I hear the kids downstairs; they must be home from school. My husband yells at them to put away their coats, hats and gloves. Polly sings a song from Super Why, and Zoya complains that Elaina is mean. Pots and pans shuffle around in the kitchen. I imagine Sergei clicking on the gas on the stove and pulling out a skillet to start dinner while Evangeline plays with a toy near him on the kitchen floor. These are things I should be involved in. But I’m not. I listen, hold my breath and wonder if signs of life downstairs will bring a pulse back to my chest. I push air out of my cheeks and feel my body sink deeper into the mattress. My head is a stuffed cabbage roll. Nothing computes. I turn over and pull the soft white comforter with a black design over my face.
I’m down under a mud puddle somewhere in a dream. I hear a muffled voice.
“Mom? It’s time for dinner. Mommy?”
I roll onto my back and squint my eyes up at Zoya, daughter number two, the easiest baby for me, the one who still crawls up in my lap and rests her head on my breast like she’d nurse if she could.
“Hi.” My voice has a smoker’s grittiness.
This is where it gets tricky. I don’t want my depression to to scare my kids. On good days, I help get them off to school, then do a little work and perhaps a load of laundry. I go to bed for a while and then get up again right before they return. But sometimes it’s like this: I don’t function.
Zoya stands expectantly. I glob together blips of energy hiding in my body. My mind gathers them up like worn-out pieces of leftover pie crust that won’t stay together, even with a little flour and spit.
“Hi, honey. How was school?”
Her voice is small, distant. I see fear in her eyes, and work to remember whether I’ve taken a shower today or yesterday.
“Um, Papa says it’s time for dinner. Can you come down and eat with us?”
My daughter’s face is smooth white velvet. (I catch her once in a while, when I’m better, lying around in her bed. “Whatcha doin’?” “Nothing, just resting,” she says. “Okay,” I reply, and walk down our light yellow hallway. I wonder if she’s sad. Would she tell me? In a lot of ways Zoya is the kid most similar to me: natural athletic ability but not a lot of follow-through, a somewhat round shape, prone to watching long television programs and spending time alone. I worry she’ll have whatever wacked gene I seemed to have inherited that makes life bad and hard sometimes for no reason. I hope to God it isn’t so.)
“I’m not coming down for dinner tonight, honey. I’m still not great.”
“Okay. Do you want us to bring you up a plate?” she asks.
“Maybe a little later.”
Depression is not a lazy susan. Depression is a savage. It sucks my life down its gullet; I slide like a sip of bourbon. I’m worthless. A waste. I’m no longer a wife, a mother or even a Christian. I am depressed. Here. Now. People say you can choose happy. Okay, I choose it every day. But it doesn’t choose me. I see Zoya’s face in my mind and remember her as an infant, jet-black hair sticking straight up all over her head. Hair everywhere on her body. A dark patch in the middle of her back, a landing strip for a tiny toy airplane. I think of her laughing over a silly comment her father or a sibling has made. She bends her head back, opens her mouth and lets go. I think of her cuddled up in her bed: “Goodnight, Mommy, see you in the morning.” When she was a toddler I tucked her in for a nap every afternoon, and it felt like Communion, her soft face and gorgeous eyes smiling into mine.
Do I still count as a mother like this? I wanted to be a good mom to my kids, and now look at me. I’m not a mom at all. I’m sinking. I don’t want to sink.
Zoya bends toward me and wraps her arms around my body. Her embrace stops the ache for a second. A tear slides down my cheek— I wipe it away before she can see it.
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too, Zoya.”
She leaves my bedroom, and I wriggle around on the mattress to find a way to ease the pain. The door closes. I sigh. How did my life come to this? The mother who is always home, but absent? My kids. Oh, my kids. What do they think?
Jesus, help me. I can’t do it anymore. I ache. I need help
Gillian Marchenko is the author of Still Life, A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression and Sun Shine Down, A Memoir. She lives with her husband and four daughters near St. Louis, MO. Keep up with her at gillianmarchenko.com.
–An excerpt from Still Life, A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression; pages 55-57 (with minor edits and additions), published by InterVarsityPress.