May 11, 2019

Happy Mother's Day. ps. Are You Depressed?


Gayle Madden (not her real name) was 28 and in my legal aid office. According to the paperwork she handed me, she was planning on giving away her daughters, 5 and 3, to the state. I looked at Gayle and the first thought I had was how uncomfortable she looked. She sat stiffly in the chair, her face scarred with acne, twirling her brown hair. After years of working in legal aid, I had learned how to spot someone with a serious mental illness. Gayle looked medicated and ill.

Eventually the story came out. Gayle suffered, and I mean suffered, from schizophrenia. I'm not familiar with current treatment options, but 35 years ago there wasn't much available to help Gayle, other than debilitating drugs. Gayle heard voices at times, was frequently forgetful, fearful, and disorganized. She couldn't work and could barely take care of herself. She definitely couldn't continue to take care of her kids.

It's horrible to be alone and so sick that you have to give away your kids. It's even worse when you aren't alone and have to give away your kids. The children had a father -- Gayle's ex-husband -- but he didn't want custody of his kids. So he had already signed away his rights. (Normally, you can't just walk away from your parental responsibilities and I never really understood why the state let him get away with that, but it had and there we were.) Gayle also had a mother and 2 sisters who lived about 50 miles away. They "weren't interested" in the kids either.

I had become adept at tamping down my emotions at work. You learn quickly to develop a bit of a shell in order to get the job done -- there's a lot of sadness out there. Sometimes we'd joke about our clients -- not in a mean way, but as a way of coping. I suspect that paramedics, teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, and others with similar jobs do the same thing. But occasionally, I'd be blindsided by the sadness or injustice of some circumstances. This was one of those times.

I explained to Gayle that the court would have to find her "unfit" and that, if she changed her mind and thought she could take care of her children in the future, she would have the burden of proving that she was no longer an unfit parent. If they were adopted, there would be no such opportunity. In other words, once the Judge signed the order, it was unlikely her children would ever live with her again. She would never know what happened to her girls. I also explained that she would lose her welfare checks when she no longer had the children. Without her welfare checks, she would lose her Medicaid. Medicaid paid for her drugs and those drugs kept her out the hospital. But, we would help her apply for disability and get back her Medicaid. Her disability check would be smaller and it might take a while to get it; she would need to cope with that too. After a bit, I was satisfied Gayle understood and had the capacity to make the decision, so there wasn't much else for me to do.

A few weeks later we went to court and, after a short presentation by the state and no objection by me, the Judge asked Gayle a few questions and then declared Gayle to be an "unfit" parent. At that point, Gayle stood up, and in a moment of exquisite, heartbreaking clarity, told the Judge that she didn't think it was fair to be called unfit. As Gayle put it, it would be unfit of her to keep her children. She was acting out of love and concern, not neglect. She asked the Judge to please "just say I have been a good mom."

The Judge sat there silent. I fumed. Gayle was making the hardest decision I'd ever seen someone make and the Judge was inexplicably making it worse. So I stood up and asked the Judge to please tell Gayle that he agreed that she was a good mom, acting out of love and concern, and to please explain that the "unfit" language was an unfortunate technicality. The Judge then said "These proceedings are over." Banging his big dumb gavel, he got up, and walked out.

There was no happy ending. Mr. Madden didn't appear at the last minute to save the kids from foster care; the judge showed no compassion. There were no magic pills for Gayle to take and get better and regain custody. The children didn't send me a letter 10 years later thanking me for helping their mother. Rather, the social worker and I walked Gayle back to the street and we both went back to work. Gayle moved several times, was in and out of the hospital, but got her disability checks and had her Medicaid restored. And then I lost track of her. I don't know what happened to her girls.

It's been over 35 years since I thought about Gayle, but she was on my mind this week. I've been struggling with anxiety and a bit of depression lately. I know both quite well, and I have lots of techniques (including stamping) for squashing them. However, this week they got out of control.

Depression and anxiety rob us of simple joys and distort the truth. I began to dread Mother's Day. I'm not a big fan of these holidays anyway, as many end up feeling left out or disappointed. This is the first one where I had no occasion to make a card or send a gift as my mother-in-law died last May. I'm still adjusting to living in Dallas and I found myself wandering around the house trying to figure out a way to return to Virginia. I can't seem to make a decision about a medical issue and endlessly weigh the options.

As the rains fell and the sky stayed dark, my mood sunk even further. I'd walk in the house, put down a bag of groceries and cry as I thought of problems just mounting. I couldn't sleep, tossing and turning and feeling hopeless. I'd go on social media and resent all the happiness I thought I saw. I started thinking of every sad thing that has ever happened or could happen, including Gayle.

Remembering Gayle and her sad story changed my mood. Rather than make me feel more depressed, as I thought about her enormous sacrifice, and her children's circumstances, I once again was gripped with overwhelming gratitude for my life and all its gifts. Once gratitude took hold, there was little room to stay depressed.*

The heart decision could wait, and without depression's shade, doesn't seem that big of a deal anymore. The house felt cozy in the rain and thunder. I applied for another volunteer job (so far my other attempts haven't worked out), and I am looking forward to seeing our son on Mother's Day -- I plan on beating him at several board games! This is the first Mother's Day that we will be together since he was in high school. This is why we moved here. I began to feel foolish. If Gayle, whose situation was immeasurably worse than mine in every single aspect, could cope, so could I.

Depression makes small issues seem overwhelming and big issues impossible. Anxiety just messes with everything. Don't let them trick you. Don't let a holiday trick you. Don't let social media trick you. If you are struggling, perhaps just taking the time to remember all the Gayles out there will help you in the same way that it helped me.

*A serious clinical depression needs a serious response, whether it's medication, therapy, or other treatments, or a combination of them. Reading this blog is not a serious response!

ps. to all celebrating -- have a happy mother's day!

33 comments:

  1. Love you ... and glad you get to share tomorrow with your son. Your open heart and honesty inspires.

    ReplyDelete
  2. (hugs!) You're a dear and sweet woman to put yourself out there like this. You are treasured and special! Your sense of story telling is FABULOUS! I adore reading of your adventures! We've never met - I'm simply someone who caught your name along the way of "Hey - GREAT stamper to follow and tells a good story!" I've been hooked for a few years now, peeking in at your life. Thanks for sharing it with us! And yes - anxiety, depression, mental health - very serious matters. We're learning how to best help my youngest through her challenges with anxiety and depression. Appreciate your insights! And a very happy Mother's Day! GLAD you found your "grateful" to hang onto!

    Lezlee - an adoring fan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thank you and best of luck with your youngest. these can be tough issues

      Delete
  3. Like Lezlee, I am an adoring fan. LOVE your writing...it really puts me "there" and moves me. I also came to your blog through the stamping world and am always excited when I see you have a post. Thank you for a beautiful one today. Gratitude changes everything....when we can access it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Joan, what a beautiful post: sincere, authentic, honest, and perhaps most important of all, helpful. We need to talk about these things more, to share our experiences so others know they are not alone. Gayle was a good mom...acknowledging her limitations and doing what was right for her children, as sad as it was. Depression sucks, and I'm glad you found an attitude adjustment in gratitude. Hugs to you, and a happy Mother's Day!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks. there is plenty we all could share on line but obviously most of us keep most of it quiet!! but I do think it is helpful to sometimes make it clear that the stuff we see on social media is not the whole story.

      Delete
  5. Happy Mother's Day, Joan and have a wonderful day with your son and family. And thank you for Gayle's story and your own.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hugs, Joan! So many of us deal with depression and anxiety and, while I wish it wasn't something YOU have in your life, your openness helps us all know we are not alone. I hope your day with your son is wonderful and filled with gratitude. More hugs!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Your heart and words speak to me deeply. I’m estranged from my mom, and beat myself up over that especially on days like today. I’m learning to accept that it is what it is and that I feel “healthier” without the drama and pain that comes with that relationship. I’m grateful for the wisdom that comes with age, and the honesty of others that make it okay to be okay with the dysfunction in our lives. Thank you for your honesty. And Happy Mother’s Day! I always loved the stories that you told about your mom, and I’d venture to guess that your son has some equally great stories to tell about you! You’re a good woman, Joan - and a true example of an authentic human being! Thank you for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Karolyn, that must be very difficult. I am so sorry. I am somewhat authentic on this blog. There is plenty I do not share! I think these blog posts tend to leave me looking like someone with wisdom when the reality is i am a hot emotional mess most of the time!

      Delete
  8. Thanks for sharing your situation. I love your writing and story-telling. I am not a mother and I could have spent the day lamenting that. However, this morning I spoke to a friend who lost her mum two days ago and I was reminded that I am lucky to have my own mother with me and alive after two heart attacks. At lunch with my extended family, I was reminded that I am lucky to have a place in the lives of my nephews, god children and other kids whose parents love us and include us in their lives. Your story reminds me to be even more grateful. Thanks for that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thank you for sharing that. we all have lives full of stresses and blessings. I hope yours is more of the latter.

      Delete
  9. Thank you for always sharing your stories, your terrific gift of writing and being so open and honest. So happy you were able to spend the day with your boy.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Joan, I love your writing and your cards. I too came upon your blog through the stamping world many years ago. Have a wonderful day with your son and many gaming victories!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Your story was indeed a "serious response" for me. My brother is schizophrenic and there is zero progress for help with that, even 35 years later, and zero help for other mental illnesses, other than mind-twisting drugs all victims find intolerable. Your story lifted me to be grateful for what I have; the strength to be the sole caregiver of my husband of 64 years who is dying of Lewy Body Dementia. I can do this! Gayle had an even worse fate by far. Thank you for being you, Joan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. oh my goodness. I am so sorry to read about your brother and your husband. I know what Lewy Body Dementia is and you are traveling a very difficult road, aren't you? My heart goes out to you. Best wishes

      Delete
  12. When I had a heart attack at age 54, my sister was working for a major insurance company. The physician who headed her unit was traveling nation-wide lecturing on depression as a result of heart problems. I have cautioned people since to be on the lookout. I retired a few years ago after 40+ years working in mental health. I joke that I have PTSD, except I don't think it is really a joke. I am haunted by so many stories. I think telling your stories is your way out. Keep care, Joan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks. I am sorry you had a heart attack at such a young age. PTSD is very real that's for sure

      Delete
  13. Joan, when I was a baby Legal Aid attorney, a couple who were developmentally disabled came into my office wanting to terminate custody of their 5 y.o. and 7 y.o. sons, who were not developmentally disabled, in favor of the wife's brother. The 7 y.o. had brought his father's gun to school. This was a wakeup call to the parents. When I asked the husband went he wanted to terminate his parental rights, he sadly and wisely said, "our 7 year old is making the family decisions and that's not fair to him."
    My story has a good ending! My husband, our friend, and I have run a food pantry for the past nine years. Rhe wife was in the line for food and said, "Do you remember me? You were my attorney." (Due to attorney /client privilege, I never acknowledge the rekationship unless the other person mentions it. I just smile and say hi, how are you doing). She filled me in anout what had hapoened in the past 35 years. She was widowed, remarried and widowed a 2nd time, she has severe diabetes and is living in a weekly motel, her sons are married and have good jobs, she is a grandmother, and she is content.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks for sharing that story. there are so many out there!

      Delete
  14. I was so angry with the judge when I read this. Angry with her useless family, too, until I thought again and realized Gayle's children are better off without such a family. I'm no expert, Joan, but it seems to me your circumstances are fuel for depression unless you have the wherewithal to pull yourself out before it takes too deep a hold on you. Which you did, and it probably will not be the last time you have to call upon your inner strength. I hope you had a nice Mother's Day with your son.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thank you for sharing again of your personal journey. Long ago I wrote often, not so anymore. Anxiety of who will read it keeps the words in my head. Not safe or sound in my head but not on paper either.
    Holiday's are painful when they aren't what I need but asking gets a no, we're busy or no response so I am thankful when the 24-hours are finished and the journey of life can be past another holiday. I quit asking, nothing changed.
    Thankful the pain doesn't hang around for days or weeks anymore. Hobbies help. Doing for others help. Talking occasionally with a therapist helps. Being loved by my husband helps.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so sorry. I'm glad that there are things in your life that help.

      Delete
  16. You amaze me with your gift of writing, and your honesty is so refreshing. We all struggle with something, many things usually, and the social media works can present such distorted pictures of seemingly perfect lives. Knowing others have issues even greater than our own is both sad and helpful. None of us have an ideal situation, and being honest is truly helpful. There is always someone worse off than ourselves, and we need to be grateful for our blessings. Thank you for being so transparent and real, and I hope your Mother’s Day was an extra special memorable one.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Aren't we all a hot mess at some point or another? And sometimes it just seems like we just can't move away from that feeling. My down days are not often; but they can be so debilitating. My husband usually can tell when I am in a funk; sometimes he can actually get me out of it. I hope writing helps you. I know that it helps to share; and by doing it so publicly, you help out so many.

    I have a love hate relationship with social media. I have relatives that use it as a whining forum, I have friends that just lurk, there are those who show only the rosy side. But I am grateful for it most of the time. It has allowed me to connect or stay connected with friends and family that I don't get to see on a regular basis. It helps us to celebrate those things that should be celebrated. First birthdays, 90th birthdays, weddings, graduations and so much more.

    It can however make you feel that you are the only one that is not happy and joy filled at all times. It can make you feel left out when posts of fun things don't include you. It is not a true picture of life in general. We just need to remember that.

    I know making a beautiful card gives you a lift. What else makes you smile? I love to look for joy in every day. Flowering spring trees, my grandson's lost tooth, a meal well prepared, a compliment from a coworker, a bargain purchase, a new stamp, a favorite song on the radio. Is looking for joy something that can help?

    Thanks for sharing with us.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I read each one and often have difficulty responding. If you want to hear back, please leave your email address.