How’s it going? A friend would ask.
Oh, pretty well, I’d reply. It’s hard, but things are fine. You know, it’s just a different way of life now. A thin smile. We’re finding a way to make it work.
But the thing is, things were not fine, and things were definitely not working.
However, I’ve gotten really good at powering through. It’s easy for me to keep on doing and going and “yes, I’m fine”-ing (as I wrote last time). To keep showing up for meetings and attending church and getting myself and the kids dressed and out of the house.
So that’s exactly what I was doing, this fall. I just kept going and smiling and doing.
But I knew I wasn’t fine, inside. And my husband knew I wasn’t fine. And after a little more time, my kids knew I wasn’t fine.
I have always felt things strongly and in superlatives — both the good and the bad. This fall, the bad started to become overwhelming. When something bad happened, I was devastated — fiercely angry and then utterly hopeless. Reading the news was impossible. All the good in the world did not seem powerful enough for all the bad.
One night, my husband and I tried to watch Twelve Years a Slave. We had to turn it off after the first seven minutes because I was hysterical with tears, my entire body shaking. I could not stop thinking, He was someone’s Jacob, each time Solomon Northup was beaten.
In the face of the littlest disappointment, I felt wildly out of control. If the restaurant I’d been looking forward to eating at was closed or my husband didn’t fold the blankets in the way I’d told him to a thousand times, I immediately became absurdly angry.
It’s hard to feel things so strongly, all the time.
As the days wore on, I started to lose confidence in myself and in my abilities, both social and professional. I turned down opportunities — whether for coffee or a quartet gig — and hid behind excuses: I can’t, my kids. I’ve been away too many nights this week; I should sit this one out. I’m just so busy with my other work that I can’t take on this project, too.
One night, on the way to a party I had been looking forward to, I found that I couldn’t face the idea of trying to talk with people. I was afraid of the small-talk, my self-confidence at rock bottom. And I was tired of the lying, the conversations filled with thin smiles while I sipped and said: Things are fine. We are making it work! Not even halfway through the trip, I exited the subway and walked myself to a Duane Reade, where I bought a pen and a spiral notebook. I next walked to an inviting, quiet-ish little vegetarian restaurant and settled myself at the bar with a glass of Malbec, my new journal, and wrote for an hour, my words lit by a candle flame. I was proud of myself for being spontaneous, that night. For doing something truly for me.
But I did it because I knew something was wrong.
A few weeks later, at our Christmas Eve service at church, I was overcome with emotion while the congregation sang The First Noel. Not because I was thinking about the birth of Christ, a Savior and a baby, who came to offer love and yet experienced the ultimate rejection and sorrow. But because when I looked at our pastor, I could only think of how he’d just lost his (80-year-old?) mother in September, unexpectedly. This was his first Christmas without her. I wept and wept.
I was enjoying my kids and time we spent together, but my patience grew too thin too fast and I started to lose perspective, lashing out harshly with angry words in response to the smallest things. I was alternately cuddling and playing silly games or screaming and slamming food on the table, my daughter’s eyes wide at the noise while my son often echoed my words and mirrored my actions.
It was the same with my husband. I felt so fortunate to be married to someone who encouraged me in so many ways, cared about me and the kids so much, worked so hard, was so talented. I was loving towards him and filled with encouragement and support, baking cakes and writing notes and making lunches. I couldn’t wait for him to get home each night and often went so far as to track his path (there’s an app for everything!) from his work to our apartment. But then the smallest disappointment would set me off, and I would scream at him, bitter and sarcastic words flying from my mouth while dishes or food (or, one time, bottles of soap) flew through the air towards the floor.
(Want to know what happens when you throw a raw sweet potato with all your strength? It shatters. Shatters into a million shards of sweet potato. All over your floors and walls. Your white walls and your cherry wood floors. Sweet potato.)
We laughed, later, about the sweet potatoes. But at least once, I caught a look of fear in his eyes, and I was thankful these episodes only happened after the kids were asleep.
On the outside, I was passing the life-with-two-kids exam with flying colors. I’d lost all the pregnancy weight. I was uber-organized when I taught at preschool coop, with original songs and new crafts every week. I took monthly pictures to document our daughter’s growth and kept in touch with family. I taught at Mom’s Group and cooked meals for families with newborn babies and played in church. I wrote a Christmas newsletter for the first time.
But it was getting harder to hide and manage my mood swings as my emotions and the external stimulation mounted. The quick-as-a-flash despair and the white-hot rage showed up too fast and too often. My strong feelings were becoming too strong, and I started to drink to dull my senses. I craved the burn of the whiskey, the brightness of the buzz.
And then – that inevitable breaking point.
It was just a normal day, and I was sitting on the subway with the kids. I was feeling down, and then was suddenly overwhelmed with feelings of despair. I felt helpless when I thought about how I was living and the things I was doing and saying. Change felt elusive and impossible. The future, hopeless.
And it dawned on me: The Answer.
I thought I was hurting the people I loved too much. I didn’t want to hurt them anymore. I didn’t want to see that look in my daughter’s eyes, I didn’t want my son to learn to scream from his mom, and I didn’t want my husband to fear me. The logical thing seemed to be to relieve them of the massive burden they were living with – me.
And I realized that things needed to change.
I couldn’t just keep powering through. I needed some other help, some other perspective, something else.
That afternoon seems like a dream, now. I made it home with the kids and put them down for their naps, kissed them goodnight. I texted my husband and sat on the couch. I cried. When he called me from a taxi on his way home, I was still sitting in the same place, and still crying. We talked until the elevator doors opened into our apartment and he was standing before me.
Those next few hours and the following days were difficult, filled with sadness and rage, confusion and fear, overwhelming emotions and waves of numbness.
But they were also filled with a new kind of hope — a determined hope. We couldn’t ignore how I was feeling this time. I wasn’t going to “get better” by myself and whatever I was feeling and whatever was happening needed to be addressed — seriously addressed.
I sent a panicked, please-help-me email to my therapist. We spent several hours together, and talked about possible triggers and solutions and some of the sensory overload issues that I wrote about here, among other things. And then we called a doctor that she works with and I saw her, too, and we came up with a plan.
A plan that took into account my history with depression and my mood swings along with this new sensory sensitivity idea. A plan that involved more REM sleep and more exercise and more of all those necessary things.
That list of necessary things was long and intimidating, but I took it seriously – as seriously as I’ve taken anything. How was I going to get more sleep? (How were we going to get our kids to get more sleep?) How and when was I going to exercise? Journal? Pray? We reevaluated our childcare and talked through new ideas. We discussed the pros and cons of yoga versus treadmill versus gym membership and tried to identify and weed out stressors in my life. What was I doing that was adding to my burden? What did I need to be doing to help relieve the buildup?
My husband and I sat down with the list and a pen and paper and our calendar, and we talked through every point, every idea. We mapped out the changes and planned how they would occur. Week by week, topic by topic.
That feels like a long time ago, now. There have been many alterations and tweaks, some days filled with last-minute changes and others executed perfectly and without a hitch. I haven’t been following the plan perfectly, but I’ve been doing my absolute damndest.
And that future that felt so hopeless? Friends, I had it dead wrong. That future is filled right up to the brim with hope — with a determined hope.