The first mental health diagnosis I ever received was “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” or GAD.
Oh my GAD, I’m so anxious I can barely function!
I was diagnosed at 21 by my then-therapist: a thin, bespectacled man named Bill. I was on government assistance, and he was assigned to me through the county’s mental health agency, which was housed in an aging building in what was once the downtown of a Midwestern city, but was now filled with social services organizations, seedy law offices, and loose trash. The waiting room at the agency was standard low-budget: mid-century cloth-and-metal furniture, worn carpeting, paneled walls. After I’d nervously flipped through whichever three-year-old magazines were within my reach, I would count the brown stains on the dark orange upholstery while I waited to be called back for my session.
Once, I smiled at a woman, and she loudly snapped, “DON’T SMILE AT ME, LADY!” I didn’t make much eye contact with anyone in the waiting room after that.
Bill’s office was “zen” focused, back when tapping into “Eastern Practices” was still a novel idea. He was not the best therapist I have ever had, but neither was he the worst, and he was my first so our relationship was symbolic—I was finally getting the help I needed. After I had shared my struggles with him for an hour, he would stand up to see me out, I would tower over him when he shook my hand, and he would look at me sort of like, I’m sorry, I don’t really know how to help you. And then, eventually, he finally told me, “I’m sorry, I don’t really know how to help you.” I was far more functional than the clients he was used to treating, and it was disillusioning for me.
He’d say, in not so many words, But you have a job, and you’re not withdrawn from society, and you aren’t homeless. What’s the problem?
And I’d reply in even less words, with self-deprecating humor, I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams, and like I might shatter into a thousand shards.
But I didn’t know then how to advocate for myself. I wasn’t aware that I could request a different therapist and could keep doing that until I found someone who could actually help me. So I didn’t. I eventually stopped seeing Bill, and didn’t see another therapist for a few more years, during which time I really could have used a therapist. Instead, I was prescribed a string of volatile psychotropics by general practitioners, and bounced around in the system with almost no support. When the first symptoms of possible MS appeared, I was on such a cocktail of drugs that I often dealt with memory loss, couldn’t drive myself, and would sleep for 14 hours a day. But, hey, that’s what poor people get for needing healthcare and mental health support, right? Ahem. Another post for another time.
When I was pregnant, I anticipated the possibility of postpartum depression, especially because I struggled with antenatal depression. In retrospect, my pregnancy was also marked by anxious feelings, but I was so tired from gestating that they did not manifest in the way I was used to experiencing anxiety. I was shut down to some degree during my pregnancy. I compartmentalized because it was the only way I knew how to survive.
There’s this scene in the movie Juno where Jennifer Garner says, “A woman becomes a mother when she gets pregnant, a man becomes a father when he sees his baby.” This rang true for us, and my pregnancy was often sprinkled with loneliness at my partner’s seeming lack of understanding of what I was going through. Not that he wasn’t processing his own identity changes and big feelings about becoming a parent; he certainly was. But it seemed easier for him to put it away for a few hours and focus on other parts of himself. He could head to work and lock up those thoughts for the day, or at night he could climb into bed and fall into a deep sleep and not stir until his alarm went off many hours later.
Meanwhile, I was nearly immobilized with exhaustion during my first and third trimesters. There were some days in my first trimester when I felt off all day. Not that I was rushing to the toilet to vomit like they show in the movies, but I was overcome with a dizzying malady characterized by a throbbing head, a churning stomach, and soreness all over my body. By the time the third trimester hit, I (like every other pregnant woman) had to pee constantly, had infuriating hot flashes, was rarely comfortable and always swollen, and could hardly sleep. The baby was so active during the day that I routinely asked him if he could just cool his jets to let me get some work done without feeling like Mike Tyson was practicing on my rib cage.
The notion of even temporarily putting away my feelings about the implications of becoming a parent was absurd, because the life inside me flashed incessantly like a warning beacon, predictable crimson bursts, alerting me to what lay ahead. There were a handful of times throughout my pregnancy when I briefly forgot that I was pregnant, and each time was a jarring experience. When it happened, I was usually carrying out some complex task for my job and using my brain in that problem-solving way that makes you beam with pride when you realize that you’re GOOD AT STUFF. My identity was temporarily unhitched from the baby in my womb and cinched instead to a defining factor that had shaped me for most of my life: what I do.
In some ways, pregnancy fostered extreme closeness between Em and me. In other ways, we had never been further apart. My fevered anecdotal research revealed that this is a common phenomenon for heteronormative folks expecting a first child. Men withdraw and ruminate on whether they’ll be good fathers, role models, and providers; women resent the shit out of them. I spent a lot of time reading articles, and when that didn’t soothe me, I would turn to forums. There is something so reassuring in witnessing the train wreck of someone else’s life, filling yourself to overflowing with superiority. Psh. That poor woman’s husband is such an asshole. Glad *I* don’t have to deal with THAT.
By the time my due date approached, I had managed to shut down a lot of my own feelings about labor and delivery, giving birth, and becoming a mother. I was nervous and afraid, yes—and those feelings hummed in the background like the white noise in our houses that we don’t notice until the power is out and we can’t hear it anymore. But work got busier than ever as we anticipated my three-month absence, and some nights I was up until midnight after working all day and taking a break for a couple of hours to eat dinner, just trying to wrap up projects in case I went into labor early. Those nights, my son would pass out in my womb hours before I went to bed, and I imagined him rubbing his eyes in there, trying to stay awake to keep his mama company, until he finally gave in to rest.
I had read a little about labor, but did not have a birth plan, despite being told by friends that I needed one. In retrospect, I did have expectations, I just did not know what they were at the time, and couldn’t articulate them in the moment because I was in labor. Several aspects of my labor and delivery were traumatic, and I have spent the past several months trying to figure out how to write about it. It has taken me until now to even sort through the hard stuff, and I’m likely not even close to being done.
The “positivity culture” that has prevailed in recent years sends the message, Stop whining, it wasn’t that bad, focus on the GOOD, you have it so much better than so many people. While I appreciate what the message is supposed to convey—despite this present hardship, it’s going to be okay—I think its effect minimizes peoples’ feelings.
Talking about our problems is our greatest addiction. Break the habit. Talk about your joys! It’s true, we shouldn’t incessantly complain, but neither should we discount the very real impact of our problems. Nor should we say to one another, You think THAT’S a problem? THIS is a problem!
Positive mind, positive vibes, positive life! Except life is not always positive, no matter how hard we try to wish it into existence with our positive mind and our positive vibes.
There is great value in keeping on the sunny side and trying to find the good in tough situations. But, I think this preoccupation with keeping a good attitude at all times can cause us to unwittingly gloss over our own feelings, and to miss out on opportunities to connect with each other on that raw, real, human level.
There is an added layer of challenge to this for me as I have re-entered the Christian Community, because I think for some reason many of us carry around duffle bags of shame, worry, guilt, anxiety, and accountability to The Lord. If we are to be the light of the world, how can we focus on darkness, even for a moment? How can we be honest and gritty? Except, the actual examples in the bible of (ostensibly) real people were often not shiny. If David were alive today, his Facebook feed would be a pendulum swing of uplifting memes followed by vaguebooking about “some people” and life’s general difficulty.
Sometimes, in an effort to be as real as possible, I overshare. I know this about myself, and it is very much on purpose. It is rarely comfortable for me, but I do it anyway because my baseline would be to move to a cabin in the woods and shoot at anyone who came on my property. I overshare and answer how are you? honestly because—while I want to focus on the abundant blessings and good fortune in my life—I also want to be truthful that I struggle with complex feelings. I don’t want to pretend that it isn’t sometimes hard for me, even in spite of those blessings. I want to be candid, to admit that even the good stuff can be complicated by onerous emotions that take time, effort, and reflection to sort through.
When my feelings on a topic are still large and in my face, I’m not good at articulating them. My postpartum period was fraught with grief over a sudden loss in my family, not to mention all the normal difficulty that punctuates having just pushed a human out of your body and now being responsible for that little person’s well-being.
One of the biggest unexpected (and, frankly, uninvited) factors that defined my labor and delivery, and my postpartum healing time, was the return of anxiety and panic that I was sure was gone from my life. I didn’t sleep for the first few days of my son’s life. I barely slept for the 23.5 hours I labored to bring him into this world.
I will admit that I was sometimes ambivalent about him while I was pregnant. The thought of losing huge pieces of my identity and no longer having the same freedoms I was used to… it scared me to death. My memory suffered while I was pregnant. Would my brain ever return to normal? Would I ever be able to hold a conversation again? Would I ever not feel like I might collapse at any time from exhaustion? Then, some days when I would feel him move in response to my voice, jabbing the walls of my womb with his active limbs, and I would think, Wow, what an incredible gift—I can’t wait for you to get here so I can get to know you better.
When there were complications to my labor and following his birth, suddenly the reality of his existence nearly knocked me off my feet. I have been scarce here in part because I am busy, and because my anxious mind struggles to focus. But also, I am consumed with getting to know my son. Watching him develop has been the most exciting thing I have done so far in life.
The depression never came, not in full force like I was expecting. There were a handful of times in the early postpartum period when I was not sleeping well and the baby would inevitably stir while I wanted to nap, and those moments felt hopeless. But the hurricane of debilitating sadness that I anticipated throughout my pregnancy never made landfall. Of course, there’s still time. I think, perhaps, my brain’s defense mechanism to ensure my own survival and that of my child was to kick into overdrive, hence the anxiety. I can actually feel the blood cells coursing through my veins I’m so wound up sometimes. I have to imagine that feeling dissipates. Or maybe it doesn’t, and that’s just what it means to be a parent.