I have sat down to write this post on three separate occasions, each time chickening out and pushing it off. I keep reminding myself that I started this blog with the intention of "keeping it real", striving to take the stigma out of mental health and parenting, maybe even adding some humour to it. But somehow this time feels different. It feels more raw. More exposed. It's harder to talk about, harder to feel confident that no one will judge. Harder to accept.
It began last May 2018. I even wrote about it. It was postpartum depression again, we thought. I went to the doctors, I took the meds, I did the work, I would get better. Except I didn't.
The anxiety took on a life of it's own.... I couldn't leave the house, I couldn't sleep more than 3 hours a night - it felt like I was drinking the equivalent of 8 cups of coffee a day. The panic attacks would leave me crumpled on the floor and shaking. My hands tremored so badly I couldn't hold a pen. It felt like I had ants crawling inside my veins. My brain went at three hundred miles an hour. Then came the waves of depression... sadness so heavy it felt like I would drown in it, and hopelessness so severe that I wished I wouldn't wake up, should I be lucky enough to fall asleep. I was a shell. Hollow and sick.
My psychiatrist was at a loss. She prescribed Ativan for the anxiety, increasing it to the point where "a 300 pound man should pass out". It didn't touch my symptoms. She increased the anti-depressants weekly, changing out this combination for that. The depression worsened. She gave me strong sleeping pills with the hope that decreasing my exhaustion would lessen my symptoms. I continued to lie awake at night. And with each medication came the side effects... headaches, nausea, the dizziness and the foggy head. This went on for months. I was in my very own special version of hell, slipping away from my family and friends, and losing all sense of reality. I prayed for the end.
It was January 2019. I was scheduled for a flight to Florida the next day to visit my parents with Mike, Emily and Hallie. Mike and I sat in my doctor's office for the fifth time in two weeks, after what had been a particularly bad panic attack. Her office was the only point of destination I'd managed in over six weeks, and we were desperate for answers.
"Stephanie. I think you have Bipolar Disorder", she stated. She said some other words after that, but I couldn't hear them because the world was melting away and her voice was coming from, what seemed like, fifty feet away. Mike asked some intelligible questions.... "What did this mean?" "How could we treat it?", but I just sat there with ringing in my ears. She talked about how I was presenting differently than a classic case of Bipolar - calling it "Bipolar Not Otherwise Specified" - with the anxiety standing in for the stereotypical episodes of mania. She explained that with Bipolar, an increased amount of antidepressant would lead to an increase in the depression itself, as it did with me. She explained that with Bipolar, there were often other disorders present, as there was with my OCD and Generalized Anxiety. She explained that with Bipolar, the highs and lows (or in my case, the anxiety and depression) came in cycles like mine did. She explained ME.
My doctor indicated that I was going to be starting a new drug regimen that would now include something called a "mood stabilizer", designed to do exactly that. She was going to send me off to Florida the next day with the strongest form of the drug available, and should we notice an immediate and positive change, her diagnosis would be all but confirmed.
Mike and I left the appointment overwhelmed with the information we had just received, asking each other what this diagnosis meant in both the short and long run, and holding in our hands the prescription that may just be the key to solving my problem.
Within three days the positive change was apparent, and we could finally put a name to what was happening.
It has been a long and hard road, the year from hell. And we're still trying to figure out what it all means, despite the amazing progress that I've made with the help of my doctor, parents, and Mike. But I needed to share my story if I was going to be true to what I preach... I couldn't continue to advocate for mothers struggling with mental illness if I was hiding my own. In the coming weeks, I plan on sharing some survival tips and tricks that have really made a huge difference in my life since my diagnosis - some good needs to come from the bad. For today though, I'll just say this: Being a mother is hard. But being a mother with a mental illness adds a whole extra, complicated layer - especially when you can't talk about it. So please moms.... talk about it. Find the strength in yourselves and come forward so we can start to normalize the issue of motherhood and mental health. We can be there for one another and come through to the other side together and stronger.
Until next time...