I’ll never forget the day I came out of the closet. Not that closet. The “I have a mental illness” closet. For months, I lived in fear; embarrassed what would happen to me if someone found out. It was as if I would be forced to walk around wearing a Scarlett Letter; a big, fat D. So, I hid it. I overcompensated. I laughed harder. Smiled more. Got involved in more activities. I did everything imaginable to hide the fact that I was living with depression. The happier I looked on the outside, the more troubled I felt on the inside.
Hiding my depression from the world was easy, but there were four people I simply could not fool. My husband and my three young sons. As soon as I would return home from work, I would retreat to my room; laying in the dark, under the covers until life required me to move. Still, there were many moments where not even the need to care for my kids could get me out of my self-made cave.
After struggling for so long and seeking several avenues of treatment, I came clean to my children, who were too young to understand what mental illness meant but could understand that mommy had a brain sickness that made her sad. My kids knew that if they wanted to spend time with mommy, they would have to join me in the cave. We spent many days just laying down together watching Nickelodeon and reading books. On days where even showering was an absolute challenge, at least I felt like I accomplished something with my children.
Despite my recovery not going as fast as I wanted or needed it to, I made a conscious effort to include my kids in the process. On days where I could not get out of bed, I would force myself out and take them to the zoo. I would focus all my attention on what they were doing and how they viewed life. I watched them do even the simplest things like order a hot chocolate at Starbucks or pick out books in the book store. When they would get excited over something new, I would get excited for them. In a way, I spent my time seeing life through the eyes of my children.
While I contemplated why I even existed on this planet, I watched them discover new things. Slowly, I noticed a shift in my own feelings. I was happy when they were happy. I also noticed that they went out of their way to not upset me. My 10-year-old would get in the car each day after school and ask me if I cried today. In the mornings, he would wish me a good day. My 4-year-old insisted on going to sleep with me by his side each night where he would tell me he loved me and that I was his bestie. And my 7-year-old would sing with me.
Being open with my children and having them accept me gave me the strength to share my story with others as I began speaking and presenting publicly on mental health disorders and suicide prevention. When I first publicly shared my story, I did have two or three people express their concern that I may be discriminated against; that parents may keep their children away from mine because I had a mental illness. Somehow hearing this, I didn’t care. I felt free. The people I needed to love me and accept me most, did and I knew that I could help others who faced similar situations.
I wasn’t faced with any sort of backlash but rather, absolute love and acceptance. Many people I have known for years personally reached out to me and shared their own journeys with mental illness and mothers at my children’s school reached out to me seeking help. And when our local high school lost a student by suicide, it was me they called to come speak to the students.
In the months since my darkest episodes, my focus has been spent on spending quality time with my children. We experience nature by hiking, rafting, kayaking and spending hours on the beach. We travel and visit museums, historical sites and professional sports games. My healing and renewal is mostly because I could find good and beauty in things I had always taken for granted. If it weren’t for my children, I don’t think my recovery would have been as successful. Yes, parenting is hard and it is exhausting but it is like no other. Our children, for the most part, are reflections of us. Not wanting to see them in pain, I chose to take the attention off myself and focus it on them. This approach may not work for all, but it did save me.
JEANINE HOFF is the founder and visionary leader of Where is the Sunshine?, a Northeast Florida-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization and social media resource dedicated to early intervention and peer support for mental health through advocacy, education and community collaboration.