When a child asks you why you are crying, the typical answer should not be “I have no clue”. When your child asks you “What are you looking out the window so much for?”, the answer should not be “Because I’m paranoid that someone is watching us.” And when your child says “Dad, why do you look so tired”, the answer should NEVER be “Because I’m fading away from association and into my own head that is a scary wasteland of fear and depression”. But for me, that is often the reality behind the lies I give to cover up for the real answers.
Because for me? Being a parent living with mental illness is often a tough road to travel.
I have been living with mental illness for more years than I can honestly remember. Depression, anxiety, social anxiety, and schizoaffective. My good days? They are really good. Better than I can ever hope for. And my bad days? Well, they can seem like the end is truly near. It’s a rollercoaster that has no beginning and end. No destination. Only a state of constant riding.
Being a work-at-home parent, especially in the COVID times, is a challenge unto itself. I have worked from home for two years now. I am an IT guy who works incident management on a service desk supporting 60k+ end users. So you can imagine that on any given day, we might be way ahead of ourselves, or drowning in the marshy weeds. Or both in the same day. Add in the responsibility of taking care of the kids and the house chores and it gets much more sticky.
I thrive on routine. Going through the same motions each day. I wash clothes on specific days of the week. I work on detail cleaning the kitchen and bathroom on my lunch break on certain days. I’m used to being alone in the house from 8am-4:00pm while the kids are in school and the wife is at her job. We had normal evening routines and I had my daily routines down to a science. Throw a wrench into those plans, and my mind turns to a chaotic state.
With increased anxiety comes the paranoia and sometimes hallucinations on a really bad day. My medicine does a great job of keeping me level for the most part, but it can only do so much. And all this is happening while I am in charge of two of the most precious, fragile, and enduring things I am responsible for: my kids.
So how does one parent through mental illness like this?
Creating Me Time
One of the most important things for me is creating time for just myself. Often, this happens while the wife and kids go out somewhere on the weekend. Or during really bad weeks, going out by myself for a photo trip, or just to drive around. It’s important to have time to focus on yourself in times where mental illness is weighing heavier. Time to breathe. Time to gather your thoughts and feelings. Time to play guitar and sing at the top of your lungs. Whatever it is that keeps you grounded and lets you get a moment of peace, and regather yourself.
Help Your Family Understand
This is a key part to my maintaining myself when my depression and anxiety are trying to best me. My kids are 13 and 11 and understand quite well about things like depression and anxiety, even though they haven’t experienced it themselves. They will often ask me about my fears, or why something is making me nervous, or what makes me sad even though I shouldn’t be. I share when I can, when I think what I’m sharing is appropriate for them to help understand..
My wife does her best as well to help me out. Taking the kids out of the house even if just for a few minutes. Making day trips with me staying behind to have some time to myself to unwind and destress. And she is always willing to listen when I am explaining what is happening to me.
But part of these people being understanding comes from me helping them to understand. It’s important to find ways to talk about what’s going on, but do so in a way others in your family can understand. This may be different from person to person, but helping others understand you helps others to be able to stand with you when times are tough.
Let Your Family Help You
This could take on many forms. Delegating chores to kids (age appropriate of course), letting them help you with things because they see you struggling. Having a spouse that will take on things for you so that you have one less thing on your plate. Talking, and being honest. Family can be such a strong center for many people living with mental illness, but for a lot of us, it’s hard to let others help us because we can see it as failure.
But accepting help when you need it is anything BUT failure. It’s a necessity that we all need to lean on when we can. From the small “please get me a glass of water” to the big “I need you to sit here with me till this is over”, your family can be there to be your biggest fan, and your best support.
Acknowledge That You Will Fail
Speaking of failure, it is also something important that we learn to accept, and learn to grow from. When you live with an illness that constantly makes you doubt yourself, failure can feel like an overwhelming end to everything we know. Failure is one of my top drivers of depression. But with time, I have slowly learned to start accepting failure. I’m not perfect at it by any means.
For all of us, failure is inevitable. For those of us living with mental illness, even the slightest failures become huge mistakes and are daunting on our minds. Learning to acknowledge that failure will happen, and that we can learn from it, is one of the most fundamental aspects of living a mentally healthy life.
Do Not Keep Your Illness A Secret
This is perhaps the most important tip that I can share. Stigma, fear, and anxiety over what other people will think are the top three reasons that people do not share about their mental illness. And it can be a deadly trio. Living successfully with mental illness requires that others know so they can support you and help you watch for warning signs that things might not be okay. Let your family in. Let your close friends in. The more close people that know and understand, the better your support options.
When it comes to our kids, a lot of what they should know heavily depends on their age and what is appropriate to share. The older they are, the more they tend to understand. With my kids at 13 and 11, they know just enough. My son, he understands that I have an illness that causes me to be anxious, or to have hallucinations. He also knows that I take medicine that helps to regulate this and that I have a doctor who takes great care of me as well. My daughter is younger and doesn’t know as much. But she is good at picking up on signs and not afraid to ask me when she thinks something is wrong.
Living life with mental illness is a tough job. Doing it as a parent, doubly so. The stresses of life can weigh us down enough. But there are ways where we can help make our lives liveable, enjoyable, and lead a mentally healthy life. As long as we are willing. Do you have any tips that can be shared in addition to these? Please let us know in the comments below!