about perfectionism, and how an insufficiently challenging school situation can aggravate it. This isn’t my thing, I had plenty of non-catastrophic failure in challenging situations growing up, and am ok with trying stuff and having it not go well, but I married one of those, and had 3 who showed it in different ways. (I had one who strived for the “perfect” A — the 93% which got you the grade but demonstrated that you hadn’t overstudied!) Perhaps it was the relative anonymity of conversation on the Internet (most of us lived geographically remote from one another and were unlikely to ever meet) which led some people to report depression and anxiety in their kids – sometimes aggravated by hostile school situations, sometimes with no obvious cause. I felt fortunate that generally, my kids were doing ok, and surprised that mental health issues could strike so young.
Depression (anxiety?) returned to me in my mid thirties – in my case, expressed as extreme irritation with just about everything my husband and kids were doing. I could not be the mom I wanted to be, because every single thing was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So I agreed to try an SSRI. It made a huge difference, giving me a lot more rope before I found myself at the end, and hence space/time/energy to more carefully consider how I wanted to respond to my husband and my children.
But it wasn’t until my daughter sought help for the condition that was compromising her college life that I learned about anxiety, that thing that many regard as a flip side of depression, and is often co-morbid with it. A ferocious scholar herself, she set about understanding what was going on with her, and as we talked about it, I began to recognize how anxiety has LONG been a part of my life, and that of my husband. Sadly, I also learned how she’d suffered as a child, but did not have the understanding that not everyone felt this way, nor the words to express what was going on with her. It felt awful to understand that I’d missed something big, going on right under my roof. Even worse was learning that our beautiful, talented, kind, engaging, deeply-loved daughter was subject regularly to feelings of self-loathing.
It was my daughter who staged a bit of an intervention when, in a year which had brought a lot of change and loss in my life, she found me crying over the death of a basil plant. She encouraged me to seek therapy, because she had found it, in concert with medication, so very helpful. I found a wonderful woman whose nonchalance in labeling my behaviors as anxiety-driven encouraged me to consider that maybe this was an issue in my life!
I have learned a lot in therapy, mostly about questioning the wisdom of my internal monologue. My issues are not as severe as my daughter’s, and I am able to manage them these days primarily with good sleep hygiene and regular exercise. I am better able to recognize when depression is trying to set in — and it does pick the darndest times! It tends not to be when things are tough — I’m good when I’ve got Important Things To Do. I am better these days at arguing with the voices that tell me it is shameful to be miserable when so many people have it worse. I recognize that if I have more than a few days when minor things are reducing me to tears, or every day tasks feel utterly overwhelming, that I have a condition returning which requires treatment if it is not get worse. Happily, a few sessions with my therapist are often all it takes to set me right again. She has convinced me that it’s better to nip this thing in the bud early, before I re-myelinate all those toxic neuronal connections and buy myself a long, miserable slog.
My daughter is a family medicine resident these days, and a mental health activist. I have been alternately worried about the potential professional ramifications of and impressed by her openness around her own struggles. She is engaged in a passionate effort to de-stigmatize mental health issues and to encourage the conversation that MUST happen if people are to feel free to seek treatment.
I am attempting to follow her lead. It’s a little scary to be “out” but this stuff is very common AND more importantly, highly treatable these days. We need to tell our stories, so people can see that people they know deal with mental health issues. We just never know who we might be helping.
This blog post is part of Hoagie’s Gifted Education Blog Hop on Thoughts from the Mental Trenches, Thoughts from the Depths. To see more blogs, click on this link.