You’ve gotta love when your toddler whips out a psychiatric appointment card from your purse and waves it like a dog biscuit through the aisles of Target. One wrong move and she’ll chuck it on the ground, make you scramble to grab it before the friendly manager you know by face beats you there. So you buy her original-flavored Bugles from the dollar bin, because Charlottesville, Virginia, is a small town, and Eliot has a low tolerance for tantrum-less days.
One day when she finds the card, Eliot will probably ask me, “What dis?” It’s been her favorite question since she turned two. She asks when I chew gum or spray perfume or grab a bottle of pills off my dresser.
Often when I name an object for Eliot, I also give its purpose. A shovel means nothing if she hasn’t seen it dig. She understands that Tophs takes pink medicine when his head feels hot or his ear hurts. But what does Mommy’s medicine do? Why does Mommy see a doctor? For the first time in my life, I’m not so sure.
At eighteen, attending summer orientation at the University of Virginia—actually leaving Ohio with my parents and an overnight bag—was a big deal. Returning in August for move-in-day was an even bigger one.
Not because UVA’s some hardcore “Ivy of the South” but because less than two years before, I could not do these things:
- Drive around the block
- Stay home alone for five minutes
- Travel to an away tennis match without my mom trailing our team van
It’s impossible to say when this thing started (Was I born with it?), but I was sixteen when the specialists figured me out. They put together the sweaty palms, obsessions with brain aneurysms, and mid-flight panic that surprised me on a trip to Spain. The proverbial straw, an emergency plane landing on a runway in Columbus, took two weeks to break my back. Days after giving calm interviews to TV reporters and returning to tenth grade as a local celebrity, the panic, like a furtive stalker, showed up in math class and quietly escorted me to the nurse’s office.
As a parent, I wonder how it must hurt to look at your child and wonder if this is it—the end or the beginning. Of sanity? Of healing? Thankfully, my parents didn’t try to hide me or shame me or wait it out. They took me in.
I will always picture Rebecca with a brown ponytail, leaning forward in her chair, calm but sweet enough for me to consider her a friend. We of course, weren’t friends, but her smile served as a great source of warmth in an otherwise chilly and sterile space. Rebecca, a young intern at Children’s Hospital was the first to break the news to me:
“You have Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” she said.
At first, you want to see it on an MRI. Show me the fracture or where the artery bulges. Show me where my frontal lobe broke off into a sea of molasses. Yet, we knew she was right. When you’re having ten panic attacks a day and living each moment in fear that it’s your last, no one needs a lousy scan of your brain.
Over the next year, Rebecca fixed me. She helped me grade my attacks, taught me to frisk obsession before it could steamroll my neurons. She spun me around in a chair to destroy my association between dizziness and death. We walked up and down stairs until breathlessness became a new normal. She was Mother Theresa with a pocketful of antidepressants.
After hours, days even, spent logging my negative thoughts and creating plans to attack them, I improved. You couldn’t stick me on a flight to Spain, but you could drop me off at school in the morning and expect me to make it through the day. When Rebecca and her supervisor released me, they gave me their blessing to attend college anywhere. Armed with ten milligrams of Paxil, my miracle drug, and lots of practice challenging obsessive thoughts, I could join my sister, already attending law school in Charlottesville.
Summer orientation served as my first test. Mostly of fashion sense, and on that front, I failed miserably. Dressed in a polo and shorts (not so bad) with my hair in a curly bush on top of my head (kind of bad), and a blue bandana strapped around my hairline (sooo bad), I smiled for my picture ID. Classic fail. Who didn’t know I was from Ohio at that point?
My parents stayed at a local hotel while I registered for classes and toured Grounds, so I wasn’t exactly stranded in the wilderness. But I slept alongside girls I’d never met in a dorm I’d never visited, and I felt proud. I’d conquered this thing. I still took meds, of course, but I would never again have to be babysat like a six-year-old.
I’d be a fool to say my undergraduate years were easy. Instead, I’d say those four years came with boundaries, lines drawn with a fine-point Sharpie. I had an anxiety disorder that, left untreated, could result in panic attacks and eventually depression. If I took my pills, I stayed sane. A little obsessed over my grades, but who wasn’t? I could live seven hours away from my parents, fly to Miami with friends for spring break, and even spend five weeks in South Africa on a mission trip. I learned the hard way during my fourth year that if I stopped taking Paxil, the Earth became flat, something I could fall off of, and I quickly ran back to my pills. I’d been figured out for good. Fixed.
But at some point, the landscape of my mental health shifted. The mountains didn’t fall into the sea. Maybe they slid ever so slightly along a fault.
To be fair, the entire environment changed. At 26, I consulted my OB/GYN because Paul and I wanted to start a family and knew Paxil could cause heart defects in babies.
“Zoloft’s been around for a long time,” she assured me, and I began the process of weaning off one drug and onto another.
If I had to rate Zoloft like a Redbox film, I’d say: Not too shabby for the price. Could have used more uplifting moments. Got a little depressing at times, but I loved the cute baby at the end!
Zoloft kept me calm and off the edge of despair, but I often woke to a sunrise painted in four shades of pewter. Then Eliot was born with those sweet rose lips and hazel eyes and hair the color of night, and what could I say? You don’t hold a baby and talk about pewter.
Soon she slept all night and giggled all day, and I couldn’t understand why I got to be the one, why she would call me Mom, and I wanted another. Enter: Tophs.
By age 29, I had two children under two and never once thought to pump espresso into my breasts. I did have one rational thought, though: Baby #3 would have to come from Paul’s fallopians.
Generally, Paul is the organized one in this marriage. The man will rearrange my tampons by potential rate of absorption if I’m not watching. Me? I’m not so big on planning. I’m pretty sure my brain looks like a rotisserie chicken on the outside, and then you cut into it to find birthday cake-flavored ice cream and trick candles. Blow harder! Something’s not right here! But I had this one small plan figured out: After having Tophs, I’d take a break. Go back on Paxil for a couple years, get my mojo back, and switch to Zoloft whenever we wanted more kids.
It never crossed my mind that Paxil wouldn’t work for me. The magic was gone. And I wasn’t a college student anymore. I couldn’t take three-hour naps when the medicine made me sleepy. I fought depression more often than anxiety, a gnawing emptiness more than sweaty palms. Not being able to locate yourself along the same axis of mental illness you’ve been able to for several years isn’t freeing. It’s frightening. There’s sanity in dog-earring one page of the DSM IV. In fact, I don’t mind being called crazy. I just want to know what kind of crazy I am.
Summer orientation has started for UVA’s class of 2017, and eager kids with orange folders and fresh ID badges are facing their first test: finding their rooms. They circle our building a few times, then pull on our front and back doors. One guy was gutsy enough to knock. It’s funny. Even though two signs outside our back door clearly read RESIDENT FACULTY, the newcomers (and their parents) seem to panic. These kids with perfect SAT scores and 27 AP classes bank on the fact that they’ve either been admitted as faculty or both signs are outdated. And the door—it’s not locked. It’s stuck. If they close their eyes and hope hard enough, they can wedge it open and find a razzed orientation leader, not a couple of naked toddlers, on the other side.
I get it. I get suspending all logic in hopes of the impossible. I started cognitive behavioral therapy this month for the first time since Rebecca. It was my choice. Isn’t it always unless you’re straightjacketed? But I sort of forced the issue. I was tired of spinning the SSRI wheel every few weeks, throwing PLINKO chips until I landed on a new golden medicine. Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Prozac. We could throw in a Xanax, some Buspar on the side. Until what? Until I felt like myself again? Who am I anyway, if not the girl fixed by Paxil and a ponytail?
Even as she greeted me before my first appointment, I hoped this therapist had supernatural powers. I already knew her as a psychiatrist, but now she would also serve as my talk therapist. I secretly hoped she knew something the others didn’t. Maybe she stored healing balm in her black pager or had developed a new inventory. Maybe she’d be able to tell me exactly which thoughts I have that are normal, which ones are obsessive or irrational, and how I can be the best wife and mom.
“So what brings you here today?” she asked last week.
I stutter-stepped into rambling about ruminating thoughts, a term she previously taught me during a medication checkup. Then I asked her a question that’s been bugging me for months. “How do I know that Paxil is better or worse than the Prozac I’m taking? And what about Zoloft?” I have started to understand no drug will be “it” for me.
She shared a few things doctors look for each drug to accomplish, but ended with this haunting line: “Overall, though, psychiatry is more of an art than a science.”
Superpowers gone. Who me? Of course I didn’t actually believe your pager was filled with holy water from 1st century Jerusalem.
Yet, I embraced her honesty. It’d be worse if she believed she wore a cape.
When I was sixteen, my therapist seemed magical. I was having panic attacks, and she changed that. What am I having now? Some high-functioning, well-medicated sludge? “We don’t have a place for you on the DSM,” one therapist told me a few months ago. He said that because I don’t get depressed for more than two weeks at a time. Um, should I be thankful? I only saw that guy once, because he wanted to find a crisis, and I wanted him to see nuance.
At the end of my first session, my new therapist gave me homework. I am to write down each automatic negative thought, the emotion that accompanies it, and how strongly I would rate that emotion.
Crap. I only know two emotions, and shambles is one. The thought of recording thoughts makes me want to eat Pop Rocks and drink Pepsi to blow a hole through my trachea.
So I haven’t started. I plan to focus really hard the day before my next appointment and channel as many negative thoughts as I can.
In the meantime, I keep reassuring myself that we’re all works in progress, right? Still, I feel uncertain about discovering the pathological potholes of my mind while raising two young children. Have I been trying these drugs out on them? When I feel a side effect, do they feel a side effect? Maybe there’s less of a difference between a fetus and a toddler than I’d imagined. Prozac isn’t crossing my placenta, but what thoughts are crossing my mind?
Eliot and Tophs don’t need to know the inner-workings of my neurons, and maybe they’ll never need to see a dog-eared page in the manual. But one day they will ask, and I will want to give a surer answer than I have today. One that doesn’t leave them wondering if Mommy’s waiting to be fixed.