Enough

There is a merry-go-round inside my head where I sit for hours each day, spinning around, past, and between the question: what do I want? More specifically, what do I want to do with my time given the things that I must do and how I want to do them and what I feel will give me the greatest chance at happiness or, looked at another way, the best possibility of a living a life of which I am proud and with which I am content, more often than not.

The answer to date: I have no fucking idea.

First, let me acknowledge the uber first-world-problems nature of this question. I have a choice. I have so many choices in terms of what I might do and when and how I might do it. I don’t have to work a full-time job. I could probably get away with mostly volunteering. And, while I do have three small children, I also have a lot of help with caring for them. I am a full-time mom — we all are — but I do not provide their minute-by-minute care day in and day out (praise be).

Counterpoint: money and time and help do not fix anything unless you actively use them to make your life better, like really better in a sustained, worthy, purposeful way.

Currently, I spend my not-immediate-mom-or-other-household-related time at work. I don’t love my job but going to work, even a few days a week, flips a switch for me that says I am useful, to my family and others, I am earning money to pay (some) of my family’s cost of living, I am using the graduate degree I spent years attaining, and pursuing the career I’ve spent over a decade building. Which would all be great, except that going to work is also a massive trigger for my anxiety and depression, so much so that I’ve had to take two leaves of absence in the past three years, one that lasted over a year, and the other of which started after I sent an email asking for leave from a hospital bed in the ICU. Obviously, work is not the cause of my illness(es) but working, especially since my twins were born, has been a major precipitating factor in some of the very worst periods of my life.

And yet, I keep going back, like some punch-drunk boxer who thinks if she just keeps getting up, keeps staggering back to the center of the ring, that somehow she won’t get knocked down again. This time, it will be different. I will take on less, take more breaks, only do certain kinds of projects for certain people, work from home on Fridays, and so on and so forth, as if it’s all a matter of (illusory) work-life balance and not life and death.

But it is a matter of life and death and on the days I can hold that truth steady in my mind and heart, I know I need to quit. And yet, god damn it, I am not a quitter. I refuse to concede defeat. I can do this, this thing where you do all the things and be happy more often than not. I see it being done all around me. All of the lovely lives with make-up and fashionable clothes and eyes that aren’t red from crying, with children who get haircuts and use cutlery and probably don’t have to listen to their mom begging them to please just stop because she can’t, she just can’t right now (or ever). Women with multiple kids, full-time jobs, and husbands who work long hours and travel and, yet, somehow they just can, when I can’t.

I understand that comparison is the death of joy. That I don’t know other women’s lives. But the idea of quitting my job tears open in a me a wound of profound sadness and shame. A wound I want to plaster over as quickly as possible and by whatever means so that I don’t have to feel that pain. The pain of failure.

It was not supposed to be this way. I am not supposed to be this way. Somewhere along the way something went terribly wrong and it must be my fault. This is how it feels when I think about quitting.

But, in actuality, quitting my current job is, at its core, accepting that my life is the way it is and that I am the way I am and that working is not helping me create a life worth living. It is doing the opposite. It is taking the hard parts of my life and making them harder and taking so many of the good parts away.

My life is just as it is and was meant to be for a million different reasons none of which can be changed because they already happened and were themselves a result of a million things that came before. I am failing my life only to the extent that I am choosing not to live it in the way I know will best protect me and provide me with the most happiness. Not walking away from a form of work that continues, for whatever reason, to break me because I am afraid of doing the wrong thing is not merely ironic; it is heartbreaking. I am breaking my own heart.

And I have had enough. I will turn 40 years old in two weeks and I am no longer willing to live my life worried about what other people might think, or, more importantly, what I might think about myself because I can’t tell the difference between what I think I should do and what I actually want. I have to find my wants, to listen and feel for them every day, until I have one in my hand and then run with it, as fast and as far as I can, before I can convince myself it’s not real or good or right. I have to learn how best to love myself so that I can embrace a life that grows that love. I need to quit failing myself by pushing through rather than pulling back to my center. Because I am enough. And I have had enough of my own bullshit. It’s time to get off the merry-go-around, to do the terrifying, first right thing.

Reboot

Um, hi. It’s been awhile. Like maybe a year-and-a-half while. Which is totally my fault. Obviously. I stopped writing. And I probably worried some of you, and I am so sorry. I’m okay. I’ve been (mostly) okay since my last post in the fall of 2017. I’ve had a couple of really not okay moments and I will get to those eventually, but for now I wanted to try and explain why I stopped writing and why I am starting to write again and how I hope you’ll be interested in reading.

I stopped writing, largely, because I started to feel better and I felt less and less like talking about being sick. I didn’t have to think about or feel my illness every minute of every day for the first time in over a year. Continuing to blog about it felt counterproductive.

While I could have written about getting well, frankly, it felt boring and also more like purposeless navel-gazing than writing about being sick. Writing about being sick felt like it might be helpful; it made some meaning out of the madness (pun aboslutely intended). Without that larger purpose, I felt lost in terms of what to write about or why to write it.

I also had a bit of a shame hangover (hat tip, Brené Brown). I shared a lot on this blog, about my mental health, my guilt/fear/shame as a parent, partner, and human, and my struggle to accept and make my way through life as a person with “late onset,” or at least late-diagnosed, biopolar disorder. I was broken when I started this blog and I stopped writing when I had reassembled enough pieces to feel capable of moving forward from not exactly where I left off but close enough to be my life.

And I did move forward, and I do, but I’ve also taken like a million steps back and fallen once so hard I almost died. But I didn’t and I’m okay but not always or in the way that I’d like to be. Being well is a struggle, every goddamn day, it’s a struggle. And I’ve found some things that are really, really helpful to me. Also, things that are particularly unhelpful. I’ve got some thoughts and ideas and tips and tricks and questions and answers and questions without answers that are still useful to ask. I’m back at work. My oldest is about to finish kinder and the twins will start pre-K this fall (?!). I am the ringmaster of the shit show that is our family of five. I’ve started taking epic hikes and gone to two meditation retreats and one in-patient psych ward and my weekly pill organizer could kill a horse.

I am okay and not okay every day and most often at the same time. And I’ve been thinking I’d like to write about that. That it might be helpful to know that getting better is always just that and sometimes it involves getting worse, at least for awhile. I have absolutely no answers to Any of the Things, but I can point them out and write about them in a way that might make them more approachable, less scary, sometimes funny, and always shared. It’s not just me and it’s not just you and none of us can do this alone.

So, if you’re not still totally pissed at my for disappearing for 19 months, please come back. I promise I’ll write as often as a mentally-ill, working mother of three kids six and under can, which I hope is often. XOXO, A

Next Question

I started writing this blog in the fall of 2015. Over the past two years, I have used it to ask and answer questions about my life, some vital, some less so. In large part, writing a post is, for me, a means of spitballing with the world, and myself, about whatever question is making the most noise in my head at the time. Today that question is this: What’s next?

Now that I have been stablish on my medication for about a month, what is the next step, the next thing to be done, the next goal to achieve before moving on to the one after that until I finally reach the place where it all feels like normal to me again?

I had recently spent a great deal of time trying to figure this out for myself before remembering I have paid experts who can tell me these things. So, I asked my therapist. Specifically, because it is football season and I am a dork, I asked her if there is a goal post now and, if so, where is it? Unfortunately, her answer was basically to punt (ha!) and say that, at this point, what well and good looks like to me is for me to decide and then work towards. I considered objecting as non-responsive but thought better of it because (a) not a lawyer anymore and (b) she’s most likely giving me the most responsive answer there is. I just don’t like it.

For more than a year now, I have had a relatively detailed map to follow away from sickness and towards wellness. I went to treatment. I changed medications. I resigned from my job. I went to therapy. I changed therapists. I changed doctors. I changed medications, again. I lived many, many weeks focused on making it from my bed in the morning back to my bed at night without doing or saying anything harmful to myself or others. It may have looked like I was just puttering around the house and hanging out with my family but, believe me, I was fighting for my life some of those days. A lot of those days. That’s the thing, or one of the many things, that’s hard about mental illness, right? Other people can’t see it. They can’t see the pain or anger or fear or sadness. They can’t feel those things either. They can’t feel what it is like to fight back against those things using the same weapon that is trying to kill you: your mind. It is a fucked-up thing to be fighting with your own mind, not to mention your heart and your soul. It hurts so much you want to die. And some of us do.

I didn’t die, obviously. And now I’m not on the front lines everyday battling for my sanity. So, what do I do now? Obviously, maintaining my mental health requires a myriad of tasks, daily and weekly, but does not fill up every minute of my day. Those extra minutes are currently filled with kid stuff and house stuff. I’m also trying to write more, more on this blog but mostly for other platforms like mental health websites. I’m also in the very early stages of maybe sort of pitching a book but I’m not fully committed and so mostly it doesn’t get worked on. And, really, that’s my problem, or my question. Does well and good look to me like a mom who writes from home in between drop-off and pick-up? Or a full-time attorney who is also a mom and a wife and a human in her spare time? Or a part-time attorney trying not to work full-time hours? Or something else entirely?

Does it look like a person with the ridiculous good fortune to workout (mostly outdoors) five to seven days a week? And who gets to go to hour-long therapy sessions weekly? And doesn’t have to worry about when to squeeze in her med checks or her (three!) children’s doctor and dentist appointments?

What do I want to be when I grow up? That seems to be the question I’m asking, which feels a bit childish, but also appropriate. I did grow up to be a full-time attorney, mother, wife, and individual. Then, due to genetics and circumstances, that life, my life, fell apart, it disappeared, and now it’s gone. So the question is do I want to re-build it, or do I want to build something else? Of course, this is all assuming I have the financial ability and buy-in from my partner to do something else which I am hopeful I do; also there’s the practicality of having the expenses but also the time and emotional resources required to care for three kids who are not even in school yet.

The more I think about it the more my doctor’s question seems to be an appropriate one for deciding what I want to do next: what does well and good look like to me?

Well and good, to me, looks like a whole day of feeling like a pretty good mom who wasn’t too stuck in her own head to notice what the little heads around her were up to, who didn’t yell or cry (much) because of stress or symptoms of her illness, who said yes as much as she reasonably could, and laughed.

Well and good looks like waking up without a sense of dread or panic because of ALL THE THINGS that need to be done within the span of that single day. I spent years waking up like this and whether it was a symptom of my illness or a cause I don’t miss it and I don’t want it back. I want to wake up feeling ready to do what needs to be done but not overwhelmed by it. I also want to have space in my days that make me curious, time that I’m not sure how I will spend but will (most likely) get to spend the way I want to, or the way I need to because of some unforeseen emergency that would normally throw my whole, tightly-knit plan the day into a tailspin of anxiety.

Well and good looks, to me, like being a wife who is more often happy then angry with her husband because of who did or did not do what needed to be done. It also looks like having the time and emotional resources to be the one who does all the things because her husband simply can’t due to work commitments (and vice versa). It looks like having the time and inclination to be something other than co-parents and financial partners.

To me, well and good is purpose and meaning consistent with my mental wellness but not too cautious to be truly challenging and even a bit scary. Well and good is, in large part, taking care of family. But well and good is not a life of regularly scheduled, relatively manageable tasks with a few surprise challenges sprinkled in. Purpose and meaning come from being a mother and wife but also from being myself, from doing something, or many things, that give me pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.

Now, I just need to figure out what that something, or many things, are. Next question.

 

 

 

 

 

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).