Depression, Anxiety and Chronic Mom Guilt: How I Learned my Bipolar Diagnosis
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I survived a severe major depressive episode about a year ago. At the time I did not think that I was going to. My body felt paralyzed, like I was drowning in a dark, horrifying hole. I was filled with guilt, because I COULD NOT get up, work, or look after my then almost three year old daughter. Seeing her anxious face every now and then through the haze of sleep and hearing her little voice call for me, broke my heart. All I wanted to do was feel better, but my body felt like there were a thousand ants crawling under my skin and inside my bones. I later learned that this experience of feeling like something is crawling beneath the skin is a symptom of anxiety, my body was aching while something crawled beneath my skin. The struggle became between thinking of any way that I could escape or end this horrific feeling and finding any way that I could survive it.
I have been on antidepressants for more than fifteen years and I have seen many psychologists, counselors, a psychiatrist, and a life coach. I was diagnosed by a general practitioner in my early twenties with a mild form of depression. I continuously struggled with stomach ulcers, so I was prescribed medication to make me feel more relaxed. Over the years, the types of antidepressants differed, but they were always prescribed by a general practitioner.
For a very long time, I was aware that what I was feeling was not a mild form of depression, but something more severe, however, I always brushed it off. I mostly lived in fear. In 2016, I was in a deep depressive state after unexpected surgery, and it took a lot of courage to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. It was a very uncomfortable session which ended with him asking me what I wanted from him. I felt embarrassed after the appointment and was discouraged to receive additional support.
My community didn’t know I was struggling because I was mainly seen as an extrovert who flourished while socializing. On the inside, I was exhausted from the roller-coaster of feelings before and after any social event. I appeared happy on the outside, while a storm was raging inside me. One moment I felt like I was on top of the world, and then again, exhausted, doubtful, with no desire to do anything. Getting ready to go out, or do anything became more and more of a struggle, however, when I actually did go out, I felt really good, chatting non-stop. But the next morning I would wake up, with a numb feeling and a racing heartbeat, not able to get out of bed.
I become nauseous whenever I hear people say that they have no regrets! I regret so many things in my life up to now. I am still learning to make peace with the fact that I have been suffering from anxiety since my early childhood years, and then depression that followed as I grew older. My mental state influenced every single thing that I did or decided. At the time, I believed that I was a coward and a people-pleaser, without the ability to stand up for myself, or voice my opinion. My body was almost always in a fight or flight state. The long-term, negative effect that too much cortisol has on all body functions and other stress hormones can cause problems with memory and focus. I didn’t think the overwhelm and stress of new motherhood would eventually lead me to what came next.
I was severely sleep deprived, as my daughter’s sleep schedule had been disrupted since infancy due to colic. My daughter was also diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder, which means that she has trouble processing sensory information. She is sensory avoidant and is easily overwhelmed by outside stimuli, making simple things like sleep a great challenge.
Initially, I enjoyed breastfeeding and it was a special time to bond with my baby. I love her more than words can tell, but breastfeeding became a nightmare when I recognized my desired timeline for weaning her off my breast felt impossible. Breastfeeding was the only way that I was able to calm her down, even though it drove me crazy. Every night, I would sit with her on my breast, too afraid that if I moved, I would wake her. The lack of control of my emotions became more evident the less I was able to sleep. I felt obligated to pull myself together again, as I was the only one that could truly comfort her. My husband would try to take her, and sometimes he was able to, but mostly, she only calmed down when she was breastfeeding again. There were nights where I lost my temper and broke down, screaming at her to just leave me alone! I will never forgive myself for the way I reacted. Every time I raised my voice, the expression on her face haunted me. But I had little to no control over my emotions.
My baby was eighteen months old when we had no other choice as to take her to daycare, however she never adjusted and we eventually decided that daycare was causing more harm than good. She cried every morning when we dropped her off and started to have meltdowns the moment we picked her up in the afternoon. It had a huge impact on her immune system, and she was constantly sick. We both had Covid as well, and the extremely strict lockdown in South Africa and people close to my heart who have died due to the virus had a huge impact on my mental health.
There were many factors that contributed to a routine that drained us emotionally and physically. Every night was more or less the same, I had NO break. I cannot even remember the number of times we would sleep a little, and then wake up with our child having a high fever causing more distress for my husband and myself.
Besides the issues with sleep, I also needed to be fully focused at work. My position is very prominent, thus I needed to be on top of everything, often doing more than one person’s job. Employees at my work are also micro-managed, so for instance, one was not allowed to send emails without being checked and approved by management, which contributed to a very stressful and toxic environment. I always felt anxious at work, fueled by fear that I would do something wrong or get into trouble, even though there was no real ground for those fears. I, however, was often late for work, because I could not bear the fact that my daughter cried hysterically when I needed to leave.
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Never in my wildest dreams did I expect that I would ever be admitted to a psychiatric hospital due to the chronic stress and my presenting mental health issues, which were exacerbated by the lack of sleep. One morning I could no longer get up from bed.
I waited for over two weeks before a bed became available at one of the psychiatric hospitals in my area. When I was finally admitted, I wanted to vanish from the earth. When I was shown to my bed, it was in a room with an open plan room and four beds, without any shelter between the beds, as well as a shared bathroom. It felt like prison. All I could think was that I would get medicine, and get out of there! It was humiliating to share a bedroom with three other strange women while feeling ashamed, vulnerable and powerless.
After I consulted with the psychiatrist, I was prescribed proper psychiatric medication and I was officially diagnosed with severe major depressive disorder and severe anxiety for the first time. I started to feel better after a few days on the new medication and I begged my doctor to release me so that I could go home to my daughter. After six days, which felt like weeks, I was “free” to go home and I was hopeful for change.
The moment I arrived at home, my daughter started screaming, hitting and biting, which she had never done before. The feeling of despair was overwhelming, as she was seriously traumatized after my mental breakdown and sudden disappearance to the hospital, and this was her way to deal with things that she did not understand, but had a huge influence on her life. This behaviour was not exactly helping my very fragile mental health state at the time.
Unfortunately, just as sudden as I felt better, I started to feel “off” again, anxious, depressed and on edge. I saw my doctor often, emailing her and asking her to prescribe me something else every now and then, because I did not feel content for more than two or three continuous weeks. The list of medications were endless, and one of the pills specifically designed for major depression made me gain weight, which added to my feeling of despair.
I only had a few family members, friends, and colleagues who were supportive. The majority of people asked insensitive questions, gave unwanted advice and opinions, and made uninformed and hurtful comments. The most upsetting comments came from people who dismissed my illness, and made me feel ashamed for being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. I fought with people in my head constantly. I would tell them exactly how wrong they were and what I think about their unjustified judgment. I never actually vocalized my thoughts and the patterns of anger did not help my path to healing.
About six months after I was admitted to hospital, I finally managed to get an appointment with another psychiatrist who has continued to treat me. From the moment I walked into her office, she had a totally different approach than I experienced previously. She asked me detailed questions, which she often repeated. She raised her eyebrows when she saw the list of medications that I was prescribed without experiencing major improvement. She also expressed concern for my continued fluctuating moods.
The doctor mentioned the possibility of bipolar disorder but she was hesitant to diagnose me as I did not fit the textbook category of bipolar I or bipolar II. She prescribed me a mood stabilizer, together with new and different antidepressants and an anxiety medication. For the first time, I really started to feel more like “myself” again, but the feeling eventually started to wear off after about two months. My medication is now often adjusted to higher dosages while being strictly monitored, and my mood is slowly starting to settle for longer periods of time.
The doctor eventually formally diagnosed me with “unspecified bipolar.” Unspecified bipolar with mixed features is a roller coaster of emotions tied in with anxiety, relief, depression and elevation. Things were finally beginning to make more sense to me.
Thus, after more or less twenty years, I was eventually and officially diagnosed with severe major depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and I am still on the scale of being diagnosed with ADHD. It has been a massive relief to know that there is a name for every feeling that consumed and at times destroyed me throughout my life. The correct diagnoses resulted in finding the correct medication and the correct dosages that have since changed my life. It feels like I am ending the process of grief, and slowly growing towards a point where I can start living. I know that there will be bumps ahead, but I also know that there are options to help me cope. My coping mechanisms before were only partial, as I did not know my correct diagnoses.
I have since resigned from my job and am trying to make peace that I have an illness and no reason to be ashamed of it. I cannot control the fact that my brain got sick because of years of trauma and anxiety and that the human body can only take so much of it before something breaks.
I have hope, and I am thankful that I am alive and that I have survived, and even though I do not always feel okay, in the end, I will always be okay because none of this is my fault.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman