Drowning in December: A Depression Story

December feels like drowning. The chill in the air sucks at me, the gloom from a hidden sun suffocates me, and the weight of a million responsibilities pulls me down. I am sinking beneath it all.

I have been fighting this relapse of depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms for about a year as of this month. I’ve gotten to a functional place; I can work and take care of my kids reasonably well. Almost reasonably well. These are the things I’ve prioritized over everything else in my life out of necessity.

I look around at my house and see clutter; we are STILL cleaning up from Thanksgiving, in fact. I look at my backyard with the broken fence and my patio dotted with random pieces of rotting furniture. It’s all a reminder that I’m not keeping up with the day-to-day and it’s been building up and is even less manageable than it used to be. It’s a visual representation of the garbage in my brain that I can’t seem to clear out.

In the middle of my own struggles, Jack has mental health challenges, as well. The fallout from cancer is seemingly neverending. His last successful blood draw was over 6 months ago; he is long overdue. We have (and by that I really mean David has) made four attempts in the last month to get the draw at the lab, but Jack’s fear and panic have won out each time. He has had anxiety and depression, too. And so we are heading back to therapy this week, and adding a psychiatrist to the mix.

He’s 11. This is too much for an 11-year-old. Hell, I’m almost 37 and it’s too much for me.

As for me, there is nothing to be done but to keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep trying whatever medication cocktail my psychiatrist suggests, and keep focusing on the fact that I’m still IN IT but that I will float back to the top eventually.

Try not to sink. Try to swim. The surface is there; you just have to the find it.

Helpful Books for Anxious Kids

Coming out on the other side of a life-threatening medical diagnosis and the ensuing treatment takes a lot of ingenuity and resources. We’ve run the gamete looking for ways to help Jack deal with anxiety and depression during and after his bout with cancer, including various types of therapy and a whole lot of books.

While there is no substitute for a good therapist (particularly if you are a worried parent who is also trying to deal), books are enormously helpful on a day-to-day basis. For the other parents out there dealing with anxious kids, I thought I would share some of the books that our family found helpful. Please note that the below photos contain Amazon affiliate links.

Story Books for Kids with Medical Challenges

Little Tree

Age Range: 4-8

Franklin Goes to the Hospital

Age Range: 3-8


Story Books to Help Children Deal with Emotions

Is a Worry Worrying You?

Age Range: 4-8

When I Feel… Series

Age Range: 4-8


Workbooks for Kids with Anxiety or Medical Challenges

My Feeling Better Workbook

Age Range: 6-12

What To Do When You Worry Too Much

Age Range: 7-12

Digging Deep Journal

Age Range: 12+ (Artistic kids and mature kids as young as 8-9 could do great with this, in my opinion)

Do you have recommendations to add? I would love to hear about more, particularly any books specifically for tweens and teens!


These books are helpful for anxious kids between the ages of 4-12 who are dealing with big emotions and medical-related anxiety.

Progress in Getting a Better IEP

After many years of back-and-forth with Jack’s school, we have finally gotten an IEP that I think we are all happy with!

For the first time since we started meeting with the educational team at the school back in 2013, they didn’t fight us on where Jack is academically. Everyone agreed that he is demonstrating the long-term effects of his cancer treatment. Everyone agreed that what we’ve been doing so far has not helped. Finally, the school accepted that the holes in Jack’s learning would not just magically fill up again now that chemo is done. They have conceded that Jack has a huge gap between intellectual ability and academic achievement in math due to processing problems (i.e. dyscalculia), memory, and attention issues.

fear of math

Does not compute… Photo © Jimmie, Creative Commons usage.

I can’t tell you what a relief it was to walk out of that IEP meeting last week and have plans in place – not just HOPE but plans.

Jack has four new goals written into his IEP, including learning to tell time*, learning to count money, practice basic math facts so that he can get 80% accuracy, and fraction learning in the resource room prior to learning it in the classroom. Accommodations will include shorter assignments, untimed classwork, and the teacher will make sure he understands instructions/repeats them back before left to do the assignments.

Jack previously had time one day per week in the Resource Room (which amounted to 75 minutes per month) along with two other students and no individual help. Now he’ll spend time three days per week in the Resource Room and one of those will be solo with the resource teacher!

It feels like the future is looking brighter! Even if these things don’t work, we’ll know more about whether Jack can learn certain things if taught in a different way or just…not at all.


* Jack has no concept of time – not hour of the day, not day of the week, etc. He can’t tell how long something takes or how much time has passed – whether it is nearing bedtime, whether it’s late or early in the day, or what day tomorrow is. He floats along and has to have everyone around him tell him what to do next. This makes time management impossible! Part of the problem is that he can’t hold onto information about sequences longer than maybe two steps (so even if he does know that today is Monday and tomorrow is Tuesday, he has no clue where those days fall in the sequence of the seven days of the week). Another part of the problem is that he has trouble with assigned meaning of things – i.e. a quarter is worth 25 cents because someone long ago decided that was the case; the value isn’t inherent to circular pieces of metal of that size. He can’t wrap his brain around that. It’s like it’s another language that he can’t comprehend – the language of sequences and numerical meaning.

Cancer is a Thief

Another school year has begun. Jack’s fourth grade teacher seems likes she knows her stuff. Right from the start she walked the kids through how to organize their day so that there are fewer opportunities to “forget” homework; they carry a binder with a planner inside and dividers for each subject. Every day the class reviews what is to be done that evening and writes it in their planners. Ms. A is helping them establish executive function skills, an area in which Jack has a lot of trouble thanks to cancer treatment.

In addition, she is starting off the year with light homework that is mostly review material. Which is great…

Except that Jack is struggling a bit with even this small amount of homework. He is fighting increased anxiety and having bouts of depression. By the second week of school, he was difficult to rouse in the mornings. He drags his feet getting ready to leave and is incredibly slow and distractible when doing any task. He complains of stomach aches or nausea a lot. He speaks of the pressures of being in fourth grade and he despairs about growing up.

My son has turned into Peter Pan.

Last week I met with Ms. A and the school’s new resource teacher to review Jack’s IEP. Afterward I felt exhausted and defeated. I’d tried to explain the issues we’re dealing with but they didn’t seem to grasp it. I guess that’s not a surprise – I feel like I am gaining new understanding all the time about why Jack’s experience with cancer has had such a profound impact on him academically and emotionally. The territory we’re in – that of a childhood cancer survivor – is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Schools and even our oncology team are still learning what the long term effects of cancer treatment are.

As a parent of a survivor, I get a unique and up-close perspective (lucky me!). I’m only now really coming to understand that cancer is a time thief. This effect feels more pronounced with a child – a treatment that spans three and a half years impacts many more developmental phases in a child as compared to an adult.

Jack Kindergarten

Jack, age 5, first day of Kindergarten

In school and outside of it, Jack spent much of the last three and a half years in a haze. Compared to other kids his age, he didn’t play much of the time – he didn’t have the energy. He went from being a happy-go-lucky five-year-old to an intense and conflicted nine-year-old…he didn’t have much opportunity to be a kid in between those two points in time. He didn’t admit it at the time, but he admits it now: he was afraid of dying.

Academically, we are observing that Jack is missing some key building blocks for math. This past Thursday, we spent at least an hour together going over a fairly simple problem – 3,000 divided by 10. It was as if he had never divided before. And while he can answer 5×3 relatively easily, 5×30 is a whole different ball game. He hasn’t been able to connect increasingly complex math concepts with the basics.

Some of the building blocks are missing due to frequent absences from school for treatment or side effects from treatment. He missed half of kindergarten and started first grade a couple of months late because he had no ability to fight off illness. Once he was given the okay to go back to school, he rarely attended a full week until sometime in the later part of third grade. Generally if he was too sick to attend school he was also too sick (or just plain foggy-brained) to do any schoolwork at home. We did our best, but he was going at a snail’s pace while his fellow students sped along at school. When he did make it to school, he felt lost and like an outsider.

Other building blocks are missing due to the effect of chemotherapy on the brain. One of the key chemotherapy drugs Jack was given went into his spinal fluid and is known to cause learning problems in things like math and executive function. We were warned about this, but it’s not something we had the time to worry too much about because we were so busy going to and from various appointments and dealing with administering medications or battling side effects. We had limited emotional capacity for worrying about that, in any case. It was always in the back of my mind, but I had no choice but to push it aside and carry on.

Now Jack is faced with trying to catch up in an environment that barely acknowledges that he has fallen behind. He has to work much harder to stay on track – both to fill in the blanks and to learn the next thing.

Meanwhile, he has boundless energy, almost like he’s been saving it up all these years. He wants to PLAY and EXPLORE and TALK. But fourth grade is stricter, harder, has one less recess, and more kids per class. Fourth grade demands more maturity out of the kids and it just happens to coincide with a time when Jack is trying to shrug off the very thing that demanded maturity of him too soon and attempting to, essentially, recapture his youth.

Jack DC Ball Pit

Jack, age 9, in a giant ball pit in DC

Jack feels a sense of unfairness and has articulated it in his own way from time to time. “I’m dealing with cancer; why do I have to do homework?” is one line I’ve heard on several occasions. And there is the repeated refrain, “I don’t want to grow up! It’s too much pressure!”

It has taken me some time but I understand now. Three and a half years of treatment left Jack with only vague memories of what a carefree existence was like. He has his life, thankfully, but he also has PTSD and lives with so much fear. He can’t get time back – cancer has stolen his innocence and so much of his childhood.

Many nine-year-olds struggle with school and homework – in that, Jack is not alone. But Jack is the only one in his class (and, as far as I know, the only one in his school) who is dealing with those things while trying to make up for years of lost time and heal his soul. The school faculty have no idea how to help him.

Neither do I, really, but I won’t stop trying.

No Way Out But Through

When Jack was diagnosed with Leukemia three and a half years ago, I focused on the “End of Treatment.” I thought we would do what we could to get through the difficult treatment process, but that eventually we would be done.

Well, to be perfectly honest, I thought we would be done when the Induction phase (where remission is achieved) was complete – 30 days after diagnosis and the beginning of treatment. Then I readjusted my thinking – we would have most of the hard stuff behind us after Consolidation – the chemo-heavy “blast the hell out of any remaining cancer cells” phase. I figured Maintenance would be unpleasant, but easier that those prior phases – I thought we would pretty much be done once we got to Maintenance. But then Maintenance lasted over two years and while much of it went smoothly, we did not feel done at all – instead, the hardship of all we’d had to endure up to that point caught up to us.

THEN I thought – End of Treatment is the ticket! End of Treatment would come and this business would be behind us! But, well…

I’ve lost count of the number of therapy sessions Jack has had at this point. With this latest therapist, we’re at least past 10 sessions by now. This therapist has been the most helpful, and Jack has had two successful blood draws! By “successful,” I in NO WAY mean easy. There was shaking and tears, and both times I thought we would not get the draw. But Jack managed to push past his fear and do it!

The first time he was successful (after 8 therapy sessions and countless “needle exposures” at home), he felt jubilant and accomplished afterward! He even said it hurt much less than he thought it would. But the second time was harder for some reason, and afterward he felt tired and defeated and weepy. It didn’t help that one of the phlebotomists in the lab muttered, “He’s never going to be ready,” which Jack heard.

Two steps forward, one step back. Can I bill the lab for the therapy appointments, ya think?

As the therapist delves deeper with Jack into the medical trauma he has experienced, the emotions (mostly negative) get harder to deal with and manifest that difficulty comes out in various ways. Fear randomly comes and goes, insomnia often plagues him, and Jack has felt more of a need to cling to his parents. Some OCD tendencies showed up during the second blood draw, something we hadn’t seen in him before, and then again in his therapy session the next day. Depression – a despair that no 8-year-old should even be able to contemplate – came over him at bedtime on Sunday.

Having gone through trauma therapy myself, I know how hard it is and that when you are in it, it feels like nothing will ever be okay. There are many forces within our minds that try to protect us from feeling the pain of trauma – they tell us to run from even distant memories of it. It’s exhausting to fight your own brain. It takes a fierce, stubborn person to do it, and lots of support.

I have no doubt Jack can do it. We will support him every step of the way.

But he has many doubts and fears. After the therapy appointment Saturday, which had him so upset that he started to run around the room near the end and stopped being cooperative, I tried to reassure him that it’s all worth it.

“It doesn’t feel worth it! It feels terrible!”

I know, buddy. It really, really sucks.

The blood test results – what much of this effort and urgency is about – look pretty good. Jack’s immune system is recovering, which is very reassuring. But for some reason, his iron is super low and that leads to other worries, more medications (thankfully, just a liquid iron supplement at the moment), and additional tests.

We don’t want more worries, more medications, or more tests. Our cups not only runneth over from these things – they’re being crushed by the weight of them. We don’t want anymore, thank you!

We have no other choice, though, so it’s one foot in front of the other. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have to stop thinking in terms of when cancer will be behind us. When you’re in it, you can’t see through to the other side.

You just have to keep going anyway.