January 29, 2010, West Jordan, Utah
As the mother of seven children, the last with Down syndrome, Kathy Soper is known for the emotional honesty of her writing (which includes personal essays and a book-length memoir) and her founding of Segullah, an LDS women’s literary journal. In this interview, Kathy talks candidly about her lifelong struggle with depression and the unique dynamic that exists in her family where mom and several children are working together to stay healthy.
I was born in Washington D.C. in 1971 and lived in the suburbs throughout my childhood. My parents divorced when I was five years old. My mother remarried a year later to an inactive LDS man and she converted to the LDS church when I was seven. The bishop visited us to try to contact my stepfather because he’d been inactive for a long time and my mom started talking to him. She ended up getting baptized. Like my three siblings, I had the missionary discussions when we were eight years old and I chose to be baptized. I don’t remember really much about it but I knew that my mom was pleased and I felt good about it.
But there was a lot of tension in the family. We would go to church maybe 30 percent of the time (my brother and I would go visit our dad’s house on weekends), so we would miss a lot of church meetings then, and also, we would do a lot of family activities on Sundays. It was hard for my mom because as a new member, she caught the vision of the “Mormon family” ideal but it’s tough when you can’t make that happen.
I started to drop out of church activity in junior high. It was hard because the Young Women’s program in my ward was really small—there were only three other girls my age and I couldn’t relate to any of them. I felt like an outsider and would go to Girls’ Camp and couldn’t connect with anybody. I was completely inactive by the time I graduated from high school.
So how did you end up attending Brigham Young University?
My life fell apart on a number of fronts during my senior year of high school, due to destructive behaviors and relationships I’d developed. I wanted to get as far away from home as possible. I’d only applied to the University of Maryland and BYU because those were the only colleges I could afford. When the acceptance letters came, I was more depressed than I’d ever been, and the idea of getting away from home was more appealing than ever, so I lied my way through my BYU ecclesiastical endorsement interview and showed up as a very troubled freshman at Helaman Halls.
This kind of story bothers a lot of people, and for good reason. But attending BYU was a key turning point in my life. At BYU, I started going to church because it was required. I started to feel the Spirit, which I hadn’t felt it in so long, and I felt safety and reassurance. I had a really good experience with my bishop that year when all of my troubled past came spilling out. I met my husband-to-be, Reed, at the beginning of my sophomore year. Having him in my life made a huge difference. We were married in the temple at the end of my junior year. Going to the temple was really meaningful to me, and there I felt peace in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was very small. I felt like I was at home and that was a really powerful experience.
I got pregnant with Elizabeth, my first child, six months after Reed and I were married. I was 21 and I was not a “kid person” at all. When I babysat as a teenager, I hated the kids. I never thought I would like babies. But a few months after my wedding, our next-door neighbor in our BYU student apartment building had a baby, and it was the first time I had been around a newborn. The spirit was just starting to blossom in me, and something about being around that new baby was like a magnet. I had never seen anything so beautiful and I wanted a child of my own. I had never felt that kind of desire before.
Was depression a part of your life during those college and newlywed years?
In my junior year of college I was a total wreck. During my engagement, I cried every single night, much to Reed’s bewilderment. That was the first time I was ever seriously depressed. I was in therapy and I started taking medication for the first time. I would cry for hours. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, it was just this disconnected sadness and sense of despair and darkness that would descend on me. I’d just weep and weep and I felt like I could cry forever and never be done. It was a terrible, hopeless, awful feeling. And my therapist recommended that I take antidepressants for a short period of time. I took them for a few months before I got married, and then when I got pregnant a few months afterward, I stopped taking them.
After Elizabeth was born, the Spirit was really strong. I wanted to be an awesome mom for this little baby and I wanted things to be perfect for her, to do everything right. Seeing Elizabeth struggle with the normal things about being alive was psychically really painful for me. It hurt a lot. I felt sad and worried a lot about the normal things of life. I wasn’t having the bouts of weeping I did when I was engaged, but I was still depressed and I didn’t recognize it.
At the same time, I was really into the gospel. I read the Book of Mormon on my own for the first time when Elizabeth was a baby. I stayed up late at night and worked through my college Book of Mormon manual on my own. I was hungry for it. I loved it.
For about ten years, I was “turbo mom” and a zealous Mormon. My motivation kind of like wanting to be a straight-A student. It was very externally-oriented and although I felt the Spirit a lot, it was an immature way of approaching the gospel. And I was immature; I was in my 20s and it was just my stage of development. I thought I was being really righteous, but I didn’t realize how far off the mark I was because I focused on my outward behavior and not on my relationships with people and with God.
Was there an event that triggered a change in the way you viewed spirituality?
Things started to change when I got pregnant with my sixth baby. That was when my toddler Matt, our fifth child, broke his femur. It was the first crisis we had in our family, and it really shook me up to have Matt in a body cast, and to have social services interviewing me trying to figure out if my husband or I had hurt him. It was traumatic. I was extremely sick with the pregnancy and felt very vulnerable and worn out. Then Sam , our sixth child, was born three weeks early and had to be in the [neonatal intensive-care unit] NICU. Sam’s condition was very poor at first. One night, his condition was quickly deteriorating and I thought he was going to die. I had never before experienced such vulnerability. I felt like blinders were being ripped off—I was suddenly aware that people all around me were suffering, and that my family was not exempt.
Up until that point I knew that bad things happened, because some really hard things happened to me as a kid, but everything was different as a mom. I felt desperate, like I had to keep these bad things from happening to my kids, and I didn’t want them to feel the way I had felt as a child. I didn’t want them to get hurt and I would do anything to try to prevent that. But when there were health crises, I had zero control. I realized that as far as circumstances go, I was not “holding the reins” at all.
So how did you cope with this new realization?
I wrote my first personal essay, “Shaulee’s Door,” when Sam was about six months old. The first version was awful—very maudlin and emotionally manipulative—but I thought it was great. I made copies for all my friends and family, and was flying high until a trusted friend offered some gentle yet firm feedback. That was at the height of another depressive episode. Over time I revised the essay and submitted it to Exponent II’s writing contest, and was honored to be named a co-winner.
Shortly after that Kylie Turley, a close friend from my married-at-BYU days, started talking about founding our own literary journal. The idea seemed crazy at first, but it wouldn’t let go of me. After Sam’s birth I’d hit this identity crisis when I realized I had no idea who I was, what I truly believed or what I knew about life. I was trying to orchestrate a family life instead of living from within myself and relating to people as an authentic person, allowing life to teach me and transform me. I realized I could not be a good parent or a good wife or a good sister in the gospel if I didn’t have that center within myself, that core identity and self-awareness. I was just discovering that writing was a key to that. Segullah was created as a forum where other LDS women could have the similar experiences.
So writing brings self-awareness?
It can. When we share writings with other people, we become more aware of each other and of ourselves. That realization was a huge turning point for me. Before that, my sense of self was all wrapped up in what kind of mother I was and how successful I was at making things happen for my children. It sounds noble, but if a mother is driven by insecurity she will foil her own best efforts. After Sam was born that focus shifted to developing a solid identity that I could reach out to others from, and creating a community of LDS women who sought similar self-discovery through writing. That shift in focus was really important. I had been trying for a decade to make myself fit the supposed ideal of an LDS mother, and I was very anxious and fearful most of the time. That fear spilled out into my parenting and my marriage and my relationships with other people.
How did the arrival of Thomas, your youngest child, change things in your family?
I’d been trying to get pregnant for about a year and a half. That was the first time it didn’t come easily, and it really shook me up. When I got pregnant with Thomas, it was a huge cause of celebration for Reed and me. Our marriage had been stable enough all along, but for many years there had been a lot of tension in our relationship. I was in this mode where I was trying very hard (very hard!) to get him to play his role as husband and father a certain way, and that caused a lot of resentment between the two of us. After my identity crisis and resulting shift in focus, I began to let go of my “control-freak” ways, and Reed and I had an amazing renaissance in our relationship. This growing baby became a symbol of our rediscovered love and commitment. I was just delighted.
However, from the start it was a very hard pregnancy, much more so than my others. I sensed that my body was worn out from bearing and caring for so many children, and I knew that I was going to have a hard time carrying the pregnancy to term. Even so, I was shocked and frightened when I went into labor at 28 weeks, nearly three months early. Thankfully medication stopped the contractions, and I was on hospital bed rest for two weeks before my water broke and Thomas was born. Due to his prematurity there was a high possibility of severe respiratory distress, so we were very relieved when his Apgar scores were good. Then the doctor came in and told us he thought Thomas had Down syndrome. I felt completely terrified and worried that I wouldn’t be able to love him because of his disability. By the time Thomas was released from the hospital six weeks later, I was in the midst of a full-blown depressive episode, and everything spiraled downward from there.
Had you been treated for depression in the years in between Elizabeth’s birth and Thomas’s birth?
No. Looking back now, I see clearly that I was depressed all those years, but I didn’t recognize it at the time. Mild-to-moderate depression felt normal to me; it wasn’t until I resumed medication that I saw my condition for what it was.
For me, during a depressive episode, waking up is a burden. Breathing is painful. It’s a constant stress just to be alive. To have that burden removed, leaving behind only the normal emotional ups and downs…I can’t even describe the difference. I believe medication saved my life, literally.
What have you found that helps you the most?
I’ve been seeing an excellent therapist regularly for the first time since college and it’s making a huge difference. But I could not be doing the work I’m doing now with her, which requires a good deal of emotional clarity and calmness, if I wasn’t taking my medication. Before treatment I thought, “I want to solve my problems, not mask them with drugs.” Yet treatment is the very thing that’s enabling me to solve those problems. Different approaches to treatment work for different people—medication is not the only option. But a combination of medication and therapy has been shown to be most effective, and that’s what works for me, along with measures like light therapy, meditation, and regular, rigorous exercise.
I imagine it was a difficult process for you to realize, “this is something that is going to be with me for the rest of my life.”
For the rest of this life at least. I was so proud when I stopped taking that Prozac when I got pregnant with Elizabeth and felt like I could function normally. I didn’t want to be dependent on medication. It’s a terrible feeling to know that in order to be a functioning person you need to take medication—and in my case, it’s not a temporary measure. But I’ve resigned myself to this reality. I used to think fixing myself was the strong thing to do, and that taking medication was a cop-out. Now I understand that the way to be strong is to get treatment, and the way to be responsible is to get better.
How has your experience with depression helped you recognize the same warning signs in your children?
Once I was feeling more healthy and stable, and I’d gotten over my resistance to having depression, I was able to recognize troubling behavior in one of my sons, and then in one of my daughters, and recently in another son. The biggest symptom for them was deep and abiding sadness that wasn’t attached to anything, a burden of crippling melancholy and fear and anxiety that doesn’t compute. It’s normal to be sad when sad things happen. But it’s not normal for a six-year-old to cry because he’s worried about the fate of his soul, or for a nine-year-old to wish (aloud, and repeatedly) that she could stop living. She would verbalize how isolated she felt from people and how much she despised herself, and wanted to stop existing. Behavior-wise, one of the biggest cues (for my teenage sons, especially) is when they can’t sleep because they are so agitated by sadness and fear.
Not being ashamed of depression and not transferring a sense of shame to my kids has been a big help. I’m glad I can say to them, “I know how that feels,” and I think they’re glad for that too. But there’s a flip side. Some people have said, “Oh, it’s so great that you’re depressed and your kids have depression so you can understand each other,” and in many ways that’s true. Yet at the same time it makes life much harder for everyone involved, because a depressed child’s needs increase dramatically but a depressed mother’s capacity to help decreases dramatically. That’s a very poor situational fit. If I’m struggling, I’m that much less able to help my children who are struggling and that is a terrible, terrible feeling.
How have your experiences with depression changed your testimony and your relationship with the gospel?
So much has changed. I’ve let go of many extraneous beliefs, ideas, and paradigms from LDS culture that no longer fit my experience. But at the same time, the central elements of my testimony have not changed—in fact, they’ve become more firmly rooted. Perhaps the most pronounced change I can identify is that I’m not afraid like I used to be. The most painful things in my life–my mistakes and sins, crises and breakdowns, and wounds received at the hands of others–have proved to be my greatest vehicles for freedom and growth and love, and therefore for happiness. So I don’t believe the idea that the most successful person, the most righteous person, is the one who remains the most unscarred in mortality. I believe that we become who we’re meant to be by allowing life to transform us.
At A Glance
Kathryn Lynard Soper
Location: West Jordan, UT
Children: seven children ranging in age from 16 to 4
Occupation: writer, editor and founder of the Segullah Group
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, BA in English
Current Church Calling: Gospel Doctrine teacher
On the Web: www.KathrynLynardSoper.com
Interview by Shelah Miner. Photos by Maralise Petersen and Brittney Oler.