Limits are not weaknesses

It is fair to say I am not the same person I was before my twins were born. Any woman could say the same about the birth of any child. Becoming a mother, whether for the first time or the fifth, is life-altering on every possible level. Physically, emotionally, logistically, hygenically (which apparently is not a word but should be) — your life is different; you are different.

In my case, the changes following the birth of L and C were fairly drastic. Up until these past 16 months, I felt confident that I could achieve my goals and perform my responsibilities — whether academic, professional or otherwise — flawlessly, or nearly so. It wasn’t that I believed myself to be smarter or more capable than the people around me. I simply knew that I could and would put in the time and effort needed to be successful, no matter how great the time or effort required. If I needed to study for eight hours straight before an exam, fine. If a work project required me to stay in the office for 24 hours, not a problem.

My approach to motherhood and household management turned out to be much the same. Spending multiple nights in a row sitting in a recliner holding my sick baby upright so he could sleep despite his cold, of course. Taking night-duty seven nights a week for three kids while also working four days a week, fine. Caring for L and C for half of my “day off,” while also doing the laundry, cleaning, most of the cooking and grocery shopping. Yep, that was my job, too. I understood that I was taking on a lot of responsibilities in addition to my day job. I also knew that my standards for many things, like cleaning, were probably not reasonable. Even so, at the time, all of these tasks and their related high standards seemed achievable, if I just worked hard enough.

It is only recently that I have come to recognize my approach to life as perfectionist. I thought I was just doing what I needed to do to achieve what I needed to achieve in order to be the kind of person I was supposed to be. It never occurred to me, as a teenager or an adult, that pushing myself to do as much as I did to perform my life as flawlessly as I could might have serious consequences for my physical or mental health. Sure, there was that episode of anorexia in college, but that was over and done. At worst, I might get tired or irritable or even depressed, but so long as I took my antidepressants nothing seriously bad could happen.

Then, about three weeks after L and C were born, my antidepressants stopped working. My doctors and I could not find an effective replacement. In addition to depression, I began to experience overwhelming anxiety. A few months later, I had my first panic attack at work and then spent four days unable to get out of bed. This cycle of extreme anxiety/panic attack followed by debilitating depression/days in bed began to occur every few months.

Of course, I kept up appearances as much as possible, both at work and at home. I wiped my eyes and gritted my teeth. I sometimes laid on the floor of my office reciting my name, my location, the day of the week, etc., desperate to ground myself in the present rather than lose myself in a tidal wave of anxiety. I slept too much or sometimes not at all. I would hyperventilate at the sight of my own children and then berate myself for being such a terrible mother.

Finally, after over a year of feeling like a scared, incompetent, overwhelmed, irresponsible, failure every single day, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder while attending an intensive outpatient treatment program (IOP). Since that time, I have not returned to work. Instead, I spend my days driving my kids to various destinations, exercising, writing, visiting with friends, and having baby dance parties with our au pair — when I’m not out buying milk, cooking dinner for six or buried under a pile of laundry.

Given my past achievements and drive to succeed, my current lifestyle might look to some people like I am giving up, or like I have lost confidence in my abilities because of my diagnosis. Some people might even think I am using my illness as an excuse to avoid hard work, my responsibilities to contribute to my family and my duty to set an example of working motherhood for my children. Those people would be wrong.

I am not giving up. I have not lost my confidence. I am not using my diagnosis to hide from my life. I am living my life in the best way I know how, safely but bravely, facing each day with hope and humor. I am modeling for my children the importance of taking care of yourself so that you can take care of the people you love. I am showing them that it is okay to have limits, that limits are not weaknesses, and that recognizing your limits and living within them is the best way to ensure health and happiness — for you and the people who love you.

Giving up would mean letting my illness win. The easiest way to give up would be to simply resume my life as it was before IOP. I could go back to doing all the things I did before until, inevitably, I broke myself again. Or, I could give up by stopping my medications, my various doctor appointments, exercising, seeing my friends, structuring my days to avoid rumination, etc. In short, I could stop trying to live my life in a new way that will, hopefully, help me stay well.

There is nothing about my life that looks like giving up. My life is all about the hard work of fighting for a better way of being:

I am saying no (even when my internal, people-pleasing conflict avoider is screaming yes); I am saying yes (to things that make me uncomfortable but that I know will be good for me); I am having real conversations with my most important people about core values, shared beliefs and points of disagreement; I am asking for and accepting offers of help with humility and gratitude; I am practicing compassion, towards myself and others, as often as I can remember; I am making a conscious effort to be more mindful and present in my life, especially with my children; I am also giving myself permission to flee the premises when the chaos of our small-child centric world feels overwhelming.

Everything about my life feels like a work in progress and I have no idea what the ultimate outcome will be. However, I do feel more like myself these days, as if an old friend has unexpectedly moved to town and become part of my present life; not everything about us is the same, but I have missed her and I hope she will stay.

Letting go of the rope

Since leaving IOP, I have had moments of pure joy with my babies: watching C grow more confident in his walking; seeing L waive her hands and shake her booty to pretty much any song with a good beat. I have spent every morning driving my sweet H to school, having in depth conversations about transformers and whether he will be a policeman or a helicopter pilot when he grows up.

I have also spent entire days listening to unremitting screaming at a volume I would not have believed such tiny beings capable of. I have been to the pediatrician three times in the last four weeks. I have had all three children hit, pinch and push each other in an effort to be the only one in my lap. I have felt overwhelmed by the depth and strength of their need for me.

Even so, none of my experiences with my children have precipitated a panic attack. And while I have felt some depression, it has been nothing like the debilitating depression I experienced last year that kept me in bed for days at a time. Overall, I am feeling better. Not having to fit my family and everything that goes along with managing a household of six in between work hours has made my life feel fundamentally different. I still get stressed and impatient and exhausted but in a normal, manageable way. There was nothing normal or manageable about my life last year.

I also feel different because I am taking time to take care of myself (most days). I am learning to value myself. And recognizing that I have value — as an individual and independent of my relationship to anyone else — has made it imperative, although not necessarily easier, to speak up and take a stand, to refuse to compromise when my head or my heart says no, to ask for what I need and what I want.

At the same time, I am learning the frustrating but important lesson that I can only control myself — my own words, actions and responses. I can control my willingness to say out loud what I feel, what is acceptable to me and what is not. I can control my courage to ask for the help I believe I deserve.

I have no control, however, over how the person I am talking to will respond to what I say or what I ask. That response is on them. That is their shit to deal with, not mine.

Learning this lesson has been painful but ultimately freeing. As my therapist says, I have let go of the rope; I have stopped trying to drag anyone with me down my ideal path for recovery. All I can do is ask and then keep moving.

Someone somewhere once said, “The only way out is through.” Having someone to hold my hand as I make my way through this crazy ordeal (pun intended) would be immensely helpful. But that is not my decision to make.