In her new memoir, Depression: A Comedy, comedian Jessica Holmes opens up about her struggles with depression and the challenges of parenting through those dark years. The following is an excerpt from her book.
It started with guilt over being an absent mom. Not absent in the physical sense (I still signed up for many of the parent/child classes du jour—Mommy & Me Body Sculpting, Engineering for Tots, Baby Toastmasters, etc.) but just not being “present” during conversations. Remember when you were young, asking your dad one of those kid questions like “How come clouds are grey when water is clear?” and he replied “urmph” because he was reading the paper and not really listening? “Urmph” was the only answer I could come up with, but I wasn’t reading a paper, I was staring at the wall with an endless sea of worries:
Why are these kids always so chatty? Isn’t the Baby Einstein DVD providing them enough companionship?
Am I dressing age-appropriately? Why’d they make “jumpsuits” in women’s sizes if they don’t want me wearing them? I feel like an idiot!
I will never be finished doing laundry. I will die under a pile of odd socks!
“Where’s the friggin’ finish line, Scott?” I’d ask my husband, overwhelmed, even though I was just sitting there, shoulders scrunched up around my ears, white-knuckling my coffee cup.
The kids asked questions in long, unpunctuated monologues. I’d still be processing “Hey, Mom, can we…” by the time they finished the sentence with “build a skating rink in the backyard?/Paint our shoes?/Live in the attic?” And though my response to most of these requests should have been “No, our yard is barely big enough to stand in/No, you painted your socks last week and now there’s blue footprints all over the hard- wood/No, it’s nothing but fibre-glass and squirrels up there,” it’s like my thoughts were made of soggy oatmeal and wouldn’t fit into definitive answers. “Urmph” was the best I could do.
“Urmph” tided us over until Scott came home and gave the kids an answer in the form of words that actually appear in a dictionary.
Maternal depression more likely four years postpartum: Study Indecisiveness is a symptom of depression. So is a lack of limit setting. If you can’t set limits (“I love you so much I can’t bear the thought of disappointing you”) AND you’re indecisive (“I haven’t got any idea what to make for lunch—best if I make nothing, and have a hunger tantrum in two hours”), decisions are completely overwhelming. I’ve spoken with other moms battling depression who’ve also hit decision-walls in their own ways:
- staring at the laundry for three hours, unable to get started
- procrastinating from life by online shopping into a sea of debt, with most of the packages remaining unopened
- avoiding their kids because that’s better than blowing up at them
- spending the whole day, every day, in bed, because they don’t know what to do first
- surrounding the sofa with junk food so that it looks like a tornado hit a bodega (that one’s me)
As my children’s enthusiastic queries built up, I crumbled under the weight and said they had to limit their questions to three per day because I couldn’t spare the hours it took me to debate the pros and cons of each request.
Like I said, not my finest hour.
Depression keeps parents from connecting with their children, regardless of how much they love them. What I wanted more than anything was for my choppy behaviour to cease and to instead reflect the steady and unconditional love I felt for my kids, but I kept spinning out of control. My daughter, Alexa made this lovely “Scream Chart” to monitor who lost their sh#t the most, hoping it would encourage me to stay on the up and up:
I was 75 percent embarrassed when I saw it, and 25 percent relieved that they had found a way to turn my outbursts into a kind of contest. In fact, if I could interview them back then about what their experience was like, I assume, in their resilience, they’d find a way to make it seem less bonkers than it actually was.
The guiltier I felt for not being able to give them the best of me, the more I tried to make up for it by making every day like a trip to Disneyland, and the enabling culminated in me letting Alexa have eight friends sleep over for her sixth birthday party.
This will make everything better!
It was like trying to keep kittens in an open box. The movie and cake and manicures went ok, but it all went south at bedtime. All night they popped out of the rec room, one after another, waking me to report “so-and-so’s nose is making a whistling sound,” “I can smell the cat litter,” “my pyjamas are pink,” with the coup d’état being one poor little girl throwing up on the carpet at 5 a.m. After the final kid was picked up at 9:33 a.m. (those extra 180 seconds were excruciating!), my muscles were clenched as though I’d just escaped a tiger attack. I got on the sofa and didn’t get up (except for bathroom breaks) for three days.
Although my kids know I’ve been depressed, and I’ve explained it to them in layman’s terms that eight- and ten-year-olds can grapple with, I’m waiting till they’re older to elaborate. Maybe that’s my next book:
The odd time I see scars left by those dark years; I sense my kids are scared of upsetting me, their armour going up even though I haven’t yelled in years. I’ll feel a twist of shame, then I’ll remember my grampa’s reassurance after my first game of adult soccer when I ran over and picked the ball up with my hands while my teammates glared at the mistake—“we do the best we can with what we know at the time”—and I’ll acknowledge that I’m not a monster, but a person who was suffering and is earnestly striving to do better. My day is filled with gratitude for the simple joys of motherhood: Alexa pronouncing “potluck” “putt-lock” without realizing the error and Jordan explaining how he hopes he never gets better looking than he is now “’cause then even more girls will be after me!”
I’m relieved to see the strong, compassionate people the kids are, perhaps despite it all. People often remark about how much Alexa looks like me. She has my features but with a Mediterranean flare. I asked my dad, “Does she remind you of me when I was that age?” And my dad said, “Just like you were at that age, but stronger,” and a flood of relief poured over me.