In our house, I teach the kids not to hide their feelings. We name them and try to view them non-judgmentally to find the most appropriate way to move forward. I am a master at teaching this approach and a fraud at carrying it out.
I didn't want to face the way I felt, the toll it was taking, or how hard it was for me to ask for help. I judged myself harshly, and it blinded me to the help I needed.
You see, my monthly planner boasts an array of weather stickers across the calendar days: a rainbow, a sad-faced cloud, an angry cloud, and a thundercloud with huge raindrops.
This is part of the sophisticated tracking system I devised to keep up with my anxiety days. During one recent 6-day period, I labeled one day outstanding (the rainbow) while the rest were collections of exhaustion, irritability, and heart palpitations (the other stickers). On one particularly bad day, the only word to define my behavior toward my children and everyone else around me is written in red ink and rhymes with "witch."
People envision an anxious person as one who worries constantly, but my anxiety presents as irritability, anti-social behavior, and sometimes rage. When my bout is over, I think back on my actions and worry. I think about how I was triggered by every sound (and as we all know, kids make A LOT of sounds), every sibling fight, every unfinished task piled high on my mental load. Then, the shame hits.
My anxiety is triggered by a vestibular disorder that's exacerbated by Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), so I get to do this little dance like clockwork every single month. That's what made it seem so controllable. I could label it, sticker the days, see it coming and prepare. Or so I thought...
Two and a half years into every natural treatment I could find, my acute anxiety days were down to three or four with some touchy days on either side. The problem was that a couple of these days avalanched from anxiety into full-blown bouts of depression that left me wrecked. Still, I knew the episodes wouldn't last all month because they followed a cycle.
So, I continued to wait it out.
"I'm only losing a few days a month, a week and a half when it's really bad," I explained to a friend, trying to justify my refusal to seek further help. "I'm not sure it's worth seeking help just for those few days."
"But are you really only losing a few days?" she asked cautiously. "I don't see a lot of joy in your life. You spend the days you aren't struggling feeling guilty about the days you did struggle. You spend them dreading the next round."
Her comment struck me as true the minute I heard the words. At that moment, I felt truly seen. I felt foolish that even in living it, I couldn't see how far it had gone. I called my doctor and scheduled an appointment to look into medical options for managing my anxiety and depression.
True to form, the night before my doctor's visit I almost chickened out.
The next step was likely an antidepressant. I have cheered my girlfriends and family members on, expressing my pride when they've taken care of their mental health by whatever means worked for them. Still, I sat at the kitchen table ashamed because I had not been able to do this on my own.
Logging into a group for vestibular disease support, I saw a post from a woman asking "What do we do with our good days?" She meant the days we weren't struggling with symptoms—physical or mental. Do we mow the yard and catch up on laundry, or do we go on great adventures since there's no way to know when the bad days are coming back?
Her question brought me back to my friend's words. I don't see a lot of joy in your life. Even on the good days, I still stood in the shadow of the bad. I was wasting them and I was dragging my kids down with me.
Upon obtaining antidepressants, I sat all four of my kids down and explained that I would be taking care of my mind with some extra help from medication.
"You don't like to take medicine," my daughter chimed in.
"I'm okay with it if it helps me. It's okay to need help," I responded. I hope this is a conversation they remember any time they are afraid to ask for what they need.
Nothing is magic, but choosing to move forward with treatment for my mental health has made my life easier and more joy-filled. The ups and downs that come are manageable, and the steady days aren't wasted fretting about how I acted when things were out of control, they're spent focusing on my children and the life we've built together. There's balance, an overall positive energy that surrounds me.
What am I doing with the good days now? Everything.