He looks at me, clear-eyed. “Mommy, I have hope.”
Now, I have hope too.
Now, I know I have Bipolar II Disorder, a “milder” version on the mania side of Bipolar I disorder, but more intense on the depression side of Bipolar I disorder. Right now, I take three medications, a combination of mood stabilizers and other things to adjust my brain chemicals. But I still get sad, and sometimes profoundly so. The doctor and I will change my medications, although it’s is all a guessing game, changing medications to see which work. When I feel good, we stay with the current cocktail. If I feel too high or too low, we change dosages or medications altogether. Unfortunately, the side effects are constant, whether it’s a persistent nausea or tiredness or random swelling or slowly creeping weight gain. Nevertheless, whatever the combination, I will take medications for the rest of my life. And I am okay with that.
I’m almost ten years removed from the hospital, but over 25 years in the struggle. But I have persevered. I have three beautiful, healthy children. I finished grad school with two advanced degrees. My marriage is amazing. And I’m soon to start my dream job.
My boy, the one who made me a mama, he’s getting there. I informed his teachers of my concerns and got reports from them. They haven’t noticed a change. They note that he’s quiet but always respectful, and that has not changed. I’ve charged them to continue to be vigilant about him.
Why? Because black children under 12 commit suicide at twice the rate of white children. I was one of those black kids who wanted to die. While it’s very rare for a young child to take their own life, to die by suicide, it happens more often among children who look like my son than children who don’t. And a child with a parent with a mental illness is more likely to have a mental illness than a child who does not have said parent. He might be like me.
But he’s also not like me. Sooo unlike me. I obsess about everything; he takes life in stride. I feel pressure to be perfect; he responds to incentives, but if he does not make it, it never seems to crush who he knows himself to be. I’ve strived my entire life to make others happy; he does not, but not because he does not care about other people’s feelings. In fact, he’s one of the kindest people I know. But he deals with other’s disappointments about him as their problem, and not his. I hold onto hurt and pain; he lets things come and then go. He is free.
But he’s unlike me in another way, a more dangerous way. He’s a boy. A black boy. I know how we socialize our black boys. I know that the world tends to see them as older than they are, so that while they are playing Pokemon and fighting about the rules for four square (true story), the world sees my 12-year-old black boy as a man. A black man, someone to be feared.
And we, as parents, as elders, often treat these black boys as adults in pint-sized bodies. We expect them to understand their emotions like an adult would, even though we know adults are terrible at understanding their emotions. We expect them to keep those emotions in check, and we especially want that from our boys. We tell them “man” rules, especially the one that says, “Boys don’t cry.” “Don’t be a sissy.” “Stop acting like a girl.”
In my house, in my arms, my boy can cry. He can cry as much and as loud as he wants to.
Right now, I do not know if he is depressed. Maybe it is depression. Maybe it’s not. In either case, it’s my job to be present, to notice his ups, and to discern a true down. It’s my job to know that if I yell at him because his homework isn’t done and he starts tearing up, it’s likely not depression but rather the knowledge that he’s about to lose his electronics.
Depressed or not, I want him to know that he is protected, that he is cared for, and that I will do anything and everything to keep him safe. That’s what I wanted when I was a sad, depressed kid. I wanted someone to be on that subway platform with me, grabbing me in their arms, making it hard for me to move because of all the loving they were doing on me. I wanted someone to pull me back from that edge. Now, I know how to be that person for me. And, because of it all, now I know how to be that person for my boy.