The other day, I had two thoughts in a row. (I know, can you believe it?)
1. Oh my god, today was the best day ever! It was warm and breezy, and I got a green tea lemonade and went down to the beach with a book and saw a tiny wiener dog puppy! COULD MY LIFE POSSIBLY GET ANY BETTER?
2. Boy, I’d like to meet the guy who invented Lexapro and shake his hand.
I thought of that again this morning when I read Bluemilk’s post on how parents never imagine it will be nappy struggles that drive them to the brink; when they assessed their theoretical parenting abilities prior to having children, she says, they didn’t envision themselves wrestling with a squrimy, screaming toddler on a change table, and ending up feeling absolutely defeated, absolutely broken.
But the thing is, I do envision that. I envision myself being filled with barely controllable rage when a two-year-old behaves like a two-year-old. I envision myself sliding down a wall and weeping on the floor for an hour because I cannot get her to keep her socks on. I envision these things because, as someone who suffers from depression, I have been driven to the brink by much, much less than a diapering battle.
Heather Armstrong of Dooce, who has written so awesomely about both clinical depression and shit like nappy struggles, describes depression as “the complete inability to cope with stress.” (Parenthetically, all good thoughts to her now as she deals with the second carcinoma in a year. Goddamn.) That line rang a whole lot of bells for me. The number one reason I’m afraid to have kids is that I know I can be felled emotionally by the tiniest fucking thing — the kind of tiny fucking thing that, as far as I can tell, parenting is one long series of. And with a kid, the stakes are a hell of a lot higher than when you were only responsible for your own emotional well-being.
I just read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, a fascinating (and very witty) book about why our predictions of future happiness are frequently so far off the mark. The book is stuffed with amusing and surprising tidbits about the human brain, including this one: the average person is way too optimistic, relative to the facts at hand. Meanwhile, the average depressed person has a pretty realistic view of how well things are likely to turn out, not an overly pessimistic one.
Of course, I would much rather be a mildly deluded happy person than a realistic depressed one, and that’s where Lexapro comes in. When I realized the other day that I was happy, truly happy, and that the cause of it really could be boiled down to warm weather + beach + green tea lemonade + wiener dog puppy, it felt like a goddamned miracle. Because I have so much experience with being gutted and paralyzed by tiny little things — almost none with being uplifted by them.
I’ve been on Lexapro for less than a year; before that, my only experience with antidepressants was an 8-week stint on Zyban to quit smoking. For years, I resisted the idea of medicating myself, insisting that it was not a chemical imbalance in my brain — it was just that I’m a really reactive, really emotional person! When things go well, I get undepressed again!
It never quite dawned on me that maybe I was a really reactive, really emotional person because of a friggin’ chemical imbalance in my brain. Or that being undepressed was not the same as being happy, not by a long shot. And the real problem was, like so many people, I was afraid that meds would take away the things that made me me — my weirdness and creativity and emotional sensitivity. I pictured myself dulled, and I definitely didn’t want happiness badly enough to be dull.
Then it got so bad I was willing to surrender the things that made me me, as long as it meant I could stop crying, stop raging at the slightest inconvenience, stop pushing Al away when he tried to love me, stop lying in bed until the afternoon, stop my heart racing every time the phone rang… I found a psychiatrist, and he prescribed Lexapro. I was lucky enough that the first drug I tried worked like a charm, with no serious side effects. (I have gained weight, but on the plus side, the Lexapro also makes body acceptance a hell of a lot easier for me, since I’m much less likely to stand in front of the mirror and burst into tears these days.) About six weeks later, I started to see the changes. I could spring out of bed with the alarm. I could see an off-leash dog on the street and not want to scream at its owner for 15 minutes. I could drop a plate and laugh it off. I could hear a loud, startling noise and not start to shake and cry. I could — to some extent, anyway — cope with stress.
And I was still me. I was just a me who could fucking function. Eventually, a me who could sincerely feel joy as a result of things like warm days by the lake and the existence of wiener dog puppies — as opposed to just a spotty, temporary respite from despair. Not to mention, a me who could suddenly get it together to take my writing seriously and become about a hundred times more productive. Turns out I like this me. I like her a lot.
But here’s the rub: Lexapro and I are still in the honeymoon stage. I know tons of people who have been taking antidepressants for years, and it seems that inevitably, your brain figures out you’re tricking it into being happy, and it fights back — much like the body will eventually adjust its metabolism to keep you at the weight it wants to be, regardless of how little you feed it. Eventually, the drug stops working the way it did at first, and you need more of it, or you need a different drug, and in the interim, depression creeps back in.
That fucking terrifies me. After all those years of saying I didn’t want a pill, I didn’t want to change who I was, now all I can think is, “Please, little pill, don’t stop working don’t stop working don’t stop working.” Because the last thing on earth I want to be is the person I was before.
And that’s why I’m still terrified of having kids, because the stakes are too high for me to put my faith in Lexapro, or whatever drugs they’ll have down the line. When I read that Dooce entry I linked to above, my heart absolutely broke, because that is how I envision myself as a parent — apologizing to my child, who’s too young to understand, for my scowling and screaming and exhaustion, for my complete inability to cope with stress. I totally envision myself Googling “nappy struggles” (well, “diaper struggles”) in the middle of the night when, once again, I can’t sleep. I envision my kid in a therapist’s office in her twenties, just like I was, trying to learn how to forgive her mother for being depressed, for simply not having the emotional resources to be fully present all the time, just like I did. I envision myself feeling absolutely defeated and absolutely broken.
And if Daniel Gilbert is to be believed, I’m probably fucking right.
I don’t know what to do with that. I still don’t know if I want to have kids, knowing there’s a good chance I won’t always be able to make them feel safe in their own home. But then I think, at least I know what it feels like now to think, “Wow, what an awesome day!” simply because of the weather and a wiener dog. That’s a start — a start I never really expected, frankly. And as much as I hate pharmaceutical companies about 95% of the time, I am inexpressibly grateful to have had that experience and hopeful that the drugs will keep working for me, that better ones will come along, that I will have the external resources, if not the internal ones, to be able to handle this life thing all the way through. Maybe even enough to take on responsibility for someone else’s life.
Right now, though, I still just don’t know.
Here’s what I do know. Just as Bluemilk gets hits from people Googling “nappy struggles,” I get occasional hits from people Googling things like “hate myself hate my body don’t know what to do.” My heart shatters when I see that. I hope those people find something here that helps, but I have no idea if they will. All I can say is what Bluemilk said to defeated parents: I feel your pain. And I’m so sorry.