Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Friday, January 28, 2005

My Sixth Sense: The Sense of Self

I’ve seen a fair number of different doctors over the past couple of years, mostly in hopes of dealing with my mental health issues. And because one of the things I’m dealing with, especially with this latest episode, is depression, I’ve been asked the same question over and over: “Do you have thoughts or plans of suicide?”

My answer is always, unhesitatingly, “No. Never.”

Considering the depth of my depression and the severity of some of my other symptoms, this response usually elicits a raising of the head by the therapist or physician, and a narrowing of the eyes as they assess whether or not I’m hiding something. I’m not. It is completely true that I have never, not once, considered suicide. It literally never occurred to me. I’ve never even thought of it as an option, much less an attractive one.

That’s not to say that I haven’t been to dark places. There have been times when I’ve wanted to run away. There have been times when I’ve wanted to crawl under the covers and stay there indefinitely. There have been times when I’ve yearned to walk away from my marriage, and even times when I’ve wished fervently to no longer be a mother. But, through it all, no matter how dark or angry or lethargic I felt, I never wanted to stop breathing. I never wanted to stop being.

There’s another question in the depression inventory to which my answer is anomalous. It comes in the long list of symptoms:

‘“Do you ever feel irritated?”

“Constantly. Unbearably.”


“Oh, god, yes.”

“Do you have feelings of anger?”


“Do you have feelings of worthlessness?”

Pause. “No, actually. I don’t. No.”

Again, the raising of the head, the narrowing of the eyes, the quick assessment.

I’m not an overly egotistical person. Or, at least, I don’t think I am. I mean, I’m proud of some of the things I’ve done in my life. I enjoy knowing that I’ve written things people will read. I think I’m doing a fairly good job as a parent, and I like to think I’m a good wife and a good friend.

Still, I have plenty of esteem issues, including a serious case of Pretender Syndrome. I’ve spent most of my life waiting for someone to figure out that I’m not as smart as they thought I was, not such a talented writer, not such a quick learner, not such a good person. But there’s a huge gap between wondering if you’re really “all that,” and wondering if you have any worth. I know I have worth. I know that I contribute to the world. I know that I do have talents, and that I am bright, and that I do a good enough job at being a human being. I know that I try, and I know that that counts for something.

Having this fairly strong sense of self worth is probably what’s saved me from thoughts of suicide. I’m aware, no matter how deeply sad or deeply numb I am, that I have a value to my family, that if I were gone, they would not be happier for it, nor better off. I can recognize, even in my darkest places, that it would be selfish for me to do something irrevocable. I don’t think about this; I just know it.

But it wasn’t until all of those doctors and all of those quizzical faces that I even recognized any of this. Before that, if you’d have asked, I would have claimed to have the same sucky sense of self-esteem as anyone else. And certainly, next to my kids, I do.

My children each have a remarkably strong sense of self. When Em first started showing signs of this, it struck me as egotistical, even offensive, and my first instinct was to rein her in, cut her down a little. But then I realized that there were plenty of people in the world who would do that for her, and that the stronger her sense of self was, the more battering it would be able to withstand. And so I smiled broadly and said nothing that day when she was four and we were walking down the street and she announced, “I look so pretty today, don’t I, Mommy? I bet people walking down the street will see me and think, ‘Isn’t that little girl so beautiful?’ And seeing me will make them happy.”

If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have not only smiled, I’d have vociferously agreed, even pumped her up a little more. Because, damn, those little girls in second grade can undo an awful lot of good in an awfully short period of time with their nasty little comments and their nasty little attitudes. Still, that hasn’t stopped Em from announcing with some regularity, “That homework was no problem because I’m really great at math.”

So now I’m conscious of trying to help the kids recognize what’s special about them. I do that now with N, too, who likes to tell everyone what a ‘big helper’ he is to me. Yesterday, when I had laryngitis, he kept telling me to cough to “get your throat out.” (I always tell him to cough and clear his throat when he has a ‘frog in his throat,’ as we’ve always called it. He’s always amazed at the immediate disappearance of what he assumed was a major illness and/or catastrophe.) And so, this morning, when my voice was about 75 percent better, he said, “You all better now? You do the coughing and you all better?”

I smiled at him and said, “Yes. I am all better. And I need to thank you, because I don’t think I’d be all better if you hadn’t reminded me to cough and clear my throat. You really helped me get better.”

He was literally beaming, his face shiny and bright, his smile huge. “You’re welcome, Mommy,” he said.

Take that, all you preschool boys who one day might torture my son because he’s so much shorter than you. Take that, you genetic predisposition to depression and bipolar disorder. You may have the upper hand, but my kids are going to be well armed. They’re going to be ready for you.

And I’m going to be watching their backs.

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