I’m not supposed to tell you this, but last year, I spent two weeks in a day treatment psychiatric institution. My in-laws don’t know, and I’m not allowed to tell them. Friends have questioned my decision to write about it. They say it’ll affect future job searches. They say I’ll never be able to run for political office, and if anyone wants dirt on me, well, here it is. I’m terrified it will affect my ability to adopt a child. But I refuse to live in shame.
I’m not supposed to tell you this either, but I am in remission from severe treatment-resistant depression, with a side of generalized anxiety disorder. A cocktail of drugs stops the sadness from creeping in. When my medication is not in balance, I think my husband will die on his way to work. I think my children will perish in a traffic accident, their shoes scattered in the weeds by the highway. I think the world will end in asteroids and H-bombs. Clutter and mess, the hallmark of three children 6 and under, drive me into rages. I sleep all the time. The panic attacks come in their breath-stealing, body-shaking cruelty. I hide them from the kids. I hide the crying from the kids too, and I hide the cutting from everyone. I’m really not allowed to tell you that.
Last year was a bad time. A few people knew about it. Our culture doesn’t have words for, “I’m falling apart, please help.” My mother came down for five days. My best friend took the kids a few times. And one friend watched our kids while we went to the psychiatric outpatient center to sign me up. No family appeared to help us. No other friends lined up with meals, or babysitting, or laundry duties. I came home from the psych center, an anonymous brick building facing the interstate, and had to throw clothes in the washer. My husband had to take FMLA. A teacher, he missed the end of the school year, including graduation.
FMLA doesn’t pay. It doesn’t obligate your employer to pay you, either. We lost two weeks of salary and had to shell out for my care. Vacation got canceled—you don’t go to the mountains, even on the cheap, when you’re facing the loss of a paycheck and hefty medical bills. That’s not an anomaly. Despite the Affordable Care Act forcing insurers to pick up the tab for mental health care, doctors who take insurance are booked for months. We had to bypass that years ago. I have an amazing, brilliant, and kind psychiatrist. Her visits cost upwards of $200 a session. She does not take insurance, though you can file for out-of-network coverage.
My doctor knows my number one goal is to be, more than functional, a stellar parent. We approach every session, every med change, with that in mind. I try to be a remarkable mother. I home-school my oldest son. I am teaching my middle son his letters. I wrap the youngest on my back when he’s sad. Last week, we went on a home-school field trip in ecology, where my sons held an alligator; we had multiple playdates, did Catholic home-school co-op, and baked dinosaur cupcakes. This is in addition to our normal round of school, which sees my oldest reading aloud, both older children doing math, taking care of carnivorous plants, and doing some other science or social studies activity. They have ample free time to play, regularly go on night walks to catch toads, spend some time snaring tadpoles, and generally get muddy.
I just attempted to prove my fitness as a parent. You have to do that when you have a mental illness. You have to prove you’re worthy, an amazing parent. A stellar parent. The type of parent who bakes dinosaur cupcakes. The mentally ill, of any ilk, are perceived as being unfit to care for children. They lump us all together, from mild depressive to low-functioning schizophrenic. I wasn’t fit to parent when I went to the hospital; I was crying for approximately 18 hours a day. My husband was taking care of the kids. And that’s why I went into the hospital. Being a fit parent was my treatment goal.
I had some therapy. I learned some coping skills. Mostly, they adjusted my medication. My psychiatrist was weaning me off a particular antipsychotic she prescribed off-label for depression; they needed to wean me more slowly. That’s it. There were no long, white hallways, no locked doors or Nurse Ratcheds. My fellow patients were a cross-section of people, mostly the same as me. They wanted to get back to their kids and their jobs. Most of them had treatment-resistant depression, like me, or something similar. There was a terrible stigma, for all of us, attached to the hospital. Paradoxically, there was also a terrible stigma attached to our mental illnesses. We could suffer in silence, or we could take the logical step to treat our diseases. The logical step is the one fraught with shame. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
These days, I’m fine. I take a pharmacopeia of medication to stay that way, but I take fewer little pills than most heart patients. My pills just affect serotonin reuptake rather than blood cell clotting. I take care of my kids; I write. My husband has no compunction about leaving the children with me. If sometimes I get afraid my car will crash, or an asteroid will hit, well, that’s normal breakthrough anxiety. The hospital made sure of that and so does my psychiatrist. And for that, I am not ashamed.