My Mother Wanted a Magic Pill for Her Depression. I Wanted to Be the Magic Daughter
The only person as interested in my mother’s mental health as I am is my nine-year-old son, Henry.* Before she came to shelter in place with us last month, my son routinely asked me, “Did you talk to your mother today? How did she sound?” Now that she is here, he studies her affect and rates her mood on a daily basis like I did when I was nine, always leaning toward optimism. “I think Grammy had a good day today!” he’ll say. “She asked to go outside.”
When I was in fourth grade, like he is now, she had one of her depressions. It lasted for a year, like all the others. The memories from her depressions scramble together, but that might have been the one when I found she had read my Hello Kitty diary, and when I confronted her, she told me she had done it because she wanted to know how I was doing, and she thought maybe I should talk to the school guidance counselor. I was feeling sad. And scared. I don’t know if I told her that. Wait, no. I’m sure I didn’t. My father had made it clear to me that while my mother was depressed, only one person’s feelings mattered: hers.
Last night, on our after-dinner bike ride, I was telling Henry that I talked with my mother after her weekly phone session with her social worker, who also works with me on how to help my mother. Her name is Alice, and she is the first nonprescribing mental health professional my mother has even remotely connected with since she had her first major depression, in 1976. My mother has never wanted to talk about her problem. She has only wanted one thing: the magic pill. Elovil. Xanax. Lithium. Remeron. Seroquel. Trazadone. Methylphenidate. Zetia. Even Ketamine. She has tried them all.
She’s getting better. I’m making her better. By the sheer force of my love.
I listened to the call from across the hallway. I was in my bedroom, working from home, and my mother was in Henry’s room. I heard the familiar piano-key tinkle of her voice when she is happy, playing like a tape-recorded memory, rarely used now that her depression has returned. I also heard her giggle, and I heard her clearly holding up her end of the conversation. I thought: Progress. It’s working. She’s getting better, without the ECT treatments she usually needs and without the classroom volunteering she can’t do now that schools are closed and without my father, who died six months ago, and without an increase to her medication regimen, which already includes upwards of 10 different pills. She’s getting better. I’m making her better. By the sheer force of my love.
After her call with Alice, my mom came into my room smiling, but then the smile drained from her face, starting with her eyes. I had to fight the word taking shape in my own brain: failure.
I asked how the call went. “It went well,” she said. Tentatively. “But I didn’t tell her everything,” she said. Ominously. I asked what might constitute “everything,” even though I was pretty sure I already knew. My mother said she did tell Alice she has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, but she didn’t tell her that she feels like she is just going through the motions, that she isn’t entirely connected to her life. I asked what she thought Alice might say if my mother did tell her all of that, and my mother guessed—wisely—that Alice might say this is how people with depression feel, and that while it isn’t comfortable, it’s normal.
But my mother has never wanted to identify as a depressed person. And that resistance has amounted to a lifetime of suffering—and not just for her.
Depression was her problem. Wanting to save her was my problem.
After I told this to Henry, he said, “The first step to regenerating is admitting your problem.” I stopped my bike in the middle of the street to look at him. It was getting dark. I could see the blue glow of TV screens through our neighbors’ windows. Had he heard that somewhere? In a movie? He shrugged. Just a nine-year-old speaking the essential truth of self-actualization. “I know people say that sometimes.” He had gotten the line wrong, of course—I think he swapped “recovery” for “regenerating”—but in doing so, he got it perfectly right.
Regeneration suggests renewal. It suggests revival. It suggests restoration after illness. It suggests regrowth. It suggests the creation of something new after the old thing has been lost.
When my mother is depressed, she loses herself. When she was depressed when I was a child, I lost her. Her voice changed to minor notes. Her face turned into a negative of itself. Colorless. She was there but she was gone. All I wanted, through all of her depressions, was to be the one to make her better. My mother wanted the magic pill. I wanted to be the magic daughter.
There is no magic to curing depression. And there are no saviors. There is just the day-in, day-out labor, both of the sick person and the people who care for them. There is just showing up. Day after day, night after night. For each other, and for our appointments with people who want to help us get better.
Depression was her problem. Wanting to save her was my problem. Maybe we could take the first step together.
My mother didn’t tell Alice everything this week. But she agreed to another phone appointment next week. She told me about it, and we put it in our shared calendar. And that’s something. Maybe next week she’ll say more.
Until then, there are the walks my mother and I take to the mailbox down the street when the sun is shining. There are the weekly hair washes in our kitchen sink. The blowouts I give her with the circular brush I buy at CVS, wearing my face mask, standing on the line of duct tape six feet from the person in front of me, sliding my payment through an open square in the plexiglass like I’m buying a pack of gum from a bodega in a tough neighborhood. There are the puzzles we do together in the sunroom, taking turns, edges then the middle, until each picture is complete. There are the video visits with the grade school class for whom she usually volunteers, the way she tells them about the baby squirrels we spotted in the tree in my yard, the way they say, “I miss you, Mrs. L.” There is her hand on my arm when we watch a Hallmark movie on demand, tapping out our secret code—five taps from her, two taps back from me. It means "I love you."
There were years I wasn’t there for my mother. When I called once a week, when I saw her three times a year. When the problem of her depression was too much for me to bear. When I had to choose either her or me, and I chose me. But now, in the space created by this pandemic, in the quiet of it, in the way even the minutes seem to be standing six feet apart, I am finding there is room enough for both of us.
*All names have been changed to protect privacy.
Source: Read Full Article