By Gillian Marchenko
A few years ago, I gave up on life. It’s hard to admit as a mom and as a Christian, but it is true. At the end of 2011 and into 2012, I stopped functioning. I found myself in bed with a debilitating depression, wrecked with pain and constantly battling with suicidal ideations that lasted for months. Unless there was something I absolutely had to do, I was locked away in my room, sleeping or watching television while my husband and our four young daughters had no choice but to try to fend for themselves.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year, about 26 percent of adults in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental illness. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that 90 percent of people who die by suicide have symptoms of mental illness. It is present in every community, every church, and I would venture to say at this point in life, in every family.
And yet the stigma remains. People don’t know what to do. Churches don’t know how to help. Individuals often suffer alone, and families fall apart.
My History of Mental Illness
I’m a former missionary, a current minister’s wife, and a leader in ministry. My mental health history goes like this: I was a melancholy child who thought it was normal to lie in bed for hours; I became a frightened new mother later diagnosed with postpartum depression; I was a struggling missionary and minister’s wife who couldn’t understand why prayer and Scripture did not calm the storms within; I became a mother of a child with Down syndrome; for a time I gave in to self-medication with cheap Chardonnay; and I was a ministry leader who suffered a breakdown resulting in a final diagnosis of major depressive disorder.
Depression is a family illness. It has a ripple effect that wets the toes of everyone in one’s life. Depression has changed the trajectory of my family’s lives. There are too many days to count when I wasn’t making lunches, picking kids up from school, participating in family prayers, washing clothes, or kissing foreheads goodnight at bedtime. My kids’ mother was no longer home, although I spent the majority of those months in our house.
Although I am doing much better these days, all four of my daughters still feel the weight of my depression. One is still often angry that she has a mom who fights depression. Another doesn’t talk about it much but spends a lot more time alone in her room. Our younger daughters show their emotions too. One wants to always be in my face, like if we aren’t touching, I’ll disappear. The other tends to ignore me after a bout of depression. I have to work to get back into her good graces.
My relationship with my husband has suffered as well. For a long time we could have been defined strictly as caregiver and caregivee.
Depression is what I call an active illness. A person suffering needs to participate in her own recovery. As I am able, for the sake of my sweet family, my goal has been health. I call it “working the program.” There are several things I do to help me stay in the safe zone and away from the waves of depression that still threaten (and sometimes succeed) to knock me down. I pray. I read Scripture. I see a cognitive behavioral therapist. I take anti-depressants. I am trying to open up more to friends and family. I get outside and take the dog for walks. And my husband and I invite our children into my battle with depression. It’s their battle too, so we prefer that they are informed and that we have a family plan regarding my illness.
Healing as a Family
Here are some things our family has set into place in order for all of us to heal in regard to my depression:
1. Our children are told when I am struggling.
Trust me, they can tell when I am having a bad day. But still, we say it out loud (and if I can’t verbalize it, my husband does it for me). I am a firm believer in words. If the spirit in our home is downtrodden and we don’t talk about it, then it becomes a bigger deal and scarier to our children. If we talk about it, depression no longer is the elephant in the room. By naming it and talking about it (according to the girls’ ages and level of understanding), it isn’t me against my family, but us together moving toward health. It also teaches my kids to talk about their struggles as well.
2. They are protected from the details of depression though.
We don’t tell the children everything. Our job as parents is to protect them. There’s no need to go into the depth of my despair. My children are not my confidants or my counselors. I’m the adult. I’m the mom. They should get to be the kids.
3. When I’m not actively struggling with depression, my children can share their feelings about it with me.
One of my daughters is a verbal processor. She needs to talk about things to get them out of her system. So our rule is that she can say anything she wants to me about my depression when I am well enough to hear it. “I hate that you have depression! You don’t do enough as a mom! Why can’t you just get over it?” I let her tell me what she is thinking, and pray that I have the wherewithal to stand it and also to grow from it. I commiserate with her. “I’m sorry that my illness is so hard for you. It isn’t fair. I am trying to get better.” I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but I know she feels a lot better being heard. Her mom cares. That’s huge to her.
4. Life goes on when Mom is struggling.
Yes, everyone has to pitch in more when I am not doing well. But generally we want our kids to know that life goes on. My husband and I try to get them to all their school and social obligations. There’s still laughter in the house and prayer. My husband makes a point to spend more time with them if I’m out of commission. I am trying to connect more with all of them as I am able. The kids are learning (and relearning and relearning) that life isn’t perfect. People get sick. People struggle. But life continues.
5. And God is still good.
We believe in Jesus. We believe in John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I want my kids to see that in the midst of trials, God is still good, and he is still in control. It is work, I’m not going to lie, but I try to thank God for what he is teaching me through my depression—in the presence of my children. I want them to see that I trust God and that they can trust him too.
6. Having a plan regarding my kids helps me.
Guilt and catastrophic thinking are two major components of my depression. They hate me. I’m the worst mom in the world are thoughts I combat often. Knowing that we have a structure in line for our kids helps. It helps me to feel like a better mom because I am doing what I can to be a better mom.
I share my struggles with my family and my friends because this is my life, and through it I want to glorify God. Sometimes I think glorifying God simply looks like pure, unabashed honesty because maybe that will help others in their fight and let them know that God is there. I’m a Christian, and I struggle with depression; yes, it affects our whole family, but I’ll do my best to honor him in the midst of it and to point my children to Jesus because of it.
Gillian Marchenko is an author and speaker who lives with her husband and four daughters in a suburb of St. Louis. Her memoir about depression will publish in spring 2016 (GillianMarchenko.com).