A Gift Better Not Given

Most days, I try not to think about how my kids were formed (note: I didn’t say “how they were made;” that was quite pleasant), just like I try not to think about how my husband and I met. The odds are just too astronomical that things worked out the way they should, and on less-good days, it’s hard to believe that the universe has even one good thing in store for me after pulling off those hat tricks.

But every once in a while, especially when I see something of myself or Cam reflected back from them in flawless mirror image, my mind flits across whimsical images. Sometimes, it’s the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty, hovering over their cradles and bestowing gifts. And sometimes, more magical in its own way for being true, I imagine those tiny coded zippers–unfurling, melding pieces of each of us into someone new and unique but so familiar, then coiling again, before doing a little do-si-do and starting the whole thing over again, in the blink of an eye. Amazing, but frankly, it hurts my head a little to contemplate it all.

Of the two boys, Griffin definitely looks more like me, or more correctly, my little brother–he certainly got his uncles’ engineering skills and sheer cussedness from both sides of the family. Connor’s a bit more of a mystery–his looks are changing so much every year–but there’s definitely something of his Auntie Fi in his smile and stubborn little chin. Not to mention his big, enormous head, an inheritance from his father which I had not truly contemplated until hour three of pushing at Connor’s birth.

Personality traits are much easier to spot and attribute. Cam and I are a lot alike, and were as children, and we’d like to think we’ve had a big influence on them as they’ve grown too, so it’s no surprise that both boys are voracious readers–Connor loves adventure stories, comics, and technical manuals; Griffin is my non-fiction kid, and I think we’ve read every book about animals and weather that our local library has. They’re also imaginative storytellers, and immerse themselves in roleplay that folds together Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Doctor Who, James Bond, the Marvel and DC universes, and a host of other settings in what we affectionately call “the Connorverse.” We’re fortunate that Griffin inherited my appreciation for villains; he’s not stuck as the droid, like I always made my sister, to her everlasting bitterness. And of course, there are the senses of humor, as abundantly demonstrated in the last post; like their parents, they riff from the absurd to word play to cultural references and back to the zany again.

Other gifts are more obviously from one or the other of us. To our great relief, both boys inherited my iron stomach for travel–no Dramamine for us, we’ll be here in the back seat, reading quietly through long car trips. Their talent and enjoyment for video games, though, that’s all their dad (and uncles). Connor inherited his father’s ability to produce vast quantities of heat from an internal nuclear reactor. Griffin, much to my chagrin, seems to have inherited my anti-authoritarian streak.

But then there are the gifts that aren’t really gifts, the things that show up that fill you up with regret when they surface in your child. Cam felt horrible the day we learned that Connor needed glasses, much worse than Connor did, in fact. And the first time Connor had a stretch of insomnia, I actually apologized to him for setting that little timebomb in his DNA. The Asperger’s, too, was an unwelcome complication from me and my family, though the relief at understanding what was going on with Connor offset any grief at the diagnosis. Griffin, too, has some sensory issues in common with Connor and me, but so far, no sign of being too far off the neurotypical end of the spectrum.

This has been a weird month for our family. While we’re overjoyed at the release of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and the attendant acclaim and delight, even good stress can be very stressful. Then I had my sudden pancreatic mutiny that landed me unexpectedly in the hospital for almost a week, and recovering from surgery for another week after that. Whatever the combination of factors, Connor hasn’t reacted well, and the deepest stretch of depression in almost two years has laid him low. He’s so fragile and off-balance: little things he could normally roll with knock him down into the trenches, and those troughs are so much deeper and hard to escape than even the usual lows that are common among Aspies. We’ve had several violent (toward himself and objects, not anyone else) meltdowns at school, as well as a hair trigger temper toward his brother and more insomnia. Yesterday’s major event, to my furious frustration, was brought on by a teacher who didn’t follow Connor’s IEP, which lets him go to a safe place when he’s overwhelmed at school, and told him that he needed to “stop being a baby” and stay, or he would “lose privileges like free time.” He’s been to the ER twice in two weeks for evaluation.

Guilt is a normal state of existence for mothers everywhere, but seeing the depression that’s derailed whole seasons of my life wrap its sticky, persistent black tendrils around my beautiful boy–it weighs like a stone on my heart. And it’s probably no consolation to him, when he says there isn’t anything good in the world for him, or anything good he can give back to the world, that I can look him straight in the eye and say, “I know exactly how you feel right now.” Sometimes, I do things that fly in the face of my own experience–I don’t particularly like or find comfort in being touched when I’m that depressed, but I hold him so tightly as he weathers hurricanes of emotion too big for his little body, and I hope it brings him calm sooner than he would find alone.

Knowing how much he’s like me in other ways is no consolation. He has my resourcefulness. He has my tendency to predict future events based on scenarios played out, like chess games, entirely in his mind. And he has my impulsiveness. Each, on their own, is harmless–even an asset in many situations. But put them together, and I’m left with the certainty that, if he decided now was the time to hurt himself, the best I could hope would be to find him in time.

The options for treating juvenile depression aren’t great, or many. We’ll step up the frequency of his visits to the therapist. We’ll work with him for plans to stay safe in every imaginable contingency; he does well with things scripted out in advance. We’ll spend a lot of time just snuggling on the couch, reading and watching TV together. We’ll work a little harder to keep him in touch with friends and family who love him so much. We’ll watch some “It Gets Better” videos. We’ll build little things for him to look forward to on the calendar for the next few months, and I’ll break myself if I have to to make sure they happen, no matter how I’m feeling.

All these plans, though, are no match for one moment of desperate action. Needless to say, I’m not sleeping much or deeply these days. I’m terrified for my baby; I would be even without any personal experience with depression. But I do have experience. When he says it’s hopeless, he’s only saying aloud something I’ve thought a million times. When he says we’d all be better off if he killed himself, he’s giving voice to a feeling etched in a dark corner of my own heart.

This broken piece of my beautiful boy comes from me. It matches a broken piece inside of me. What remains to be seen is whether my broken piece will be any help filling in the jagged edges of his tattered little soul.

15 Comments

  • One of the hardest things of being a parent.

    Seeing your children suffer the same pains you suffered (and often still suffer). Your tale could be my own – as I watch my wonderful, geeky, brilliant son be shunned, suffer from migraines and depression, and just want a friend.

    And yet, I hold out hope. Unlike my own father, I recognize the demons that plague me and am able to talk to my kids about them. I’m able to help him understand, at least at a rational level, that you can survive, even overcome, these things.

    It’s not easy. Seeing him suffer can trigger depression in me. But I have hope – for him, for me, for you. If we are willing to share, our jagged pieces with grind themselves smooth on each other.

    • I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, so I’m so sorry to hear that you and your son are having a similar experience. I’ll make the same wish for you that I make for us: may many hands make light work of lifting the shadows.

  • Jess, though you might feel bad because that piece comes from you, I say with surety that there is no better person to be there for him. If you didn’t have the breadth of experience with this that you do, the situation would be far worse for him.

    You know, so you can identify.

    You know, so you won’t try to drug the problems away.

    You know, so that even when things seem dark, you know what it’s like there, and you know there’s a way out, and you can help him find that way like no other person could.

    You’re not at fault for his depression. I don’t think anyone was at fault for yours (unless there are things about it that I don’t know, which is entirely possible). What you are is the prefect person to help out someone else who is going through what you’ve already experienced. It sucks, and it’s unbelievably hard. But you? You’re perfect for the job.

    • Dammit, Tracy, I was trying not to cry today. 🙂 But thanks for the kind, kind words. I don’t mean to say I *cause* his depression–though that’s not an uncommon accusation in recent outbursts–but with the strong genetic component for it, it’s hard not to see the connection to my own struggles. I’m hoping the empathy and experience balance it out.

  • I’m so sorry to hear that. I’ve had bouts of that from time to time, though fortunately not many for some time, and the thought of our children inheriting it from me is terrifying. But I think the fact that you understand it–and him–so well can only serve you both in good stead. As Tracy said, you’re perfect for the job, both because you know what he’s going through, and because you love him so much.

  • As someone whose spouse struggles with depression (which we now know is Bipolar I – story for another time) I hurt for you guys in this. I echo Tracy’s comments here; you are uniquely equipped to help him learn to cope with this life-dominating thing we all call “depression.” Take solace in that. May this particular storm pass quickly. Thoughts and prayers to you and yours.

  • One of my great regrets is that my parents were/are unable to express so clearly their thoughts about my bouts of depression (youthful and otherwise) and the myriad accommodations/sacrifices they made for me, to the point that I often feel guilty for being such a burden on them (Which does nothing to help when the depression rears up).

    As someone who is somewhat like an older Connor (I won’t even begin to assume I know the specifics, but I’m very familiar with the landscape), I have to say that this is not your fault, not even for one fraction of a second. Nor is it his fault, and anyone, authority figure or not, who calls someone a ‘baby’ over this should be yanked from their job and chased out of town by a mob.

    When I was younger, and couldn’t easily articulate what I felt (which is rotten, considering my facility and love of words), all I wanted from my parents was hope and cheer. I lived for those times when I could do something that got approved; I counted the seconds (often literally if I was bored or annoyed) until I had something to look forward to. If I can offer you any advice (though I am not a parent myself), it’s that little things, little gestures, little moments can say what words cannot. (Also, and maybe this is just me, cookies helped.)

    I wish my parents were as open and willing and aware of my problems as you are of your childrens’.

    It does get better. The road to ‘better’ (and I mean improved, not cured, this is so not about cures and panaceas and zombification) is tough and frustrating but you’re SO better prepared than you realize. The skills you realize you have, and the ones you haven’t yet seen, are going to absolutely get you through this, and Connor will be all the better for them, and you.

    Love him. Help him. Make him laugh. Make yourself laugh. Just be you and show him that the eggshells don’t appear in the minefield when he gets down so-let’s-all-tread-carefully-as-not-to-upset-him.

    You’re brave. You’re awesome. (And so is he, in case he wasn’t sure.)

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. We’re incredibly fortunate in one regard: Connor’s amazingly articulate and self-aware, so although when we’re in the middle of a meltdown, communication’s not great, when we do a “disaster autopsy” afterward, he can really tell us what set him off, how he was feeling, and what helped or didn’t as we tried to make things better. It’s a hell of a learning curve for us, but at least he can give us clues about how to help the next time.

  • My wifey and I have a beautiful two-year old who I fear will inherit our depression as you have written about here.

    Every day I remember the coping techniques that I and my wifey learned and hope that we can teach those. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll hold onto those techniques.

    I think you can help Connor, I really really do.

    • And maybe it won’t be in the magic mix your child is made of. Just being ready for it if it does emerge, and lavishing the kid with all the love you clearly have, are as good a place to start as any.

  • Oh Jess,
    My heart is aching so much right now, I’m glad that I can type this message, because there is no way I could talk right now. Sounds like you are trying to stay away from medication. If so, I have a few suggestions for things that I do to improve my moods (even though I also medicate). I have a “daily 5” list that helps me as well as an index card of “go-to feel-me-betters.” Obviously, some of my things would not work for Connor, but you get the idea. Some I can’t stress enough how important they are. So here’s my example:
    Daily 5:
    1. Eat a healthy breakfast (junk food enables depression)
    2. Remember my meds (if he doesn’t take any, consider an omega-3 supplement)
    3. Get dressed and make myself look nice (this one he probably doesn’t care about).
    4. Exercise (BIG time important).
    5. Laugh and smile (I think you got this covered).

    Feel-me-betters:
    1. Take a walk outside (exercise and fresh air are an amazing combo.)
    2. Read a favorite book, if possible in a sunny spot, but sadly one has no control over the weather.
    3. Write in a journal
    4. Listen to good music and sing along. (:

    Best, warmest wishes to you and Connor. And don’t over-worry about staying away from medications. We went through all the considerations and finally chose to medicate Lauren (her anxiety med is the SSRI sertraline that has been approved for children). The final analysis that made me go with the med was that I wanted her to enjoy her life as best she could. We never know what tomorrow will bring, and we make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the moment. And we see such a dramatic difference in her quality of life with medication. Even with ADHD – we use the non-stimulant Strattera, but it does help, and there are many studies that kids suffer from low self-esteem, depression and substance-abuse more when they haven’t been treated. You know what’s best – whatever you choose to do, I just know that there is so much pressure out there to med or not to med. Everyone has an opinion, just take the information and leave any judgements people give with them.

    Love and Hugs,
    Andrea

    • Thank you so much, Andrea, for your insights. We’re piecing together a strategy, and everyone’s insights open more options for us to consider. We’re not completely anti-medication, but we’re going to give more frequent, intensive therapy a try first. The Omega-3 is a great idea, though, in the meantime–now to find a capsule that’s not bigger than the kid’s head! 🙂

      • We have been giving our littlest gummi Omega 3s. They are made by L’il Critters. Don’t know if they help, but he says they are delicious!

        • Brilliant! That’s a lot better than trying to teach a kid how to swallow those horse pills Omega-3s usually come in. Thanks for the clue. 🙂

  • Jess,

    I think you know I have experienced some of this with my kids since I have blogged about (or around) it a bit. It is so hard to be strong with illness biting at you and worry tearing your heart, when you know your job is to be the anchor. Those are the moments I have to call on something larger than myself and beg it for help. I have tried to let my reaction be to model and teach self-care and compassion. Sometimes, I have to learn it first. I guess it’s good for everyone. But I so feel your pain.

    I never could have imagined that twice since November two separate children of mine would have told me they didn’t want to live. And that one of them would be a six year-old. Life is crazy and strange.

    But we are stronger than we think.

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