My mom has this super neato habit of sharing really important information with me very casually and way later than I need it. She’s dropped a dozen or so of these little depth charges over the 8 years since my dad died, and my reaction is almost always: WHY WOULD YOU NOT HAVE TOLD ME THIS BEFORE?? REALLY??? Because, so much of the time, what she tells me does affect my life in one way or another. Like when she told me she had postpartum depression after my sister was born and again after I was born. This is important information to me for 2 reasons. Firstly, even though she’s got a family of nesting squirrels residing in the part of her brain that processes empathy, it would’ve been helpful to know that my psychiatric issues are not unique to me amongst my family members (so, y’know, I’d feel less like a freak resorting to slathering a Thanksgiving Smile™ on my face at every goddamned family function so I wouldn’t make anyone uncomfortable), and secondly, the children of mothers who suffered postpartum depression are at an increased risk of emotional and developmental issues – info that, if shared, would’a come in really handy while I was growing up and displaying behavior that baffled and frustrated my parents.
Which brings me to my main point…
My parents tried to find a kiddie shrink for me when I was like 5 or something. My dad sensed that there was something not quite right about me. I hit certain milestones (walking, talking and reading) earlier than a lot of kids, but I had fears, anxieties and an aversion to change that I clung to later than most children tend to. I also had serious issues with tantrums, mood swings and shyness. My dad had some of the same problems as a kid, but he grew up very poor, very neglected, and a very long time ago, so psychiatry wasn’t an option for a number of reasons. I think he was worried I’d suffer as much as he did and he wanted better for me (this is purely speculative because, as I stated previously, nobody told me shit). So my dad got in contact with a very well respected child psychiatrist though a colleague of his and he and my mom went to check this dude out. When they met him, the realized immediately that, no matter how good a doctor he was, I would not have talked to him due to the fact that he was a large, tall man with a beard. At that age, I was afraid of all men who weren’t my dad or grandpa. I was also afraid of very large adults and I didn’t know anyone who had a beard, so this doctor would have seemed frightening and imposingly alien to me. Nothing would’ve been accomplished in my meeting him, except maybe a lot of crying.
So my parents decided to find someone else. A nice, dulcet-voiced woman, perhaps, with an office full of teddy bears and baby dolls. Then they just didn’t. So I got no help. I felt weird throughout my entire childhood, endured many trials by fire, and didn’t seek psychiatric help for myself until the catalyst of my dad’s sudden death when I was 19.
So I get to wondering sometimes: what if they’d found me a doctor? The offshoots of this line of thinking have gotten divided into a rough dichotomy of outcomes. On the one hand, if I had gotten help when I was 5, I might’ve gotten a proper bipolar diagnosis at an earlier age and might, at this point in my life, have that shit more under control. I might not have developed a pattern of being so goddamned mean to myself after committing a (real or imagined) social faux pas. I might have been a better student, I might’ve learned better coping skills, I might’ve developed actual self confidence before the age of 23. A lot of good things could have happened and a lot of bad things could have been avoided. Theoretically.
On the other hand, there are a lot of things that I had to teach myself without any help and I might be better for it. I was so self-conscious about sitting alone in the cafeteria that, during my freshman year of college, I’d just skip dinner if my roommate had work or something. Whereas, Today Laura would plop down at any interesting looking table and ask to join the conversation, because Today Laura thinks strangers are great. It took a lot of work (and probably some Klonopin) to get me here, but, ultimately, I had to convince myself that I wasn’t going to starve anymore just in order to avoid the imagined whisperings of my peers who actually didn’t give a shit about what or where I was eating. Just an example. There are more. But my point is, a lot of the components that make up my ever advancing wellness are things I had to earn by myself – often uncomfortably. Yes, kids, I am a superhero.
But maybe one of the the essential questions at the root of this is: how do I feel about myself today? I can’t go back in time, I can’t redo my childhood, I can’t imagine a scenario where I could’ve asked for what I needed when I needed it so many years ago. That’s probably fine. Let’s just say I built some character, right? But it gets trickier when I have to think about my bipolar. I started seeing my current doc 8 years ago, but she didn’t diagnose me with bipolar until about year 3 – not because she’s a bad doctor, ’cause she’s not, but probably because type II bipolar is notoriously misdiagnosed as depression all the damn time. What I went through regarding my diagnosis is, by no means, unusual. Maybe if I’d had some professional help at a young age, I’d have gotten a grip on my illness before it had the chance to do some of the damage that it’s done (although, to be honest, some of that damage came in the form of more than a few fun as fuck benders that I would not repeat today, but which I remember with some fondness).
But how do I feel about myself today? I mean, today today isn’t the best time to ask ’cause I’m still pretty depressed, so my answer would be, um, glib…ish. And, anyway, at some point, this is sort of a fruitless topic on which to waste my energy ’cause I can only work with what I have, not with what I wish I had. And in a broader sense, I mean, most people probably have plenty of shit in their lives they’d like to have done differently, so how unhealthy are my regrets anyway? Maybe not very.
I guess something else to consider is the possibility that seeing a psychiatrist at age 5 (and potentially being medicated sometime thereafter) might’ve stamped me indelibly as crazy, especially if my peers found out. We had a kid in my grade school who saw a psychiatrist. His very name was a punchline. He was a weirdo and even the nicer than average kids I was lucky enough to go to school with from K-8 let him know he was a weirdo on a regular basis. Kids aren’t nice, even the nice ones. But Weird Kid from grade school also had unusual/nerdy interests (like science and owning multiple cats) and also had some motor tics and the occasional emotional meltdown in public. Not trying to be a dick, but find me a class of 6th graders who will be unflinchingly kind and accepting of such a kid and I will abandon my vow to remain childless for life and ADOPT ALL OF THEM. Granted, my problems were a little different than his. Weird Kid didn’t have a very good sense of how to operate within social norms. My sense of cool vs. uncool was sharpened to a fine point, so I knew when I wasn’t meeting the criteria and I did my darndest to hide that shit. That was probably the source of a lot of my anxiety. I knew I wasn’t cool. I don’t think Weird Kid understood it.
Regarding the above paragraph: Fuck mental health stigma. Super hard. Weird Kid, I’m sorry if I was ever shitty to you. I probably was. But maybe my parents were worried about the same thing and didn’t want their daughter to get branded. Not a good excuse to deny a child medical help by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m still thinking a lot of this through.
I guess the logical targets of my focus at this point should be a) appreciating the help I did end up getting and b) doing something with it. Like I said, gotta work with what I have. Like an emotionally myopic mother, a dead dad, and a childhood/adolescence studded with both regret and awesomeness. Also, like, this isn’t my first rodeo. I’m not as dysfunctional as I was 8 years ago. Better late than never, right?
Yeah. Better late than never.
Tagged: bipolar disorder, childhood, dad, depression, diagnosis, mommy issues, parenting, postpartum depression, psychiatry, self-esteem, therapy