Wednesday 19 September 2018

"I see in my son shadows of my own anxiety. I want to protect him from it, but that would be to do him a disservice. Instead, he needs to learn how to cope with it."

Fiona Kennedy on parenting through depression

Fiona Kennedy, left, and above with husband Ronan and their children Donnchadh (6) and Muireann (3). Photo: Andrew Downes.
Fiona Kennedy, left, and above with husband Ronan and their children Donnchadh (6) and Muireann (3). Photo: Andrew Downes.
Fiona Kennedy. Photo: Andrew Downes.
Fiona and Ronan. Photo: Andrew Downes.
Fiona and Ronan with Donnchadh (6) and Muireann (3). Photo: Andrew Downes.

Fiona Kennedy

My first thought after my son was born was 'I'm supposed to kiss him now. But he's covered in goo'. I was terrified. He was my first and I hadn't a clue what to expect.

We live in Galway, and both mine and my husband's family are in Kildare.

Until Donnchadh arrived, we had no idea what this lack of support would mean for us. My folks came to stay for a few days after I came home from hospital, and left when he was about five days old.

I remember standing in the kitchen the day they were to leave, everyone else was in the dining room finishing breakfast, and I felt like my whole world was about to fall apart. I was exhausted. I was sore from breastfeeding, and I had this tiny little person who I felt was completely reliant on me alone. I broke down crying.

That was the start of a long downward spiral. I don't remember much about the first few months. There was a lot of crying, from Donnchadh, who developed bad reflux, and from me. I wasn't coping. We put it down to tiredness. We fought. A lot. Donnchadh couldn't sleep day or night with the reflux, and spent the majority of his time strapped to me in a sling. I was still breastfeeding, and up several times a night feeding him. I was exhausted.

One particular incident really stands out in my mind – it was some time in the first couple of months. Donnchadh used to regularly cry, inconsolably, for hours in the evening. I'd had enough, and retreated to bed, with the covers literally over my head. My husband came up, put Donnchadh beside me, said 'he's your son, look after him' and walked away.

I remember staring at this screaming little person, and feeling like I had no way out. There was nothing I could do to make it better for any of us. I had no control. Things continued like this for months. I was constantly overwhelmed by anxiety. I was afraid to let Donnchadh out of my sight, and was convinced I was the only one who could properly look after him, yet at the same time, I dreaded the long days alone with him.

A huge distance had grown between Ronan and I, as neither of us knew what the problem was or how to make it better. I was incredibly isolated. We weren't long living in the area and I knew very few people, none with kids, and certainly no one I could speak to about how I was feeling. Even my family didn't know the extent of the difficulties we were facing.

Finally, there were two things that made me realise I needed help. Firstly, I missed my husband's birthday, as I'd gone to stay with my family. I knew he'd be alone, but I couldn't bring myself to come back. I couldn't face the thoughts of coming home, of being alone in the house with my baby while my husband was at work. When I did come back, I was in the house no more than five minutes before I broke down crying again. I felt totally and utterly lost, and physically sick with anxiety.

It was at this stage that my anxiety became very quick to turn to anger towards myself. And this was the second sign. I began to hit myself, when the rage grew so uncontrollable that there seemed to be no other solution.

The act of hitting myself broke the anger, forced me to cry, and so I was able to keep going. I went to speak to my GP, who had been aware that things hadn't been going well, and he prescribed anti- depressants.

So began the slow process of recovery. Unfortunately this wasn't the last time depression caused problems for us, nor was it the most serious.

Fast forward to last year and the day I looked at my beautiful girl, Muireann, then two, and realised I felt no connection with her. None. It was as though she was someone else's child.

By February of last year things had gotten bad enough that I was admitted to hospital, where I spent five weeks in the psychiatric unit. This was by far the toughest of the many challenges we have had to face as a family. How do you explain to a two- and four-year-old that Mam has depression? How do you explain hospital, and an absence that could last days, or weeks? So we did what anyone else in our situation would do – we muddled through as best we could. My memory of the day I went into hospital is very hazy. Things had been getting steadily worse for weeks, but I was in such a bad way I couldn't actually see just how serious it was.

My husband came to the GP with me, and he referred me to A&E there and then. I remember sitting around the table at home, the four of us, while my husband tried to explain to the kids that I was sick, that doctor medicine wasn't working anymore, and that I needed to go and stay in the hospital for a while so I could get hospital medicine.

I remember crying. I remember Ronan calling the creche to take the kids at no notice at all, and a friend offering to take them home afterwards in case Ronan got caught up in hospital with me. He must have contacted my parents, Like I said, hazy. The next few weeks are a time we would rather forget.

I think I was in hospital a week before Ronan brought the kids in to see me, and it was so surreal.

They got such a kick out of the sliding doors and being allowed to play Angry Birds while we talked that I don't think they noticed much else. But when they left ... that was so incredibly tough. My daughter didn't really understand and kept asking me to come home, but my son was so upset. He was clinging to me, and kept kissing my shoulder.

When Ronan finally persuaded him to get into the car, he wouldn't look at me. It still breaks my heart to think of it. This would happen every visit. Eventually, I came home, although it was months before I was able to go back to work. The kids stayed in creche while I was off, because there was just no way I could cope with them on my own. Slowly, painfully slowly, things improved, and I went back to work in June.

I'm still under the care of a psychiatrist, still need the support of my counsellor, and still take medication. None of these things are likely to change any time soon. But, what has changed is my ability to cope – with life in general, and more importantly, with my kids. It sounds clichéd, but they gave me a reason to keep going. This wasn't out of any great maternal sense of devotion, believe me, I would have given anything to crawl into bed and never come out again, but they needed me. At times I resented that need so much. I felt trapped by it, and struggled to engage with them. But the last thing in the world I wanted was for my kids to suffer because of me, because of my illness, and it was that desire to make them feel safe, loved, happy and secure that made me push through. I often wonder, and worry, about the impact that all of this has had on them.

In Donnchadh's short life, he has witnessed four major episodes of depression (I've only gone into detail about two here but the other two were equally nasty), and Muireann, two.

That doesn't seem fair, but there's nothing I can do to change it and regret won't help anyone.

There is however, a silver lining to all of this. Depression has led to some of the most difficult, soul searching conversations Ronan and I have ever had to have.

But because of that, our relationship is incredibly strong. Our marriage has taken a severe beating over the years, and it's a testament to Ronan's strength of character that he's stayed by my side through all of it.

He could have been forgiven more than once for walking away, depressed me is a particularly nasty person to live with. But he stayed, and for that I will always be thankful.

Depression has taught us compassion, for ourselves as much as anyone else.

It has taught us the value of having the difficult conversations, because to not have them is much worse in the long run.

I've had a lot of support from a fantastic counsellor over the years, and have learned so much from her. I've been able to take that learning home, and hopefully pass it on to my kids. I think in years to come, I'll measure my success as a parent by how well my kids are able to cope with whatever life throws at them. I see in my son shadows of my own anxiety. I want to protect him from it, but that would be to do him a disservice. Instead, he needs to learn how to cope with it. The same goes for Muireann, who is one very spirited little girl. It would be so easy to engage with that in a negative way, but that won't help her learn to manage her temper. We encourage them to express how they feel, good or bad.

We encourage them to talk to us. We don't hide it from them when I'm feeling bad, as the bad days still happen.

We tell them that it's ok to cry, that it's ok not to be ok. Both of them. We're trying to teach them to slow down when they get frustrated if something doesn't work the way they want it to, take a few deep breaths, and try again rather than giving up in a rage. If they're not able to do that, they go and spend a few minutes alone chilling out until they're ready to talk without shouting.

Do they understand? I don't know, probably not fully. But I think some day they will.

More than anything else, I want them to know that they are loved, unconditionally, and accepted for who they are, exactly as they are. We hug them a lot.

We tell them we love them a lot. Too much? Some might say so, but as far as I'm concerned they can never hear it enough. One of the biggest things I've learned from depression is self-compassion, and it's something that I still struggle with daily.

I don't want that for my kids. I want them to have the strength within themselves to be able to cope, emotionally and mentally, with whatever challenges they may face, as well as the self-awareness to know when to ask for help. I want them to feel happy in their own skin, without comparing themselves unfavourably to those around them.

I want them to recognise that self-compassion is a good thing, that it ultimately helps create better relationships with those around them. Mostly, I just want them to be happy.

I was in the kitchen this morning making lunches when I overheard Muireann say something to Donnchadh that really made me smile – 'You're beautiful, you're awesome, and you're my best friend'.

If statements like that are any indicator of my kids' well-being, then depression or no, I'm happy that we're doing something right.

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