Summer has been a whirlwind so far. I cannot seem to catch my breath. On July 1st my grandmother died. She was 88. Leading up to her death was a year and a half of a downward spiral. She suffered from an evil called dementia. It started with her anxiety and constant worry. This was not new as she seemed to always worry, but it was much more pronounced. It progressed into panic, violent outbursts to full blown dementia.
If you have not dealt with someone with dementia, it is difficult to explain. With dementia, it seems as if the years all stumble together. Like a freight train that was going through life at a fast speed until it crashed. Each car colliding into the next. Some cars overlapping and flying to the front. All containing life events, memories and wild dreams. And as these life events, memories and dreams tumble out of the cars the person is left trying to sort through them and put them back where they belong. But the places that they belong are irreversibly damaged.
Also my good friend’s brain is not working properly. She is a beautiful woman who graduated University with honors and received awards in her field before falling to mental illness, drugs and alcohol. In which order, I am not sure. For 20 years she has battled and struggled with this illness. I have learned to befriend her in a totally different way. I love her and always will. I also miss the person she was but cannot mourn that loss because there are still glimmers of that old person in the person she is now.
I have another grandmother who is approaching 94 years old. Her brain has not changed but I now know she has suffered from a form of mental illness for most of her life. She has been and is even more so now, delusional. She makes up stories. Before, you sort of knew what to believe and what not to believe. Now, you really can’t believe much. This has made me question how many things I have believed in the past, that may not have been reality. I revisit some of her stories and make sure they were corroborated by my grandfather or other relatives. It simultaneously makes me angry, sad and amused. She has a good heart. Most of her stories were to protect someone or make things look better than they actually were. She may have done that over the years to help herself get through difficult times and finding that it worked for her, she continued.
The thought of losing my mind is one of my biggest fears along with it being completely within reach. I have suffered from depression and anxiety for most of my life. Although I have it under control with therapy and medication, there are times I can fully relate to how the brain just wants to let go and stop taking orders.
When I suffered from postpartum depression, with my First Born, It was after he weened from nursing. My hormone levels changed and I would cry almost every day. I did not recognize it as depression since I was able to function, and it did not feel like the depression I had experienced before. I was able to get in under control with therapy and Prozac. The combo helped immensely.
Five years later when I suffered with Postpartum Depression after Little One, it hit me in the form of severe panic attacks. While pregnant with him I spent 9 weeks in the hospital on bed rest because of placenta-previa. When he was born 6 weeks early he spent 18 days in the NICU, I spent every day running back and forth to the hospital while forgetting to eat, and obsessively pumping breast milk. The day after we brought him home, I suffered a kidney stone attack. A week after that I was back in the ER with a gall bladder attack requiring surgery. A month later I had to have half of my thyroid removed because of a benign lump.
After all of this happened my brain failed me. I was convinced I was going to die. I was convinced that cancer was running through my body. I was convinced that I would never see my children grow up. I was convinced that my children would be left without a mother. I was convinced that I was going to leave my husband widowed.
These convictions were what sent me into a tailspin of severe panic. Panic to the point of not getting out of my bed and walling myself in a cocoon of blankets. I was awake all night with a premie newborn - pumping and feeding him my milk from a bottle because he was too tiny to latch on. I was obsessed with making milk as it was the only thing I felt I was able to do. I was afraid of eating and felt perpetually nauseous. I shrunk down to 105 lbs. which I had not been for over 20 years.
While my husband was at work, my mother and my best friend took turns helping me. They did all the things that I should have been doing. First Born was then almost 5 years old and they parented and took care of him and Little One. I felt immense amounts of guilt. They tried to get me to eat and tried to help me get out of my room. But I felt paralyzed.
On a good day, when the haze lifted slightly, I got to my doctor who prescribed Xanax, which I was afraid to take because I was nursing. Luckily my freezer was so packed with breast milk that we could barely fit any thing else in there. So when I finally persuaded myself to take half a pill, I could then pump and dump. The Xanax worked which then led me to contact a therapist. This led me to talk to my Dr. about an antidepressant that I could take while nursing. I did not want to. I was so afraid that it would hurt Little One. They told me that Zoloft was the safest one to take while breast feeding. The Zoloft started to work which then led me to join a group for moms with PPD. The combo of all of these things helped me escape the demons.
I can see why people have thought that they were possessed when suffering from mental illness. There is a definite displacement. A disassociation, of what is really happening, what you perceive to be happening and what you know to be true. Everything is turned on its head. Everything is warped. So when my friend, whom I have known since childhood, tells me that she is hearing voices that are deceiving her-although I have not experienced that- I get it. I get the fear and confusion. When I would talk to my grandmother who suffered from dementia and she would tell me about the long deceased relative that she was just talking to, or how everyone around her was after her, or how she needed money so she could get herself a hotdog, I got it. I got the panic and disorientation. When my other grandmother starts to tell me an outlandish tale that involves her being the savior or hero, I get it. I get the wanting of things to be so different from what they actually are and wanting that so badly that you convince yourself of it.
The brain seems to be both extremely sensitive and immensely strong. It’s power is frightening. We must take care of it, just as we try to take care of the rest of our body. Summertime is supposed to be a “vacation” time. Maybe the rest of this summer, I will concentrate on giving my brain a vacation. Letting it get some R&R. Allowing the worry to stop and the light to shine in. I want to preserve it, nourish it and honor it. Stay healthy my friends.