I generally don’t talk about my mental health. I generally don’t talk much about my feelings, either. Even to my closest friends and family. “You always keep things so bottled up,” my mother used to tell me. “You don’t have to.” For her, expression is as easy as breathing. For me, I need to wrap it in metaphors and character arcs.
But it’s time to share. The last few months have been some of the hardest in my life, and I’m sharing in hopes that it will help someone else who, perhaps, builds up walls like I do and only lets a few dear souls in through the cracks. Maybe you’ll understand, maybe you’ll get help. Maybe you’ll see that you’re not alone.
The first time I had a panic attack, I was eight years old. I was in the checkout line with my mother at the grocery store, and it was a terribly busy day. With all the beeping over the scanner, all the sounds of crunching paper bags, the sense of people pressing in all around me. Then in an instant there was a rushing feeling in my head, like a tape player going on fast forward. My hands tingled. My breathing accelerated. I felt the ground swell beneath me as if I was onboard a ship. The world was going too fast and too slow and my brain felt like it was doing donuts in my head.
Outside, it stopped. I calmed down, caught my breath. I don’t remember if my mother said anything; I know I never mentioned it. Even when they struck again, when sounds became pulses became everything going faster became can’t breathe and can’t think and… “Too much. Too much.”
To heal myself, I wrote my way out. I found that writing novels, even thin imitations of my favorites, kept the anxiety at bay. Gave me something to grasp while the world swirled around me. While my father fell ill with a rare disease; while my mother got cancer; while my sister developed an eating disorder.
I wrote my way out, until it stopped working.
When you’re older, you get distance. For me, I’ve realized how often this did happen. I used to say that postpartum depression was so unexpected, but that’s not really true. I didn’t get postpartum depression the way I thought you should, if that’s even a thing. I wasn’t mopey or sad. I didn’t cry or feel depressed. I felt detached to the point that I half forgot I existed. I was anxious all night and all day to the point where I didn’t sleep. I felt like I was floating through life, now somehow burdened with a child who almost died of sepsis days after his (traumatic) birth.
This time, I had to reach out. You see, the words stopped. I remember looking across the room at my psychiatrist. “It’s not that I’m not writing. I understand on some level that I don’t have time for it. But I’m not even thinking about writing. Or reading. Or anything. I’m just blank.”
By the time I got things settled, medically speaking, I was more or less back to myself. I wrote three books in one year. I got my first book published.
But then, my son. Oh, my son.
The diagnosis came when he was six. Aspergers. But the word itself didn’t encompass just how hard being his mother was. How hard being his mother was while working full time, while my husband lost his job and then again, always the last in the shuffle. “We’re sorry,” they told him, “we’re going in another direction.” When at home my son would go into fugues, railing against the world and so full of anger, spitting and screaming for hours, and I was failing him. How could I do this? How could I hold on?
The panic tickled at my senses. It reminded me: “Too much, too much.” But I plowed on. I kept going. I had another child, and while postpartum depression did not find its way to me — I read and I read and I read and I read too keep the monster away, and it worked — my dear Seth died. Seth, I’d known him since he was eleven. Seth, my sister’s best friend, and like my brother. So bright and marvelous and only 29.
“Too much. Too much.”
I went to the pharmacy counter again, with something else. A new approach.
This time, though, the words did not come back. The anxiety went away, but so did so much else. I was numb, and so tired. I took up running because I needed to do something to keep me moving since the words wouldn’t come, and it helped for a while.
Things got better. Things got worse. Through emergencies and hospital visits, through death and life. I was able to wean myself off of the medicine and, like magic, the words reappeared. Stories began forming. Old tales came to new life.
I wrote until around my 35th birthday, this June.
“Generally, when people have three depressive episodes, it’s considered chronic.”
My doctor is amazing, and I adore her.
I sat in her office, trying to explain what happened. “Nothing triggered it, really. I mean, a million things triggered it. A lifetime triggered it. My dear great aunt died in January, my dad was hospitalized and it looked like he might not make it, and then mom had back surgery. But this time was different. I was just going to sleep, I’d had a really good day. I was not thinking about anything, and then panic hit me so strong that I couldn’t do anything. Like I was being strangled and falling at the same time. It took me hours to fall back asleep again. This happened for weeks.”
“Sometimes our brains just can’t tell the difference. Sometimes they just misfire.”
I wrote to my dear friend Kate Sullivan: “I don’t think my brain knows the difference between the next adventure and the next emergency.”
Everything was going so well, damnit.
Breakdowns are not uncommon in the women in my family. My great-grandmother fell apart in her 30s, divorced her husband, and had to live apart from her children. My own mother suffers from depression. My grandmother, too.
I knew it was a possibility, but the words “anxiety” and “panic attack” just don’t feel strong enough to explain that feeling, that constant gnawing feeling, that hating to be alive because every moment feels like you’re on fire feeling. That there isn’t enough air. That you’re just going to float away in the middle of the grocery store because you can’t remember anything — why am I even here? — and now they’re going to have to call the police if you pass out.
You start to hate yourself. And that’s terrifying. You start to think you’d do anything to stop feeling that way, and that’s why it’s so insidious. “How can I work? How can I support my family? How can I be a good mother and wife?”
I knew medicine was going to happen again, but I didn’t expect a two month nightmare to follow. Unlike before, my experience with a new SSRI was bad news. There’s a very small percentage of the population that, when given this particular drug, actually has worse panic and anxiety. It landed me (for the second time) at Urgent Care, shaking so badly I couldn’t keep my hands from quaking.
Finally, finally, today — this week, last week — it’s been better. Off one prescription, onto another. A little science experiment. “What works for some people doesn’t work for everyone.” I’m on the same regimen as my mother. This makes a lot of sense. But joy has come back. I’m smiling. I’m laughing. I am grounded.
Every morning, I’m very good about this, I have a date with venlafaxine. We eat breakfast together. And the words have not gone away. To the contrary, while my anxiety used to fuel my writing, now instead writing soothes my soul. My calm soul. I’ve had the most prolific year of my life this year. I honestly don’t know what to make of that other than in some way it makes total sense.
I live with generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks. I’ve lived through some pretty big stories, too, real and hand crafted. They are inextricable, now.
“I feel like I’ve woken up from a very bad dream,” I told my husband a few nights ago. I have found stillness, and I am so grateful for modern medicine. I can’t hate my brain, because it’s the only one I have. And it’s the same one that tells the stories that make me feel more alive than anything in the world. What kindles also burns.
So we learn, and we live, and we write again.
About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/