I recently went for my first month check-up at the doctors, to see how I’ve settled taking the antidepressants.
For anyone who has not taken antidepressants before, or who hasn’t experienced anxiety – and especially for those grieving mummas out there who are finding that anxiety and depression are adding to their grief, I wanted to share my experience.
Firstly though, I want to stress that feelings and emotions around anxiety and grief are different for everybody. I may know someone who feels similar things to me, but it will still be unique and personal to the individual. That’s why it’s so important to listen to your mind as well as your body and seek help.
Anxiety, however, is a mental illness, grief is not and it can be very hard to tell the difference especially when you are living it day in day out. A big problem for me about why I got to this point, was when I told anyone my story (ie, my daughter’s sudden death) and that I had anxiety they responded with ‘Of course you’re anxious, you’re grieving’ and then the anxiety was ignored because it was put down to grief. This created a build-up of symptoms that led me to the brink of breakdown – I simply couldn’t cope if grief was going to be this horrible to me.
It wasn’t until a year after Abi died that I developed anxiety disorder (which is a misunderstood illness as it is). This was brought on by grief trauma which had been kept dormant during my pregnancy with my fourth child. My mind pretty much told my body that enough was enough and the emotional demands of a newborn (so throw a touch of PND into the mix for good measure) whilst living on the edge anyway was the final straw that pushed my anxiety to its limit.
Sorrow upon sorrow, failure upon failure.
My anxiety manifested itself through heart palpitations, dizziness and insomnia. A pretty scary combination for someone living with trauma from the sudden, unexpected death of their child. I’ve had my symptoms investigated by the doctor – numerous blood tests, scans and heart monitors – to rule out anything physically wrong. Yet, despite getting the OK, and told it’s ‘just anxiety and my body’s way of telling my mind that it really can’t take anymore’, I still had the symptoms.
The problem with such symptoms is that they creep up on you when you’re not expecting it. I am often getting on with something or sitting down relaxing and my heart will start racing, or I’ll feel a bit giddy, I’ll notice it and then I’ll focus on the feeling which then makes my anxiety worse. I’ve experienced all levels of this from developing into a full-blown panic attack to just feeling a bit tired. I don’t appear to be doing or thinking anything ‘worrying’ at that point. However, if I analyse my thought processes, I notice my anxiety is worse when I’ve been dwelling on a health worry, am stressed or have watched or read about something traumatic or a sudden death. My shock and trauma has been stored by my body and mind, making it difficult for me to process additional ‘peripheral’ worry.
Then a mild depression developed as the symptoms continued to affect me and what I could do. I found my usual stress reliever, exercising, hard as it brought on palpitations. Stress brings on the same feeling. It then becomes challenging to be anywhere social or public in case an attack happens. Depression is inevitable, which is why the two conditions go hand in hand.
I was nervous about taking the tablets. I’d put it off for so long. I didn’t want the side effects. I thought I should fight it myself. But I finally gave in and it felt the right thing to do.
The first couple of weeks were pretty horrendous. My palpations were more frequent. My insomnia returned. I had the ‘sleep jumps’ for hours on end. I got tingly pins and needles in my limbs. I yawned all the time. I lost my appetite. I felt distant and detached. I had suicidal thoughts. I didn’t want to live like this anymore.
But I was prepared for this and kept telling myself that I was ok, I just needed to get through it. I told myself again and again that if I gave up now I would still feel crap so I had to give it a decent chance. Like going cold turkey in reverse!
The second two weeks were better. The yawning and pins and needles reduced, as had the palpitations although they were still fairly frequent but as they were my main symptom, I was not surprised.
At my follow-up appointment, my doctor reassured me that increased symptoms are normal for the first few weeks, although my therapist said that it usually takes three months for you to take a tablet and not notice. So I’m keeping an open mind. I really want these to work. I need to function for myself, my family and my work.
I was reluctant to up my dose just yet, and my doctor agreed to leave it another month to help me settle.
On the plus side … yes there is a bit of one. I have felt better more days than not the last couple of weeks. I’m writing again, am more creative, and being a bit more positive about the future and by that I mean that I’m planning meals for the week ahead and being able to go to a supermarket without breaking out in a sweat… Yes, it’s that basic but it’s a start!
I have noticed I’m starting to slow down though. My hubby or children will look at me a bit oddly when I don’t respond quickly or laugh much at something funny. It’s not me being miserable, it’s just me being a bit delayed. Like watching TV on catch up.
But then my anxiety has also been numbed too, so that’s something. It’s a bit like the saying ‘you can’t have a rainbow without a little rain’. The dark thoughts are what surprised me the most and I wanted to reflect on why that is.
In Levi Luskso’s powerful book, Through the Eyes of a Lion, he described how despite seeing death up close often, as a pastor, it wasn’t until his daughter died that he could truly understand why people turn to addictive substances to blot out their grief, or why people self harm.
I, too, feel a deeper understanding of this. When you miss someone so much it’s natural to want to be with them. When Abi died, aged 12, my 5-year-old son said he wanted to die too so that he could see her again, not in a depressive way, but in the simple way that children view things. I also dreamed often of ending my life. But it was natural to do this so soon after my loss.
I’ve never forgotten a story I saw on the news about ten years ago where a young married couple committed suicide with their terminally ill child. They threw themselves off a cliff and died together because they couldn’t bear the thought of living without him. Back then I felt such sorrow for the couple but wondered why they would take such drastic action.
Now, I understand.
With the tablets and feeling physically not right at all, the notion of death has seemed appealing. The thought of peace, freedom from pain or worry. To be resting with Abi forever. That, as final as it is, seems more inviting than battling each day with myriad emotions, fears and symptoms. And yes, this is despite having other children who need me. Of course they are everything to me but anxiety and grief are merciless and selfish.
When Robin Williams committed suicide, I was as shocked as the next person. Nobody realized how ill he was, physically and mentally. With celebrities we expect to know everything about them and expect that they are immune from the things we suffer from. But I soon began to feel I had some idea of why he took his own life. And while I should reassure concerned readers I’m not about to do anything similar, I thought how desperate he must have been for release from his mental torture to take his own life. My symptom was fleeting by comparison, a day at most at first and now maybe an hour or two.
I loathe the feeling of wanting to end it all. It feels like a bad case of self-pity. Each day I’m grateful to wake up in the morning, I’m glad I really am fit and healthy. I’m grateful for another day of life. So to torture myself with sorrow upon sorrow is depressing in itself. I want to shake myself and have tried to ignore my feelings.
Now I’ve realised that no amount of beating myself up or hiding from what is happening will change it, I’ve decided to embrace it. Yes, that’s right, actually embrace the reality of what I’m feeling. Not to run from it but to challenge it … to allow it just to be.
So when the bad days or hours fall on me, I let them. I can’t do much while they are with me but I know that if I just let them alone, let them wash over me, without trying to talk over them or without letting them take hold, then they pass. I do what I need to do in order to get through. Some days I’ve got to the evening and realised I’ve done hardly anything but stare vacantly – going through the motions on a cloud. Then, like the sunrise and sunset, a new day comes and a new perspective, different challenges, new time to spend how I want to. If it’s a good day, I grab it and do all those things I want to do – write, work, have fun.
If you’re living with grief, you’ll be more aware of mortality than ever, and anxiety is a natural result, but just because it’s natural doesn’t make it any easier to handle, or that it should be ignored (medically). Your body and mind need to heal from whatever loss you have had. And healing doesn’t mean forgetting, it means the scar needs to develop in order for you to get on and live.
This scar runs deep. It will take time.
Try not to let the dark thoughts alarm you (although of course if you have any concerns you must confide in someone who can help!). It’s a normal part of what you have to cope with and it will get better. I hope that hearing this from a grieving mother who is navigating the many complex paths of grief will give you some sense of hope for the future.
I’m a strong woman – notice I say I am, not was – I know the real me is still there, but anxiety has decided to stop by for a while. And you are strong too. You’ve been through something most people can only dare to imagine.
My advice is seek help and if you don’t feel that help was good enough, try again or try something else. Your GP can help with the physical stuff, a therapist the mental stuff and complimentary therapists can help ease the two.
Talk to people who get it. Conserve your energy for what matters, not keeping others happy who aren’t helping you. Now is not the time to deal with anyone else’s problems but your own.
Avoid making rash decisions about relationships, work or money. Believe me, you will want to run. You will want to hide. But just do the minimum you have to, to get by. Again, focus on getting stronger and go from there.
Write or record yourself saying what is on your mind. One day I wrote a list of the things that I was worrying about. It was huge, and worrying! A few weeks later, I revisited the list and saw how much my mind had changed. My old list seemed a little crazy to me. Some of the things still troubled me, but it was far less than the original list.
Take photos of yourself on good days and bad days. You will see big differences in how you look week to week, even day to day.
Try not to edit your grief. If you’re feeling fragile, instead of saying you’re fine, be honest. If you feel unwell, tell someone. Social media has its flaws but it’s a great outlet for this. There are people out there ready to support without judgement.
Never stop seeking ways to help yourself, because this isn’t going away anytime soon. Your life may develop a new normal, but that makes it more important to find ways to balance the ‘normality’ with the ‘crazy’. You must come first!
Importantly, do whatever feels right for you, at your pace. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Breathe in and breathe out. That’s all you have to do.