Needed: More Respect for Struggles with Mental Health & Motherhood
I recently attended a food writing conference in Richmond. During one of the sessions, a panelist mentioned that in addition to her work for Eatocracy, she was also working on a book about mental health and her own anxiety and depression. I got the sense that public ownership and admission of that had been a long time coming, that she hadn't always felt the strength or support to do so.
We hear a lot about mental health these days: the warped "health" of those who go on shooting sprees; the enormous numbers of mentally ill inmates; post-partum depression and the sometimes even more tragic turns it takes.
Mental health and its as-important counterpoint, mental un-health, very much need to be addressed, treated, made more of a priority in national health policies and covered by insurance plans. Most important, we need to get over the antiquated, deleterious and heartless stigma associated with mental un-health.
As no one initially chooses whether they are born as male or female or what state or country they are born into, people also don't opt for mental illness because it sounds like fun. If they ail, due to a wiring snafu or chemical imbalance, it's nothing more than mean to blame them for that, to think of them as weak or lesser or unworthy.
In the realm of motherhood, the same is true for women who struggle with the job. And yes, marvelous though it may be, it's a job, a very serious and often onerous one on which a lot rides. To assume that motherhood should be always pleasurable, always rewarding, never stress-inducing is to have one's head so far up one's ass that the view again becomes clear.
I actually don't think most people assume those things completely, but, and this is a critical caveat, denigrating or condescending to or judging rather than supporting mothers who struggle is to isolate and invalidate them in a cruel way.
The most offensive act is the looking down the nose at a struggler by the mother who has full-time help, who always has an extra pair of hands, who never has to wake a sleeping baby in order to pick up big sibling on time, who never has to race between schools to inevitably be late at one, who can always take a moment's reprieve because she can pay for it. Even if you are a Zen master, all that is hard when you're alone, and I get sick of witnessing and experiencing scorn by those who literally don't know.
If you don't have or admit to mental health challenges, you can be considered weak or pitiful. But the same judgment is true if you do admit to mental health concerns. Damned if you are, damned if you aren't. Isn't it easy to agree that this is wrong?
It should be, but too many people can't or won't put themselves in another's shoes. The cheap way to feel better about oneself is to judge oneself against another, rather than against one's own standards of behavior and self. If I can say, "well, at least I'm not her," then simplistically, I "win." Talk about a shitty way to "win." How about instead saying, "Wow, I'm lucky to not struggle and I'm so sorry that you are. Can I help? Would you like me to listen? Is there anything I can do?" That is empathy and kindness and, might I add, a means of connection rather than distance.
It's wrenching, gut-blasting and confidence-shaking awful to struggle in parenthood. To not want to do it sometimes. To desperately want some time alone, some quiet, a few hours without stupid squabbling over a toy that hasn't been noticed in a year. At least for me, these are the times when I judge myself most harshly, feel most disappointed in myself, consider myself a somewhat-failed parent.
But I am coming to believe that part of that derives from my sense of how I should be experiencing motherhood, the level of patience I should have and the degree of anxiety I shouldn't. Who prescribed that, and why?
The same is true for mental health really.
I have always been an anxious person; not by choice but by the chemical brew and wiring with which I was born, things inherited from generations past that combined in me in a new way. I have also had, since my period began, PMDD, a super-PMS that wreaks havoc on me twice a month. Do I enjoy all this? Absolutely not. Have I drunk more Pepto Bismol in my life than the average person? Most certainly. Would I trade my anxiety away? For many things, yes.
What shouldn't be is a judgment against me, and everyone else with an anxious or depressed or whatever self, for something I can only try my best to manage. Which I do manage as best I can. Four years ago, returning from a rare weekend getaway with my husband, I suffered an enormous panic attack, my first ever, on the flight home. It was completely incapacitating: hyperventilation because of the anxiety, which creeped in like an evil demon, caused a racing pulse, unbearable chest pain and the oxygen-deprived spasming and folding in on themselves of my arms, hands, legs and lips. My husband sat next to me in terror, I tried to shrink away into my seat because I was so scared and mortified. A kind flight attendant found a doctor on board who held my hand until we landed. Paramedics escorted me off as the rest of the plane watched; they loaded me into an ambulance which then exited the airport by roaring down the very runway on which we'd just landed. To say that I was embarrassed is an understatement.
Yet, the kindness of that flight attendant and doctor, the paramedics who came to get me and my loving husband kept me afloat. At the emergency room, however, things took a turn. The residents on duty asked about my symptoms; I told them that I'd been having trouble taking deep breaths for nearly a week and assumed I'd had a cold. They began to bubble with excitement... "Pulmonary embolism looks a lot like this....Let's run some tests...CAT scan!"
I was wheeled away from my husband and left near a wall in a hallway, alone and scared and unable to talk. I grunted and called out as best I could until someone came to me. I was scanned and declared free of embolism. They docs were visibly disappointed and that's when they decided I was nothing more than a pathetic quack. They spoke in low, condescending tones to a nurse, though not low enough that I couldn't hear. "Just give her some Valium. It's just anxiety," before leaving without saying a word to me.
The nurse explained things, injected something strong into my IV, and my husband and I were again left alone, my arms and lips still intractably curled in ugly ways. The doctors never returned.
This is the best we can do? Leaving scared individuals alone on gurneys as they writhe in fear and pain with no sense of what's happening to them? We treat them like dogs who don't deserve the respect and care accorded to people with "real" maladies? I think not.
But this is what we do to mental un-health patients and also to mothers struggling with the demands of a job they're expected to love. A love that can and should outweigh the challenges and sleep-deprivation and pretty much required subsummation of self. It's what we do to gay and lesbian people when we talk of reparative therapy, it's the guy who threw a banana at the Latino player in the World Cup recently, a despicable act of racism that stunned me.
I have told very few people about that panic attack years ago. I've told even fewer that a couple months later I started taking Zoloft and haven't stopped. I rarely admit that most days are really hard for me as a stay-at-home mother of two exceptional boys, one of whom has ADHD and slays me with his constant need for interaction and stimulation. I love them desperately, but I love myself too, and there is a mismatch between my needs and theirs.
I mostly smile and say "fine" when asked how I am; most of the time this is true, but sometimes it's not remotely true, and I'm always surprised by how alone I am in those moments. How there is almost no one who I feel comfortable calling in tears or overwhelm, seeking nothing more than, "I'm sorry. " I'm not ashamed of how I feel, but I'm acutely aware that most people either don't want to hear about such "negative" stuff or refuse to acknowledge that they too feel it all. For that reason, I didn't post this essay on my blog but rather here, where fewer people know me. I think there will be less judgment, and I write that with a great deal of sadness.
We have got to get to a place of compassion, a place where empathy plays a larger role than judgment. We have got to be able to talk about things without fear of reprisal or isolation. Why is this so hard?