Two weeks ago, I finally hit the wall I had been headed towards at approximately 100 mph since before the twins were born. I hit it hard and fell apart. I couldn’t stay at work on Monday morning and ended up taking sick leave for the rest of the week. (For context: I never miss work except for child-related issues; I have worked through laryngitis so bad I had to speak in gestures or writing only and morning sickness so intense I would throw up nearly every morning just from rounding up the levels in the parking garage).
I basically slept and cried and slept some more for four days straight. By day five, I was feeling a bit better but still incredibly fragile. Looking back, I think my (relatively minor but still scary to me) breakdown was the result of a combination of factors, including:
Each week since the twins were born, my life seems to over follow a bit more with competing demands both personal and professional; I hate feeling like I’m letting anyone down and I feel like that pretty much constantly. For example, the babies recently started to compete for my attention and responding to one results in unmitigated and very vocal jealousy from the other. I’m relieved that they are both clearly attached to me but listening to them sob because of something I did (or didn’t do) is heartbreaking. Seriously. My heart pounds as though my crying child were about to fall off a cliff or be eaten by a tiger. Thanks evolution.
I was also trying to taper off of a medication and maybe moved too quickly. I hadn’t been on it that long and the initial drop in dosage had not caused any noticeable side effects, so I figured I was good to drop it completely. My brain strongly disagreed. I didn’t take my (relatively minimal) dosage Sunday night and by mid-morning Monday, my mind was telling me lies like, “You probably should just call that hospital about inpatient treatment. You know the kids will ultimately be better off with someone else taking care of them. Matt deserves a better partner in life than you.” As my bestie likes to say, “depression is the lying-ist mofo around,” which truth I was, thankfully, able to hold on to long enough to call my doctor and get myself home safely.
Third, as mentioned previously, I had been using some effective (in the short term) but unhealthy and unsustainable means of coping with my OCD, depression, anxiety, what have you. Basically, whenever I had taken my meds but still reached a level of emotional pain and suffering which made me want to cry or scream or peel my own skin off, I would try to numb my feelings, using whatever was the most effective means at hand. I still feel terribly ashamed but it helps that it is no longer a secret from my family or my close friends. Now I can ask for help when I need it and work on learning new and better ways to deal with those moments of extreme anxiety.
Another contributing factor may have been that it was my birthday week. I am generally not that concerned with getting older, but it does make me sad that I seem to have my shit less together than ever at my age. Or, more accurately, that the manner in which I have generally kept my shit together for the past almost four decades is not helpful and is probably harmful applied to my present circumstances. In the past, I was a girl with a hammer in a world full of nails. I pounded my way through high school, college, law school and my early legal career, by doing ALL THE THINGS and then some so that I could be one of the best at whatever I was doing. Now, instead of nails to pound, I have something more like a glass puzzle with a zillion pieces and no idea what the ultimate picture should be. I can’t use my hammer, but I don’t know how to put the puzzle pieces together yet.
Finally, my mom and step-father were in town to help out while my husband was away for work, which meant I wasn’t the most adult adult on the premises. I could let go knowing they were to help take care of the kids and me. Sort of like getting the flu over winter break in college; I think my body felt safe to surrender.
So I let go. Or lost my grip. Or maybe a bit of both. I thought briefly about seeking inpatient treatment, but couldn’t imagine being away from my family (and ultimately realized that my brain was probably just fucking with me in terms of actually needing that kind of intervention). I also looked into some intensive outpatient programs but nothing seemed like the right fit. Ultimately, I decided to make some not insignificant changes to my current routine and mental health care in hopes of learning how to be more present, authentic, confident, and content in my roles as the mother and co-parent of three small children.
First, I got permission to work only three, rather than four, days a week for the duration of the summer. Thursdays are now my self-care day, which feels strange and self-indulgent but also absolutely necessary for me to get back to feeling more like my best self.
Second, I met with my psychiatrist and insisted we stop making so many changes to my meds. Going forward, we will make only one change at a time, all of which will be baby steps towards the ultimate goal of getting me off my current cocktail of randomness and back to a single, effective antidepressant.
Third, I’m going to see my new therapist twice a week, at least for the next few months. It’s expensive but likely still cheaper than my alternatives. Plus she’s been great so far. There is a lot of talking and some crying (as per my usual therapy sessions) but there is also really helpful instruction, practice and homework, all intended to facilitate my learning of new, healthier ways to manage my anxiety and be more present in each moment. No spiraling back into past mistakes or forward into potential difficulties.
My favorite exercise so far has been learning to identify what is real (to me) but not true. My anxiety, fear, and feelings of inadequacy and inevitable failure as a mother are absolutely real, but they are not true. I am a good mom. Not everyday in every possible way but overall I’m handling this incredibly intense, exhausting, exhilarating, terrifying, joyful, confusing, uncharted experience of raising my three children with patience and humor and more love than I ever imagined myself capable of.
Also real but not true:
- Henry feels abandoned or like I love him less because I often prioritize the babies’ needs over his requests. (This feels particularly real because he basically tells me this is the case whenever I won’t do what he wants when he wants me to. Three-year-old’s manipulation game is on point).
- Because of my past transgressions, I am not a fit mother. A responsible, devoted mom would never have done the things I did. I don’t deserve to be happy or content in my family life.
- I’m the one keeping all the balls in the air; if I slow down or let go of any one thing, everything will fall apart.
- I can’t do all the things that need to be done, today and forever, to take good care of my family. It’s too much for me.
- I will always feel this way (scared/sad/anxious/ashamed) everyday for the rest of my life; I will always wake up with a sense of fear or dread, never with a sense of calm or happy anticipation
- Parenting will always be easier for my husband; he will push me to do things that are truly fun and I will be miserable because of my need to plan and control;
- My anxiety is getting worse, spilling over from parenting to all aspects of my life; I am losing confidence at work; I can’t make any decisions; I’m unraveling.
Just reviewing this list (originally prepared for my therapist) makes me weepy and yet I know, in my heart if not my head, that none of these things are true. They seem real because my mind sometimes thinks they are, but they are just thoughts, nasty, self-punishing thoughts. I don’t know why I think these things and, frankly, I am not sure it matters all that much. What matters is that I can recognize them for what they are and then let them go because they are not helpful.
I may not ever be totally rid of the nasty voice in my head that regularly recites all of the things I have ever done that I am ashamed of, like some perverse greatest hits album. But I can know it for what it is: something that sounds and feels very real but is not true.