I am a fraud. A phony baloney.
I agonize over an essay I wrote in back in April. When it was published on April 6, little did I know that two months to the day, I would be released from a six-day stay at a mental rehabilitation facility (to put it nicely) — a psych ward. I’ve been referring to it as “my time in the ward.”
I worry that my previous essay was naïve and very one-month-into-quarantine. The truth is, everything I wrote in the previous essay I genuinely felt in that moment. I didn’t know that quarantine would continue on this long. I’m not good with isolation (I’m not sure anyone is; we are social animals), and over time I felt like I was drifting back into postpartum depression. Though, whereas before with postpartum I was trying to keep a newborn alive, I now have a three-year-old boy with an absurd amount of energy. It’s the kind of energy that makes one exclusively read children’s development and discipline books.
Like the majority of us, my son has been missing social interactions, playgrounds, and play dates. I know he feels it; in response he’s stuck to me like industrial-strength glue, sucking up all my energy, sanity, and love. It started to take a toll on me. It happened gradually through April and May, and then before I knew it, I could no longer see this as a temporary situation. With no end in sight, I found myself in my sister’s bathroom trying to saw my arm off.
Okay, that’s hyperbole, but I did hurt myself. In my mind at the time, it was the only thing left I could do to break the monotony. I didn’t know how to ask for real help in this pandemic, and I was consumed — I mean completely, utterly, filled-to-the-fucking-brim — with guilt. Why don’t I want to be around my child? Maybe he is better off without me. I had been making watercolors that read “I’m a bad mom.” (Those didn’t make it on to my carefully curated Instagram.) I was a shell of myself, again.
When I got to the ward I was scared and crying uncontrollably. After a first day of mostly sleeping and sobbing, I began to go to group therapy sessions and open up to the ten other wardees. For the record, I’ll say that I was in the highest-functioning unit and I was the sanest person there. But that feels a little like bragging about stepping in the nicest pile of shit in a yard full of shit. Also, I think everyone there thought they were the sanest. But by opening up and sharing, I began to feel better, and hearing other people’s stories also helped. People are suffering. I was suffering, and to my surprise everyone — the doctors, staff, and patients — were so supportive. We all wanted to see each other get better.
For me, the ward seemed like an odd combination of a nursing home, summer camp, and jail all rolled into one. The food was bland. We waited in line to get our medications, and there was lots of talk around what everyone was on and what dosage. It was nice that the wardees were open about it and that these conversations were the norm. Most of us lived in our pajamas and went to bed by 8:30 p.m. We were up around 6 a.m.
After a few days of consuming a double dosage of my regular antidepressant, I began to feel more like my goofy self and I had more energy, and even started to teach some of my fellow wardees about the benefits of kombucha, plus a little yoga and watercoloring. Basically, I became the activities director of my unit. For six days, these strangers were my family. In my small-but-diverse unit, mental illness did not discriminate between race, gender, age, sexual preference, political views or class.
I was there because I desperately needed help to understand that is was okay to ask for help, to need a break, and that these pandemic circumstances are like nothing we have ever experienced. I left the ward with a new set of coping skills, a fresh perspective, and a modest goatee. (They don’t allow tweezers in the ward — a total bummer for a lady with high testosterone.)
I am doing better, much better. It turns out exercising, eating healthy and getting off social media makes me feel better. Crazy right? In hindsight, I can see I got too wrapped up in the new version of the online artist hustle. I enjoy being productive, but it quickly turned into burnout. I’ve always felt I had something to prove; that as a small woman from Port Arthur with a notable East Texas accent who didn’t find art until her 20s, I needed to work harder, longer and produce more.
Since checking out of the ward, I’ve slowed down and stopped judging myself and others so harshly. I’ve stopped comparing myself to other moms who seem to have it together. Becoming a mom has been enormously difficult for me, and to be brutally honest, before having my son I never envisioned myself as a mother. He is the by far the most amazing thing I have ever made. But a parent can feel two conflicting things simultaneously: I love him more than anything, but sometimes I also feel so defeated and lost.
One reason I’m sharing my recent ordeal with you is that for my current work, which is based on my experience with postpartum depression, I wrote a statement about wanting to de-stigmatize the shame around mental illness, especially in new mothers. To this day it’s rarely talked about — all new moms are supposed to feel so blessed and happy. But I’ve deeply mourned the death of my independent life I worked so hard for. What I’d like to get at here is that I’m trying to talk the talk and walk the walk. I suffer from major depression disorder, anxiety and suicidal ideation. I take medicine for it, and go to therapy. I am not ashamed of it, and I don’t want anyone else to be, either.