I am no stranger to mental illness. Almost my whole life has involved the upheaval of mental illness, whether it was stories of my great-grandmother who only achieved relief from her depression from the earliest trials of electroconvulsive therapy, my father’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder when I was 10, my mom’s desperate stories about growing up with a mother who refused treatment for narcissistic personality disorder, my incorrect diagnosis of major depression as a college sophomore, or receiving the final correct diagnoses of bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety a year later after iatrogenic mania from antidepressant monotherapy almost destroyed my life.
I’m twelve years in with the same psychiatrist now, the one who properly diagnosed and treated me. It’s been a journey of ups and downs, but by 2015, I had accomplished so much thanks to her intervention: met my husband, graduated with my ASN, got an amazing job as a cancer research nurse, married my husband, started my BSN studies, and had our first son. I stayed on my medications and thus stayed relatively stable during that whole season of my life.
In the five days after Soren’s birth, my mood took a dive. Insistent on breastfeeding, I unknowingly starved my son because of undiagnosed insufficient glandular tissue. Lactation told me there was nothing to worry about as his weight dropped almost 15% in five days. On day five, in the pediatrician’s office, our pediatrician softly told me that he needed formula, and he guzzled a nursette so fiercely that he vomited it up immediately. I dropped into depression, sobbing while pumping, sobbing while feeding him formula, sobbing when he was still hungry after breastfeeding, but my psychiatrist believed that it was situational depression which is likely apt, so we didn’t change my medications. Judgment for my combination feeding drove me further into depression, but it was still tolerable, so I just kept moving forward.
When Soren was nine months old, we decided to take a family trip to Sweden with a stopover in New York City. Going into the city on the AirTrain from JFK was fine, but the moment we stepped into a subway car underground, the intrusive thoughts began. Every time we stepped on a train, I could see vividly my little boy bloodied and dead, having been hit by a train. These thoughts continued as we used transit around Stockholm and even stopped us from attending a Christmas party thrown by a friend’s family on an island outside of Stockholm – all I could think about was him falling from my arms and drowning on the ferry. My anxiety built and built and built. Every time I looked at his face, I could clearly see him broken beyond repair.
Coming home didn’t help. The intrusive images continued even away from the crowded stairs, grates, and gaps of the subways. They flooded me, the anxiety completely overpowering and the depression making its way from feeding-related to a sense of hopelessness about everything. As I drove to work one day, I realized that I had a firm plan for suicide. This horrified me – I immediately texted my dad who told me to contact my psychiatrist, and after determining I wasn’t an immediate threat to myself or others and had supervision, she set an appointment for two days later. At that appointment, I restarted Wellbutrin to accompany my long-used Lamictal and set up a schedule to see her every two to six weeks depending on my needs. My depression lifted within a couple of weeks.
Talking about the intrusive thoughts was horrifying to me, so I held back from letting her know what my mind was feeding me every day – talking about them made them too real. For too long, I kept them to myself, but doing so wasn’t helping me find relief. After almost seven months of regular appointments, I admitted the depth of my anxiety, something that we weren’t really treating due to my reticence toward talking about it, and she put me on a low dose of Lexapro – it’s hard to find balance enough to not send someone with bipolar disorder into mania, so dosing tends to be conservative.
It worked. The fog lifted. The horrible images stopped. By October, I was able to take my older son on a boat from Newport Beach, California to Avalon, an hour long ride across the open ocean, without drowning in anxiety. My dad got a picture of me standing at the back of the Catalina Flyer as we pulled into the harbor, looking into the distance with Soren on my hip. I’d survived.
In remission, we decided to have another child. Rune is almost one now, and I haven’t had a relapse in my perinatal mood disorders – for that, I am thankful.
The fact stands, however, that even though I am recovered from the PMADs I experienced with Soren, I still have GAD and bipolar disorder, and parenting while dealing with chronic mental illness is very challenging. There’s little awareness for any PMAD outside of depression, and there’s even less awareness and support when it comes to parents living with chronic mental illness. For us, mental illness isn’t fleeting. We may have a better infrastructure for care because we’ve been previously diagnosed and treated, so there’s a better chance that we have knowledge of the system and actively see mental health practitioners. That’s one thing we have going for us for better or worse.
But we regularly live in fear. A parent with a chronic illness like type 1 diabetes doesn’t constantly fear their children being taken from them because of their condition, but those of us with mental illness are so subject to stigma and judgment that we strive to appear psychonormative despite the risks involved with keeping our struggles to ourselves. For us, going back to normal after a PMAD isn’t going back to the societal normal – it’s back to our own brand of abnormality, one full of interventions and diseases that can be neither quantified nor adequately qualified, thus making them diseases that an unacceptable number of people believe don’t actually exist.
I have support, and I support others as best I can. I take medication, and I encourage others to take prescribed medication without worrying about stigma. I’m open about my illnesses, and others are open with me. But it is hard. It is very hard. I worry about my children and what their genetics hold. I worry about how my children will be affected if they’re home when I experience a panic attack. I feel guilt for not always being available for them because my brain just can’t handle more input. There’s always some new issue, some new worry.
There’s help though, and I’m willing to go to the ends of the earth to get it for my kids. I’m doing it to be a better mom for them by making a better version of myself. I work toward improvement for me, my kids, my husband, my parents, and my patients. For me, it’s possible to find a version of normalcy, and I rise.