Despite being someone who knowingly suffers from bouts of depression and (often constant) anxiety, I’m not notorious for reaching out for support when I am in the pits of despair. Conversely, I often go deeply inward, seeking refuge in my imagination or simply spend all my time summoning the strength and energy needed to constantly battle the lies my anxiety throws at me.
During these times, I’m so drained by maintaining a healthy-enough level of functioning that I don’t have much left over for anything else. Socializing, working out, reading, forget it. Once I get the kiddo in bed, I collapse on the couch in a heap of feelings, a husk of exhaustion. It is not coping, it is simply existing without incident.
I used to know how to take great care of myself in these times before I became a mom. I would write long, meandering, angsty journal entries, have hours-long conversations with girlfriends, take delicious, long baths, go on long runs. The operative word in each of those examples was “long”.
Everything I do for myself now is rushed. I have to hurry in my shower to get to my kiddo in the morning. I have to hurry at my workout because I only have childcare for a short amount of time. I have to call my girlfriends while driving to or from a playdate while my kiddo is distracted with a book in the backseat. When you are always rushing, there is no time for languid and glorious coping.
Because this is not going to shift any time soon, my coping skills have to change.
When I’m going through a particularly depressive or difficult time now, my tendency is still to retreat. To deeply and unequivocally withdraw to save anyone who may care from the burden of taking care of me, to protect my ooey-gooey vulnerability from getting further abused through simple exposure, to protect the notion that I have it together. However, I simply don’t have the time to wait around to feel better. I have to reach out, even though I feel deer-legged and unsure whenever I try.
But try I do. At least, recently. Because no matter what, I have to take care of my kid and I can’t do a good job of that if I’m unwell. I also want to be a good example, to demonstrate healthy and effective coping in times of mental unrest. Mental illness doesn’t have to define you or your days. But you need effective coping and a solid support network to aid in this effort with any efficacy.
Reaching out for support does not come naturally. It does not come easily. There is such pressure on women in general, and moms in particular, to hold it together, nurture and take care of others beyond the limits of healthy capacity, no matter what. Not to mention the stigma around mental health issues. Makes me wonder how many other moms are suffering in silence due to our internalized standards of perfection and subsequent shame at that inevitable failure? Asking the questions:
If I am struggling with depression or anxiety, does that make me a bad mom? A weak woman? Is it something to be ashamed of?
The answer to all of these is OF COURSE NOT. But try telling my depression that. Try explaining my inherent worth to the shouting caw of “mom guilt”.
Well, I am trying to do just that. In an effort to push back against all of this, I am making a concerted effort to change my habits. Change my coping. I am working on reaching out for support in different ways.
I feel uncomfortable and naked and queasy most of the time as I make a phone call, send a text or have a conversation that suggests I am not, in fact, perfect. That I am suffering. That despite my privileged and beautiful life, I am not always happy. These are my safest and closest people, mind you, who know me better than anyone, and I still have this initial adverse reaction to putting myself out there to them. But I am doing it. Over and over again.
And it’s actually going kind of great. I have noticed that in recent weeks, I am happier in longer stretches. My mood swings, and bouts of depression are decreasing in both frequency and length. That when I reach out, as much as it makes me cringe, I feel better almost immediately. I lob the feelings out there to someone who loves me and only wants me to be good and healthy, to see what sticks on the wall. No matter what, the results have ended up in them either validating, shouldering, supporting, or eradicating these unhelpful, tempestuous thoughts and moods. They do not, in fact, find me to be weak and gross, but are happy to be there for me.
No one can change the issues that lead to these feelings but me. However, by giving my people a chance to hold me up despite them, to support me because of them and provide me with comfort, the intensity of the emotion, the conductive energy around my anxiety, lessens.
I have had evidence of this for years, and yet it seems a lesson I’m destined to relearn over and over because I seem to inevitably fall back into destructive thinking habits. But what I am doing differently, is changing these habits slowly.
Change is terrifying and empowering. But I am starting to feel the positive effects. My depression is uncomfortable with all this change because it’s unable to take root in the same way. My anxiety is frustrated, trying to get at me from different angles. I’m standing up and saying I am valuable and worthy of better mental health, even though making these changes is a slow and uncomfortable process.
Ultimately, it has taken fortitude I have cultivated in my tenure as a mother to make this progress. Strength that I have forged in the fires of scary illnesses and limit-setting. Endurance I have developed through toddler tantrums and long nights of sleep-deprivation. I am getting better at taking care of myself not in spite of being a mom, but because I’m a mom.
I may never tackle my anxiety altogether, and I will likely cycle through these difficulties again and again. The path to mental health is gnarled and fraught. But by reaching out and holding tight to my supports around me, I am in fact detangling the very knots that threaten to trip me up on my way there.