I was screaming. I couldn’t stop. This wasn’t the kind of screaming that even sounded sane; I screamed like someone had just died, like my heart was physically breaking. I screamed and screamed, and kept trying to punch the wall. My husband stopped me. I’d get to the border of controlling myself, only to realize that the kids could hear me. My heart would break a little more — but then I’d start screaming again. The door was shut, but mental breakdowns are loud.
I was suffering from a disease called discontinuation syndrome — the worst case my psychiatrist had ever seen. Basically, I had stopped taking one of my drugs; an atypical antipsychotic prescribed for treatment-resistant depression. When I stopped, my neurotransmitters stopped functioning correctly, my dopamine stopped doing whatever it is that dopamine does, and every single symptom of every mental illness I’d ever had came crashing down.
I was depressed and mildly suicidal — in a way that I wouldn’t actually have killed myself, but I really, really wanted to. I had intrusive thoughts, generally about my children dying. I also became obsessed with my body weight. I was constantly stressed and got angry at the slightest provocation. In the midst of all of this, I had to parent three little boys from the time they woke up until about 4 PM. Alone.
Luckily, mornings were usually good. We’re always pretty serious about school, but that week, we were downright rigid. First, we read aloud for as long as my 7-year-old wanted to; he and I alternating paragraphs. Then, I set up his math on the computer while I did reading practices with my 5-year-old. After that, I got out the books we’re using to study the Harlem Renaissance and read them aloud to the kids. Later, we did a science experiment of some kind. All of this burned about three hours of the day.
Next, I made sandwiches for lunch. I was able to make them without taxing myself to much. I didn’t have the strength to make myself a salad, even though all the ingredients were right there in front of me. Instead, I resolved to eat a packaged nut bar, berries, and some cheese.
Then came the dreaded afternoon. The first day it started to get bad, I went to my friend Veronica’s house. Other than my ballyhooing that I was in the midst of a breakdown, she kept me company while the kids played. But I remember yelling at them in the car on the way home for something stupid. It was becoming a usual occurrence — yelling at them, then crying because I was yelling, and then apologizing for both yelling and crying. This happened every afternoon. It didn’t matter if we went to the craft store, Target, or the park.
I tried to always have a plan for the afternoon. A plan that carried me through to 4 PM, when my husband would come home. But around 2 PM, I’d always start to unravel. Once, when I couldn’t extricate my son’s bike from the double stroller and then locked my keys in the car, I found myself weeping uncontrollably. I blubbered so hard that AAA could hardly understand me.
My oldest tugged on my shirt. “I don’t need my bike,” he said. I cried harder, he shouldn’t have to see his mother like this.
My kids’ reactions constantly brought me to my knees. I had to explain what was happening to them. My oldest would lovingly say things like, “We forgive you for yelling,” and “We know it’s not your fault. It’s the medicine you’re not taking.” When they heard me screaming, they would each draw me a picture. I remember my oldest handing me a sheet with “I LOVE MAMA” written at the top and decorated with things he thought I loved, like the spotted moray eel at the zoo and the Big Brown Boogieing Bear from Storybots. When I yelled, my kids would sometimes cry, and I would feel gutted. That’s when I would start crying myself, begging them for their forgiveness.
Finally, I visited my psychiatrist, who prescribed a drug to help. It took a while, but a week later, I was no longer crying in front of the kids. I wasn’t begging friends for help over Facebook, either.
The guilt still lingers, though. My children understand, as well as they can at their ages, that I have a disease called depression and that the disease sometimes makes me act in ways that I don’t want to or don’t mean to. That helps a little, but not much. I still feel guilty for yelling at them, for crying in front of them, and for letting them hear me scream.
I fear that this is what they will remember most from their childhood. I worry that the memory of “Mama” will be entwined with my bouts of crippling depression and especially this breakdown.
I worry. I fear. I pray that I’m doing enough to mitigate the effects now that I’m well. And in the end, I hope that will be enough.