Anxiety, Depression, and Motherhood Mental Health
by Stephanie Portell
As I lie in bed, my thoughts spiral and my body turns, trying to find a better position; my mind trying to find a better location to settle. I attempt to find a voice that isn’t screaming at me.
“You’re a horrible mother.
You’re a horrible writer.
You’re a horrible person because you were rude to that insurance representative on the phone today, and you can’t cross a single item off from your to-do list at work. Each time a new item is added, your anxiety grows.”
Why can’t I ever finish anything I start? As I fight sleep, or as sleep fights me, I attempt to find a different voice. A voice that isn’t shrieking to let itself out and tell the world how bad of a job I’ve been doing; especially at motherhood. Especially at dealing with the anxiety that has been kicking my ass lately. I have not been playing with my kids enough, I tell them I have a stomach ache every time they ask me to play outside. All I can do is lie on the couch.
I don’t want to face the fact that this is what I am today, what I’ve been several times before, and what I know I will be again. Even after this episode of anxiety and depression goes away, I know it will come back. I’ve been too tired to do bath time as often as I should because I am covering for someone at work right now, working overtime, and writing on the side. Sometimes, like right now, I just don’t feel like being a mother or a daughter or a partner or an employee or a friend. I feel like hiding in a hole and staying there until these feelings pass. But I know it isn’t as simple as that.
These feelings started when I was in my late teens. I began to notice that I was different. Often, I became sad without reason. I was terrified to do thrilling things like ride in a fast car or be alone with my boyfriend. As I got older and moved out, my anxiety ballooned. Everyday things—like keeping a simple budget to pay rent—made me anxious so I said to hell with it, and had to ask my parents for money more than once. Once I became a mother, I thought it would get better; the sadness would lift, the lack of motivation would no longer exist. But it never got better. When my first child was a baby, he would throw up (a simple case of reflux) but I would spend hours researching on the internet different reasons why this may occur and different things that could be wrong with him. When he got older, I could barely leave him with a sitter to go to Target by myself without my anxiety taking over. Obsessive thoughts controlled me. I went to the doctor on several occasions: antidepressants, diet change, exercise, change of sleep schedule and talk therapy were all parts of my journey. Sometimes some of these suggestions worked and sometimes they didn’t; I never knew which it would be.
When these interventions would fail, I would revert back to my old ways. I returned to the negativity I promised myself I would forfeit for the sake of my two kids, and for my own sake. When the antidepressants made me a feel like a zombie, I stopped taking them. When the therapist told me that, if I just focused on being the kind of mother she knew I could be, I felt worse.
I’m a shitty mom, a horrible cook, I hate to clean, I hate to organize, I don’t like to play Pokémon, I’m not a strong writer, I’m not good enough at my job, not good enough at my life. I repeat these things to myself, I can’t share them with friends and family. It’s like a virus I cannot shake. I want to get it off of me, to kick this fog away and get up, but I don’t know how. When you are a mother you have to find a way, and this isn’t the first time I’ve had to find a way to drag myself out from the darkness for my children even when I’m convinced I just can’t this time. I can for them. So I do the only thing I know how to do, the only other option besides staying in bed and waiting for sleep to come. I get up. I write in my journal because my thoughts always come out more clearly through my pen to the paper than they do racing in my head. I read. I read about mother’s before me who thought they couldn’t do it, but did. I call my own mother, the only person in whom I can confide. She’s the only person who I feel accepts me for the real me, the me that lays in bed with horrible thoughts in my head. She tells me I don’t have a choice but to get up, to get better, because I have two little boys counting on me, and no matter how horrible I think I am, I am everything to them and they need me.
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I know my thoughts are irrational, I have seen horrible parenting first-hand, and I have experienced what it’s like to have screaming and yelling, and uncertainty all around you. I experienced it with my own parents enough so I know what that chaos feels like. On my good days, I know I am capable but I can’t see this on my worst days. On my worst days, I am filled with self-loathing that beats me down. I feel it all over me, I feel it when I am tucking my kids into bed and all I want to do is hurry so I can go to bed and feel the release that sleep provides. I feel it when I can’t write because I have been so depressed that I have blocked any thoughtful ideas that typically fill my mind.
In motherhood, in writing, in my career in healthcare, I feel like I am expected to be my best at all times, to give my best. Society makes us feel like we are failures if we can’t juggle motherhood, careers, our kids’ social lives, our husbands’ social lives, our own social lives perfectly. So when I fail, it makes me a failure. Just when I think I’m doing a pretty good job, suddenly I’m at work and I receive a call and am told my son has a double ear infection again, and then I’m down the hall at work away from my desk, when I’m already busy as hell, calling every ENT available so I can to get him in as fast as I can. It’s my fault; I have been putting it off for a year. A year. What kind of mother does that?
As soon as I feel like I am doing well in my writing career, my deepest passion, it seems as though acceptances stop coming and I begin to receive rejections. The feelings that I am not good enough begin to arise. I start telling myself to quit acting like I am better than I really am.
I remind myself, I may not have a book published, but I have several articles published and I’m working on an idea for a book. I need to recognize my accomplishments and have pride. I do not have an advanced medical degree, but I work in the medical field, speaking with physicians every day to clear patients for serious surgery that they desperately need. I may not have a Ph.D. in child psychology, but I don’t think my kids are too fucked up, and as long as I can pull myself out of this pit of anxiety I’m feeling tonight which, somehow, some way, I always do sometimes by myself and sometimes, with help, I can do all these things.
I can only enter a battle with myself to be better than I was yesterday, rather than battle with myself that I can’t be better, can’t even be good enough. For my kids, for my passion of writing, for my career. If I can fight that fight, then I have done enough.
I have the choice to flee from my life and my kids and my passions, and just give up. I could stop trying and let the bad days trample all over the good ones. I could dissociate from my feelings of guilt on the days I am not the kind of mother my kids deserve. I can’t be perfect right away. But I also have the choice to work at it every day. Each day, I can spend some time writing down what makes me happy and what I can do to work towards greater happiness. My journal is always a good place to start if I can make myself write. When I’m suffering from depression or anxiety it’s a challenge to get out of be, let alone focus on writing out my feelings. But, when I do, it never fails; writing my thoughts down stops them from racing and helps with my anxiety.
I’m ready to fight the fight and, in order to win this fight, I have to believe in myself—that I am good, I love my kids with all my heart—my kids love me despite my imperfections. I love to stand outside in the morning in the quiet and look out at my world. I may not be be a supermodel but I have known how it feels to feel beautiful to someone else. I may not treat myself the way I should at all times, but I always treat others well, I always think of others people’s feelings. And this very fact that I care for others proves to me that I am a good mom. I have goals, I have aspirations, I have dreams, and of course, I also have doubts. Sometimes they trick me into thinking that I am worthless. But as long as I continue to get up after I fall, I know this isn’t true.
Is anyone ever truly happy or content? Am I the only one who lays in bed at night agonizing about the kind of parent I am, and about the feelings I do not speak aloud? I don’t want to just barely live. I don’t want to clock in and clock out and go home and make dinner and break up fights between my kids and avoid fighting with my partner. I know I am not the only one, I am not alone in these feelings. I’m going to start taking more deep breaths when I feel like snapping and give my kids my undivided attention even if only for twenty minutes. I am going to write more because it’s what I love, and it makes me feel alive. When I’m lying in bed at night, I don’t want to wait for sleep to come and wipe out my thoughts, I want to be a person I am proud to recognize. I want to find myself in bed at night knowing that, just because I have horrible days, I am still capable of pulling myself out of the depression and anxiety to be there for those that love and need me most.