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.

You’ve Gotta Go There to Come Back

Last week I went to the Type A conference in Alexandria, Virginia. It was my first time away from my whole family for longer than a night in over 3 years! I was so excited to get some time to myself, see friends and family (my sister lives in Maryland), and sleep in a comfy hotel bed without a toddler threatening to wake me in the wee hours of the morning. Like all things worth doing, it wasn’t easy to accomplish, though!

A little over 24 hours before I was due to head out, Dez came down with a fever. I packed my suitcase while his temperature surged to 105. I worried, as I always do now when fevers strike (thanks, cancer!). Naturally, I had trouble settling down to sleep that night. And then Dave woke me up around 3am because he could feel Dez’s heart pounding in his chest and the dose of Motrin we’d given him that evening hadn’t done anything to budge the fever. I called the Kaiser advice nurse, a thing that is old hat now after all the health worries we went through with Jack, but nerve-wracking nonetheless.

sick toddler laying on a couch

I was given the usual precautions: keep him hydrated, remove extraneous clothing, try Tylenol, and take him to the ER in if his temp goes over 106. We gave Dez some Tylenol and all went back to sleep (“He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine.” repeating in my head).

I had a nightmare about missing my flight, so naturally I woke up feeling even more frantic! I made it to the airport just fine, though.

Dez was miserable while I was gone. David took him to the doctor after 72 hours of fever, whereupon he was diagnosed with an infected tonsil thanks to a random virus. There was nothing to do but let it run its course.

While that was going on, David was also working with Jack to get him caught up on math and science homework. The middle school workload is turning out to be difficult to keep up with, and we got a (surprise!) progress report recently showing that Jack’s grades were looking grim. I made a deal with him before I left that if he got caught up while I was away, he could order two books from the book fair at school (side note: Jack is super easy to bribe! It takes so little!). He had to stay up late a couple of nights and got help and coaching from David, but he did it. His grades have improved drastically already.

I had so much guilt while I was away, but I swallowed it. That’s what we have to do as moms, right? We have to step away for a bit of personal renewal and trust that our families will manage without us. And mine totally did! David took charge with doctor appointments and nursing Dez back to health and helping Jack get caught up on his homework and ensuring that his teacher recorded the late assignments. I got home and everyone was healthy and the house was even clean! Everyone had missed me, but they managed quite well without me. That felt good.

The conference itself wasn’t great, but I am glad I went even if just to let my family show me how strong and capable they are. It was worth it just for that.

Desmond is 3 Years Old!

Are you as surprised as I am that Desmond is turning 3? It is true that time goes even faster the second time around. I only vaguely remember that first year before the constant running around and chitchat…

Dez is still a very active child. He loves to jump on the bed and off the arm of the couch (over and over). He uses a stepstool to get up into everything. He’ll rummage in my purse and dump his blocks all over the living room floor while spinning in a circle. He loves to chase his big brother and play “swords” with pool noodles.

He does have a lot more chill moments these days, though. He will sit and entertain himself with videos on YouTube Kids or by playing with his cars or legos. It’s pretty fun to watch him with his cars. He makes the cars talk to each other; typically this involves the cars crashing together, then one asking the other, “Are you okay?” “I’m okay,” the car replies before the cycle starts again.

toddler talking to a line of cars

He loves to line up his cars and talk to them.

Cars are definitely the number one toy obsession. Every day Dez takes 4 of them to daycare. His favorite is Lightening McQueen. The other three vary. For a while he would walk into daycare and hand McQueen to one of his friends, “Here you go, Zoey.” It was his morning ritual. One morning he looked at Zoey and said, “Oh, so cute, Zoey!” He’s going to be a charmer, this one.

Amelia, the daughter of our friends Rebecca and Tim, is Dez’s best friend. We have no family in town, so it is especially awesome that Dez and Mimi get along so well! When Rebecca and Tim come over to hang out, the kids run around with each other and jump on the bed together. This past Easter they hunted eggs together in the front yard. Every morning Dez says, “I wanna see Mimi!” And off to daycare he goes to see her.

two toddlers searching for easter eggs

Dez and Mimi hunting eggs at Easter.

Dez is quite good at making it known what he wants, whether with words or a tantrum. His speech has gotten a lot better and he talks a ton! His favorite thing lately is to ask, “What’s that sound?” He will ask it over and over and over and over. And over. To get out of answering a billion times, I try to turn it around with a “What do you think it is?” Sometimes that works, and sometimes he just goes back to “What’s that sound, Mama?” Usually the sound is a car driving down the street–his favorite sound.

(Funny story! We were driving to daycare one morning and a commercial came on with Gilbert Godfried doing the voiceover. “What’s that sound?” Dez wondered. After a pause, he answered his own question with “Monsterrr.” Ha!)

Dez can also count to 10 and knows his colors. He knows his letters, too, although I haven’t heard him sing the alphabet song.

toddler singing

We recently took Dez to an outdoor concert…where he tried to sing loudly over the band.

In addition to talking, Dez loves to sing. He loves to sing LOUDLY. His favorite tune is “Finger Family” (ugh! Thanks, YouTube!), followed by “Johnny Johnny” or whatever it’s called. Dez will lay down at night and croon loudly and off key, “Daddy finger, daddy finger, where are YOOOOOUUUUUU?” It would be hilarious if we weren’t trying to get some sleep!

Speaking of sleep…it’s still not great. Most nights he doesn’t go to sleep until 10 or 10:30, and it requires one of us (usually Dave) lying down with him. If Dave escapes during the night to go back to our bed, Dez will be up at some point in the night to drag me into his room. Then he’s up bright and early at 6:30 most days (although a cold has had him sleeping until almost 8am on some mornings lately AND he slept through the night two nights in a row! It was bliss!).

Dez is very affectionate, which helps balance out the toddler difficulties. Every morning he bursts out of his room to find me and give me a hug. Is there anything sweeter than a toddler wrapping his hands around you and laying his head on your shoulder? He still has that smooth baby skin and squishy cheeks and I just want to eat him. I try to hold onto those moments because in a flash he is off and getting into things.

brothers holding hands

Dez is very affectionate AND loves his big brother.

Lastly, food. He is a little piggy! He pretty much eats his weight in watermelon every week. He likes fruits, veggies, toast, rice, eggs, Annie’s yogurt (and ONLY Annie’s yogurt!), and usually wants a bite of whatever it is we are eating. He’s started eating chicken nuggets (nuggets shaped like letters were the gateway; now he’ll eat dino shapes, too). He is also addicted to fruit snacks (“snack snacks”) and is quite the candy fiend. I should have never let him have candy! It’s so much harder to avoid this stuff with an older kid around… He still doesn’t drink milk or juice, though. He’s not big into cheese, either. Weird kid.

All in all, Dez is a fun, energetic, silly, and lovely boy. I’m very much enjoying watching him grow up!

toddler in a hat

Happy birthday, little buddy!

Feeling Stuck with Parenting Challenges

As amazing as Jack is, parenting him comes with a lot of challenges. The challenges always surprise us because he is a perfectionist and a people pleaser. He is sensitive and doesn’t want to upset his parents and he’s very cautious. He’s the kid most parents want their kid to hang out with because he’s level headed and avoidant of trouble.

And yet, we have challenges. They are complicated and frustrating. We are definitely parenting a highly sensitive person, both in terms of emotional sensitivity and sensory issues. And we feel stuck.

tween boy in glasses and a hat

Jack looking entirely too grown up.

Food Challenges

On the positive side, Jack loves veggies and fruit. He could easily go vegetarian. He will probably never be overweight. The thing is, fruits and vegetables don’t have many calories!

We struggle to get him to eat protein. He doesn’t like scrambled or fried eggs. He only likes breaded chicken (and is picky about certain types, at that). He doesn’t eat beef or pork. He ate peanut butter for a time, but that time recently came to an end. I have no idea what he’s going to eat for lunch once he goes back to school.

He is not the type of person that you can just say “you must eat this; there are no other options.” He will just not eat. (To be honest, he gets this from me. I did grow out of this somewhat.)

Sleep Challenges

For the most part, Jack is an amazing sleeper. Once he is asleep, he is pretty much OUT. He’s nearly impossible to rouse. And for most of his 11 years, it has not been tough to get him to sleep.

Cancer treatment definitely affected his sleep, though. During treatment he had night terrors and nosebleeds that woke him up. He started having trouble relaxing at bedtime, as well, possibly due to unconscious fears of things being done to him while he was sleeping (which, fair!). Over the years he has acquired more and more stuffed animals that live in his bed. Every night before bed, he piles the stuffed animals up on top of himself, and then a heavy blanket goes over that. (He cannot sleep without the heavy blanket.) He needs a nightlight to sleep, and a fan going. We also still read to him every night.

All of that would be fine if we could just get him to relax and go to sleep without calling us in because he’s scared. He worries about someone breaking in. He can’t get worrisome images out of his head. He sometimes feels like something is in the room with him.

It’s pretty easy to see WHY he has these fears. But dealing with them is the tricky part. We’ve tried numerous things in therapy and his latest therapist seems to have run out of ideas. Everything the therapist suggests works for a night or two and then stops working.

School Challenges

Where do I even begin? The only good here is that Jack is smart and, with the exception of math, is meeting grade level standards. We have an IEP in place to help him with math, and he has made progress, but his progress is slow. Every year he falls further behind grade level.

Give Jack three math problems and it will take him an hour AND require assistance, even if it’s something like double digit multiplication. It’s partly due to learning disabilities (dyscalculia, slow processing, and ADHD), and partly due to his lack of interest. He doesn’t like it and it’s not easy, and so he doesn’t even want to try.

It’s not just math, though. He doesn’t like school at all anymore. He says it’s boring and he “has no friends” because no one wants to play his games at recess and homework is pointless. He absolutely DOES have friends and there are lots of kids who would play his games if he asked. But he is rigid and pessimistic when it comes to school and so he creates a self-fulfilling prophecy every day.

Jack starts middle school in three weeks and I’m terrified.

Feeling Stuck

Take any one of these challenges and it’s frustrating, but all of them together feel like entirely too much. It feels like we have tried just about everything and each time it’s 1 step forward, 2 steps back. We feel stuck and helpless.

Will Jack grow out of it? Are we not parenting him effectively? How much influence do we even have over him? So many questions, so few answers.

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.