Oct. 6-12 is Mental Illness Awareness week. I’ve battled depression and anxiety for most of my life and yet, overall, I’m OK. But I’m one of the lucky ones. My depression, while debilitating and destructive in it’s own way, is fairly mild right now. Sure, there are times when my mood sinks and my life sucks but overall, I am able to function. For many people, mental Illness affects every relationship and every realm of life, every single day. In honour of all those who are fighting so hard right now, and in an effort to foster awareness about post-partum depression, here is a story about a time when I too was not OK.

First published in Canadian Family, 2012

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.

A picture of me feeling overwhelmed. I had to fight my anxiety and smile.
Me, 11 years ago, overwhelmed and depressed but trying smile through it. We shot for an hour and this is the only picture with all three kids! Photo credit: Kevin Hewitt

Depression strikes

I have spent years fighting to free myself from the sticky spider web that is depression. Through trial, error and personal failure, I’ve struggled to find the strength to cope with my messy, beautiful 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.

Pressure + stress = panic attacks

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 got 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, and buried 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.

My depression got worse before it got better

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 counsellor 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 just a few 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 effects from missing my antidepressants 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.

Trying to stop antidepressants

That’s right, I stopped taking antidepressants completely three months ago** and I’m handling my messy beautiful life all on my own. I’ve worked hard over the past few years to balance my work and life and I’ll always be vulnerable to another depression. But that’s OK. This life of mine is a journey and the support I’ve received from my family and friends has empowered me navigate the ups and downs; I’m determined to enjoy the ride.

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 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! Combined with Cymbalta, my mood was great and I feel like myself again for the first time in years. Good enough to try going it alone.

**Editor’s note:

Yeah, that didn’t work! I’m glad I tried living without antidepressants but ultimately I realized that I am one of those people who will always need them. That’s OK. The way I see it, if I had cancer, I’d take my cancer medication.

Caring for my mental health every day

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.

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