My 6-year-olds love going through the drive through pharmacy. They’re fascinated by the hardware that allows me and the pharmacist to send clipboards, debit cards and medications back and forth without my having to leave the driver’s seat of my car. They never tire of the box magically closing just before it disappears into the cavern above our heads.
While we were waiting for my refills and debit card yesterday, M wanted to know what the medicine was for. I told her I’d explain on the way home. I needed a few minutes to gather my thoughts.
I didn’t say I was depressed. I’m not depressed. My emotional and mood responses to the challenges in my life are proportional and appropriate. I see the little joys in my day. My temper is completely under control. I don’t find myself needing to examine my every thought to determine whether it’s a real one or the product of a brain that isn’t working right. It doesn’t take an all-consuming act of will to get out of bed, eat, or breathe. Not any more.
I explained to my daughter that, many years ago, I started having horrible feelings of sadness. There wasn’t a reason to be sad, at least not as sad as I felt. Some mornings, my brain would tell my body to sit up, but my body wouldn’t listen. The sadness was controlling my body. I went to a doctor and a counselor—my daughter knows about counselors because her school has two amazing ones—and tried to fix things by thinking about my feelings, talking about my feelings, understanding my feelings. It wasn’t enough. I tried all the things we practice at home to manage our feelings: deep breaths, time out, reading a book, writing about our feelings, asking for help. It just wasn’t enough.
Finally, my doctor told me that I have an illness called “depression.” Everyone’s brain has chemicals in it, just like all other parts of the body, to make sure it works right. For some reason we don’t understand, some of my brain’s chemicals were missing. (I figured that 6 was a little young to go into serotonin reuptake. “Missing chemicals” would have to do.) The doctor recommended that I take medicine to help. I didn’t want to take medicine to put new chemicals in my brain. That sounded scary to me.
“This is a scary story!” my daughter interjected.
I asked if she wanted me to stop. She wanted to hear the ending, so I continued.
I started taking the medicine. After a few months, I felt better. My body started listening to my brain, and I felt happy. When I did feel sad, there was a reason, and fixing the reason fixed the sadness. My brain was all better.
When I decided to have babies, I didn’t want those medicines in their bodies. Their brains probably would never need them, and it’s not a good idea to have medicine in your body that you don’t need. With a doctor’s help, I stopped taking my medicines, and I still felt fine.
I had my beautiful little girls. (M smiled at that.) For four years, I felt just fine. Then, one day, the bad sadness came back. I recognized it right away this time. I went back to the doctor, and told them that I had depression and that it was making me feel sick again. He asked me to try the medicines that had worked before, and they worked again.
“So if you don’t take your medicine, you’ll be sick?” M asked.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “I’ll probably just be the same that I always am, but this sickness, depression, might come back and make my brain sick again. Since the medicine helps make sure that I stay healthy in my brain, I keep taking it. There may be a good reason to stop taking it some day and be careful about watching my brain health, but for now, I think I should keep taking it.”
“Okay,” she said. And that was that.
J looked up from the book she was reading. “Did you say something about being sick?”
I told her we’d talk about it another time.