Motherhood and Madness

The month of May, particularly this weekend, is a time to reflect on the love and sacrifice of mothers, and it is also Mental Health Awareness month. I have seen many posts regarding each matter in the past week, but I am going to combine the two, because they are so intertwined in my life that I can hardly regard one without the other.

Motherhood, what a blessing. And mental illness, what a prison. And yet, some days, I mistake motherhood for the prison. I love my children, to a debilitating degree. No one could have ever prepared me for what being a mother does to your heart. I was twenty when I had my first child. I can’t lie and say it was a perfectly beautiful experience, because I suffered severe postpartum depression for several months. I wondered how I could love this child so much and yet feel so detached, and the guilt over that less-than-charming emotion made me feel like a horrible mother. I tried to hide these darker thoughts, but the times I had to leave my daughter screaming in her crib while I went outside to do some screaming of my own, along with the times I would hand her over to my husband the moment he came home from work are telltale signs that I wasn’t handling this new arrangement very well.

Thank God for antidepressants, and for my OB/GYN who recognized what was really going on with me despite my reluctance to talk about it. Things got better. I started enjoying motherhood. We decided to have another baby.

I was the happiest person ever with my second pregnancy. People had to tell me to stop doing so much. I didn’t listen, which probably contributed to how close I came to delivering prematurely. Two months of strict bed rest and medication helped keep her put until a safer date, and after a couple of days in the NICU we got to take home our second daughter. It was truly love at first sight and I couldn’t help thinking, YES, this is what becoming a mom is SUPPOSED to feel like! I loved both of my daughters so much, and I wanted to protect them from every bit of harm in this world. And at that time I felt well equipped to do so. I had a strong faith in God and I had a wonderful husband. What could go wrong?

But a lot went wrong. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I started really cracking under the pressure. There are things I remember happening as young as four years old – the voices, the Shadow Men, the obsessions and compulsions – and I began experiencing bouts of depression off and on around age eleven. But, at age 26, my mental health began unravelling in more dramatic ways and I had no idea what to do about it except to pray harder and hide as much of the problems as I could. I was a mother. I was a pastor’s wife. I was a devout Christian. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to “good” people. Where had I went wrong, and why was the devil attacking me like this? I was so confused, and so afraid to admit to anyone what was happening to me. I tried to keep it all together -for my daughters, for my husband, for the church. But I was about to break, and it would change all of our lives forever. 

I spent the next year in and out of mental hospitals. Medication after medication after medication was tried; some worked, some made things worse. I was out of touch with reality. I was irrational. I began drinking heavily as a way to cope, even though I had barely even tasted a wine cooler before all of this started. I also began to smoke because someone at the hospital had told me it helped his nerves. I didn’t care about my physical health at that time. I just wanted to FEEL better. There are many parts of that time in my life I don’t even remember. The part I wish I could forget is that I lost my family, and it was my fault. I have never blamed anyone else for what happened. I have always blamed myself for it, and I always will. I will always live with the consequences, and it produces more grief than anyone can possibly know. 

I distanced myself from the God I had trusted in my whole life. I felt so betrayed, and I also felt so much guilt. I felt like I must have done something wrong for my mind to become so botched. Furthermore, I had no way to trust my own thoughts, so how could I trust, or even believe in, someone I could not see? I was angry and I was hurt. More than anything, I missed my daughters. I wanted things to go back to the way they were. But it just doesn’t work that way. 

My anger and dismissal of God increased as I lost my dad to cancer. I felt like I should be the one dying, not him. I was the one who deserved it. Seeing the man I had looked up to my whole life, the strongest person I knew, lying so fragile on that hospital bed is the most inhumane thing I have ever seen. It didn’t seem fair. Meanwhile, I was trapped in an abusive marriage and I could feel myself about to break again. Thankfully, I left that bad relationship (thanks to the help of a good friend and my mom), and I also quit my job three days later. It was the only way I could keep myself from having to go back to the hospital. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but I had to trust that it would be better somehow.

And it was. Douglas and I began dating five years ago and we have a precious little boy. I didn’t think I would ever have anymore children. I didn’t think it was wise, given my mental health history. But it happened and I don’t regret it. I do wish I was 100% mentally stable 100% of the time, but I don’t even think “normal” mothers can claim to be that. Motherhood is a blessing, but it is difficult. I think it’s doubly hard in my case because I have to ask myself every day, “am I stable? Am I thinking clearly? Is what I am seeing/hearing real, or is it just in my mind?” I am unable to drive or work due to the severe panic attacks I experience, along with the other problems, and yet I am in charge of a toddler each day. Go figure. I see my girls as much as I am allowed to. I do the best I can with what I have, where I am, every day. Some days are really, really bad. And some, almost normal. It’s a balancing act, this motherhood thing, this mental illness thing. Both are unpredictable. And both will have their hold on me for as long as I live. I love my children more than anything in this world. I have come back to terms with God. Imaginary or not, I need Him. Maybe He needs me as well. After all, parents need their children as much as children need their parents. 

Happy Mother’s Day to each and every one of you. I didn’t share this for pity or attention, and I tried not to go into a lot of detail about things that involved other people other than myself. I just feel like what I went through may help someone else who is silently struggling. As mothers, we tend to our children’s needs and often neglect our own. I am here to tell you that it will backfire on you if you do it for too long. I am still guilty of not asking for help when I desperately need it. I promise to work on that, and I hope you will too. Enjoy your weekend, and even if no one else tells you, please know that you are doing an awesome job. You are far more important to the people you take care of than you will ever know.

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