“One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life, I think, is to have a happy childhood.” ~ Agatha Christie
“Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it.” ~Maurice Sendak
What first comes to mind when you hear the word “childhood”?
I’m guessing you might answer: innocence, joy, play, fun, laughter, silliness, or wonder.
What about the word “depression”?
Childhood depression should be an oxymoron. But it is a reality for too many children and the parents who love them.
One of the special characteristics of children is that, unlike grownups, they don’t stay mad or sad very long. But some children are born with a brain chemistry, genetic makeup, or nature that make it difficult to experience the lightness and joy of childhood, no matter how loving and stable their home.
“We naturally want and expect children to be happy,” my writer friend Irene says, “and when they’re not, we try to do something about it. We buy them a new toy, do a fun activity, talk, give hugs. But sometimes we can’t fix the unhappiness, and this feels awful.”
Irene knows a lot about childhood depression. Her only son, now a young adult, showed symptoms of rage, frustration, sadness, and suicidal thinking by age eight.
When other parents complained about their children’s everyday woes— not being picked for the travel team, not getting the lead in a play, having a squabble with a friend, being too shy—Irene was struggling to keep her child from despair. “I couldn’t relate to these parents. I felt alienated,” she said. “My son and I lived in a bubble of silence outside the norm.” Irene’s parenting world revolved around psychiatrists, therapy appointments, hospitalizations, and various medications. She fought to protect her son in public school where he was often mistreated and misunderstood. “While some teachers were invested in him, others lost patience.” Irene advocated tirelessly on her son’s behalf to keep him safe. “There were times,” she told me tearfully, “when I honestly didn’t know if I was going to lose him.”
I met Irene a year and a half ago at a local meet-up of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator). She’s a petite powerhouse who radiates energy and warmth. We immediately connected. As we got to know one and other, we shared, not only our writing goals but our personal journeys of struggle and growth. Listening to Irene’s story, I marveled at her ability to exude such a love for life.
Irene has turned her painful experience into a passion project to help others. She wants to shed light on childhood depression, to open the uncomfortable discussion, and to let other parents and children know they are not alone.
She translated this desire into action by writing and illustrating a small book with a big message. Celia and the Little Boy is “the story of two children trapped in the darkness, and what it took for them to find their way out.” Illustrated with child-like pencil drawings, this timeless tale is for readers ages 8 to 98.
Last week, I attended Irene’s book launch at the Canton Public Library. Speaking to a room full of supporters, Irene shared the story’s journey from inspiration to draft to published book. Irene’s son, now an adult, fully approved of her sharing his story, which is also his mother’s story. Irene read the Celia and the Little Boy aloud while the pages were projected on a large screen. I could just feel the overwhelming emotion of the audience as Irene read the last, hopeful sentence.
The next step in Irene’s passion project is to connect with parents, teachers, pediatricians, and therapists. Irene wants to offer, not only hope but information on this devastating illness that impacts families and communities at both the personal and national level.
We can all learn from people like Irene who, rather than allowing themselves to be pulled under, reach toward the light. They turn pain into healing and meaning. They become activists, mentors, volunteers, writers, and spokespersons driven by a sense of purpose. They use the lessons gleaned from their loss, grief, or struggle to help ease another’s burden.
Now I think I know how Irene maintains her inner joy. Like her book character, Celia, Irene feels the struggle, yet is still able to see the world as a “truly wondrous place”. As she so eloquently writes in her dedication: “For all the children who dwell alone in the darkness and those who can see them.”
For more information on Celia and the Little Boy Irenebuchine.com