Sending my son to college was not a frightening prospect. President of the National Honor Society in high school, a valued member of the tennis team, my son had a confidence I envied and an easy sociability I could only dream of.
The only downside of his coolness was that it sometimes made it hard for me to relate to him: Subject to clinical depression and chronically insecure, I had been anything but cool and confident in high school and college.
Not wanting to pass on my lack of self-confidence, I worked to keep my vulnerabilities from my two children. I wanted them to know how to navigate new situations; I wanted them to be independent.
And so far, my plan had worked. At 4, my youngest stayed at his grandparents’ on his own, happily waving impatient goodbyes. He didn’t cry when he left for day care; instead he toddled in, serene. He seemed to embrace whatever environment he was in, and make it his own.
So, freshman year we dropped my youngest at his dorm with little trepidation. We made up his bed with new sheets and new blankets and hung paintings from his beloved Pop on the walls. And for three years it was good. His grades were solid; his alternative rock band took the campus by storm.
Then came the spring of junior year, the first time I heard a telltale sadness emerge in my son’s voice.
“Are you OK?” I asked, clutching the phone.
There was a hesitation, as though he had to ration his response. Finally he said, “No. I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
There had been triggers for his depression. An internship stipend that failed to come through and a disastrous love affair. The breakup of the band. Over the next few weeks I promised that these sorrows would pass, that the pain of a lost love could take months to dissolve. But even as I reassured him, my fears multiplied.
Worried, I drove to his house in Middletown, Conn., over Mother’s Day to talk to him about spending summer at home. He wasn’t happy about the prospect: He had counted on moving to New York City and pursuing an internship, but he seemed to realize he needed help.
At dinner over Vietnamese food, his head drooped over his plate, his once-animated features devoid of expression. His hipster beard was scraggily overgrown; his face was pudgy and white. His clothes, ragged jeans and a threadbare flannel shirt, were not entirely clean. Back at his house, his room was filthy, his bedding mildewed and smelly.
I thought of the easygoing son I had dropped off at college three years ago and told him, “I’m taking you home.”
Back home, we got him started on antidepressants and talk therapy. At the beginning it didn’t seem to take. Sunny summer days were spent asleep in his brother’s old room; at night he roamed the halls, unable to rest.
Conversations were monosyllabic. At dinner and lunch, he shoveled food in his mouth, not pausing to taste a thing. Puzzled, his high school friends stayed in touch, but you could tell they were at a loss. Who was this person trapped in their friend’s old skin?
Unable to watch him in this semi-zombie state, I broached the idea of taking walks with me after dinner. At first we walked in silence, but after a few days he began to talk. He talked about how lonely he felt, how hurt he had been when his girlfriend left. Sometimes he wept. He told me how the world appeared threatening, how he felt outside his own head. How he didn’t have any friends who really cared about him.
While we walked, I thought about how I had always believed I was a better mother for sons than for daughters. Daughters, I thought, would have pushed my own emotional buttons, setting off memories of my own disappointments in life and love. Sons, I reasoned, were cooler and calmer, foreign beings who could be dealt with in rational, reasonable ways. Distance was a plus, and yet at the same time I also missed that closeness.
But my conversations with my son during our walks were anything but distant: They cut straight to the bone. In many ways, these were the very conversations I had struggled to avoid, those that touched on my own terrifying anxieties. It wasn’t that I didn’t want such intimacy – I did. It was simply that I didn’t have good answers for his fears, because they were my own.
What to do? I didn’t know. I had no answers, but I knew I couldn’t flee. So we went around the block. I listened. I offered what I could: that these overwhelming feelings of sadness were temporary, that when the meds and therapy kicked in, everything would get better, that his father and I were by his side no matter what.
That we would not let him fall. That we were his safety net, for life.
At night I lay in bed, unable to sleep. Why hadn’t I seen this coming, I asked myself. In a million years, I had not expected this. Where were the clues? To hear his self-doubts bothered me, but also had the effect of shaking me and of forcing me to look at him again and again.
If he wasn’t the person I thought he was, who was he?
Heartbroken and confused, I dedicated my summer to finding him. We walked. We talked. When he wasn’t up for driving, I took him to his doctor appointments. On days he seemed lethargic or sad, we ate lunches out. We went to dinner; we attended a play.
Eventually the meds took hold. We went from talking about his sadness, which had abated somewhat, to other things. The books he was reading – Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver. Music; dreams. Whether or not he should return to school in the fall.
And we talked about me. I told him stories about times I had felt sad and mad and insufficient and vulnerable. How depression had, at times, steamrolled me.
I wasn’t his therapist. He had one, a good one, who talked about what you needed to be a successful person: relationships, work, and a sense of autonomy. We talked about what these things meant, and how he might achieve them, and eventually as summer wore on, he began to stay up longer during the days and to fall asleep during the nights.
And gradually, I realized that my son, who I had always figured as a different creature than I, was actually very much my son. All the things I had seen in him – confidence, leadership – were intact. But there were other qualities I had missed: a deep emotional core, a concern about what other people thought about him, a fear of being left behind, and a sensitivity to even the smallest things.
He was more like me.
Slowly, I adjusted my thinking. I stopped worrying that I was too emotional with him; I could simply be honest, and let him know what I was feeling in response to him. Part of it was his growing up: He was 21 and could no longer be treated as a child. And part of it was accepting that our relationship had changed, that the person I thought I knew might not exist: that this person, struggling and uncertain, might be the real one.
And if that were true, we needed to reintroduce ourselves to each other: son to mother, mother to son.
At summer’s end, we went to Ikea to shop for school. We had thrown away most of the rancid stuff he had brought home and had decided to start anew. At the store, we puzzled out pillows and quilts and kitchen goods.
Unlike the first time we went shopping for his freshman dorm, this trip was tinged with more than a little anxiety: Was he going to make it at college for the rest of the year? How sure was he that he could return to college at all? As he fingered the duvets, I sensed his hesitancy. On occasion he seemed to check out, overwhelmed by decisions.
But burnished by our summer trials, we were easy in each other’s company.
As we walked toward the cash register, our cart piled with goods, I took a look at him. Skinnier, lanky, dressed in clean clothes and clean-shaven, he appeared years younger than the brooding young man I had encountered three months earlier. His depressive episode had shifted the ground beneath our feet; our relationship had irrevocably changed.
But staring at him, I knew him. And he knew me.
He turned and smiled.
“Thanks Mom,” he said. “For everything.”
Postscript: My son went on to have a wonderful semester, attending classes and back to playing music. Together, we are recovering.
This article previously appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.