'Put On A Happy Face': How I Manage Severe Depression As A Mom

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woman with hand over eyes

Parental depression is so much more than just feeling sad.

Depression is sadness, and it’s hopelessness, fear, a paralyzing sense that this is how you’re going to feel forever, that this misery is never going to go away, things won’t get better.

It makes just getting up to leave the couch or the bed seem impossible. It makes functioning in daily life the hardest thing in the world.

Then there’s the guilt: the guilt that comes from feeling like you’re failing everyone around you. Like you should be able to snap out of this and come back to life. Feeling like you’re letting everybody down.

I know because I’ve been there.

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I have battled depression for over 20 years now, starting when I was 10 years old. I’ve been medicated, I’ve done counseling, I’ve worked hard to try to get a grip on this powerful disease.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling miserable. I’ve also learned how to function day to day, at least most of the time. What was formerly an insurmountable illness has become a livable burden. 

I sometimes forget just how bad it used to be and how bad it can still get. A false sense of security takes over and I think that I’m set, that the horrible feelings won’t come back.

I let my guard down and forget to be vigilant. Then when I get blindsided by a perfect storm of triggers, it sends me into a spiral.

Early in my marriage, there was one Christmas that was horrible for me. My husband and I had been trying, unsuccessfully, for over a year to get pregnant. I got my period just before Christmas Day and it crushed me.

Combined with the usual holiday sadness, it was just too much. I broke down in a way I hadn’t in years. I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t cook dinner, and I couldn’t stop crying.

I wanted to escape from everything. I asked my husband to lock up our revolvers and keep the key with him.

For the first time in years, the darkness and scary thoughts were more than just fleeting, they were sticking around. And they terrified me. 

I was terrified because it had been over 10 years since I tried to kill myself by downing a bottle of pills. I was terrified that after three years of some of the roughest stuff I’d ever imagined going through, I felt completely empty and completely drained of resources.

I was terrified because I genuinely felt no capacity for hope and I could see no way to make things livable. 

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I was terrified because for the first time in my life I was in the middle of a serious bout of depression and I wasn’t alone; I had a family to think about. I had a husband and a stepson that needed me to function and not tear myself to pieces.

I was scared in a way I had never been when I was young and single. I was responsible for other people. I had to force myself to get up and move. I was not allowed to give up.

I did get up and move and I did my absolute best to not let my stepson know just how dark a place I was in. I think I succeeded. He never said anything to let on that he noticed my puffy face or reddened eyes.

I put on my happy face and kept going whenever he was near. We opened presents and watched movies and did all of the Christmas-y things families do and I kept the awful feelings quiet. 

In a way, it was a blessing to have something force me to maintain a feeling of normalcy.

While I can be open and honest about my mental state with my husband, I have to guard my 8-year-old stepson from just how bad it gets.

He still believes in Santa Claus; this isn’t the sort of thing he should be burdened with. So when he’s near, I’m normal. I’m happy, I’m productive, and I’m up and moving around and cooking dinner. His presence forces me to pretend to be okay and sometimes with pretending I actually begin to feel okay, sort of.

I don’t always feel depressed these days and most of the time I’m a pretty happy person.

Not every day is a struggle but those days that are can almost be too much to bear. It helps to have walking, talking, breathing reminders in front of me, pushing me to remember why giving up isn’t an option anymore.

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Amber Copeland is a self-employed freelance writer. Her work has been featured on HelloGiggles and as a ghostwriter covering diverse topics.