I have postpartum depression; generalized anxiety; social anxiety; and my therapist and I are in the process of diagnosing bipolar.
My first experience of truly knowing I was not in the range of what many would consider normal on the mood scale when I was about 11. I felt more of everything. I was told by family, friends, doctors, pretty much everyone, that it was me developing and that these feelings were assuredly linked to my age. The experiences only grew worse, and then I began to have anxiety associated with my moods.
The first time I remember having a panic attack was when I was 16. It was so bad I went to the hospital. I saw an ex (a particular one who was abusive in many ways) and I thought I was dying. I couldn't breathe, my heart felt like it was going to explode, I became dizzy, nauseated, and felt like terror was eclipsing my whole being. Ironically, rather than being concerned that anxiety had produced such an extreme physiological response, those closest to me actually shrugged it off as me not taking care of myself on a nutritional level. I was told to drink more water, and eat more dense meals. The idea of seeing a therapist didn't occur for about 6-12 months after this initial panic attack. And even then it wasn't really taken as seriously by me. I was a teenager who couldn't fully express what I was feeling, being I didn't know how.
I am currently treating all diagnoses, and the latest treatment began when my postpartum depression and anxiety became unmanageable. I experienced approximately 36 hours straight of sheer terror (including lack of any real sleep) before I went to the hospital and opted for a healthy dose of Ativan in my arm. Thanks to the help of my family, I was able to be immediately seen by psychiatrists and started weekly therapy sessions and three prescriptions to help with depression and anxiety. I will be in this treatment, alongside an outpatient program, for the foreseeable future, under my choice because I feel I am improving, albeit slowly.
I felt relieved that everything was happening, despite not fully being present. I needed the help. I had been saying it for months but had not acted on it for fear of reprisal from friends, family, co-workers, even, ironically, strangers. There is stigma attached to mental illness and how we choose to handle it, unfortunately; and it brings about a level of fear that people won't understand, won't WANT to understand, and therefore will drift from your life with the thought that you're some selfish wench who chose her own sanity before others. But, in order to ever properly be there for someone else, you do have to be selfish and take care of your own sanity.
Through this process I am learning to smash down those barriers I've built myself via societal norms or even judging statements/glances from loved ones. I would rather be hated, I guess, for speaking my truth, than die slowly in silence. And despite the dramatic flare of that statement, it really is life or death. With depression as bad as I was experiencing, active suicidal ideation was present. If I had gotten my hands on items I know I would use, you may not be reading this. And that is MY truth, whether or not YOU choose to believe it.
Currently, my daily life has to have structure because entropy would just about kill me. I have a schedule for medicine, writing, scenic walks and meditation, cooking, other art, music, and just about everything in between. The bad part is when the schedule shifts because of special events. It throws me into a down day the next 24-48 hours and I find it hard to "right" myself, so to speak. It's like I'm walking sideways through life until I have the energy and wherewithal to right my head.
I experience symptoms daily. Postpartum whenever I am with my son. The anxiety skyrockets and I have extreme guilt. Mania and depression swing on a pendulum in echo with my monthly cycle (and new literature shows hormonal influxes may actually increase already problematic brain chemistry). Some days I can write and write and write and have energy zooming through me and I want to be a wild child and need to reign it in, while others I am in bed, desperately trying to function as a human should.
My daily life has changed significantly. I was let go from my job (with the open invitation of coming back when my mental health allows, and they are covering long term disability at the moment) because for the first two months of this odyssey my mind shut down and I literally (and metaphorically) slept for about two months. I legitimately have no memory of those months minus moments here and there. FMLA allowed for an extended leave, but when the time ran out, legally they had to let me go.
It has been a blessing and a curse. I now am a full time writer and artist (I sell my artwork locally), something I have always wanted to do, and it aids in my well being. I use it as a therapy to examine me, who I am, who I want to be, and the future I want to live.
My relationships with others have been all over the place due to my illness. I have had to let go of those who've shown they cannot understand - despite being blood relationships, while others I never thought would have understood or step up did, so in ways that still leaves me speechless. Additionally, I have gained quite a few close friends through Instagram (somewhat surprisingly, and somewhat not surprisingly) because the community there is understanding and oftentimes in the same trenches day in and day out as I am. The verbal support, the educational support, the literary support is beyond anything I thought possible. And I am proud to be a part of it.
One thing I really wish people would understand: we are just like you. We just have it a bit harder when it comes to handling life's curveballs. Mental illness is not a moral failing, it is a physiological disease. Those who experience depression, for example, have less serotonin than those who do not. Someone with anxiety has an overflow of stress hormone. An individual with postpartum has an influx of (gendered) hormones from building a life insider her and it ends up causing emotional highs and lows based on her menstrual cycle. Someone with PTSD has experienced something traumatic enough to create new neuro-pathways that overtake reaction reflexes. These are all things we've learned about mental illness and the brain. The information is out there. We are not weaker for having these issues. In-fact, I would argue, we are just as strong, if not stronger, than those who don't have to face these things day-in-and-day-out, fighting the little voice inside that says "wouldn't it be nice to die?"
My mental illness has actually been very positive: I finally made time to write. After 30 years of regressed emotion and feeling "blocked" - for lack of a better word - I finally feel capable of emoting, expressing, being. It doesn't mean it's EASIER, it means I am finally beginning to understand myself through this journey. Real self-reflection is happening. About my actions, my thoughts, my history, and in the process I am writing it all out. I want transparency because if someone else is going through this and feels kinship, like they aren't alone, then I am happy. I hope I can encourage others to be honest and speak their truth as well. And if they don't have the voice yet, I am happy to sit with them in solidarity, holding their hand so I can help them if they fall.
My name is Stephanie and I have #postpartumdepression, #bipolar, and #severeanxiety, but it DOES NOT have me.
- Stephanie A.W. Martin, 2018