On Turning Forty

Setting a firm intention with the horses earlier this month in Montana.

This is a more personal (and longer) bit of writing than I usually post here, but I decided to share for two reasons. Firstly, as a reminder that we never know what other people are dealing with, and secondly, to do my small part in chipping away at the stigma of mental illness. If you know someone who you think would feel better for reading this, I hope you share it.

When I turned 39 a year ago, I thought it would be interesting to document my fortieth year in some way. It didn’t have to be public, and I didn’t want it to be so challenging as to be stressful (so, no posting a photo a day, in other words). I settled on simply writing a sentence or two each day in a notebook, in a documenting type of way. It’s been a long while since I journaled, and this wasn’t that. It was just a record of my days, 365 of them, the days of my fortieth year on this earth.

For a long while, if I mentioned this to anyone, I added that I picked a really miserable year to document, full of sadness and heartache. But, now that I’m at the end of it, having turned 40 one week ago today, I no longer think this is true. After all, this is the year I opened an Etsy shop, arranged to teach classes, and launched an e-zine; all of these support my goals of working on my own creative pursuits but also sharing my passion with others, to inspire and create confidence. This is the year I went away by myself twice, once to Florida and again to Montana. This is the year I began running again and entered two 5Ks (one was the day after my birthday, but we’ll count it anyway). These are things to celebrate, even more so because I worked on all this while so much else was going sideways in my life.

Because this is also the year that began with a sadness so substantial I could feel it on me like a heavy cloak, always. In late winter I lost my appetite and, ultimately, 13 pounds, dropping me back into underweight status (I’d finally reached a healthy weight after being diagnosed with celiac and cutting out gluten). I lost the ability to sleep; I simply forgot the trick of it. I started to feel like my mind was a moth trapped in a jar, banging against the sides, never finding a good solution on how to escape itself. After several months of this, I finally got myself to a competent therapist (after first seeing a really flaky unhelpful one). During a very thorough intake, which made me begin to trust her abilities fairly quickly, she identified symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in my past. At our next appointment I asked her to discuss that more thoroughly with me.

Turns out I’ve had flashes of PTSD for thirty years, but this winter/spring it was severe and prolonged. It’s related to childhood trauma and was triggered by a confluence of present-day events; because both of those stories overlap with other people’s stories, I won’t share details. PTSD is like a constant fight-or-flight response. From what I understand, it’s not going to get cured or go away, but I can learn to manage it. My brain can learn that it doesn’t have to fight or escape triggering situations, because I’m no longer a trapped and powerless child. However, at the worst of it, I absolutely felt trapped and powerless. It’s hard to explain my mind’s chaos from this vantage point, and if you saw me in daily life you probably wouldn’t have guessed how I was struggling. You might have wondered if something was up—I looked so thin, and tired, always—but my kids were getting to their activities, my homeschooled kids were getting schooled, my schooled kid was always on time, with a healthy packed lunch, and I showed up when and where I was supposed to. I taught my co-op classes; I continued working towards my own personal goals, albeit in very, very small increments. In short, I earned my superhero cape every single day. My kids, especially the two at home, knew I was sad. They saw me cry. I wasn’t very present much of the time—I kind of detached and disassociated, but I still cooked the meals (even if I wasn’t eating them), did the laundry, and kept everything running, while my husband was away on business trip after trip after trip. I did all this, and I often did it alone, and underneath, that moth just kept banging against smooth glass walls, finding no purchase at all.

I have a complicated relationship to medicines—I think most people do—and I resisted any talk of antidepressants. However, when the best plan my brain could come up with was to head off into the woods with no ID or cell phone (I didn’t do that, I just thought about it), a couple of friends convinced me that meds were a good idea. I agreed to a low dose of Zoloft at the beginning of June, and I’ve never upped it; the low dose has been enough. On the third day, my appetite began to come back.

The adjustment to meds, however, wasn’t easy and lasted 5-6 challenging weeks. A few weeks after I began Zoloft, I began running, and I believe it’s been just as important to me in feeling better. When I run, I feel strong, powerful, and in control. I can track measurable progress, as my ability to run both farther and faster improves. For a while, running was the only part of my life where I felt in charge. When I ran, I was reminded of my strength. I love running, and I’m so thankful for how it’s helped me. As an added bonus, it definitely helped increase my appetite, too.

Six months before my fortieth birthday, before the therapist, before the meds, before reaching any personal goals, I swore that one way or another, things would be different by the time I turned 40, and they are. So the story of my fortieth year is also one of getting myself out of the depths. I reached out and found a core group of women, many online, who checked in on me, shared their experiences, and cared for me. This is enormous. Saying I’m grateful doesn’t begin to cover it. I reached out for help locally, too, thankful for the friend who watched all three of my kids so I could get to therapy while my husband was away, who listened to what I was going through without judgment, without the need to “fix” me—just with patient, attentive ears. What a gift. My therapist (who, sadly, retired in August) had such helpful insights regarding that childhood trauma. I began to see the ways in which I’d allowed the members of my family of origin to define me, and how I could take charge of my own narrative. (It was about this time that I came across the description of the Haven Writing Retreat and felt so strongly that I needed to get far away so I could get in touch with the truth of my story.) This is the year I’ve worked on letting go—of the need to control, the need to know what’s next, the need for certainty. My childhood left me hesitant to trust, scared of separation and abandonment. Paradoxically, the way through that is to let go, open up, and chance.

So how do I feel about turning 40?

Strong in body and mind. Confident, once again. Beautiful. Grateful. And I feel like I can breathe again, most of the time, anyway.

So that is a peek behind the curtain of my life. More has been going on, all along, than I could possibly let on in this space. I would assume that is true of everyone we know online or in our day-to-day life. More is always going on, and we go on, too.

***

It took about three months from the time I requested mental health referrals to my first appointment with someone competent and helpful. I somehow found the ability to be tenacious and continue trying, but this is very hard to do while struggling. Presently, we’re appealing with our insurance company, who has taken brand-name liquid Zoloft (the only version of this drug that doesn’t contain gluten and thus is safe for me, a diagnosed celiac) completely out of their formulary, refusing to cover any of the cost. The mental health care system in this country is even more broken than the regular health care system. Those of us who need care need to overcome stigma (and thus our own shame) to first reach out, and while that’s hurdle enough, it’s usually just the beginning of a long, difficult road towards getting the correct help. Stigma needs to be replaced with compassion, scorn with support, and the insurance companies’ focus on the bottom line with common sense.

I found this pamphlet by NAMI helpful in beginning to understand PTSD, especially as it includes PTSD beyond the military instances with which most people associate it.

22 thoughts on “On Turning Forty

  1. Carolyn

    Amy, what a beautiful post. I’m thrilled that you took this past year to nurture yourself and were willing to try the meds which could bring you to a better place. I’m hoping that in your 41st year you will continue to pursue your goals and strengthen yourself. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of those we love, I’ve learned that lesson many times. You’re right…we never know what is going on behind closed doors. You would think that knowing what we know we’re dealing with, we would be more compassionate with others who might be dealing with difficult, devastating things that we don’t know. Wow, that’s an awful sentence, hope you get what I mean! :o) You’re also right about the healthcare system, what a mess that is!

  2. Karen

    what a beautiful, powerful post. full of insight and hope and healing. full of respect and compassion and empowerment. I’m so glad you can sit on this side of 40 with this kind of wisdom and momentum. It’s a hell of a journey, and when we talk about it we remind ourselves and others that we are not alone.

  3. karen

    My sister and my dad are celiac and I understand the challenges you face daily. Thank you for being so open about your year, I do see a hero in you. The hardest most difficult step is in the asking. You will be in my thoughts and prayers as you continue to strengthen emotionally and physically. Glad to call you my “friend”!

  4. annie

    Yes. Dr. husband is doing research right now on how very, very hard it is for people to find appropriate mental health services when they need them. I think people would be truly astonished (and outraged as well) if they really understood the scope of the problem. I hope that you are appropriately proud of yourself for having the tenacity, follow through, and love for yourself and your family to find a space where you could get what you needed!

  5. underthebigbluesky

    Yay Amy!!

    There is some type of shift that comes with 40, I swear it. I’ve seen it with myself and others I know. Hooray for you, for getting the help you need. Congratulations to you on all that you have accomplished, and wow what a list.

    Here’s to the next forty years continuing to build on everything you’ve done.

    xoxoxo

  6. Angie

    Amy, thank you for writing and sharing your story. I relate. You know I do. I am in tears over here. You shine like a star in my eyes. You’re utterly brilliant. <3

    1. amy Post author

      I know you do, and thinking of how brave you are at fighting stigma helped me hit “publish” on this. And the way you support your friends is a true gift. xoxo

  7. Heather

    Your strength is amazing, Amy. Thank you for sharing your truths, and for reaching out for help. Hopefully others can use your journey as a help on theirs.

    1. amy Post author

      Thank you, Heather. I hope talking about it makes it easier for someone else to reach out, definitely.

  8. RoseRed

    I have to admit, that is not the post I was expecting to read. Congratulations on making it through the past year, achieving so much despite the obstacles, and most importantly, recognising you had a mental health issue and dealing with it in such a great way.
    And happy happy birthday.

  9. Kirsten

    Hey Amy. I had this bookmarked and only just now had a chance to read it. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m so glad you’ve managed to turn that corner. I know what that feels like. You’re amazing!

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