Every Friday I have an hour long session of counselling with a counsellor I’ve been seeing for around three years. I stopped seeing her for a couple of months when Squidge was about nine months old and decided he didn’t want to play nicely on the floor while I talked but with the downward turn my mental health has taken in the last few months I started attending sessions again.
Squidge now goes to nursery three days per week, which covers the two days that I work and then an extra day of ‘me time’ so that I can go to counselling and do whatever else I need to keep my mental health on the straight and narrow for the next week.
The sessions are fairly unstructured because that’s what works best for me; I have the freedom to talk about anything that’s on my mind and then we work through the issue, looking at different interpretations and perceptions before coming to some sort of resolution. With one or two notable exceptions that occurred when I was pregnant and almost catatonically depressed I always leave a session feeling better than when I went in, which I guess is the whole point.
Last week we talked about what I wanted Squidge to grow up thinking is ‘normal’.
Although Squidge is still only 16 months old I talk to him about my mental health issues and the difficulties associated with severe depression. I tell him that sometimes Mummy’s brain doesn’t work properly and it can make me sad and scared but that I take tablets to help. I also tell him that my being sad is never his fault and that I will always love him and be here to look after him.
I know it’s highly unlikely that he understands anything on a conscious level but by explaining things to him at such an early age I’m hoping that he’ll grow up knowing that mental health is something that can be spoken about openly and that it’s not something that has to be hidden away; out of sight, out of mind.
The worry that I have is that while I want Squidge to understand that, while talking about mental health should be normal, actually having mental health issues isn’t normal.
But then I don’t want him to think that having a mental health issue is abnormal either.
How on earth do I expect Squidge to understand if I can’t even articulate my thoughts properly to myself?
When I was a small child my Dad worked full time and my Mum stayed at home with me and my brother. We grew up with the routine that Daddy came home in the evening, greeted us with a cuddle, went upstairs to get changed and then helped us get ready for bed. Along with all the things that were normal for us; bath and pajamas, teeth cleaning and bedtime stories was my Dad taking a couple of Paracetamol for the headache that he always seemed to have.
It wasn’t until my Dad was signed off work for a year, got his blood pressure under control and started to relax a bit that I realised that it wasn’t normal for adults who went to work to have a headache that lasted for most of the week and only seemed to go away temporarily at the weekend. To this day one of my abiding memories of my childhood is my Dad napping on the sofa, attempting to sleep off his headache while I worried about him and wished he’d wake up so that I could talk to him.
The headache itself isn’t abnormal but the intensity and the duration was and I suppose it’s partly this that I want Squidge to understand.
Having a headache isn’t particularly pleasant and it’s a deviation from the norm, which is to be pain free but it isn’t unusual or anything to be particularly concerned about. If you do have a headache you make sure you’re well hydrated, you try and avoid certain things such as caffeine or alcohol, you maybe take some paracetamol and you look after yourself.
However, if you had a headache that lasts several days or weeks and is far more intense than any other headache you’ve ever had then you see a doctor and take their advice or, if you feel as though you’re not being taken seriously you see another doctor. You shouldn’t just ignore it or assume that because it’s ‘just’ a headache it means that everything is fine really.
In the same vein I want Squidge to be comfortable in the knowledge that it’s ok to have days where you feel sad or down or blue, whether you know the reason behind your feelings or not. However, I also want him to understand that if these feelings continue for more than a couple of weeks and that they stop you from enjoying life and looking forward to things then you need to tell someone.
I want him to feel that he can talk to me about anything that’s worrying him and not hide behind a pretense of everything being fine when in reality things in his world are far from fine but that he doesn’t want to worry me or risk upsetting me.
From the day that I was first diagnosed with depression to the day that the Northern One phoned my Mum to tell her how much I was struggling with being pregnant I always felt as though I needed to minimise how ill I was and how difficult it was to make it through each day. On the occasions that I did try and broach the subject my parents would usually shut down the conversation as quickly as possible, usually getting angry or upset in the process.
So instead of talking to my parents, particularly during my hugely challenging time at university I instead leaned heavily on the Northern One (who was then my boyfriend), a few understanding friends, various counsellors (who I could only see for six sessions before funding ran out) and my personal tutor. Whenever I talked to my parents on the phone, saw them when they came to visit or went home from the holidays I would always tell them that everything was fine; my course was hard work and placement was tiring but overall everything was fine.
Except it wasn’t.
My heart breaks to think of Squidge struggling with anything but thinking that he couldn’t tell us or that we wouldn’t want to know. I absolutely do not want him to think it’s normal to have to hide any kind of illness, physical or mental from me and the Northern One because he thinks we’ll be angry with him for suffering. I don’t want him to know what it’s like to plaster a smile on his face and hold back tears because it’s easier than trying to share his feelings and then being told not to.
I know that as he grows up Squidge will form his own idea of what constitutes ‘normal’, just as I did when slowly came to the realisation (just as every child does) that my parents didn’t know everything and that there were other ways of doing things and ways of behaving.
One of my Mum’s favourite phrases, in response to me or my brother telling her about someone we’d seen was ‘It’s not weird, it’s different’ and it’s something that has stayed with me throughout my life. In the end I suppose the main thing I want Squidge to see as normal is tolerance; regardless of religion, race, gender, appearance, sexual orientation and all the other things that make us unique and different and wonderful.
That and the fact that the Northern One and I will love him unconditionally, and that no matter who he grows up to be, he will always be perfect and he will always be ours.
Louise is a full time mum and a part time neonatal nurse who has battled depression for many years but particularly during her pregnancy.
She blogs at 23weeksocks (http://23weeksocks.com) about lots of different (and seemingly unconnected) topics that she’s passionate about, including mental health, antenatal depression, neonatal care and baby loss.
In 2015 she was shortlisted in the ‘Fresh Voice’ category for the BIB (Brilliance in Blogging) Awards and the ‘Bereavement Worker’ category for the Butterfly Awards. She was also one of the keynote speakers at BritMums Live reading ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ which was her account of caring for a premature baby on the day that he died.