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.

Doors

It happens at bedtime. Wild-eyed and almost vibrating with anxious energy, Jack zooms through the house. He sweeps down the hall and into his bedroom, from which I hear frantic murmurs. Moments later he zooms out again and I catch him up in my arms to steady him. I feel his heart beating rapidly in his chest.

I ask him what’s wrong.

“I don’t know. I don’t feel right. Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a dream? Do you ever look in the mirror and feel like it’s not you looking back?”

Yes, I say. Many times.

He doesn’t really hear me. He disengages from my arms and zooms around the room again, first toward the kitchen, next toward the door. “Doors,” he mutters and reaches for the knob. I say no and he turns on his heel and makes a beeline for his bedroom again.

I follow. He sits in his desk chair and taps his fingers on the desk. His brown eyes fill with tears and dart around the room.

“My brain doesn’t feel right. I think I’m broken.”

He goes on to tell me that everything is boring. He says that fairytales are lies that are written to cope with the fact that there is no real magic in the world. He reads them and he feels hope and then reality returns: there is no magic, there are only lies. He will never have adventures. He will get up in the morning and eat his boring toast at the boring table and then go to boring school…it is all so awful.

His eyes meet mine and he pleads, “Is there something that can fix this?”

He says he worries about taking pills. He worries he is not meant to take pills, that he is meant for something that the pills will suppress.

Where did he get this idea, I wonder… How can a 10-year-old even possess this level of critical thinking?

“I don’t know how to fix this, Son, but I have ideas for what to do to help right now. You don’t have to figure it out on your own.”

First I give him headache medicine for the pounding in his head. Then we find a music station on his iPad, a soothing station of instrumental lullabies.

Draw, I tell him. Draw the monsters that are in your head right now. Draw and listen to the music and breathe while I make a cup of tea.

I come back with a steaming cup of minty tea and hold it under his nose, telling him to take a whiff. He does and then continues drawing.

He sketches twisted faces, pairs of eyes, a vortex, a banana tree. An instrumental version of “Hey Jude” plays while he draws. A calm settles over him.

“I’m feeling better,” he says. “I’m starting to forget the thoughts. I just need to draw this one last thing.”

He draws a door. “I kept seeing doors,” he explains as he puts his sketch pad aside.

We climb into his loft bed together, where he sips tea while I read to him. He is mostly back to his easy-going self by the time I tuck him in and say goodnight.

I breathe a deep sigh as I walk away from his bedroom door. I am bewildered. I don’t know what happened to my son this evening or why it happened, but we got through it together.

It is behind him, for now. It is my turn to cry.

It’s A Hard-Knock Life (For Us Parents)

I have a migraine right now and my hip is fucking killing me. I would love to go to bed – I don’t even care that it’s not even 9pm on a Friday – but I can’t go to bed because Dez is trying to go to sleep in said bed and my presence is not conducive to him falling asleep.

This is parenthood. Sleep is like vacation to me – better, even, because it requires much less planning (and yet is no less elusive at times).

David and I are involved in a tag team effort at bedtime these days. I nurse Dez, then David steps in when Dez decides maybe he doesn’t want to go to sleep and tries to make a break for it. Daddy means business, though, and when he walks in the room, Dez knows his attempts at delaying bedtime are doomed.

Being the parent of a toddler is hard. I had forgotten just how hard. I guess that’s what happens when you wait eight years to have a second child! This little person who is most definitely his own little person and yet can’t do a damned thing for himself yet (except stuff too many yogurt melts in his mouth at one time) can make you question your choices in life, your sanity, and your self-worth. I had forgotten, but now I remember: I do not like the toddler years, Sam-I-Am.

Frankly, the pre-teen years aren’t seeming to be much better at this point. I’ve been meaning to write about all kinds of Jack-related things but it’s a big ball of complexity that I barely want to think about. The shortish version is this – he has been diagnosed with ADHD, dyscalculia (a math learning disability), and anxiety brought on by medical-related experiences. And in a year he goes back for more testing because the neuropsychologist isn’t sure she was able to get him all figured out.

At nearly the same time that we got the diagnoses and the rest of the results of the neuropsych testing, things at school got particularly bad. Jack and his teacher are at complete odds. It’s partly Jack’s fault and partly the teacher’s fault, and both of them are less than flexible people. We are working on Jack’s behavior, though I think we (and the teacher!) will just have to accept that Jack will have some bad days.

Therapy has been successful, though, so that’s a plus. Yay! I’ll take all the victories I can get.

Back to Dez…he’s a weird little fellow. He’s no longer that magical unicorn baby. He is vocal and can be clingy and so very quirky. He took his first unassisted steps a few days before Christmas, and then hasn’t walked since. He just goes around walking on his knees (which are now quite callused). He doesn’t say much, either. He has some words but very few that are clear. That doesn’t stop him from chatting, though. He talks a LOT – just not in English.

He also doesn’t sleep for shit. He is a terrible, no good, very bad sleeper. I think he must have gotten it from David because Jack and I both excel at sleeping!

He is a great eater, though. He’s got Jack beat on that!

So clearly we’re living a hectic existence right now. I know it won’t last forever and one day I will look back and miss the moments where Jack helps his brother walk around the living room or Dez snuggles up to me for midnight nursing sessions…but right now I am dreaming of peace and quiet.

Fewer headaches and a massage would be lovely, too.

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.