Let’s Talk about mental health

My husband says I look like an alien in this picture. I think I look really happy.

Since today is Bell Let’s Talk Day I thought I’d re-tell my story. As you may know, I am currently weaning off my anti-depressants and while it’s a wacky ride, I’m really excited to be at a point where I feel ready to handle my day to day life without the help of drugs. Will it work? Who knows but at least by getting my story out there some people might realize that depression isn’t all in your head.

This story appeared in Canadian Family, March 2012. I would have linked to their website but it’s not up, so…here’s my story.

One month after my son was born, I found myself clutching him tightly and crying the kind of shoulder-heaving sobs that leave my face red and blotchy for hours. It was a beautiful spring day outside and through the window, I could hear families playing together happily—but inside Carson’s nursery I was hiding from the cruel world, determined to protect my little boy from a father who, in my tangled up mind, didn’t love him.

That moment, in a room still vaguely smelling of fresh paint, was my lowest ever.

I have spent the past five years fighting to free myself from the sticky spider web that is depression. Through trial, error and personal failure, I’ve finally found a combination of medications that help me cope with my life. With the help of my wonderful, supportive husband (who, by the way, has always loved our son like crazy) and a small mountain of anti-depressants, I’ve emerged bruised but better.

Some days are fantastic and I feel healthy and well, like a normal mom. I dart around after my three wild children as though I am, and have always been, fine. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to spending a few too many days hiding under my duvet now and then, or occasionally dreading a visit with my family because of the energy I know it will cost me. Some days just the idea of washing my long brown hair is just too much to bear. On those days, I know my battle with depression isn’t over, and maybe it never will be.

In the beginning

I began taking anti-depressants a few months before my oldest daughter was born. I miscarried before I became pregnant with her and it left me feeling guilty and terrified the same thing would happen again. I was somehow able to hold myself together at work all week, but the minute I walked through the door on Friday night, I crumbled. I had already experienced one year-long depression in university and I knew that left me vulnerable for another.

I feared I was a prime candidate for post-partum depression; my doctor agreed and she prescribed Celexa. It worked and I was okay, for a while.

When I returned to work a year later, the combined stress of daycare pick-ups and job expectations, mixed with my own personal need to be good at everything and resulted in a toxic mess. During the long, boring train rides home each afternoon, I would sit and stress by making lengthy, impossible lists of all the things I had to do in order to stay on top of my game.

By the halfway mark of my commute, I’d inevitably have sent myself into a spiral of fear and guilt. My heart would pound, I’d start to sweat and my face would go numb. A weird metallic taste would fill my mouth as panic overtook all my senses. The next day, I’d sit in the same seat and repeat the pattern, as I worried about picking up my daughter before 6 p.m., whether the train would be delayed, missing a deadline at work, or letting my boss down.

It took me a while to figure out I was having anxiety attacks; at first I thought I was just worrying. I’ve always been a worrier — but worry had never been so unshakeable, so all-consuming. Eventually, things got bad enough for me to call uncle. I spoke to my doctor and she thought my medication might be making my anxiety worse, so I switched to Effexor.

When the going gets tough, the tough get pregnant

Since things weren’t going great at work and I knew I wanted another baby, I did what many Canadian working girls do: I got pregnant, thereby choosing to bury my head in the sand for another year. But I found out the hard way that a year “off” with two young children is anything but a holiday. Which is how ended up in Carson’s nursery that horrible day.

I continued to take a low dosage of Effexor throughout my pregnancy with Carson and after I gave birth, my family doctor increased them again. But when I found myself looking out the window in Carson’s nursery looking for a way to escape my idyllic life, it suddenly became clear that everything was not OK. When I tearfully confronted my husband he asked what was going on. He’d noticed my horrible mood swings, my inability shower and how overwhelmed I seemed. And I admitted that suicide had crossed my mind once or twice because sometimes I felt like I just couldn’t wake up and face another day. My doctor referred me to a local mental health program that offered therapy with a counselor and assigned the task of following my meds to a psychiatrist.

At first I was kind of weirded out that I was seeing a psychiatrist — I mean, I was depressed, not crazy, right? Counselors are one thing, but a shrink? I felt ashamed that I couldn’t handle my relatively normal life. The first thing my new doctor did was increase the amount of Effexor I was taking. According to her, family doctors are happy to prescribe anti-depressants, but they often don’t prescribe enough. After a few months at my new dosage, I started to feel better. Then I got pregnant.

Peytie Pie, my dessert

Motherhood is wonderful and fulfilling—but it isn’t always a cakewalk. To be honest, I was terrified to have another baby just 17 months after Carson was born. The thought that I could regress into the angry, overwhelmed mess I’d been months before, kept me up at night. But this time I was under my psychiatrist’s watchful eye. Rather than decrease my medication during my pregnancy she advised me to keep my dosage the same; since a depressed mother is far worse for a baby than the effects taking anti-depressants (withdrawl-like symptoms including inconsolable crying limited to the first few days of life.) To be safe, I had a pediatrician check Peyton out while we were in the hospital and she was given a clean bill of health.

To minimize the stress of bringing home our new bundle of joy, my husband and I decided to keep our new live-in nanny throughout my maternity leave. Having help meant I could relax and enjoy my sweet little baby — that’s why I call her my dessert. Could we afford it? Not really. But the risk of losing my tenuous grip on reality seemed far scarier than a bit of debt. My medication had my mood under control and I felt a great sense of peace knowing someone had my back. The only problem was that if I forgot to take my Effexor, even by a couple of hours, I felt all the grossness of being rotten, stinking drunk, without any of the fun.

The glitch with the switch

The discontinuation side from missing my Effexor left me disoriented, dizzy and nauseas. At times, it was bad enough to make me afraid of driving. I knew I needed to switch medications again, but I was scared to leave my tortured little psyche without adequate help for several weeks. I switched to Cymbalta by slowly coming off one drug and then gradually starting the other. It helped, but it wasn’t perfect. I had more good days than bad but I was still forgetful and anxious and I eventually resigned from a job I loved because I couldn’t handle the commute or the workload any longer.

I felt pretty low for a while. As a freelance writer, I still grappled with my workload and of course, the daily grind of being a full-time mom. Although I felt mostly better on Cymbalta it had pretty much killed my libido, so I recently added Wellbutrin, another anti-depressant to my daily drug cocktail — to help with my “inhibitions”, as my pharmacist embarrassingly announced to everyone when I picked up my prescription. Apparently Wellbutrin alone would probably exacerbate my anxiety but now that I’ve combined it with Cymbalta, my mood is great. I feel like myself again for the first time in years.

To be continued

These days, I spend a lot of time and energy monitoring my mood and watching out for my mental health, for my own sake and for my family. I shudder when I contemplate how my mood disorder might be warping my kids but I work very hard to keep it together because I want to be their rock, the one they can count on when the world lets them down.

Will they remember the many, many good times? Or will they be irreparably damaged from the few times I dissolve into tears because their bickering and whining become too much for me? And it’s not just them I worry about; I don’t want to ruin my husband’s life either. Would he have married me if he had any idea what he was getting into? I hope so.

I am proud to say that my psychiatrist recently returned my care to my family doctor. She says I’m getting better and that she’s proud of the steps I’ve taken to balance my work and life; her confidence in me is indescribably gratifying. I will need to stay on anti-depressants for several years before I ever try to go it alone again and I’ll always vulnerable to another depression. But this life of mine is a journey and the support I’ve received from my husband and doctor has empowered me navigate the ups and downs; I’m determined to enjoy the ride.