When I chose “Balance” as my One Word for this year, I had no idea how apt it would turn out to be.
And totally not in the way I expected.
One of the definitions of “balance”, according to Merriam-Webster, is “mental and emotional steadiness.”
If I’m honest, I’ve always prided myself on my steadiness. I’m (generally) a pretty calm and level-headed person. I’ve always been positive and optimistic about life. I’ve never been prone to dramatic mood swings. I didn’t even experience PMS until post-kids hormones came along. I’m the sort of person who would rather do something to fix a problem instead of whining about it. A go-getter, pull myself up by my bootstraps kind of person.
Then came this year.
It took me a long time to admit something was wrong. Even when the doctor diagnosed me with depression, I didn’t want to go on medication right away. I avoided everything he suggested, actually, including getting counselling from a psychologist. Instead I decided to try a DIY approach in typical “fix it myself” fashion. I started a gratitude journal. Dragged myself to the gym to exercise (more and more sporadically). Tried my utmost to “think positive”.
Let me tell you, it’s very difficult to “positive think” your way out of depression.
In part, my denial came from the fact that my emotions this year have been SO up and down. On a bad week, I felt so horrible I can’t even describe it. Life was just too hard. I wanted to lie down and go to sleep and never wake up again.
On a good week, I felt completely normal. In those times, it was easy to convince myself that I was fine, that all my thoughts about not coping were just an overreaction. I’m starting to think it’s human nature to forget the really bad stuff. It’s like childbirth. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s so intense you’re pretty sure you’re going to die. Then afterward, the details get kinda hazy and you wonder – was it really that bad after all? So you go back and do it all over again. And then the second time around you REMEMBER and it’s too late and you’re all WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING GETTING PREGNANT AGAIN?!! DID I FORGET THIS CHILD HAD TO ACTUALLY COME OUT SOMEHOW?!!
So my denial dragged on for six months, with good weeks and horrible weeks, until the whole awful cycle had happened enough times that 1. I finally recognised the pattern and 2. I was absolutely desperate.
I’d actually been in to my doctor on the Friday to get some blood test results, and he asked how I was feeling and because it happened to be a good week I was all, “Yeah, GREAT actually! Feeling fabulous! I’m totally fine!” And then by Sunday I wanted to die and on Monday I was back in his office saying, “So as it turns out, I’m not fine after all. Actually I’m terrible. I need help. Also I’m really sorry because I know this is terribly confusing. I’m confused too.”
So he had me fill out another psychological evaluation, and this time I hesitated over it. The questions are all “Do you feel like such and such….. a little of the time? Some of the time? Most of the time? or All the time?” and you’re supposed to base it off how you’ve felt for the last 4 weeks. The problem being, every month I usually have a couple of great weeks and a couple of horrible weeks. So the first time I filled out the form, I just took an average. I went with “some of the time” for most of the questions, and the score indicated moderate depression. So this time, I asked how I should answer, and he said to base it on the period of time when I’m actually feeling low, so we could get a clearer picture. Doing it that way, turns out I have severe depression. Huh. Probably explains a few things.
I’ve always felt the up-and-down cycle was hormonally linked in some way, and after six months of the same pattern recurring, the doctor agreed. He diagnosed Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder. Turns out the hormones released when I ovulate are affecting the neurotransmitters in my brain. So halfway through the month, I’m plunged into dark depression – sometimes for a couple of days, sometimes for a couple of weeks, sometimes on and off unpredictably until the end of the month. It also explains why the rest of the time, I feel fine, and why as a result it’s taken me so long to seek the help I need. Because when I’m fine, the darkness feels so far away that I doubt its reality… until the next time.
A diagnosis of PMDD has explained so much. It’s a huge relief. I’m not actually going crazy. (Well… I guess that’s debatable.) But this roller-coaster of emotions has a chemical explanation.
I started on medication the next day. For one day I felt a bit spaced-out in the head and had this awesome feeling of wellbeing. It wasn’t euphoria – actually I felt like I couldn’t have been exhilarated about something if I tried. It was like the peaks and valleys of my emotional landscape had been neatly trimmed off, leaving me somewhere in the middle in a place I could only describe as pleasant. The next day, the spaced-out feeling had gone and I felt normal again. Just…. myself. Happy. Steady. Interested in life.
I took the medication for two weeks and felt great. Then I stopped taking it. I did that because that’s what you do for PMDD and it’s what I’d been told to do. Two weeks on, two weeks off. The doctor said he thought I’d end up taking the medication all the time, but to try it this way first.
Well, I tried it. Two days after I stopped the medication, I felt myself plummeting down again into the same familiar pit. My boys left for school and my husband left for work and I was home alone with Allegra. I felt a climbing dread and despair. What would I do all day? How would I cope? It felt impossible to do anything. Everyday tasks became monumental tests of endurance. I had to drag myself around the house, one foot in front of the other, just trying to survive. I couldn’t inject any inflection into my voice. I felt constantly on the verge of tears. It felt like my whole being was one suspended, silent scream for help. Oh my God please help me. I can’t do this. This is too hard.
Stubbornly I resisted taking my medication because I’m a good girl and I follow the rules. Maybe it would get better. Three days later, it had not gotten better. I knew irrevocably that I was a failure as a person. I would never succeed at any of my dreams. Writing, blogging… it was all too much. It was time to give up. I wanted to give up, not just on my dreams, but on life. I could barely function, let alone parent. I sat Allegra in front of the TV and crawled into bed and spent a whole day mindlessly scrolling on Facebook. I was desperate for someone to help me but I couldn’t even cry out for help. No-one wanted to hear about how horrible I felt. It was too depressing. I thought about texting a friend, but what could they say? It would be pointless to project my misery onto someone else. Nobody could help me. I felt truly alone. I imagined what a relief it would be to just let go… to float away into a blue sky of oblivion where I could stop trying, stop hurting, stop existing.
The next day I started taking my medication again. It only took one day to feel normal again. It was the first day in weeks that I even felt capable of writing a blog post. And so I sat down to write this while it was fresh in my mind… before I forgot, once again, what it’s really been like.
I wrote it all down and then I chickened out, and there it sat for the next two months, unpublished.
What have those intervening months been like? The ups and downs haven’t gone away. The medication has made it bearable to the extent that at my lowest points I no longer feel that terrifying blackness where I wish it could all end. Now I just have sporadic days of feeling pretty miserable. I’ve struggled with finding any form of motivation. My house has never been so messy and un-magazine-like and I’ve never cared so little. There are also wonderful days. Plenty of completely-normal, surely-I-must-be-all-better-now kinds of days.
It’s disorienting to be me right now, that’s for sure.
I feel silly for resisting medication for so long. I feel frustrated that medication hasn’t fixed me completely. I wish it wasn’t so complicated. I wish there was a simple cure. “Just take this purple pill three times a day and you’ll never be sad again. Yay!”
When I dragged my defeated self into my doctor’s surgery to concede that I did, after all, need medication, I humbly agreed to every single thing he suggested. I’ve started seeing a psychologist for counselling. It’s confronting and weird and cathartic all at the same time. Of course, in typical PMDD fashion, I was feeling great the day I went in, and it’s hard to take therapy seriously when you’re in a fab-u-lous mood. I felt like a fraudster. Like some really lame hypochondriac-type person making a huge big deal outta nothing at all.
But I did it anyway.
I did it because I’m a good girl and that’s what the doctor said to do and for goodness sake, I nearly self-helped myself to death this year trying to fix it all on my own and THAT sure as hell didn’t work, so what else am I gonna do?
I did it because I know the day will come when I will not be feeling fab-u-lous, in fact I’ll be feeling freakin’ horrible again, and I’ll need some tools in my tool-belt just to keep me going.
Life is good. I can say that today. Last week was a different story. Life was pretty sucky last week.
But today is a new day.
For all those out there who know what it’s like? For the ones who struggle, who’ve ever felt alone, or wished they too could let go and float away into the blue?
Don’t let go.
It gets better.
It doesn’t stay better, not all the time. We both know this. The waves roll by and some will knock you off your feet and leave you floundering in panic because you’re down so deep you think for sure you’ll drown; but you won’t.
The wave will pass and you’ll feel the heat of sunlight on your face again and the mirror glare will dazzle your eyes and you’ll snort the water out of your nose and taste salt on your tongue and feel breathlessly alive.
The waves will keep coming. Beautiful, brutal, relentless, much like life itself.
And one day, if you can just keep your head above water long enough, who knows… you might find yourself cresting high, carried along with the rhythms of the sea, riding the wave exultant right into shore.