The Lesson I Learned Watching My Mother Struggle With Depression
She reached out to squeeze my hand. "M'ija, I need you to take the girls to school," she said, her Dominican accent still present even though she'd moved to the U.S. as a teenager. I didn't question why my mother didn't get out of bed. It had happened before, and I suspected it would happen again. I rushed to ready my four younger sisters, all between ages 5 and 11. They were quiet with concern, moving in whispers as I ushered them into the car. I was 16; I'd just gotten my driver's license that year.
The longer spells—in which my mother would stay in bed for several days—occurred once, sometimes twice, a year. The shorter episodes eventually struck weekly, until it was hard to sort good days from bad. Sometimes her periods of depression were debilitating and quiet, like when our brother, the oldest and her only son, went away to college. She nursed hives in bed, not wanting to speak to anyone, her voice disturbingly soft for such a strong woman; when she did get up, she'd sit for hours at the kitchen table with his picture, crying quietly, waving us away. Other times her moods bordered on rage. The world was against her, and we could do nothing right. We relished the happy moments when they came, dancing barefoot with her in the kitchen to salsa music and Billy Ocean's "Caribbean Queen."
Depression was not acknowledged in our house. Pick yourself up when you fall down. Pray harder. No dirty laundry in public. After all, we lived a charmed American life in comparison to all my mother had experienced as an immigrant: fleeing a dictatorship at 15; acculturating to new customs, a new language; raising six children; weathering a couple of marriages; enduring racism. To her, depression equaled weakness, faithlessness, shame. When I pressed her to get help, she yelled, "Psychology is your religion!" I responded, "And God helps those who help themselves!"
Decades later, my own 4-year-old daughter showed signs of psychological distress—lashing out in class, clinging to my waist in tears—after her father and I split. And the only shame I felt was that of a parent who couldn't protect her child from adult mistakes. At least I could do for her what I couldn't do for my mother. I placed my girl in weekly therapy even though an expensive divorce was looming and money was tight. Five years later, I'm relieved that she's accomplished so much, has come so far, and is down to only a few visits a year, armed with the skills to help manage her own mental health. Best of all, she has no shame. About two years ago, she was thrilled and proud to star in a public service announcement with Derek Jeter to help raise awareness of children's mental health issues.
My mother passed away 11 years ago and never met her granddaughter. I wonder what she'd think of her standing so tall while speaking openly about something her abuela found ignoble. My mother wanted me, and all her children, to have access to the best this country has to offer. I hope she would have realized that includes treasuring our psychological and emotional well-being.