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.