I am afraid of trying but more afraid of not trying 

If you have a mental illness, any mental illness, you learn to shape your life around it. It is a part of you, sometimes a small part and sometimes a very large part. Regardless, you cannot ignore it. Sooner or later, it will not be ignored. At the same time, you should not allow it to define you. For instance, I am not bipolar; I have a bipolar disorder, just like other people have major depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder or cancer.

My hope is to live my most meaningful, joyful and satisfying life, while giving my illness the respect it is due but not one bit more. I have yet to figure out how to create this balance. I worry that, because of my experiences last year, I give my illness more respect than it is due. I have not gone back to the job I left in October or begun to search for a new one. I have not started writing a manuscript, registered for a half marathon or done anything else that might be considered a mid-to-long term goal. Absent the (more than) occasional bout of the plague among our three children, my days are pretty low-key. I am busy from early morning to past my bedtime, but I am not doing anything particularly challenging, or not intellectually challenging.

I miss the intellectual challenge of my old job and, at times, I feel confident that I could return immediately with little to no need for a catch-up or re-learning period. I worked as an Assistant Attorney General for six years and never once felt unable to perform my job at the highest level, until last year. Now that I have been properly diagnosed and am taking the correct medications, what is stopping me from going back? I’m not an invalid; I’m just someone with a mental illness. People with mental illnesses work. They work really challenging jobs. Why not me?

Honestly, I am afraid. I am afraid that if I go back to my old job, or on to something new, I will fail to recognize the line between challenging work-life balance and triggering overload of responsibilities. Or worse, that I will recognize that line but choose to cross it because, despite all my bluster, I will be unable or unwilling to admit I can’t do it all.

There is also the fact that sometimes, even on the easy days, my brain decides it wants to totally freak out and I have to dunk my face in a sink full of cold water so I don’t have a panic attack right as the twins wake up from nap. And the times when my hands shake so badly it is impossible for me to thread the elastic band through the side of my son’s nebulizer mask. There are nights of insomnia and weekends of heart-pounding anxiety and sudden tearful outbursts that I can’t explain, to myself or my family. These kind of mood swings make me question whether a regular office job is feasible.

Yet, I am an intelligent, well-educated, skilled and resourceful woman. I am (was?) a very good attorney. Though I feel like I should have been back at work months ago, I am thankful nearly everyday that I am not. I don’t know what the right choice is when it comes to work. And I never imagined that whether to work or not would be a difficult decision for me. I worked hard for my degree and I always intended to be a model of working-motherhood for my children. At the same time, I never intended to have three toddlers. And I need to take care of myself so that I can be healthy and safe and so that I can take care of my family. It feels so unfair to have to make this decision at all, that my illness has essentially changed the course of my life. Sometimes I start to trace back the winding path that resulted in my breakdown, but there are so many potential factors and certain events I would not change even if I could. Nobody did anything wrong, including me. It just happened.

While I knew there was some risk of postpartum illness as a result of a multiples pregnancy, I had no idea that it could contribute to late onset bipolar disorder. My doctors did not discuss it with me, despite my postpartum anxiety after my first son’s birth. My husband knew I had struggled postpartum before, but he had no reason to expect such different and more extreme consequences from a twin pregnancy. Moreover, even if we had all talked about it, there would have been no way to know whether the possibility of postpartum bipolar would actually affect me.

Would I have made a different decision if I had known what would happen?Absolutely not. L and C are my children. I love them. I would die for them. End of story.

My diagnosis and treatment have also had many unexpected benefits. I now have strong boundaries and a definite set of core values. And if either my boundaries or values are not respected, I am one hundred times more likely to refuse to accept such disrespect. In other words, I am no longer afraid to stand up for myself, even when it might hurt someone’s feelings, cause a fight or threaten a relationship. I will not pretend to be anyone other than who I am and I will not apologize for being myself. Ever. Again.

So yeah, I am afraid of what might happen depending on what I choose to do with my life. But I have my safety plan and my safety people. There is no guarantee that things will be okay, but there never really was. I might always be afraid of falling apart, but I can’t not live my life. I am afraid of trying but I am more afraid of not trying.

 

The feminist ground floor

I have worked a paid job in some capacity since I was 14-years-old. I worked summer jobs through high school, work-study and summer jobs during college and the same during law school. Since graduating from law school in 2006, I have worked as a law clerk, big law associate and an assistant attorney general. However, I have not worked a paid job, legal or otherwise, since October 2016 when I entered an intensive outpatient treatment program (IOP).

When I first left IOP in November, the idea of returning to my old job, or any job, was unimaginable. While I doubted my ability to make wise choices about pretty much everything in my life at that time, I was confident that returning to work so soon after leaving IOP would be harmful to me and my family.

It has been around three months since I told my supervisors I could not provide a date certain for my return. During that time, I have felt less anxious, less depressed and more able to care of myself and my children than I have in years — certainly since the twins were born in August 2015. For many weeks, I didn’t think about work or returning to work; how we would manage the logistics of three kids with two working parents; how, despite having 1,001 things to do each day, we could ensure enough time for me to take care of myself per IOP protocols. Recently though, my husband, my therapist and I have touched on the topic as in need of discussion.

My therapist asked me to come up with a broad list of potential work options, including the reasonable, the impractical and the practically impossible. My list included, among other options, returning to my previous job, full-time or part-time; returning to the legal profession in some other way; becoming a yoga instructor; working at a bookstore; writing a book; starting a non-profit to support parents with mental illnesses; staying home until the kids start elementary school; and staying at home indefinitely.

Since leaving IOP in November, I have spent more than half my time each day working at kid and family related tasks. We have a four-year-old son and 18-month-old boy-girl twins. I drive our oldest to school every morning and volunteer at his school one day a week. While we have an au pair to care for the twins during the day, I often work with her, including helping with feedings and naptimes, going for walks and taking the kids to music class and swimming lessons. I take our oldest to his swimming lesson on Saturday. I do the grocery shopping and everyone’s laundry. I spend an inordinate amount of time at our pediatricians’ office because my two boys have an uncanny ability to turn the smallest cold into a major respiratory illness. I read and I play and I dance with my children. I kiss their bumps and bruises, sit through endless steamy shower sessions and give them medicine when they need it. I lay down in their beds or hang over the side of their cribs to rub their back during the night. Basically, I do the same amazing amount of things that all moms do.

When we had only one child, doing all of these things while also working a full-time job was overwhelming at times but mostly manageable. Once we had three children, doing all of these things while also working (together with my family medical history and postpartum hormonal swan dive) caused me to have a mental breakdown.

I had constant panic attacks followed by days of debilitating depression when I simply could not leave my bed or even imagine doing so ever again. I could not stop crying, ever. In beween the panic attacks and days in bed, I pretended everything was okay but it was not. I was terrified of letting anyone down, at work or at home, and I felt like I was letting pretty much everyone down everyday. I went to my doctor but none of the antidepressants we tried helped. My therapist was basically in crisis mode, focused on keeping me safe and making sure I had people around me who could help (i.e. drive me to the psych ward and give my kids a non-scary explanation of why I had to leave for a little while).

Despite this trauma (which is not an exaggeration, I am traumatized by my experience last year), the idea of not returning to the job I left in October, or rejoining the paid workforce in some manner, unsettled me. It felt like a wrong or imperssible decision, a betrayal of myself in some way. It is only in the past few days that I have attempted to figure where these feelings come from. My conclusion: the idea of not return to paid work, particularly legal work, discomforts me because it means exitng the feminist ground floor, rather than continuing to climb up and up towards the glass ceiling.

There has been so much effort and struggle in the past, and even now, to guarantee women the same rights related to work and wages as men. Feminists who came before me built a floor so that women like me could start our careers on relatively equal footing with men. Not returning to my job as an attorney feels like a betrayal of that work and those values.

I realize there are many options other than returning to a full-time position as an attorney, but I already have a full-time job. Three small children is no joke. I am on my feet from 6 AM to at least 10 PM every day, not to mention the two to four times I am usually up during the night. I realize we could outsource some of what I do, but not all of it. And despite the fact that I often want to scream, hide, runaway or do all three at once, I sincerely find my work as a mother fulfilling; hard as hell, but fulfilling.

So the question is, can I exit the feminist ground floor in a direction other than up without feeling like a traitor, a failure or a coward? I believe the answer is yes.

While equality may be the primary precept of feminism, choice is also a major principle. Feminism includes a strong belief that a woman has the right to choose: to choose what to do with her body; to choose her life partner regardless of gender; to choose to marry or not; to choose to have children or not; to choose any field of study; and to expect equal treatment all along her chosen career path. Given this emphasis on choice, it seems reasonable to conclude that choosing to exist the feminist ground floor by leaving the building entirely is consistent with feminism, so long as I make that choice by and for myself.

As one of my most beloved legal role models, the Notorious RBG, has said: “It is essential to a woman’s equality . . . that she be the decision-maker, that her choice be controlling.”

If I decide to leave the paid workforce because that is what I want to do for myself and my decision is controlling, then it is not an affront to feminism. Rather, it is consistent with an essential element of women’s equality. In short, it is not the content of my choice but my freedom and authority in making it that matters most.

Much respect, RBG. And deuces (I think).