In the spring of 2012, I had a new baby, my husband had recently lost his job under extremely suspicious circumstances (read all about that here), and we were struggling to meet the needs of our older child with developmental delays. At a postnatal check-up, I dutifully filled out the required checklists: yes, I cry more than usual; yes, I worry all the time; yes, things seems hopeless. I thought nothing of these answers. Come on, who wouldn't cry or worry or feel hopeless in our circumstances?
As the appointment wrapped up, the midwife brought the conversation around to my answers and oh, so gently suggested those words...postpartum depression...and medication.
I dismissed them. I was sure it was all circumstantial. Once we pulled out of the mess we'd found ourselves in, I'd feel better. And there was no way I was considering medication.
But I did agree to see someone, and then a team of someones, and then one day I carried home from an appointment an important, doctor-signed little slip of paper with the horrifying word sertraline on it. I looked at it for a few days before filling the prescription. And then I looked at the little orange bottle for a few days before taking a pill.
And then I felt better immediately.
I don't really get that. An effect from 25 mg within 24 hours? It may have been all in my head. But as Albus Dumbledore said, "Of course it's happening inside your head, Harry, but why on Earth would that mean it's not real?"
A week or so later I said to my mother on the phone, "I didn't know people lived like this."
I didn't know.
I didn't know that most people in the world didn't live in a perpetual state of worry.
I didn't know that most people didn't live in a constant state of mild panic.
I had no idea there was another way to live...until I felt different.
And life did get better for us. My husband got a job, and we moved. We settled in to a new home; we found excellent services for our daughter; we made a new life. And through it all, I managed with the help of medication. I took my little pill regularly. Or, regularly enough to get an effect (don't scold).
So I quit. And I thought I was fine. I didn't feel depressed, after all. But I ignored the signs of anxiety: the need for things to be just so and the quick temper when they weren't, the constant drive to do, do, do and never sit still in the moment. Those are my signs (or some of them).
I feel like I was an unoriginal copy of a character whose story you've read in books. The one who quits taking meds because he or she is fine when everyone else on the planet knows he or she is not fine.
And I was not fine. Fortunately, unlike on TV or in books, nothing drastic happened. Just something embarrassing:
I am a member of a women's only barbershop chorus, and I was a new member last spring, fumbling my way through the music, finding every moment I could to practice my part so that I could actually participate in the weekly rehearsals. One week, we were practicing one of our more difficult pieces, Route 66, which is both jazzy and barbershop in style with an especially difficult baritone part (that's mine). And I got more and more frustrated. I couldn't keep up; I couldn't find my place; I wasn't sure of my notes in spite of being so sure of them in my practice at home.
My face burned, and I felt a cold sweat break out on my back. To my horror, my eyes started to fill, making everything in the room blurry. In fact, nothing in the room seemed quite clear. The room was spinning and my hearing was fuzzy, and I knew I had better sit out for a minute and get myself in control.
Instead, I began to sob. Ugly cry, really. I could only take huge, gulping gasps as tears poured down my face. Poor Betty thought she taking a break to rest her knee and suddenly found herself sitting next to the newest member of the chorus having a nervous breakdown. "I...just...need...a...minute...to...calm...down," I managed to get out between gasps.
But I couldn't. I finally gave up and escaped the practice room in mortification. I was 38 years old; why on Earth could I not control myself?
I know why. Even in the moment, I knew, This is a panic attack. I knew for sure, for the first time, that that was what was happening to me.
And that I'd had dozens before.
All those symptoms were terribly, horribly familiar. I could bring to mind specific instances in which I had fallen to pieces taking a timed test, or when my parents were leaving for the evening, or when I realized I did not understand place value like everyone else (in college--yes, I don't think I really got it until my late 20s when I happened to observe a really gifted math teacher).
And, so when I next went to the doctor, I brought up the topic of medication. She said the most comforting words I've ever heard about it:
If you responded that quickly to medication, you have a chemical imbalance in your brain. You need medication.
It was my epiphany. I have a chemical imbalance. It's not that I lack will or follow-through. My brain just is simply not constructed to be notanxious. It needs assistance.
So I take my meds. Most days, unless I forget. But when I do, I go back.
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