As I have begun to think of myself as a person in recovery from a depressive episode, rather than a person who is presently depressed, I’ve had to start looking at how my days and weeks come together and what the pacing of everyday life looks for me in recovery.
Through this process I have somehow taught myself to recognize what a “good day” looks like and to take full advantage of it. You never know how long a good spell might last, I tell myself, so you’d better get in all the things you’ve been wanting to do before the clouds drift back over and cover you in shadows again. As a result of this (somewhat misguided) “carpe diem” attitude, these good days have begun to look a little frenzied, sometimes socially but often just around my household, and generally, for whatever reason, in the form of cleaning.
I work from home, so when I feel well and have energy and motivation to get things done, I not only perform my work tasks ably and efficiently, but feel spurred on to get things done around the house as well. I appease my Fitbit by pacing around the house as I pick up clutter, make the bed or dust a shelf or two. I use my lunch break to wash the dishes in the sink and then, as if by magic, feel antsy with desire to continue “being productive” as I finish out my work day. I might go for a walk and then come home to continue cleaning and make dinner. Once I’m in this zone, it’s hard to make me stop; I want to make sure every room in the house is straightened up before I relax. I have been known to straighten throw pillows or refold the blanket behind my husband while he sits calmly on the couch, looking at me with a bemused expression.
If you know me personally, you likely know that my home is most often in a state I like to call cheerfully cluttered -- we live here, and it looks like we do, which I think makes it comfortable. I am by no standards a neat freak. The tea towel hanging on my oven door (thanks, Mom!) proclaims, “Anyone who has time to clean isn’t reading nearly enough!” and this is a fairly apt description of my attitude toward housework. Cleaning and keeping house tend to be the first things to fall off my to-do list when I’m depressed -- where would the energy for that come from? -- so when I actually feel like doing it, and like I can do it, I make sure to do as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible. That way if tomorrow comes and it happens to be not such a great day, I have at least accomplished something in my brief respite from depression.
The problem with this kind of frantic pacing is that, often, it more or less guarantees that a good, accomplished, productive day will be followed by a listless, self-doubting, exhausted day.
Why, I asked my therapist recently, could I not expend all my positive energy in one day and wake up restored after a night’s sleep, ready to do the same thing again? Why could I not spend a day working, exercising, keeping house and cooking like a “normal” person without experiencing an almost crushing fallout the next day?
The answer she gave me, which depression often seems to give us, is simply, “because.”
Because I have an illness that impacts my energy levels.
Because my energy, despite all my efforts, does not operate on a 24-hour cycle that kindly resets each night for the following day.
Because when I allow my mind to become a whirlwind of things to do at work, things to do after work, things to do around the house, things to do over the weekend, things to do before a friend stops by -- I become exhausted.
And because exhaustion -- sometimes even productive, proud, elated exhaustion from living life -- simply creates the perfect toehold in my mind for depression to sneak back in and say, “You silly woman. You didn’t think you could actually keep up with that type of pace for more than a day or two, did you?”
So, my therapist suggested helpfully and cheerfully, maybe you clean the bathroom and straighten up the living room and then sit down and read your book or watch a show.
Maybe you leave the kitchen floors for tomorrow.
Maybe you prioritize your energy and well-being over the course of days, weeks, months, instead of cramming a week’s worth of responsibilities into a single day.
I sigh and roll my eyes and sit back, looking at her. “Is that really it?”
Yes, she says, that’s really it, and you have to look at it as a form of self-care, recognizing that treating a good day like it will be the only one you have will cause you to spend so much physical and emotional energy that then it really will be the only one you have that week.
This kind of retraining is really, really hard. But I’m trying to think of the good days as an opportunity to enjoy life, in a combination of productivity and recreation and relaxation, rather than a race to get everything done before I feel unwell again. Because the dishes and the grimy stovetop will still be there tomorrow, but this day -- a day of motivation to walk in the sunshine, of the capacity to enjoy a good book in the warm company of my husband and my cat, of unfettered gladness to be alive -- is happening now, and I’ll be damned if I don’t spend some of that precious energy learning and practicing how to enjoy that too.
I’m going to get a little extra-personal in this post, in the belief that the more honest and vulnerable I can be, the more my readers can understand the many nuances of life with mental illness.
I want to be a mother.
Of course I do. If you know me, I doubt you think any different. I have always loved children and I think I’m a pretty nurturing person. I like to take care of others. I really like holding babies. There has never been a time at which I have not thought that I would grow up to be a mom, that I would throw all my love and energy and joy and sanity into raising a family, that my husband and I would have cute babies who would grow into happy kids who would turn into sullen teenagers who, hopefully, would become the kind of adults who will love us and take care of us when we are old and creaky and grouchy. It’s always been our plan.
Ah, the plan -- that silly thing we occupy ourselves with making, and remaking, and pretending we have control over, until one day we realize that here we are, that carefully curated plan cast to the side, as we have busied ourselves with the actual, beautiful grind of just living our lives.
Before we got married, my husband told me (less than halfway joking) that he wanted to be “done having kids” by the time he was 30. Well -- almost six years later -- I am on the last legs of 29, he’s not far behind me, and there are no kids on the horizon.
I’ve grown accustomed to the questions, whether they are nosy or curious or needling or serious. “When are you thinking about having kids?” “Are you guys thinking about trying soon?” “You know if you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never actually have them.”
Please (and especially if you are a person who has asked me this yourself) don’t get me wrong. I’m not offended by the questions. We’ve been married for almost six years, and I’ve never been secretive about my desire to have kids. I’ve even offered a [very vague] time frame in the past (“oh, maybe in a year or two…”) so it seems pretty normal that as I round the base toward 30 I’d have to be at least thinking about it.
I know that I don’t need to own a home before I start a family. I know that I don’t need my finances to be in impeccable order before I think about getting pregnant. I know that nothing will actually prepare me for motherhood, because motherhood is unto itself one of the most breathtakingly difficult and wondrous things this life has to offer. I know that. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t wait to be ready; “ready” is a highly relative term.
There’s a lot of good awareness rising up lately about why it can be insensitive to ask a woman whether and when she is going to have children. She may be struggling with infertility. She may have grown up with parents who didn’t show her how love and family should be. She may have miscarried once, or twice, or so many times she can hardly count.
But did you ever think that she just might not feel that she is well enough, mentally, to responsibly bring a child into this world and care for it the way she knows she can, and longs to, and someday, hopefully, will?
Of course that’s not to say that people with mental illnesses can’t, or don’t, have happy, nurtured, cared-for children. They do! All the time! My point is simply that, just as with any other medical condition, some of us must work harder or think more carefully or wait longer to get to a healthy enough place to have kids.
On the surface, some days, I have my act together. I work full time, my house is reasonably organized and clean, I have a plan for dinner that doesn’t involve using an app on my phone to order it, I get all my errands done. I am acting like any regular adult who does these things all the time, and I think, “I’m so ready to add kids to this picture.”
Then soon, maybe the next day or the next hour even, the dark, vicious shadow starts to swirl in the air around me, encroaching on my mind, my space, my heart until it settles inside me, cloaking all of the light of my optimism, my hopes and goals in impenetrable darkness. “Of course you can’t be a mom,” the shadow tells me. “Look at you. You didn’t even shower or make your bed today. What makes you think you can be responsible for growing tiny lives and hearts and dreams when you can’t even make yourself a cup of coffee?”
Thankfully, the darkness doesn’t come as often or stay as long these days, especially compared to several months or a year ago, but it does still come. The doubts and insecurities that a healthy person might have about parenthood multiply tenfold, or more. How can someone who worries about being five minutes late for a dinner reservation possibly handle the concerns and anxieties of being a mother? How can someone who has had days of being unable to get out of bed, much less face the obligations and duties of everyday life, possibly bring a healthy child into this world and not mess it up?
Not to mention what the shadow tells me about the genetics of all of this. “Depression runs in your family. Do you really want to bring a person into the world who will experience this kind of pain and sickness? Do you think that’s a responsible thing to do? Do you think that’s fair?” No, I tell it. It sounds awful. Why would I ever knowingly give someone life when this is how they could feel once they get here? What kind of a mother would I be if I did that? What if my child had it worse than I ever have? It will be my fault. It is, in fact, desperately unfair.
Again, I beg you not to misunderstand; I don’t take these thoughts as truth. Depression lies, as we know, and it lies well, making us feel uninspired, unimportant, incapable, unworthy. I know that I will be a good mother, if I am ever blessed with that opportunity. I know that my husband will be an outstanding father. Any child we have will be showered with an absurd amount of love not only from us, but from grandparents, aunts and uncles, family, and friends. We will care for those kids, and love ‘em, and raise ‘em to the best of our ability, and no level of depression will change that. And I’m well aware that I can no more control passing on mental illness genes than I can the genes that may (or may not) pass along blonde hair and blue eyes, or near-sightedness, or the wide Finnish feet my husband’s side of the family always jokes about.
So the reason my husband and I are choosing to wait, to not have children at this exact moment of our lives and in our marriage, is not the fear that these thoughts are true. It’s the reality of the illness that causes them, the truth about where I am in my slog through the swamp of depression. I’m learning about myself, about my illness, about ways to treat myself better and cope with my emotions and change my behavior to allow for improvement in how I feel and think and live. In this way, no, I am not yet ready to become a mother. And yes, someday, hopefully soon, I will be more ready -- at least psychologically -- to step up to the task. And I need to be more ready, because there’s also the idea of what my hormones will do when I become pregnant, the need to taper off of medications I’ve come to rely on for the duration of my pregnancy, and, of course, my super-increased risk for serious postpartum depression. It’s a lot to think about, so yes, I want to be more ready than I am right now. I want that baby to grow inside a happy, healthy mama, and come out to be mothered by a woman who is strong, and graceful, and resilient, and rational, and self-loving. There are ways I can work on becoming those things for that baby now, so that I am more ready to evolve healthfully as a mother when the time comes.
But one of the biggest lies we learn from our culture, from social media, from the entertainment industry, is that life is a race -- that we must keep up with the neighbors -- that we must meet all of life’s milestones at the same time and in the same way that everyone else does.
A dear friend once shared with me the quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” (Google tells me that Theodore Roosevelt actually said it.) But I’m learning to live it. My children, whoever they will be and whenever they will come, will benefit far more from a mother who learned to live and grow and breathe and cope within her mental illness, rather than one who rushed into parenthood because she felt like it was supposed to be the right time. I will content myself with the knowledge that as I wait, and work on myself, my health, my recovery, my soul, I am becoming the mother that I will someday, Lord willing, actually need to be.
I’d love to be ready now. It’s hard to watch cousins and friends and former classmates announce pregnancies and start to grow their sweet families. Some days it actually really sucks. But most days it’s just another day to cherish being married to my best friend, have the chance to sleep in on weekends, be overly affectionate to my cat and focus on becoming well. “Ready” means different things to different people. Maybe these words can add a new layer of context, an extra tinge of compassion, the next time you wonder why that happily married, baby-loving couple hasn’t made their own just yet.
Today, my mind is clear. I’m doing my work from start to finish, not minding even the trickier tasks that require more focus. I plan ahead, thinking about what I’ll make for dinner, how I’ll spend my afternoon and evening productively, looking forward to reading a book with some literary value (I just started “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a Pulitzer winner by Adam Johnson, and I’m hooked already). I feel competent, intelligent, aware, self-possessed.
But on other days, even just a few days ago, depression fogs up the glass in the inner workings of my mind, and nothing feels so clear. I can’t plan from one minute to the next, let alone the rest of my day. I slog from bed to couch, turning on my laptop and staring fuzzily at the screen, wondering how I can focus long enough to get any kind of work done. I’m tired, but the fogginess is more than that: it’s like someone half-heartedly ran an eraser over the words making up my life’s script, leaving smudges and faint outlines of letters in my brain without allowing me to see the full lines clearly. Every task, every plan, every idea and ability is halfway blurred out.
I might forget to put the coffee mug under the machine, so the coffee drips all over the counter. I might put body wash in my hair instead of shampoo. I stare at my sweet cat and try to remember if and when I am supposed to feed her. Or did my husband do that? Is she meowing at me? Does that mean she’s hungry? Thinking to look and see whether there is food in her bowl doesn’t cross my mind. Logic is hard to come by right now. (My husband feeds her in the mornings, every morning. Don’t worry, we don’t neglect the cat.)
If I’m able to work, it’s slow going, and I end up trying to avoid any kind of task that might require clear and precise thinking. Or, if that’s impossible, I ask countless questions of a co-worker, many of them to which I should know the answer, and when she responds patiently I feel a dim sense of familiarity -- oh right, I knew that. She must think I’m an idiot. Why didn’t I think to reread that email from my boss for answers to that question?
This isn’t me, is it? The salutatorian of her high school class, the cum laude graduate of a selective college? This person, who loved writing original criticism of medieval Spanish literature and who spent hours devouring Toni Morrison? On foggy days that intelligent, bright woman seems light-years away from the person my depressed brain sometimes makes me. On these days, the most focus I can muster is to reread a James Patterson thriller I’ve read before, or rewatch countless episodes of Friends, taking solace in the mindless and familiar.
The fog doesn’t just settle throughout my brain, though; it takes over my body, too, so I feel sluggish and unresponsive. Can I make my muscles remember how to make the bed? Do I have the motivation and awareness to get my dishes from the table to the sink? On the bad days they stay wherever I’ve eaten. On most foggy days, they make it to the closest countertop and sit there until my husband clears them away (yes, he really is a saint).
It can be scary to feel like your brain doesn’t respond to stimuli the way you’re used to: to know that you are capable of thinking, analyzing, writing -- and doing all of those things well -- only to type your own name six times before you spell it correctly. To know that you’re a great home cook and find yourself staring at the side of a box of Annie’s Mac and Cheese, wondering if you can actually measure the milk and boil the pasta without getting confused or spilling everything or just giving up before you start. These experiences only give credence to the negative self-talk that’s already present in the mind of a depressed person, so I hope you can imagine how it might snowball from there. You feel foggy, so you mess up a couple of things, so your already-negative brain starts to beat up on you for whatever (usually insignificant) mistake you just made. It’s not the ideal mindset for a person trying to take gentle care of herself and push past depression into wellness.
So you slog through what you can at work, you take a nap, and you settle for reading the thriller over the Pulitzer today. You learn to tell yourself it’s okay, that tomorrow will be better, the lines of the script will come in clearer, and you will be competent again. The thing with fog is, when you give it time, it tends to lift.
Thank God for that.
A few days ago, I had to go to the doctor. I was long overdue for my annual physical exam and it was time, but dread and apprehension coursed through my entire body at the thought of the whole thing. The appointment was absolutely one of those things that had me feeling like I wanted to throw a toddler-style, full-blown, kicking-and-screaming tantrum.
This anxiety and fear I was feeling, which had caused me to reschedule the appointment at least twice, had a lot more to do with my depression than it did with the actual appointment. I love my nurse practitioner and trust her implicitly. She saw me through rounds upon rounds of tests when we thought something physical was wrong before I was diagnosed with depression. She takes me seriously and is proactive, yet reassuring. I’ve never had a negative experience with her or with the aides or receptionists in the office. And while I often think that the physical symptoms of my depression could be markers of a more serious disease (you know, like the classic anxious person anthem: could these headaches be a brain tumor?), I really don’t fear some kind of awful, life-threatening diagnosis.
No, what I fear and dread, and even convince myself of, is that something will be wrong with my health that is my fault.
In the interest of transparency: over the past few years, as I have battled depression and put my body through a good number of different medications, I have gained a lot of weight. That’s not what I’m here to talk about, but I will say that I am decidedly an emotional eater, and when I’m depressed it’s my (unhealthy) habit to turn to food. It’s something I’m working on.
Anyway, between the weight gain and the knowledge that type two diabetes runs in my family on both sides, I had convinced myself that I had given myself the disease. This became an enormous source of anxiety for me. I would drink down a glass of water quickly and wonder, “Do I have excessive thirst?” At night if my eyes blurred for a second I would wonder if my vision was changing. I was sure that the junk food I had been turning to was going to catch up with me in a terrible new way, and that everyone I knew -- my doctor, my family, my friends, and most of all myself -- would blame and judge me for being sick. (They wouldn’t, nor do I blame anyone else for having medical problems. People get sick. It happens. They deserve love and care, not presumptions and judgment.)
I also have high blood pressure, another medical issue that runs in my family, and had used my remarkable skills of negative self-talk to force myself into believing that this is something I should feel guilty about and that is entirely my fault.
Cue the anxiety and dread about my visit to the doctor.
But the day came, and I found myself past the awful weigh-in (does anyone like that part?) and nodding to the aide who took my blood pressure that yes, I knew it was high. As I waited for the nurse practitioner to come in, my heart was pounding from anxiety and I felt the negative voices start to creep in. You’re so fat. You deserve health problems. They’re your fault. You’re not worthy of kind, adequate medical care. What do you think you’re doing here?
I realized that I needed to get this under control before the appointment started up again. I began taking deep breaths, trying to slow my pulse. “You are okay,” I started to think to myself. I’ve never been one for mantras, but this one was starting to form in my head almost independently of my own mind. I needed to back up. Before even thinking that I was okay, I needed to acknowledge that I was here, to ground myself, to congratulate myself on getting this far. “You are here,” I said to myself a few times. “You are okay.” The next part just came. “You are worthy.”
I spent the next several minutes breathing deeply, repeating over and over in my mind, “You are here. You are okay. You are worthy.”
I am worthy of quality medical care. I do deserve to be treated with respect, to take care of my body as it is right this second, to take the medication I need to control my blood pressure, to make sure the rest of me is healthy and to allow this wonderful nurse practitioner to take care of me. I am worthy.
The rest of the appointment went fine. I found out that my antidepressant could be causing the high blood pressure. My bloodwork came back, and I don’t have diabetes, or any other illness, now matter how hard my depression and anxiety had tried to convince me that I did and that it would be my own damn fault for gaining weight.
And you know what? If I did learn that I had a newfound health problem, I would still be worthy of respect, deserving of kindness, valuable enough to treat the disease and work to get healthier. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. I have decided that self-blame has no place in how I care for and treat my body.
I am worthy.