After L was born, I struggled for a very long time. My anxiety was out of control, and although I was never diagnosed with anything thanks to an absolutely failed attempt at accessing mental health care (more on that soon), it’s become clear to me that I was experiencing symptoms of PTSD, which is common among NICU parents and people who have experienced medical trauma.
I’ve started to write about this a number of times. When I began blogging, my purpose was to be honest, and this is among the most raw of all, and maybe the most important part to bring into the light. But it feels so big, and I was nervous about making these particular cracks in the surface visible, and I struggled, over and over, to find the right words, and so it kept slipping away in silence.
Yesterday, though, the news about Anthony Bourdain hit me hard. And in the wake of yet another public personal tragedy, there has again been an outpouring of online support, with a unifying message of encouragement: reach out. But, from my perspective at least, it’s not so simple as that. And so my words may not be perfect, or complete, but I’m laying out at least this one part of my own soul.
It took me nearly a year after L was born to finally reach out. That’s not because I wasn’t aware I could use some support, or that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal or okay; it’s because I was exhausted, and beaten down, and struggling to keep up with even the most basic needs of our new medical life, which had flooded us with unfamiliar equipment and sterile procedures and home health nurses and therapy visits and countless unexpected hospital stays. This was a time when my stress and anxiety made even opening the mail too much to handle on many days; I would let our mail pile up for weeks because the bills and insurance denials I knew were likely lurking inside those innocent-looking envelopes made my heart race and my stomach fill with lead. Adding in another layer by dealing with my own mental health that came with new anxieties all its own was too much for me in the middle of all that, so I put it off, and put it off, and refused to look at it, and put it off some more.
Most of all, it took so long because I had to call. If that one simple fact were different, if I could have simply scheduled an appointment online, without having to muster up the courage to dial that number and spill my dark secrets aloud to a stranger over the phone, I would have gone in months earlier.
As L’s birthday approached and I realized how strongly the looming anniversary of that day was impacting me, and with a lot of encouragement from my 99, I finally did reach out. But my first and only experience with mental health care, which totaled exactly four appointments, was an utter disaster.
She skipped the intake questions entirely during our first appointment, instead listening to me tell my story while interjecting the kind of platitudes and canned responses I had grown to dread from anyone, let alone the person who was supposed to be fixing me (…“I can’t even imagine!”…“You’re so strong!”…) And when we finally did circle back to those big, important questions at my second visit, instead of simply asking them, she assumed – perhaps since I was a mother and was managing more for my child than she seemed to be able to fathom and still appeared to be a responsible, put-together adult – that I was navigating most things just fine.
“No alcohol abuse, right?” (No, not in the raging alcoholic sense, but my anxiety was bad enough that I had been self-medicating with wine in order to fall asleep at night. Because her question assumed otherwise, it made getting those words out that much harder, and so she never knew this.)
“And you’re not suicidal?” (I wasn’t – I want to be clear about that, for anyone who loves me who might be reading this – but what if I had been?)
She proceeded to spend the third visit guiding me through an absurd face-tapping exercise for which I’m still not clear on the science or purpose, and at my fourth visit pronounced me all better since we had just received good news about L’s prognosis (spoiler alert: that good news was short-lived, and did very little to improve my mental well-being).
After that we parted ways, and I, having mustered the courage to reach out and having had it fail so miserably, never mustered that courage again.
Knowing that my mental health was important didn’t matter. Knowing there were tools available and how to access them didn’t matter. When I was most in need of help, a simple phone number felt like an insurmountable obstacle rather than a resource. I wouldn’t want to quell the flood of messages encouraging people to seek support if it can save even one life, but it seems to me that putting the onus of reaching out onto those who are in the depths of a struggle for their lives may often be a burden too heavy to bear.
Since then, I do feel like I have healed tremendously. Time has helped, and L’s improved health has helped. But most of all, my incredible support system has helped, and hearing the stories of others and knowing my experience was common and human rather than weak and shameful has helped more than I can say. Those last two are the sole reasons I finally did find the courage to call at all, and they have helped me make it through some of my darkest times. Please keep the conversation going;
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