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.

Why I Marched on Oakland

On January 21st, I marched in Oakland as part of the Women’s March on Washington. I know there are some out there who don’t understand what marching accomplishes. I don’t always know the answer to that, but sometimes you feel strongly about things going on in the world and you can’t sit there anymore and do nothing. Sometimes, marching just feels right.

It was a diverse group that marched in Oakland. It wasn’t only women; there were people of every color, size, shape, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and flavor. The reasons why participants marched were many and varied.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Here are the many reasons that I marched (with my son Jack) yesterday:

  • To show that I will not be a silent victim of Trump’s fascist agenda and toxicity.
  • Because every person who marches builds up a critical mass that results in 2.5 million people, which shows that we are not a small minority of people who are concerned with the dangers of a Trump administration.
  • To show support to every person who will be targeted and harmed by Trump’s agenda and toxic atmosphere for simply trying to live their life:
    • people of color
    • LGBTQIA people
    • women
    • immigrants
    • those in need of affordable healthcare and protections against pre-existing conditions clauses
    • children who deserve to go to school without worrying about gun violence
  • To feel solidarity with my fellow citizens who also want to build a better America–an America that is constantly improving and not trying to return to the past.
  • To be part of a movement so big that it cannot be ignored.
  • To show my children what freedom means.

I will keep marching because it means something to me and reminds me what it means to be an American.

Living That Normal Life

For the first time in nearly five years, Jack’s latest lab results were normal! While he finished cancer treatment over a year and a half ago, his body has taken its sweet time showing us that it could function normally. The last hold out on the labs was his ferritin level, which stubbornly refused to come up even with liquid iron supplementation. Finally, though, he’s off of supplements and his ferritin is normal!

Health aside, Jack is mostly living a normal life as a regular 5th grader. He’s been improving steadily in school thanks to a teacher that is pretty laid back and increased time in the resource room for math help. He even likes math sometimes!

Oh, and he can tell time now. That finally clicked when we got him a smart watch. He played around with the time display a lot and I think that helped him understand how time works.

Who knows, the increased ferritin level could also be a factor. (Apparently low ferritin can impede brain functioning.)

Things have improved considerably for all things Jack-related. No more fits over homework, very few missed days at school, and mood stability. In our darkest cancer days, we never thought we would get here. It’s pretty incredible!

At the end of January, Jack will reach 5 years disease-free. He survived.

We all survived.

Brothers

Jack and Dez on Thanksgiving.

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.