I’ve written here for a long time, and for a long time, I’ve been lying. I’ve been lying to myself. I’ve been lying to every reader.
I’ve blocked out my experience with my own illness. Not as it relates to my son. Not as it relates to being a mom. As it relates to being me. I have major depression, and more recently, anxiety. Even as I’ve been treating the depression for a decade, and likely going in and out of depression for 20 years, I’ve refused to think of it as something real that needs attention and care. If I were as cruel and unforgiving to other people as I am to myself I could tell you with certainty that I’d be walking this path all alone.
A week ago something changed.
On Monday, I sat with my clinician tearfully trying to describe a bunch of new symptoms. When I told him the part about my hands going numb he was almost giddy: Classic anxiety. I told him how I got a bunch of flowers Mother’s Day weekend and set out to plant them with my No 1. garden helper, Eli. Except I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand up. And what did I do about that? Nothing, other than telling my husband “I’m really dizzy and I don’t know why.” I have been living in a state of deep fatigue for as long as I can remember, but in June, it went from bad to worse. It began to take took hours to fall asleep. I quit exercising. Eli started a new school. I started having heart palpitations. His school has been wonderful and kind and accommodating. He got sick. I couldn’t take a deep breath. And how did I respond to all of this before Monday? I kept myself so busy I didn’t have to stop and think. I mean, I took medicine for this already, right?
Hadn’t I addressed this? Like, six years ago? When I was forced to? Because I was full-tilt suicidal?
In 2010, I had Laila and went for days after her birth without sleeping. I started having all kinds of insane thoughts, like I was going to drown her with my water bottle. I was going to throw a pillow and smother her. If I went to sleep she was going to stop breathing.
Mark and my mom were there when I hysterically called the nurse at the hospital to get a handle on all of this. The nurse wanted to admit me to the psych ward. No, I said. I just want to go to sleep. But how was I supposed to do that? I asked her. You can’t feed your baby if you sleep, really sleep, I lamented. The nurse told me it was perfectly fine to get some rest and give Laila formula during the time I slept. She sent Ambien to my pharmacy. I asked her if she thought I should get on an antidepressant.
Then she gave me advice that almost killed me.
She said that, if I wanted to breastfeed, I couldn’t take an antidepressant.
It made so much sense to me. Baby first, right? Baby first, forget the mother! Of course, I agreed with this idiot nurse. I didn’t want to taint my precious milk supply! What monster taints her milk supply?
You know what really threatened my milk supply?
The fact that eight months later I was suicidal as hell.
Laila was six months old when my mom died.
A few months after that I started fantasizing about killing myself.
“I want to be dead with her,” I told Mark. “You need to get a hold of a gun. Take me out to a field and shoot me,” I begged.
At one point I was doing the dishes, and I kept casting glances at the butcher block. OR WAS IT CASTING GLANCES AT ME. I stopped doing the dishes. I slipped the paring knife out and held it to my wrist. I didn’t push it in. I felt the cool metal on my skin and stared. I put it back and finished doing the dishes.
But that’s not all! I started to view places around my house as ideal places to die.
Like I could see myself hanging here, hanging there, in my mind’s eye. These thoughts became more and more frequent. They started to make more and more sense.
In March, 2011, I had the presence of mind to get into contact with a therapist. I told her a watered-down version of events: I’d started to have suicidal thoughts and I didn’t think I could control them. No, I didn’t tell her about the begging, the butcher block staring contests, the knife, the visions. I told her that my workplace had just cut a quarter of its staff and I was pretty sure I was going to be next. I told her we were financially stressed and losing my job terrified me.
That’s when I started a low dose of sertraline, 50 mg. I started to see the therapist. And things got better. The thoughts disappeared. The therapist helped me realize that we needed to leave the state of Michigan. Mark couldn’t find a full-time teaching job. He wanted to retrain in some other field. All the programs in Michigan had wait lists years longs. My mother’s death left my extended family in chaos. I started running, and running, and running, looking for jobs and running.
I got a new job in a new state — Oklahoma! We moved. Mark got a job quickly. I kept running. I felt better. I wondered if I still needed the pills. I started halving my dose. I tapered all the way off. And for the first time in a long time, I felt happy again, here in OKC, with Mark and Laila, starting a whole new life, one we got to live just as we pleased.
We were barely here a few months when I found out I was pregnant with Eli. At six weeks along I ran a half marathon.
Fourteen hours after Eli’s 2012 birth he required lifesaving surgery. Two weeks after Eli was born we were told he had a fatal illness, which is a helluva thing to tell someone about their infant. I had no idea what cystic fibrosis was. Eli had a second surgery. The surgeon told us a story about a good friend of his with CF who became an ER doctor and lived until 45. I knew he was only trying to help, but the story just made me sad. In all of that early chaos, only one thing felt certain: I could not afford to neglect my mental health like I did the last time. I started the same antidepressant right away.
For the last four years, I’ve continued to take my medicine. That was my version of not neglecting mental health.
I kept running, too. In Eli’s first year and a half of life I trained for a marathon. I got all the way through the 20-mile run, dropping forty pounds along the way. Then I ruined my left knee.
I felt myself slipping back into depression after that, so my doctor doubled the dose to 100 mg of sertraline per day.
I thought I was doing enough for an illness that at one point nearly killed me.
Pop a pill. Forget about it. Done and done. Problem solved!
I felt increasingly fatigued. I gained 20 pounds. I started looking for hits of dopamine here and there, scattering my vices about so no one noticed. Overspending here, overeating there. Who drank all the Sauvingon Blanc? Oh shit it was me. Oops! La de da! I better sign up for another race!
Then new symptoms appeared.
My sister came to visit earlier this month. On vacation and forced to slow down, I told her, “It’s like my heart is wearing a pair of pants three sizes too small. My chest hurts.” I stopped feeling like I could take a deep breath weeks ago, I confessed.
It took me hours to fall asleep, I told her. My hands started to randomly go numb
I felt consumed with worry that the fun activities I’d planned for my sister, niece and nephew weren’t good enough, and that my visitors hated everything we did. I was sure I’d let everyone down.
I spent money we didn’t have not letting them down, dipping into our Christmas fund to eat out, do fun, expensive activities day after day. I didn’t want to look like a loser on a budget who couldn’t hang.
I’m often afraid of letting people down. Not myself – just everyone else.
The visit ended. She texted me. I should see a therapist. I bristled.
I don’t have time for that, I texted her.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my entire life,” she wrote back, which pissed me off.
I got another text from her days later.
Something jarring had happened to her.
She finished running and had the thought she would like to visit a spot in the park on a bridge where she enjoyed thinking about our mother. She drove up, but it was full of people.
So she went another way home.
She drove passed a boy standing on a bridge over a dry riverbed full of boulders.
Something felt wrong. She looked in her rearview mirror.
He’d flung a leg over the bridge. She turned around and got out of her car. As she walked up to him, she figured this was all a big mistake. Surely he was just taking in the view. With his leg flung over the side.
“Hey buddy,” she’d said. “What’s going on?”
She just started talking to him. About anything. The weather. Asking questions about his teachers.
“Why do you care?” was the only thing he said.
She twisted her hand around his t-shirt. He kept leaning forward.
Another woman drove by and my sister mouthed “Call 911.”
The boy’s mother pulled up in the meantime, screamed at her son and put him in a headlock. She screamed at him. “Is this because we took away your iPad?”
“I’m not comfortable with you doing that, saying those things,” my sister said in a calm voice. “I think you should calm down and let the police get here.”
And that’s what happened. The police arrived and took over. They didn’t have any questions for my sister. She got into her car and burst into tears.
And that story has weighed so heavily on my heart since then.
That’s what changed.
Because that little boy had been suffering, probably alone, ashamed, as I have been. Maybe his mother was ashamed too. Maybe she was ashamed and didn’t get him help.
My God, I thought. What would happen if I dropped my shame? What would happen if that child or his mother took to the internet like I like tend to do, googling symptoms and trolling message boards to make sure I’m not alone.
What if he found this story.
I’ve wanted the end too, buddy.
I got through it. I’m standing here on the other side, and I’m glad that I am.
Maybe by sticking around and dropping my shame I can get to other people who are suffering.
The stigma I’ve bought into, literally, up until hitting publish, is lethal. Are you aware that suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents through the age of 24? That one in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year?
And among those with cystic fibrosis and their mothers and fathers, the rates of depression and anxiety are much, much higher.
A recent study in nine countries screened 6088 patients with CF ages 12 years through adulthood and 4102 parents.13 Elevated symptoms of depression were found in 130 adolescents (10%), 913 adults (19%), 1165 mothers (37%), and 305 fathers (31%). Anxiety was reported by 281 adolescents (22%), 1503 adults (32%), 1496 mothers (48%), and 343 fathers (36%). Elevations were 2–3 times those reported in community samples.
My sister filled the role of hero as my mom endured her final months, weeks, days. Laura made sure she died comfortably, tending to every detail. Had she been put on this earth to let let our mother die with dignity? She wondered. And since then she’s wondered why she was still here, as those left behind by loved ones do. Laura gives comfort and care to sick and dying children as a nurse, but she still wondered. She was on her way to a bridge just to find the peace and space to have these thoughts. There were people on her bridge so she went to another one.
Then she crossed paths with the boy on the bridge. And she wondered whether that was a coincidence, or something else. She stopped. She’s a stopper. She sees something wrong and she tries to make it better. Not everybody is like that.
I’ve stopped for others, too. It’s just how we are wired. But I haven’t stopped for myself. A huge part of that has been fear: the fear of being found out. Especially professionally. I’m a journalist. Aren’t we supposed to be fair, honest and brave, like ALL THE TIME?
I remember getting out of my car in Michigan the first time I decided to see a therapist.
Guh, do they really have to call the depression center ‘the depression center?’ I felt both annoyed by the glaring sign and embarrassed walking in, even as the parking lot was so full it had taken me forever to find a spot. Inside, I buried my face in a magazine and prayed no one would see me, especially not a reader or a co-worker.
Fair, honest and brave. I strive to meet those tenets as a professional, but how about in my actual life? I haven’t been fair to myself, honest with myself, or brave enough to admit I have a disease. And I thought to myself this week – if being honest gives me the journalist some kind of professional black mark, then should I be here at all? If I’m cast out by my peers, or judged, or now un-hirable because I’ve taken my own struggles public, then let them not hire me. Fuck that noise. I’ll find something else to do.
And so, I went to my doctor on Monday. I told him what I was going through. I got the name of a therapist from a friend. And I’d like to get to the bottom of all of this instead of popping a pill, looking for dopamine in all the wrong places, and hoping this actual real illness will just go away and leave me alone.
The doctor switched me to Wellbutrin, which is bupropion in generic terms. The first day I popped one of those babies I felt something entirely unfamiliar: energy. I was euphoric. What the hell do they put in these things? Then I started weeping. And weeping. Six days in I’m not weeping, but I can feel the other drugs leaving my body, and it isn’t cute. I have rapid-fire brain zaps. I’m edgy. I feel weird. Just plain weird. On Monday I’m going to tell my doctor all of this.
Since the doctor’s visit, I started thinking about all the things that have become normal to me which maybe aren’t so normal after all. Like every time my family walks out the door I assume that they’re all going to die. When I get a call in the middle of the day from a friend or family member, here’s the first thing I think: “Who’s dead?” Driving next to semis on the highway sends me into a panic, because every semi is, obviously, going to kill my entire family in a gruesome crash. Yeah…I’m going to call that therapist.
I’m going to keep treating anxiety and depression until I find a good way to manage these illnesses.
I’m not going to be ashamed any more.