Dear Whole Wide World,
I’m not fine.
Really, really not-fine. And it seems like our culture is built around a number of fleeting encounters that ask the question, but discourage real answers. Too time-consuming. Too uncomfortable. Too intimate. How am I?
According to the doctor, I’m depressed. Post traumatic stress says one psychologist. Another told me my blood must be pure cortisol at this point.
Which pretty much means I’m a mess. The truth is, it’s been a long time coming. And while we still have nine months of chemo and a pretty sick girl stuck at home this week, this is as close to peace as we’ve had in a long time. Everyone else in the family seems to be doing relatively okay. Which is probably why my body/mind chose now to short circuit.
It’s not what I expected. I’ve got quite a bit of up close and nearby experience with depression and anxiety at this point in my life. I’ve even accrued a substantial resume of grieving for myself, which I’ve always thought of as a close cousin to depression. But seeing and being are vastly different animals.
I told my friend Liz that I knew I was going to break down eventually, and when I did it would be spectacular. I imagined something alarming… cinematic. Michelle Pfieffer in The Deep End of the Ocean when she realizes her baby is missing. Scarlet O’Hara in the face of defeat. Scared Sorority Girl number three.
No dice. I still look pretty much the same. Except my shirt may be inside out and I probably haven’t brushed my hair. Oh, and I wear glasses now, because contacts require effort. I place one foot in front of the other and somehow no one notices. All the screaming is inside my head.
Meanwhile my family gets to see me unravel every day. Playing ‘Pleasant Citizen’ doesn’t work at home; I just don’t have the energy. I crawl back into bed a lot. I hulk out over the smallest problem. My feelings are delicate flowers, wounded by the smallest slight (and I have teenagers, so you can imagine how well that’s going). I can’t fall asleep. I wake up in a panic and run to check if my children are still breathing. I clutch my chest to try and lift this weight off of it. Overwhelmed. At any moment, and sometimes for no reason, completely overwhelmed.
I used to whirl around in a tornado of efficiency – packing lunches and dispensing medications and solving problems. Now I just whirl around and around and around and forget what I’m supposed to be doing. I put the milk in the cupboard. I forget to start the car and am confused when it won’t drive. I need people to repeat things to me several times before they make sense.
I thought depression would be sadder. I still laugh and enjoy things, though nothing is as bright or clear anymore. I’m so touched and grateful that my family is picking up the slack and giving me the constant reassurance I seem to need.
And every once in a while I just feel fine again, confident that the worst is over and I can be myself now… wondering if maybe I’ve been overly dramatic in presenting this to my doctor and counselor. Then I unload the dishwasher and must retreat back to bed for a nap.
So why am I writing an ode to my mental dysfunction for the whole wide world?
Partly as an apology, because as irrational as it may be, I still carry a lot of baggage with me about being selfish and letting people down. I’m trying to figure out where it all came from, but I suspect it’s largely inborn. So, this is me, giving notice that I’m going to be taking care of myself first for a while. Because there’s still a lot riding on Mom, and I can’t take care of them if I’m not a healthy me.
All these months (years, let’s face it) of suppressing my own emotions and needs have been necessary. We’ve done the best we can, and we’ve had SO much wonderful support, but there’s a reason cancer parents have high rates of PTSD. In the face our worst nightmare we put on a brave face, sing a song, make a game of it… anything to make it easier for our babies. And our own trauma gets stuffed way down. Just yesterday I had to bring her in for another blood test. I crawled up into the bed with her, wrapped her in my arms (and legs) and tried to distract her while she cried and struggled and screamed. It was an easier one. She’ll never know how much it kills me inside, because Mom is always calm in the hospital.
I guess I’m also writing because I want the world to know that even though you might see my calm Mom face too, I’m not really okay.
And I’m okay with that.
So, if you ask me how I am, I might give you a polite lie and move on, which is probably easiest on us both. It’s not a social convention I love, but it’s the way things work. I’m getting good at evasive but true answers like “still kicking” or “hanging in there.” Sometimes, probably more often than is socially acceptable, I answer truthfully. “I’m not doing well at all.”
It’s a relief for me. It doesn’t need to be a burden for you. I don’t need to be fixed or saved. I don’t need platitudes or sermons or super-human effort from you (though I know these are coming from a good and generous place inside you). I just need to be seen and heard. “That sucks; I’m sorry” is the best response for me.
Someday you might want to give an honest, but uncomfortable answer too – on those days, I’m your gal. Not Fine is an awful and important part of being human.
So here’s me, learning this thing called ‘self compassion’ via counseling, writing, art, meditation, prayer, fresh air, silly tv shows, hot baths, talking, talking, talking, dates with my husband, anti-depressants… and most of all, lying in bed.