- Have I infected my child with my rotting mind?
“When can I have your medicines, papa?”
An out-of-schedule story about parenting, because my heart is bursting and I cannot keep this to myself.
Trigger warning: contains references to self-harm.
When our son was born three years ago, someone, I don’t remember who, stood by my side in the hospital room and whispered in my ears, “Be careful. Don’t pass it on to the baby.”
I was still too stunned with the arrival of fatherhood to ask them what they meant. But I had a fairly good clue. “It” referred to the feeling inside my head. Not the frothy high of becoming a parent, which, in spite of everything I had heard about the life-changing nature of parenthood, already felt like a temporary visitor three hours after A was born. “It” was the other stuff that lived permanently in me. A disgusting, filthy feeling, like meat left rotting at the back of the fridge, crawling with life that you dare not inspect too closely.
“It” was my depression. My boundless capacity for self-loathing. My urge to self-destruct that I was told I could only defuse with a cocktail of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and talk therapy and exercise, in that order. According to this person whom I no longer remember, “it” was, despite the lies I had invented to console myself, just as communicable as HIV or tuberculosis.
Depression land has many lores, none more frightening than the tale of the broken parent passing on their brokenness to their progeny. At one point I tracked the science behind it. But I quickly gave up. Depression science is a non-thing. Or maybe it is a thing but I just don’t want to believe in it. Maybe there is insurmountable genetic evidence (there isn’t) that at the moment of conception, I had already passed on my illness to my child. All I could do now was wait for cues. Every long crying bout, every sudden mood swing, every tantrum could be a cue that “it” was emerging in A too.
Does he take pleasure in destruction? Does he not take pleasure in whatever children find pleasure in? I wake up every night to see if he is still breathing, or if he has inherited my habit of checking my breath just to see how long I can do it before my lungs start burning, what happens if I resist breathing just, a, few, more, seconds.
Nobody will tell you this because it is deeply embarrassing, but when you are a parent with a chronic mental illness, you turn your child into an exhibit. The self-awareness of a parent with depression projected onto a baby doing baby things is devastating.
For the past three years, I have tried to stave off this devastating feeling by creating a fable that I am building a life that my child would be proud of. I am making something of my illness. I am channelling it for a higher purpose. I am building a community, maybe even saving lives through my words. I thought the day the inevitable reckoning does arrive, when I get that phone call from the school complaining about some inexplicably antsy behaviour from an otherwise sunny child, I would take him aside and tell him not to worry, because look, you can use that awful feeling inside your head to create something amazing!
I have never said this to anyone because I am ashamed that this is my preparation. Not maintaining a directory of child therapists. Not researching tips on how to rescue a child swallowed by genetically transferred sadness. But turning that sadness into … what? Meaning? Productivity? A career?
What did that say about me? That I had coopted my child into my grand project of self-redemption? As I write this sentence, my mind is preoccupied with whether I should use his picture in this post. I am thinking of the right way to frame this to my wife, so she would allow me to. Maybe I can use a photo from the shoulder down, without his face? I am a monster.
At three, A has already saved my life. No, not metaphorically. Really. A year ago, I was about to jump off the balcony when he came running out of the house because he wanted to show me an insect he had just discovered. I used to say this all the time back then: “You will save me. You will save me.” I stopped only when my wife told me it wasn’t right of me to say that to a baby.
Having reformed myself thus, I started thinking of a new strategy to talk to him about coping with a mind that is out of control. There’s a book by Cori Doerrfeld I love reading to him. The Rabbit Listened. When the birds swoop in out of nowhere and break Taylor’s beautiful castle, the elephant and the kangaroo and the hyena come with their own ideas about how Taylor could deal with the anger and sadness. But Taylor doesn’t want to scream or rebuild the castle or pretend it never happened. Finally comes the rabbit, and the rabbit says nothing. The rabbit only listens. And Taylor smiles again.
I plot that I will be that rabbit for A. I will listen. Yes, that’s what I will do. I can listen, can’t I? I am pretty good at listening, distressed strangers from all over the world have told me. You can throw most anything at me, and I can soak it all in a cottony soft silence. Yes, listening is my superpower.
But I am not so sure any more.
Every night, A supervises his grandpa’s post-dinner medication, an assortment of colourful pills with names that must sound like magic spells on a child’s tongue. Last night, he recreated that ritual with me. Orange, blood red, bright pink, he watched attentively as I dropped my mood stabilisers and sleep aids onto my palm. He repeated their names with miraculous facility, singing them like a rhyme. I was beginning to enjoy this game, pleased that my child has immaculate pronunciation and limitless curiosity.
Then, he said: “When can I have your medicines, papa?”
“No. No. No. Never,” I said sternly.
“When, papa?” he asked again, confused by my sudden severity.
“You can never take these pills,” I half-shouted.
“When I am a big big boy, papa? When I am grown up like you, then I will take these pills? Yes, then I will take these pills,” he said with a conviction that only children can summon, and walked off, satisfied that he had settled the question without any help from me.
Have I infected him with “it”? I don’t want to think about it, but I can’t listen to A say that to me ever again. Being a parent shouldn’t feel like being a criminal. But some of us will always have voices in our ears reminding us that we are dangerous, laden with the curse of turning innocent games into terrifying omens. Taming those voices is the only legacy I want to leave for my child, because sometimes, not listening is the only superpower we need.
An appeal before you go
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If this post has stirred feelings in you, do share them in the comments. Our community right here is still pretty good at listening.