May is Mental Health Month, which includes National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week.
Throughout the day, we will be sharing posts on anxiety. We’re coming out from hiding – shedding light on an all-too-often dark subject.
I’ve accepted the challenge of describing my experience with anxiety and depression. It is tricky, since part of the problem I have is the inability to put my finger on what exactly I am feeling and why. I’ve always been an over-thinker, a worrier, a “what-if-the-worst-case-scenario” preparer, and have, for the most part, been able to work through and overcome it on a day-to-day basis. I’d play tricks on myself, reading in bed until my eyes had no choice but to close without a rush of worries and concerns flooding my brain and keeping me awake, for example. I mastered the art of taking a deep breath and just doing it, even though it scared the crap out of me. First day of class, driving in traffic, trying to park in an area I’ve never been to before, being late for anything, having a slight illness…these are only a few of the triggers that would send my anxiety skyrocketing.
For those who have not felt this kind of anxiety, it is hard to truly explain. But I’ll try. For me, it is often like holding on to something so tight, knowing with great certainty that if you stop paying attention, if you let down your guard for even a moment, something disastrous will happen. And you will have no one to blame but yourself. So I hang on to things. I hang on to thoughts—to ALL the thoughts, ALL the time.
I’m not going to get into my theories on whether it is nurture or nature that sparked this demon in my head. Depression and anxiety have shown up in my family members in various forms, but I always figured I could be stronger than them. I could talk myself out of it; I could handle it. And for the most part that was true.
But then I had a baby. The newness, sleep-deprivation, lack of available support, hormones, intense sense of responsibility all served to ratchet up my already high anxiety. And it got bad. I couldn’t sleep—ever. I devoured parenting books and websites and social media posts about what I should be doing, could be doing, and everything I didn’t know or didn’t even know I didn’t know. I searched for “right” answers, for the solutions to problems (which is what would often help my anxiety in previous situations), but as I have come to find out since then, there is never one “right” answer when it comes to parenting. And so I couldn’t find peace—ever. I was in a constant state of alertness. My brain would not, could not stop. There were times when I was so overwhelmed by internal voices that all I could do was sit on the floor—any floor, it didn’t matter—and sob. Not tears of sadness, not even those tears of Great Emotion that can come in hormonal waves, but just these sounds of hopelessness. I had no idea what to do next, and the options available crashed my mental hard drive.
I knew that this was not “normal.” And I was pretty sure this was not the “baby blues.” I talked to my doctor about post-partum depression and even took their little checklist quiz to see if I was suffering from that nebulous, almost-always-whispered-when-mentioned problem. But, according to the checklist, I was fine. I did not resent my baby, nor becoming a mother. I did not feel I had a problem connecting to my baby. I was not entertaining thoughts of leaving my baby in a ditch somewhere. I did not want nothing to do with my baby—in fact, it was just the opposite! I wanted everything to do with my baby. And I got very mama bear about her; no one could hold my baby, or look at her or help me do anything for her, without triggering feelings of extreme protectiveness. The day I finally let the grandparents hold my baby I had to leave the room so I could cry—and I cried hard, with a sense of loss that I still felt after I had my child back in my arms.
And still, I didn’t feel like I was suffering from post-partum depression. Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure I was going through post-partum anxiety. But no one was talking about the anxiety side of things when I had my first baby, just depression. And I didn’t feel depressed, so I figured it was just me and I just had to deal with it. I have since been hearing more about post-partum anxiety, which is good. I think if I had known that post-partum anxiety was a thing, I would have been able to better understand my reactions and feelings. I still would have had them, but instead of chalking it all up to “I’m a failure as a mom/I can’t handle it” kind of stuff, which definitely added to and helped my downward spiral, I could have addressed the underlying anxiety and perhaps found a way up sooner.
Anyway, fast-forward four years: Now I had two kids, countless sleepless nights, lots of nursing, lots of worries, new city, family stresses, brain still working on overdrive always. And I began to fall apart. I don’t think my anxiety really ever lessened during that time; I think life just got a little too busy for me to realize it was there. But it was absolutely there, wearing me down the whole time. My tank was getting depleted, a little bit here, a little bit there. That’s life; it happens. But, I was unable to ever refill my tank. Sleep, when it did actually happen, was not restful. I had lost sight of things that made me happy. And I felt empty. Not sad, exactly. Just tired and empty.
In the past, I always seemed to find a way to pull myself out of my funk, either through necessity or desire. But this time I couldn’t. I began to feel like I was sinking deeper into this fog, and I couldn’t find my way out. It was like treading water and barely being able to keep my face above the waterline. And because of that, I couldn’t see the shore. I couldn’t pull myself together and move in a direction because I didn’t know where the hell I was. Maybe dry land was a few feet away, maybe it was miles off, but I couldn’t tell one way or the other because I was slowly drowning.
I know there are things I could have done that should have helped me get my head above water. Regular exercise, more sleep, eating healthy, more time in the sunshine to make more vitamin D, meditation, gardening, doing crossword puzzles, practicing gratitude, taking time to breathe, and so many other options available to me. But I couldn’t do any of it. I don’t know why, exactly. I just couldn’t.
But I had to do something. I was losing myself. I wanted to be better for my kids, better for my husband, and better for me. And so I got a referral for a therapist from my OB/GYN. I started going to therapy every other week. It was not long before words like “Generalized Anxiety” and discussion of the hypothetical use of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) found their way into the sessions.
I hated the idea of medication. I didn’t want it to change me. I didn’t even want it to quell all of my anxiety; to let go of it entirely felt like it would somehow leave me exposed. In some ways it felt like the “easy” way out, and historically I tend to balk at the “easy” way, like I would have been cheating by getting chemical help to deal with my life. I should be able to just deal with it! Maybe if I breathed more…
But trying to breathe when your face is underwater is extremely unpleasant.
I would cry driving my kids to school in the mornings. Not entirely sure why, except that it was one of the few times when my mind could wander around to all my negative thoughts. It was hard for me to leave the house to go out with friends, which I knew would probably make me feel better once I was there, but sometimes I couldn’t make myself do it. One night I had plans to meet friends; my husband was out of town, so I had planned for a babysitter. The sitter showed up, and I went to shower. I ended up sitting on the floor of the bathroom crying for an hour. I eventually gave myself the social out, canceled on my friends, and told myself I could grab a book and go sit and read somewhere for the evening. After all, no need to waste a perfectly good babysitter! And I couldn’t even do that. Finally, with great effort, I put on clothes and went to a restaurant nearby and tried to read. Once out of the house I did feel better, but also worse, because I had let my stupid anxiety ruin what was probably going to be a perfectly nice night out with friends. This was not how I wanted to be. I wanted Me back.
I needed to get out of my own way so I could find my way out. And I finally started looking into medication. I asked my OB/GYN. I asked my GP. I asked my children’s pediatrician. I carefully asked my friends. I looked at the Internet. I talked with my therapist. After a lot of soul searching I got a prescription for an SSRI used to treat depression and anxiety. Taking that first pill was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It felt like I was giving up, but it also felt like jumping off a cliff into the unknown, and I do not do well with the unknown. Assuming the medication worked, I was going to feel better; I would be able to make the changes and do the things I wanted and needed to do. However, if the medication did nothing, that would mean that perhaps I didn’t have a chemical component to my anxiety and it really was my fault and entirely up to me to fix it. But mostly, it felt like I was taking action—right or wrong, I was finally moving in a direction.
If you were to ask me if taking medication was the right thing for me, I would probably say yes. However, since you can’t step in the same river twice, I don’t know for sure that it was my only way out. I don’t plan on it being a forever thing. There are probably other paths that could have led me to where I am now. And where am I now? Well, I still have days that feel like I’m treading water, trying to keep from sinking. But now I can see the shoreline, I can paddle toward it, and from time to time, the water even gets shallow enough that I can stand up, stop swimming for a while, enjoy the smell of the ocean and the sound of the waves, look out at the sunset, and, finally, breathe.