Trigger warning: depression, suicide attempts
I’m 8 years old, and I’m sitting in my living room crying, clutching a Barbie doll whose hair I cut crooked. My cousin stops home to change her clothes, and shows a brief moment of kindness. She straightens my Barbie’s hair and says, “See, its fixed now.” I stop crying, but she doesn’t understand. It’s not fixed. Not even close.
My problem is not that I messed up my new Barbie’s hair with a pair of old rusty scissors I found in the laundry closet in my back yard. My problem is that I am just 8, and I am sitting alone in my living room on Christmas because my mother can’t seem to stay out of bed. I cry because I’m sick and tired of being so lonely, and I still have such a long way to go.
By the time I’m 12 years old, my mother’s sleeping all day starts being interrupted by periods of screaming. She screams at everything that I do not manage well, during the time she is sleeping the day away. The wrappers I leave from all the processed foods I live off of laying around in a mess, that I haven’t taken a shower, that my homework isn’t completed. She becomes angry and resentful that she has to be awake to help me manage my days.
By the time I’m 13, the screaming is beginning to escalate. I’m becoming fed up, and I don’t know how much more I can take. It’s late in the evening and I’m huddled in a corner as she screams at the top of her lungs. I am at the end of my rope, hanging by a thread. I say, “Don’t make me hit you.” She tells me to leave and never come back. She tells me I am no longer welcome in the home that my grandmother purchased for my mother so she could take care of me.
Without a second thought, I walk out the door, the remnants of the world I knew up until that point packed into a trash bag. I have no plan and I’m dangerously lonely. This is the last time I see the woman who birthed me as “my mom.” This is the last time we ever share the same roof, same home. This is the day that my hopes of her “feeling better” and “getting happy” finally wash away, never to return.
When I’m pregnant I have flashbacks. I remember the isolation I felt in the care of my mother and the manic episodes that could make an okay day go to wishing I was dead before I was even a teenager. I remember the pain of enduring her first suicide attempt at the age of three. I remember the multiple boyfriends who took priority over me but were welcomed by me anyways because it was the only time I ever saw her happy. I promise myself I won’t be anything like my mother. I rub my belly and promise my daughter I’ll do better. I tell her I’m determined not to make the same mistakes. I promise I’ll always be there. She will always be my first priority.
The day she is born, the nurses hand her to me, and I think she’s beautiful. But after 25 hours of labor, I just want a glass of water and something to eat. I am feverish and exhausted. I just want to put her down, but she’s crying, and I feel guilty. Family surrounds me and talks about “how in love” they are, how perfect she is. I feel guilty, because I am waiting for these feelings to come, but they don’t. I feel disconnected and confused. I don’t understand why I’m not feeling the instant intense connection that every mother claims to feel.
As my daughter grows, from weeks to months old, I slowly start to fall in love with her. I go from being filled with anxiety about the fear that I’m messing everything up to enjoying snuggling in my queen sized bed with her (although I knew most doctors would patronize me for that).
When my daughter is just over a year old, I am diagnosed with postpartum depression. I fight hard to only spend the days that she is not with me in bed. I force myself to plaster on a smile, and I wait until she’s asleep to cry. But I’m just going through the motions. I’m hardly able to retain what it feels like to hold a baby or rock them to sleep. I am so numb that I don’t find any joy in motherhood. I am overwhelmed with guilt that I didn’t fall in love with my baby the moment she was born. I feel devastated that when I rock her, all I can do is think about going back to sleep. I hate myself, because when she takes her first steps, I only feel a brief moment of happiness that quickly fades away into the black cloud that has taken over the inside of my head.
When my daughter is three, I hear the words that have become my biggest fear since living with my mother. I have bipolar. I tell myself this doesn’t define me. Having the same condition as my mother doesn’t mean I’ll be anything like her. I continue to do all the things my mother didn’t do; I go to work, I take care of my daughter, I make sure she has all she needs and wants, and I make a point to spend quality time with her any time I have a day off. I tell myself, even if I have bipolar, it’s okay. Even still, I’m nothing like my mother.
When my daughter is 5, she is the funniest, most compassionate, vibrant person I know. She already has a fear of the world that I don’t think a 5-year-old should have. She is afraid of unlocked doors and people trying to hurt us in the middle of the night. She spends every night sleeping right next to me, her hands wrapped in my hair and her face pressed against my shoulder. She says, “If I sleep in my bed, and someone breaks in, you can’t protect me.” So, she sleeps in my queen-sized bed. Pressed up against me, surrounded by the pack of dogs we’ve taken in.
She spends her days singing and laughing. She tells me all the words she’s learned to spell and read. She tells me silly jokes that often don’t make sense, and usually they make me laugh. We are generally and truly happy. I am no longer going through the motions, but I have this little girl who is bright and funny and she has all the potential in the world. She has become my best friend, and I am so in love with her. I can’t even imagine a time in my life that she didn’t exist. I am so lucky.
Even though I know every word of this is true, I still sometimes have dark days. Today, instead of laughing at her jokes, I scream “I just need a fucking minute,” and she falters and her smile breaks and she begins to cry, but I don’t have the capacity to care about her crying right now. My head is too heavy and dark, and my heart is in my stomach, pounding, flooding me with anxiety. I can barely focus on anything other than the crack that goes up the wall, adjacent to my bed. My good friend Anxiety, however, does have the capacity to retain guilt I feel, because I know I should care that I screamed. I know I should care that my daughter is crying. I know I should want to scoop her up and tell her “Mommy is sorry. It’s okay baby, tell me your joke.” I am chipping away at the spirit of the most vibrant little girl I know, and I just want to go to sleep. This makes me feel terrible.
I tell her my brain feels sick, because that’s the best way I know how to explain it to a 5-year-old. It’s the best way I can describe it at all, for that matter. I tell her I love her, and she’s my favorite person on this planet, and I really mean that. We spend the day lying in bed watching tv and eating junk food. We eat ice cream straight from the tub and in bed. We have never done either of those things, and she thinks it’s the coolest thing that has happened since she got her very own TV in the room she refuses to sleep in. She laughs at her show, and I lay there trying to pretend I’m following along, but really I just focus on breathing. That’s all I can manage today. Just breathing.
I lay here now, with the snores of my favorite girl lulling me to sleep, wishing I felt better. Wishing I did more, for her and for me. I wish I was able to spend our free Sunday going to the park, or having a picnic, or doing our laundry or washing our dishes. And although I have all these wishes for my daughter, taking precedence is the wish that it was acceptable to call in “sad” to work, because I can’t help but dread the day ahead.
But, most of all, I am praying that I really am nothing like my mother.