Discussions of mental health issues below:
When I started puberty I noticed that before my periods I would get extremely depressed. Overwhelmingly so, with feelings of dread and despair. Oddly, just 7-10 days after that threshold, I’d feel lovely and strong and capable. My periods weren’t entirely regular (I could thank a high prolactin count for that) so it took a long time before I realized that my moods ran parallel to my cycles.
In college, I got on birth control and that calmed much of my PMS down, but still the pattern was there. Dread, despair, a sense of complete not-rightness in my body. Lethargy, self-hate, distortion of my experience of myself, extraordinarily negative self talk in my brain closing down anything kind. Then, after the period, full-bore ahead with clarity and happiness and extroversion. In my mind it always took the image of walking alongside the edge of a cliff, windy and overcast, the sea and rocks below. Some weeks I was far inland, some weeks walking parallel with the edge, the ocean just in sight.
This pattern wasn’t mild. In fact, there were weeks of missing classes, dropping projects, alienating friends and partners. I talked to my mother and she mostly said we were just moody people, that most of her female relatives had bad PMS. She did share with me stories of severe mental illness in our family which mostly took the form of bi-polar disorder.
There were extreme cases. Attempted suicides and worse. Much worse in fact so bad that I don’t want to write the words down, what happened. No one spoke of those stories to me until they had to, it was such a monster in our families closet. Those stories scared me very much. The rest of the family, hard drinkers and moody, were fine,so she said. My mother reassured me, while I suffered from depression at times, it was just PMS and it was just that. I’d never been manic, not that I could tell, and I’d never had an episode that lasted longer than the PMS week, maybe two weeks depending on my cycle. Still, it was really really frustrating to have a cycle in place of unipolar depression and good weeks.
Later, as I aged, I heard about Pre Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder which is an extreme form of PMS and is related to hormones and serotonin in the brain. Aha, I thought, there it is. Whenever I’d get off the pill, the PMDD would boil over. Back on it, things simmered down to a mostly manageable temperature. I considered taking Prozac (or Serafem, as the PMDD version was branded), but my family’s history with mental illness and the stigma attached, I held fast to this idea that I was fine, I could manage it with vitamins, exercise and carefully scheduling projects and maximum on my good weeks so that if I had to hide out (because my brain wouldn’t let me work) I’d be ok and so would the projects.
This went on all through my 20′s until I had a child at 31. I stayed home with Owen for about 6 months and I had the regular baby blues that new mothers get. But mostly, I thought I was fine. What I remember about that time (and especially the time after starting work again) was this sour sense of my body. An edginess and quick temper. A fearfulness I’d never had, even with all the depression. My depression was sadness, despair. This was different. It was, I’d come to find out, anxiety. Nervousness, paranoia, like my skin was scratchy inside of myself. The worst of it hit when I started a new job. It wasn’t a good position, didn’t really fit me and the woman I worked for wasn’t very nice, but the combination of the anxiety and depression with the new environment and callous treatment sent me into a place I’d never been before.
I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid of everything. I felt like a permanent victim, terrified of attracting my bosses attention for anything. I lost weight too quickly. I snapped at my husband. I cried a lot.
Eventually I got a new job, went on to work at UT, still more high strung than usual, but far more relaxed than that 6 month period of utter emotional hell.
I got pregnant again and had Evan. The feelings returned 10 fold. I couldn’t sleep. Like, not at all. Like, not even with drinking or with Nyquil. Days would go by with no sleep. Evan had colic so my diet was wrecked. It was like not having skin and feeling raw and enflamed all the time. I feel certain that my husband was a little afraid of my moods, certainly I seemed angry and overwhelmed all the time. There was no joy at all, just fear and anxiety and insomnia and a kind of self-hatred I’d never felt.
I parked at a garage on campus just off of Speedway. I’d often have to park on the 5th or 6th floor and I found myself looking down and thinking, “It wouldn’t really take much to just jump.” And then I’d walk to work. Day after day I’d think that and finally I thought, “That’s not really a rational thought, Julie.”
I went to see my OB and told her about the anger and the insomnia and maybe my birth control pill wasn’t working right. She said, “You have severe postpartum depression. And you are having rare and extreme symptoms and we have to get you on medicine right away.” I fought her on it because, well, I didn’t need medicine. Only mentally ill people needed medicine. Or people that I would tell to get help because there wasn’t anything thing wrong with getting help except when it came to me because if I need help there was something wrong with me personally, morally, spiritually.
Besides, I said, I was breastfeeding.
She implored me to take medicine. My husband implored me to take medicine. My mother implored me to take medicine. She and I had a moment where we skirted around the aforementioned scary story. The story of a relative who suffered from such severe post-partum psychosis that something very bad happened to her child and to her. Something that makes me shake even considering sharing with you because its such a tragedy and it’s so terrifying to think of and I don’t even know if it’s my story to tell, but it impact my entire family and thus my entire life, like a Greek curse that everyone avoided mentioning for fear it would appear somehow in me or a cousin, or me.
I’m not sure it’s my story to tell, but when I finally started asking cousins about postpartum depression, they all mentioned having it, and badly. And my Aunt, my poor tortured Aunt. No help for her back in the day, no help for her child, our family to deal with the legacy of what happened. Just hospitals, courts, trauma on trauma.
And me, so stubborn and refusing to take medicine out of fear and yes, shame, and yes, out of the disease itself telling me that I shouldn’t really trust modern medicine, and the constant negative self talk like a record skipping in my brain that it was probably my own fault I felt bad and that I should just try harder, so much so that I was willing to walk just that close to the cliff’s edge, quite literally.
So what happened next was that I hurt my hand, badly, gardening. So badly that I couldn’t really do much. I collapsed and told Chris everything and cried and cried and felt little and weak and horribly vulnerable like I’d just die for the telling of it all. The intensity scared us both and it was clear I needed, we needed, to address what was going on.
I went and got medicine and Evan went on formula. Within a week, I was sleeping. Within a week, I was not afraid.
I knew what that meant, it meant that what was going on with me wasn’t my fault. It was a disorder. An extreme reaction to pregnancy hormones and my brain wiring. It was the predictable result of a family that never ever talked about PMDD or Post Partum Depression or got therapy or accepted gentleness and help in the face of stigmatized mental illness. No one talked to me before I got pregnant, that this might happen to me that I might develop PPD/PPP. None of us talked at all about the experience of motherhood and what that might do to our brains.
We were all so afraid and so ashamed at the monster in the closet, the histories of relatives reaching back into the 20′s, stories of bi-polar breaks and hospitalizations. Even me, having worked at the State Hospital, I was totally unready to face and hold and take care of that part of me that needed love (and medicine) the most.
This is what stigma and silence can do.
My OB advised me to never have more children, or if I did, to immediately wean and get on meds. PPD and PPP get worse with each subsequent pregnancy. No worries, I said. Two is plenty.
My mind hasn’t really been the same since my experience with PPD. I have far worse anxiety now then I did prior to childbirth. I have struggled with self medication with alcohol, something that always lifted my mood, brought out my inner extrovert, calmed my fears. I definitely kept close to my meds during my mother’s illness and passing, but not always. Because of the oddly cyclical nature of my unipolar depression, its easy for me to forget about the pills and then get things messed up. Bourbon played a role as well, and frankly, not a good one.
Drinking never truly messed up my life, but it didn’t do much but keep me in a cycle of feeling bad in the morning (a part of my brand of depression and dysthymia) and opening a door to feeling good for about an hour in the evening fading into a sense of depression and insomnia, lather rinse repeat. My father drank bourbon, and my mother drank wine. Those two drinks make me feel close to them, or at least that’s how it seems on the surface. Alcohol seemed a tether to the past, to them, to the part of myself that people like, that I’m afraid is the only part they like, the funny happy buoyant woman that entertains, instead of the sad, fearful and anxious woman who doubts herself so much. A tether to who I am, or think I am, but maybe it was more of a weight dragging me down.
I’ve stopped that, for now at least. Maybe for good. Not sure.
Meds though, those helps. Exercise helps, yoga helps, producing work helps, connection helps, spirituality helps, talking about it helps. Sitting with it helps. That’s the real tether, isn’t it? A strong thick harness attached securely to community, anchored deep into the very rock of that cliff, into the core. It’s me attached to me, no matter how close the cliff is, that I’ll be grounded and strong and able to ask for help, support.
You are so important.
We have to talk about all of this. We have to support each other and break out of a culture that tells us that connection makes us weak, and that asking for help should be stigmatized. We are so much stronger all connected, we are so much stronger when we are able to know where we are, know our limits, and get assistance to get healthier. It’s so very hard to be able to describe exactly how tricky and cruel mental illness can be, how it lies and shape-shifts, darkens a sunny day, and plays mirror games distorting our reality. But we, we are all here. And we know what that edge feels like. We are afraid, or at least I’ve been afraid to talk about it.
I don’t want to be afraid anymore.
I want to be able to walk it, name it, see it, and sit with it. But I don’t want to be silent about it and I don’t want you to be either. I want to provide space and care for us all to find our tethers. We each have our own, but we have to connect them together. So let’s work together to do that.