Photo: Kristen Hutchison via Chatelaine
I won’t have children. I made this decision about three years ago, 30,000 feet in the air on a flight home from Orlando. I was thumbing through an issue of Glamour left behind in the seat pocket in front of me, and I came across an article by the comedian Sarah Silverman. My eye caught on the word “depression.” In the article, Silverman referred to an interview she’d previously done in which she talked about not wanting to have children for fear she might pass her depression on to them. Suddenly I felt as if the air was being sucked out of the plane. I was just about ready for the oxygen mask to drop from the overhead compartment when the flight attendant announced that we were landing.
I wandered through the Toronto airport in a daze, the magazine tucked under my arm. When I climbed into my parents’ car and they asked how everything was, I said, “Fine.” But was it really? As we sped through the city, my mind sped even faster. I had always pictured myself with a family; I even had baby names picked out. I had just come back from visiting a friend and her new baby. When I’d first arrived, her father had led me to her room in the hospital, and the way he looked at his granddaughter cradled on her mother’s chest made me long to see the same look on my father’s face one day.
But after reading about Sarah Silverman’s trepidations about depression being hereditary, I wondered if my dream of having children would ever become reality. I suddenly felt sure that it couldn’t.
Looking back, I can see signs of depression in my early childhood. I cried when my parents left me and my brother and sister with a sitter, and I cried in the carpool line if they were even a minute late picking me up. I worried as early as April about who would be in my class the following year and whether my teacher would like me; I went to birthday parties panicked about whether my friend would like the gift I had picked out. I recently asked my parents why they were never concerned about these signs. “I guess we always thought you were just an emotional kid, an independent spirit,” my mom said. “We figured you’d grow out of it.”
But I didn’t grow out of it. In fact, in my late 20s and into my 30s it seemed to get stronger. If someone didn’t respond to a text message, I was sure it was because I’d said something wrong. When a boyfriend suggested spending a night in, I wondered why he didn’t want to be seen with me. I didn’t know it then, but I had also already begun to experience panic attacks. Over time these increased, both in frequency and strength. Sometimes I could power through them, but other times I would need to shut myself off for an entire day to recover.
Then, about two-and-a-half years ago, when I was 32, I was hit by a mystery illness that lasted six months. I stopped sleeping and eating and was hardly able to walk because of terrible stomach aches. I temporarily moved back in with my parents, and my days were filled with visits to doctors, walk-in clinics and emergency rooms. All the tests they did came back normal, and the doctors suggested maybe it was a stubborn flu, or possibly it was just in my head. I spent what felt like an endless number of nights curled up in bed in the fetal position, crying. I began to wonder if I would ever know happiness again, and in my lowest moments I found myself having very dark thoughts.
Then came the day when I saw a look on my dad’s face that I don’t think I will ever forget. He was sitting across from me in the emergency room as my hands trembled and tears rolled down my face. He rubbed my back as I cried out in agony and begged for someone to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. Later that night, a doctor appeared and labelled it for the first time. “Depression,” he said. All I could do was look at him and say, “What do we do now?” He placed a pill the size of my fingernail in my hand and said, “This will make it all go away.” I remember being instantly furious. Something so tiny couldn’t possibly solve something that seemed so big. But I took the pill from him and swallowed it.
At first the world seemed different and I felt I didn’t know myself. If I was sad, I would ask myself if I was really just sad, or was it more than that? Whenever I went out, I needed to have an exit plan, a way to get somewhere I felt safe enough to break down if a sudden attack came on. I began to see a therapist and I began opening up to my friends. One of them asked me: “What does it feel like when you have an attack?” I said, “It’s like the reverse of the part in The Wizard of Oz, where everything goes from black and white to colour.” I asked him if he remembered the scene in the movie where the witch’s face appears in the glass ball, and she gives her evil cackle. “That’s what it sounds like inside my head,” I told him. “It’s a never-ending series of voices, telling me that I’m the only one home on a Friday night, that my performance review is going to be so bad I should start looking for another job, that I’m a disappointment and a drain on everyone around me.”
It had only been a matter of months since my diagnosis when I saw the Sarah Silverman article. I spoke about it with my doctor and I did my own research. One study I read said I have three-to-four times the chance of passing my depression on compared to my brother or sister (neither of them suffers from depression). Other studies pointed out that research into the hereditary nature of depression is still ongoing, and that environment plays a part as well. It seemed no one really knew what to think.
But one afternoon I knew what I thought. I had forgotten to take my medication and found myself in the midst of a full-blown panic attack. Still to this day it remains the worst one that I’ve had. I was plastered to the bed; my palms stung and I was sweating so badly that my sheets were soaked. I got up to get a glass of water and my breathing became so frantic I feared I might pass out. I remember bargaining with depression: Let me win this one, I thought. But it was no use. I picked up my phone and texted my mom. I might go quiet for a bit, I told her. I promised her I would be OK. Only I wasn’t sure about that; I’m never really sure. She sent a reply message: “I wish I knew how to help you.”
Later, I took myself to the hospital. The doctors were able to boost my system with an anxiety drug that had worked in the past. My mom arrived just before midnight and looked much like my dad did the day I was diagnosed. I imagined what it felt like for her, knowing that your child was in that much pain and not being able to help. What would it feel like to wonder whether I was part of the reason my child struggled in the first place? What horrible lies would depression try to make my child believe? When people tell me that an attack will pass, or that the things I’m thinking aren’t real, it frustrates me and makes me second-guess myself. How could I say the same things to my child? I decided it was unfair of me to bring a baby into the world knowing I might pass depression on to them.
I still think about my decision from time to time. At a recent baby shower, as the mother-to-be pulled frilly onesies from pink gift bags, I let myself dream of a family again, of Kayden or Preston, of pushing a stroller around my neighbourhood or jumping in puddles with a toddler on a rainy afternoon. On good days it’s possible to think that I might be the best parent for a child suffering from depression. I know the signs of a panic attack; I would see it coming well in advance and might be able to help stop it. I know not to suggest that it’s normal to be sad or that a walk might make it all go away. I also realize that acceptance of the illness continues to grow and there is a chance that by the time I have a child, depression might not be as stigmatized as it is now.
In the Glamour article, Silverman talks about how her thoughts had changed from the time of that previous interview, where she’d said she didn’t want to have kids. She talks about finding love with someone who she feels understands her, and about the possibility of her having a child. I hope that one day I might feel that way, too. I have people around me who know I struggle with this illness and how much I worry about having children. For now, at least, I can give my love to these people — the same love I would give my children. But until I feel strong enough in my own adjustment to living with depression, and strong enough to be my child’s biggest advocate should they inherit the illness from me, I’m content to let the baby strollers pass me by.