The news of Robin Williams’ death has of course brought to light a lot of talk about mental illness. Two of my childhood friends, Ashley and Kathleen both have blogged about their struggles this week. I’ve talked vaguely about my anxiety over the years on here and on social media. But here is some real talk about it. Because maybe it could help someone else. Because being open about it helps to de-stigmatize mental illness. And for all of the people feeling the same way Robin Williams did a few nights ago.
My biggest struggle is with anxiety. Every once in a while it swings the pendulum to the other side of depression, but for the most part, it’s always been anxiety. But the reality of it just came to light last year before we got pregnant. Because apparently, when you experience a large hormonal shift, your hormones can spiral things like anxiety and depression out of control. (Read: when you are on the birth control pill for 10 years and stop it, if you are already pre-disposed to anxiety it can really make things bad.) Now that I’ve been in therapy for almost two years and seeing a psychiatrist for the last 16 months, and talked and talked and talked about it, I’ve come to realize that I’ve always had some level of anxiety. Or as she says, my “baseline” is generalized anxiety disorder. But when things spiral into tides of more, I sometimes have panic attacks or more intense anxiety.
On some level I’ve always known that feelings that I had weren’t “normal.” You mean everyone doesn’t think their parents are going to die on a plane every time they get on one? Everyone doesn’t double check that they locked the front door 6 times before getting in the car? Everyone doesn’t have trouble sleeping as a 12-year-old unless their dad stays up in the other room? Doesn’t listen to lullabies until an age where they are wildly inappropriate? No? Well that was me. Looking back on all of this (and more) now, I see that what it was was anxiety, manifesting itself in different ways at different times. I remember vague feelings of panic in college every time I would play my saxophone as a music major. Some bordering on legitimate panic attacks. But it was always just labeled as high strung or ultra-sensitive. I always would overly worry about things. A lot of the time, the stress came out as IBS attacks. I am a terrible traveler, always stressing about every little thing about a trip…sometimes spending 3 days packing to make sure I didn’t forget something. Then still worrying that I forgot something. I care way too much about what other people think and I always worry that people won’t like me. I have irrational fears about things that others probably don’t give a second thought. Chris is probably SO tired of me always asking him if our cats will be okay whenever we go on a trip.
But it was really at an all time high last year. I had just left one job I hated and found myself in another that I hated in different ways. The first week at my new job, I cried everyday to my dad or to Chris in my car on my lunch break. I felt trapped (mainly for financial reasons) and overwhelmed with the panic of still not being sure “what I wanted to do with my life” at 25. Quarter life crisis? In some ways. After a lot of talking, Chris and I decided that there never was going to be a right time to start a family and that it was always something we both wanted. I cheerfully threw away my last pack of birth control, thinking okay, at least I’ll be moving toward something that would make me happy, not knowing what that hormonal shift would do to me. I think in some ways I block those few months out of my mind because I was in such a bad place. I barely was making it through the days. I left for work shaking. I hardly ate. I still cried in my car on my lunch break everyday. I felt like I was going to have a full blown panic attack most days and sometimes texting my mom or g-chatting with some of my best friends felt like they were the only way I got through. One day I did have a panic attack while driving on the freeway. I somehow made it to the next exit and collapsed at a gas station while I waited for one of my best friends to come get me. (Love you Steph) Panic and anxiety are such a scary beast in that when you are in the midst of it you really feel like you are going to die. Some people say it feels like you are having a heart attack. The dread is that great. And you always feel like you are alone in feeling this way. I blamed myself. My perfectionist self felt like I “should” be able to handle this. I beat myself up constantly during those months. I felt like a failure. Most nights we holed up watching West Wing on Netflix. Chris and I joked that watching it helped us get through such a hard time. We loved the show and it gave us something to focus on besides what I was going through. And it was so fitting in one episode where Leo is talking to Josh about his PTSD. He tells a story about a man in a hole.
“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on
“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”
It made me feel like, okay there are people out there who have been down here before…who know the way out.
We eventually made the decision that I needed to start an antidepressant. This, as well as seeing a psychiatrist, are big on the stigma list. I felt again like I was a failure for “needing” this help. I was also wary of going on another pill after what happened when I stopped the birth control. Even now, I still hesitate to talk that much about it to most people. (Well I guess not now, since I’m blogging it for all the world to see) I am very fortunate to have found a fantastic psychiatrist who worked with my other care providers (midwife, etc) and helped me be knowledgeable about the best, safest route for pregnancy and nursing. Another thing I love about her is how she tries to remind me that having anxiety in some ways is a gift. You worry about things from every angle. You’re always prepared. And she has helped me accept that it will always be my struggle, my battle. And that it is OKAY.
I’m very lucky to have had her, to have switched my maternity care to Davis, to have had Chris, my mom and an amazing doula support me in having exactly the birth that I wanted when Clare was born six months ago. Because I had an empowering birth, I think in some ways it helped some of my anxiety heal a little bit. I also had decided to do placenta encapsulation to help head off postpartum depression. My mom stayed with us for a month after Clare was born, and I saw my psychiatrist within a few days after she was born. I’m so thankful that we put all of this in place ahead of time.
And even though my anxiety is much better controlled now than it used to be, it will always be something that I struggle with, always lurking just below the surface. And most of the time I never know when it will spike or be triggered. There have been days where I’m driving to a student’s house choking back panic that eventually subsides once I start teaching. Sometimes I’m trying to sleep at night and my mind won’t stop the constant carousel of worry. Sometimes I’m in a yoga class trying to relax into shavasana and I feel like I’m jumping out of my skin. Or I’m trying to teach my own zumba class and feel my heart start to panic. But this is who I am.
So for ANYONE out there going through similar struggles, you are absolutely not alone. I know that I thought I was. I was supposed to be the one that had it all together. I remember telling one of my friends that after I had gotten through the initial hard part, and she laughed and said “Don’t you realize now that NO one has it all together?” It’s true. Everyone struggles with something. And so many people struggle with mental illness. It can sometimes be invisible, and coming from an anxious person – we get really good at hiding it. Remember that in some ways your anxiety is a gift and while it’s hard when you are in the midst of an episode, remember that it will be okay. YOU are okay.