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Why I'm Telling My Children About My Mental Health Issues

Photograph by Claudya Martinez

Would it be weird if I walked up to you and told you soon after meeting you that I have an anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, but that I am doing well with the help of medication and therapy? Probably. It might lead you to make assumptions about me that are not necessarily true; it might make you treat me differently than you would otherwise. You might stigmatize me without even knowing you are doing it.

That's why I don't tell everyone — or even most people that I meet — that I have mental health issues because really most people don't need to know. But I do think my children have a right to know. Why? Because if I don't talk to them about what is going on with my mental health, they might jump to their own conclusions.

Currently, I'm in no way, shape, or form ashamed of my mental health issues, but that was not always the case. For many years, I pretended that I was just more "nerviosa" than most. I found ways to cope with my anxiety issues. I would focus on my breath so intensely that everything else would fall away, or I would exercise vigorously so that all I could focus on was the physical task at hand.

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Those things helped, but soon after becoming pregnant with my first child, everything fell apart and none of my coping strategies were working anymore. Pregnancy hormones went to town and I started getting panic attacks so severe that I would end up in the emergency room. My mental health started threatening both my physical health and my baby's physical health. What should have been a beautiful blessed time in my life was a living nightmare.

I got lucky. I had doctors and caregivers that stood by my side and advised me on what I should do and get ready to be shocked: I started taking medication for my anxiety while I was pregnant. Go ahead and judge me all you want. It's nothing I haven't been through before, and it's certainly nothing I haven't put myself through. Every single one of my caregivers — and I saw multiple doctors just to be sure, from OBGYNs to my general practitioner to a psychiatrist — advised me to take medication for my anxiety even though I was pregnant. I was terrified because surely the medication could hurt my child, and what mother wants to be responsible for that?

I finally agreed to try medication when it was explained to me that my anxiety issues were so bad that the risks associated with them (i.e. preterm labor, me hurting myself) were putting my unborn child more at risk than the medication I would be taking. So I cried and cried, but I took the medication.

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I confessed to those closest to me that I was taking medication for my anxiety. I got called names by people who aren't doctors or psychiatrists, but supposedly love me. I was judged by people who have never experienced the horror I was going through, who have never faced the seeming impossibility of getting through the next hour let alone the whole day, people who have never spent 72 hours with only three hours of sleep because every time they nodded off they would be jolted awake by a pounding heart and a fear and desperation that makes rest impossible.

I finally agreed to try medication when it was explained to me that my anxiety issues were so bad that the risks associated with them (i.e. preterm labor, me hurting myself) were putting my unborn child more at risk than the medication I would be taking. So I cried and cried, but I took the medication.

What's worse is that even after making the difficult decision to take medication while pregnant, the medication did not provide me with immediate relief. I had to try different ones and wait weeks to actually feel better, but when I felt better OH MY GOD! Why? Why hadn't I gotten help sooner?

The right medication in the right dosage does not make me feel medicated, it makes me feel functional. It stops me from feeling like I'm in danger and under attack 24/7. You guys, it makes me feel NORMAL. I still get mad, I still have feelings, I still EVERYTHING. I even still have panic attacks sometimes.

I am happy to report that my daughter was born without any issues and was in no way harmed by the medication I took during pregnancy. I went on to have another daughter and I was medicated all throughout conception and pregnancy and yes, I discussed all of it with my doctors.

My daughters are now 7 and 4 years old. I am still taking medication and I am in therapy. One day I may not need medication and for me that's the goal because it breaks my heart that I "need" this kind of help, but at the same time I am so grateful that I can get it.

I could choose not to say anything to my daughters about my mental health issues because for the most part I'm fine, but I don't want to keep this information from them for three reasons:

1. I never want them to think that my symptoms have anything to do with them.
Even though I'm fine most days, there are times when I'm not. There are times when I get extremely anxious or even have a full blown panic attack. These are symptoms and not a result of anything my daughters do (or don't do), so I explain to them in an age-appropriate way what it is that I am going through. If they have questions, I answer them to the best of my ability and I let them know that I will be fine.

2. I want them to understand that mental health is part of health in general.
It took me way too long to realize that mental health and physical health are not actually separate from each other. For many years I took excellent care of my physical health, but felt too much shame to seek treatment for my mental health issues because I didn't want to be labeled crazy. Seeking mental health care is NEVER something to be ashamed of and I want to empower others to get help if they need it. The only way to take the shame away is by speaking about it openly.

3. If my daughters ever have mental health issues of their own, I want them to ask for help sooner rather than later.
I could have gotten help so much sooner, but instead I suffered in silence. I really thought that it was "normal" to feel the kind of anxiety I felt on a regular basis because no one ever talked to me about mental health in a way that was empowering.

In my case, I think not talking to my kids about my mental health issues would do more harm than good. I can only speak for myself, but somehow I have a feeling I'm not the only one in this situation.

What are your thoughts on discussing your mental health issues with your children?

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RELATED: Anxiety: A Mom's Story

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