“I just want to be happy.”
As I spoke those words to my father on the telephone, I meant them. I could not remember the last time I felt genuine joy. I was coming off of three pregnancies in rapid succession and being a person that worked 60+ hour weeks in a rewarding but stressful job.
Tom and I had decided together that I would stay-home with our three kids who were all still in diapers for two reasons. One, because I wanted “out” of my job. And secondly, it made sense financially to not put three kids in daycare. But I hadn’t found it to be a positive change for me and after a year at-home I was suffering from major depression — although I did not yet know what to call.
I was expressing a desire for something that I could not have defined exactly.
This was one of the last real conversations I remember having with my father. It was the summer of 2002, and I recall my father saying, “Do you need me to come? I will come if you need me.” and I deflected, thinking as usual that my need was not important. I said, “No, I’ll be okay.” Which was the farthest from the truth.
I wasn’t okay and wouldn’t be okay for a very long time. But that day, sitting on my back stoop looking out at my yard with unseeing eyes, I couldn’t imagine what he could do to make things any better.
You see the idea of him coming was better than the actuality. My parents did visit in October, and my father was preoccupied with work — on his laptop and cell phone the entire visit. He was critical of our choices — We took them out to a Thai restaurant for dinner instead of cooking. That was wasteful or indulgent, which he did not approve of, never mind that we were buying.
But I was depressed still five months later. And when you are, things like grocery shopping and cooking are impossible to do. I didn’t stick up for myself at the time. And I knew Tom felt no criticism of me for not cooking. So we went out.
It turns out Dad was suffering from brain tumors (though no one knew at that time) which would be diagnosed a few weeks later. He had brain surgery in early December. He died five months later, in May of 2003.)
Recently we were dining (at home, if you must know) with some new friends.
Tom and I are both making an effort to make some new relationships, as this has been a theme at church lately. We were gathered in the kitchen — as often happens in the minutes before enjoying a home cooked meal together — and Tim asked if I needed any help? I usually do leave some things for when guests have arrived, because it gives me something to do with my hands. (I’m a nervous, socially introverted tongue-tied person, especially with new people.) And a task sometimes makes a guest feel good.
I flippantly and off the top of my head said “No, I’m a woman of leisure, so I finished everything ahead of time.” Where in the hell did that come from, I thought immediately?
I’d never described myself that way before. Haven’t even put those words together in a sentence before. And I haven’t felt bad about being a stay-at-home for a good long while.
Oh, it creeps in now and then, as people ask the “good ol’ American get to know ya questions” like “What do you do?” Awkward when you have all your kids in school and you’re not “working” outside the home. My self-esteem would definitely be enhanced by a salary and some hours working at tasks that have a higher purpose or a more obvious result. But no, for now this is working for us. I am at-home. I am a full-time MOM, two-hour a day max home-keeper, and working on my health.
It all leads back to that desire to be happy.
Am I a woman of leisure? God help me, no! But I guess I joked about it because I don’t know how to tell people what my life really involves. It’s not typical for someone to admit ,
“My #1 job is staying healthy mentally. What do you do?”
Yup, I have a mental illness (there I said it) and it’s chronic (meaning it comes back, all too frequently) and I am learning through trial and error, research, and lots of effort and hard work what it takes to get healthy, stay healthy, and be healthy.
I know that I could do a 9-5 job and sort these things out on the weekends. But I am grateful that I don’t have to and so I’m working on my health every day (or most days. Many are too full to think about me. I am a mother of four, active in my church, and writing…)
Major depressive disorder was the diagnosis and it has led me to a half-dozen different therapists, psychologists as well as psychiatrists. A near fatal suicide attempt. Medication. Hospitalization. Alcoholism. And …the depression comes back. I start all over again. Well, the truth is …
I work, work, work …
on my sanity. And on the good days I think why the hell does it take so much time just to be healthy? On the bad ones, well, I just can’t think. I struggle to be functional. But it’s not quite like that. A depressive episode builds, like a few rolling waves at first sliding into a tsunami.
If you’ve never been in therapy, you’ve no idea how much work it is. It’s hard when you are not depressed. Hellishly difficult if you are. If you are committed to getting better and growing and changing, you have to do it. There is no other choice. No one wants a relapses, of which I’ve had more than a half dozen over six years.
It feels like two to three months of going through life like The Undead. Your body is heavy all the time — It feels like you are filled with sand. And your head, your mind, your soul, your psyche is a Black Hole. Everything swirls around into it and nothing worthwhile comes out.)
If your commitment is to health you have work on it EVERY DAY:
- On your spirituality, because I’d hate to give you the impression that “healing” only comes from doctors.
- On your physical health, I have learned that exercise and diet are probably most important, after Psychotherapy.
- On your friendships. Isolation is a big danger and a signal that you’re slipping backwards.
- On your relationships with family, which must stay positive and healthy.
- You have get off drugs or alcohol, because at least alcohol is a depressant. [The story of alcoholism well, it will have to be another day for that. I am two years and two months into sobriety as of this writing.]
- You have to do the therapy, which only works if you do the work.
So what does a woman of leisure do?
This one works on her stuff. And sometimes keeps house and cares for four kids — nine, 11, 12 and 22. Our youngest has learning difficulties which have involved years and years of advocacy and therapies and doctors appointment. Being an advocate for him meant getting an education on many things including how the public school system works to help children with disabilities, pushing the insurance company and doctors and teachers, learning about hearing, and speech and attention-deficits. Learning about nutrition and medication and side effects. Just regular stuff mom’s do if they have the time. Most women have much less time for this than I do, so I feel fortunate. But managing all that, during the same years that I’ve been ill has been hard. Rewarding but difficult.
I volunteer my photography skills and writing when I can or when asked. I ventured into a photography business for about three years, but decided that I didn’t really want it that badly. I serve in various places with a variety of things — as I hear of needs at church and school. I study further on things will help me do all this in an intelligent way. When they were little I was in the kid’s classrooms volunteering every week and was going on field trips.
I do love being at home when my children come home from school — world-weary, and kind of beat up from their day — offering a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen or a word of advice. It just happened last night with my 22-year-old and it is awesome.
We only have a few years with our children and so I have concluded – selfishly perhaps – that if I can take these years then I will. Gladly. Joyfully. And try to best of my ability and with all the strength I have in me to live well.
For them. For myself. For the pure sake of being happy to be alive.
Who knew, as a child, that just being happy would be so much work. What does this woman of leisure do all day? Some days I wonder that myself if I’m truthful. But I hope I will look back, in the years to come, and have no doubt it was time well spent.
MHH September 15, 2010
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