When I was growing up, my mother struggled with chronic illness and depression, and it was really hard to see her sick and unhappy. As a teenager, I ended up chipping in a lot around the house to look after my younger siblings, and when I finally moved out, I vowed that my kids wouldn’t have the same experience. I hated the fact that my mom had sacrificed so much of herself in the process of raising us. I had good memories of all the generous ways she’d taken care of us — her delicious cooking, the way she decorated our rooms, the years she home-schooled us and ferried us to music lessons. But I wished there had been more joy and nurture left over for her. So imagine my surprise in my twenties when I found myself staring depression in the face, before I’d even had children!
Turns out that I’d internalized my mom’s example of sacrifice and was playing it out in all these other areas of life: work, community, and even in my marriage. I put everyone else’s priorities first and my own aspirations for creative writing were getting short shrift. I had what I call “walking depression” — I was still meeting all of my responsibilities and getting through the day, but the pervasive unhappiness was sapping all of my energy and pleasure in life. My first act as a mother was to heal from depression. I knew that I would not bring children into my life unless I was happy and healthy and could trust myself to stay that way. I went the traditional routes of medication and therapy, which were enormously helpful. But I also started making changes to my beliefs about myself so that I could find long-term happiness. After several years of slow recovery, I finally felt ready to commit to having kids. My husband Shawn and I chose international adoption from China, and as part of evaluation process, I had to get a letter from my therapist about my experience of depression. Here is part of what she wrote:
From August 2002 to August 2004, Alison and I met every other week to explore her desire to make some lifestyle changes to support her recovery from depression and to create a new way of being. The underlying theme for Alison was her need to have time and space for herself and to learn about her own needs so that she can speak up for them. We explored her relationship with herself, with her partner Shawn, with God and often came back to her feelings about having children in her life. What I especially appreciated about the latter was the careful and conscious choices that went into her decision ultimately to adopt. Over time, Alison clarified for herself that having children was about receiving as well as giving, that she need not put herself aside to meet others’ needs, indeed, that it is through her own self-care that she will best be able to care for her children. Alison has learned, in her own words, to take extravagant care of herself and to become self-responsible in a new and healthy way. Early on, Alison determined that the source of her depressive symptoms was in not being truthful to herself, not honouring her own needs and desires. As she has learned to do this, putting her new thoughts and beliefs into action, her depression has naturally receded. Though life is, of course, uneven and imperfect, I have every reason to believe that Alison will continue to move forward in her self-understanding and her intention to find joy and truth in any moment.
Reading my therapist’s words reassured me that I had made important changes and was prepared (insofar as possible!) to become a mother. The adoption took several years to complete, but at last we travelled to China to meet our new daughter, Lia Na-Fei. Parenthood brought a whole new challenge to “honouring my needs and desires,” but I was ready.
For the first six months of our time with Lia, Shawn stayed home on parental leave while I worked, and I had to learn to shut the door and focus instead of jumping in to help him. I did The Artist’s Way and wrote morning pages as a way to stay connected to my creative work. I know I’m not the only one who has endured walking depression. I’ve heard from many strong-willed, compassionate women who identify with this predicament, of wanting to serve others but dying inside because they fail to serve themselves. And I’ve been gripped by a compulsion to share my story, in its depth and nuance, with those who are trying to find a path out of unhappiness.
Pilgrimage of Desire is a memoir that tells the story of my recovery of depression, and also shows how far I’ve come. My husband and I now have two children, and last year we sold our house and left our jobs so we could travel full-time. I wouldn’t have dared to dream of this life ten years ago — it took an enormous effort just to get myself out of bed in the morning. Now I’m handling all the complexities of this creative project, self-employment, travel arrangements, and a lively family, because my needs for meaning, rest, and pleasure are abundantly met every day. And I know my kids are much better off because I take care of myself.
Alison Gresik is a writer, traveler, and mom to two rambunctious children. She also coaches writers and artists who are prone to depression and want to make their art a priority. You can read an excerpt of Pilgrimage of Desire and support the book’s fundraising campaign at Indiegogo before June 6.