My absolute earliest memory is of my mom. I had recently started preschool and was getting ready to celebrate my birthday. I must’ve been turning either 3 or 4 — the details are understandably hazy — and mom asked me what kind of birthday cake I wanted to bring to school. I told her I wanted the kind with a Barbie doll inside.
The memory ends there, but old family pictures tell the rest of the story. My mom spent the next few days learning everything she could about cake decorating, and she made me the most beautiful, detailed Barbie cake that looked like it came straight out of a magazine. I don’t remember the cake itself, but if my beaming smile in the pictures are any indication, I absolutely loved it.
That’s my mom. She loves to learn and create, especially when she can serve someone she loves at the same time.
But there was another version of my mom growing up. I also remember a mother who was severely depressed during my childhood, a mother who couldn’t find the energy or motivation to do the things she loved. When she had a depressive episode, she would suddenly become a person I only recognized from previous episodes; a person devoid of the wonderful characteristics that make her who she is.
I was raised by both these mothers: my vibrant, passionate mother, and my depressed, indifferent mother.
On one hand, my mother was fiercely involved in my childhood. I don’t know anyone who has a passion for life and creation like she does. She finds joy in learning, creating, and serving, and shares that joy with everyone around her, including her children.
My mom puts her whole soul into everything she does and infuses everything she creates with her passion for life. For as long as I can remember, she’s been acquiring new skills. Gardening, watercoloring, writing, baking, Photoshop — if there’s something new to learn, she learns it, excels at it, and shares it with others.
During bouts of depression, however, my passionate, enthusiastic mother became indifferent and aggressive. Instead of spending days creating and serving, she’d lay in bed for hours watching TV, only interacting with her family to ask us to bring her food or something else she needed. At the time, I didn’t know this was depression — I just knew my mom was in bed all day, she wasn’t happy, and I didn’t know how to help her.
This version of my mother wasn’t involved in my school life. The mother who was once heavily involved in PTA and regularly came to help with school activities and events suddenly lost interest in what was going on at school. She stopped helping me with my homework and reading with me, and I started doing everything alone.
When mom picked herself up out of depressive episodes, she loved to serve others. One year, she had the idea to make our Christmas much smaller so we could anonymously donate gifts to a family in our neighborhood who was struggling financially. She talked to each of her children to ask if we’d be OK with giving up some of our presents. We agreed, and it was one of the most special Christmas celebrations I can remember. I was giddy as we dropped black trash bags full of wrapped, personalized gifts at their door, knocked, and ran.
Mom is always the first to sign up to bring a meal to the new mother who recently gave birth, sew blankets for the homeless during the colder winter months, or spend all day talking with the loneliest people in the retirement home. This version of my mother — the person I believe my mom truly is — is devoted to service and constantly looking outside herself to find someone to bless.
But when mom was depressed, she couldn’t serve others — especially because our own family was falling apart. My mother was the glue that held us together, and when she was depressed, that glue dissolved until our family life was chaos. My siblings and I started getting into trouble at school. My brothers got into violent fights with each other that often led to the police knocking at our door to intervene.
The condition of our house reflected my mother’s mental state, too. Things would get messy — out-of-control messy, to the point that once, after the police broke up a fight in my home, child services threatened to take us away from my parents because the house was such a disaster. I don’t remember much from that time, but I will never forget the vulnerability I saw in my mother when she sobbed that day. I wanted more than anything to take away her pain and sadness, but I couldn’t.
To this day, my mother regularly experiences depressive episodes. Now, as an adult who understands mental illness much better, I still find myself much in the same situation I found myself in as a naive child — I want more than anything to help my mom, to lift her out of the darkness, but nothing I do offers her permanent relief.
My mom needs more than I can give her, and frankly, more than the current mental health care system can give her. I want more than anything for her to live a life unencumbered by depression. Why? Because depression has taken so much from her and from our family. Because I’ve seen who she can be without the burden of mental illness, and it’s the most beautiful person I know.
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