I have always been mentally ill. I know that it is not comfortable to think of children as mentally ill, but the anxiety and even depression that I have experienced as an adult began haunting me at a very young age. I remember counting small landmarks that went by as our school bus drove from my stop to my best friend’s house, when we were in kindergarten, because after we turned the corner by the big old brick building, after we passed the corn field, she would finally come down that aisle to sit by me. I remember that one day, her siblings filed onto the bus without her. She had three school-aged brothers and sisters, so I asked her oldest sister, “Where’s Sarah?” I felt an awful, tight feeling in my chest when her sister told me that an ear infection would keep Sarah home all day. I know now that that is anxiety. But I couldn’t say “I feel afraid.” There wasn’t something scary happening. It didn’t feel the same as “afraid.” I could only say that my chest hurt, or my tummy hurt.
My mother was never told about childhood anxiety and how it might manifest. Tummy aches that came and went in minutes seemed implausible. She accused me of trying to get out of chores by faking it. Other adults and peers would try to comfort me by explaining that it was “no big deal.” They probably meant that the situation did not warrant so many tears. They were probably right. But what I learned was to keep it all inside, tucked away and secret. The problem was, I have always been really bad at hiding my emotions. Sooner or later, I would break down and cry in school, in front of everyone. It happened in elementary school, middle school, my senior year of high school. There is only so long you can pretend that it’s no big deal, especially when you don’t even know what “it” is. Why was I crying? Because there was too much noise? The hallways were crowded? I couldn’t sleep at night?
I never slept well. My mom tried early bedtimes. Strict wake-up times. (Note: my father didn’t really participate in this whole ordeal until it was just the two of us, when I was in high school. I doubt that he realized then what my mom had been going through my entire life, but he couldn’t get me out of bed any better than she could.) She threatened. She cajoled. She bribed. She made me walk when I missed the bus in the seventh grade. I get it, now. She did not know what else to do. I had to go to school. But I couldn’t get up, because I couldn’t go to sleep. Earlier bed times just meant more time staring at the clock. I still couldn’t fall asleep until midnight, or later.
This has been my reality for as long as I can remember.
I was talking to a friend recently about how she misses life before her anxiety hit her so hard, in her late twenties. I can sympathize, but I can’t relate. I can imagine wanting to go back to the time before anxiety. Obviously, that sounds great. But I can’t picture it. I have a before and an after, too, I guess. Mine is “before treatment” and “after treatment.” Treatment came before an official diagnosis, so getting a name for what I have isn’t the important moment, for me. Before and After don’t look very different, from the outside. I got good grades. I didn’t suddenly become anti-social or lose a job or lost control in any way. Before treatment, I was faking it. After treatment, I could see a better way of living.
I know that it’s on magnets and greeting cards, but I first read this in a book of Emily Dickinson poems:
Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul — and sings the tunes without the words — and never stops at all.
I kept going, before treatment. There was a tiny thing urging me on. But after treatment, I had words to back up that tune. I had reasons to hope. Things to try. A name I could share. I could tell my mom, other family, my friends and, later, my husband and in-laws how to help, when they asked. I knew how to ask for help. My life didn’t change much from the outside, but it changed a lot from the inside.
I will probably never know what it is like to live without this illness. I’m still not sure how I feel about the idea. Do I envy my friend her time free from the monsters in the dark? Life without the featherless creatures that have whispered hopeless words, all my life? I’m not sure I can envy something I can’t even imagine. Is it sad that so much of my life has been so dark? Better that I don’t have a time to wish I could go back to? It doesn’t matter, I know. We each have the lives we need. I believe in not only karma, but reincarnation. These are just the questions running through my head today.
In case you are reading this and struggling with postpartum mental health trouble, I highly recommend signing up for the daily email service that got me thinking about that Emily Dickinson poem I have loved so long. It’s called Daily Hope. It does cost $50 for the year, but somehow, every day, the email has just what I need inside. It’s money well-spent. Because I have no “before” life, I don’t always relate to my friends with more “classic” postpartum struggles. But they are always sympathetic. And even the Daily Hope emails that address postpartum depression specifically touch my heart. I’m not affiliated with Postpartum Progress at all (I wish!) so this is just a suggestion from me to you.