Stigma Fighters: Joy Interrupted

I was 35 the day everything changed. I had a happy marriage, two perfect little girls, an education and respectable career, good friends and a good church that I was plugged into. I was a glass-half-full kinda girl living a pretty darn good life.

And then the flood happened. Everything in my life now seems to be defined as pre-flood or post-flood. A relentless rain that last two days left the water with no where to go. So at 6 a.m. on March 18, 2008 the water started filling our house. We had to carry our little pajama-clad girls out through 3 feet of water in the front yard. My car floated away. The news showed up. Our house was even on the Weather Channel.

When we arrived at my inlaw’s house later that day I realized I had lost all my shoes. The shoe thing maybe doesn’t sound like a panic-worthy event. Until you realize you don’t have even one pair of shoes to wear to Walmart so you can buy a pair of shoes.

But this story isn’t actually about the shoes. It’s about the panic attack. My mother-in-law and I were at Walmart replacing some necessities and stocking up on enough groceries to feed my crew at her house (our new temporary residence). Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I dropped to the floor right there in the shampoo aisle. I would have cried if I had enough oxygen. But I didn’t, so I just sort of hyperventilated and panicked until I thought I could get up again. Incidentally, no one around me asked if I was ok or if I needed anything. Maybe shoeless women hyperventilating on the floor at Walmart is just an every day thing?

That was my first, but certainly not last, panic attack. They became a regular thing. My PCP put me on Xanax. I took it like candy for over a year. What that God-awful Xanax did to me is a subject for another story (but I don’t recommend it for long-term use.)

As my family and I spent the next couple of years putting the pieces of our lives back together, depression joined my ever-present anxiety. The flood wasn’t really the traumatic part of the whole ordeal. It was the aftermath. Replacing possessions, finding a new place to live, fighting with FEMA for help since we now had a rent payment and a mortgage on a ruined house to carry. We were looking at foreclosure, bankruptcy, rebuilding the old house and taking our chances during the next torrential rain.

In the two years it took to sort it all out, there was a lot of tension as we didn’t always agree on the next step forward. We also had an unexpected pregnancy that ended in miscarriage at 11 weeks. My grandmother died. And a dark family secret involving the childhood sexual abuse of myself and my aunt finally came to light (her father; my grandfather), ripping the scab on a deep wound that had never received care. At this stage the anxiety and depression often manifested as rage, and I became a very difficult person to live with. The chronic stress of those two years had changed me in so many ways. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time in therapy and tried dozens of med combos to try to get stabilized.

The good news is that with help from a pretty great therapist and psychiatrist, along with an incredibly supportive family, I got better. The panic attacks went away, the depression dissipated, and my husband and I were much happier. We even decided to have another baby. I was in “remission” (do anxiety and depression have remission?) for a couple of years.

The depression made a very ugly comeback last spring. I was in despair, completely hopeless. I went so far as to get in my car and drive away with the intention of never coming back. I chickened out and came back home, but I refused to leave the house. Wouldn’t go to work, church, social activities that I once enjoyed. And i cried, oh how i cried at every ridiculous little thing. I just completely shut down. After eight weeks of FMLA, twice-weekly therapy sessions and more medication adjustments, I eventually got back on track. Things were “normal” for six months (Although I continued my weekly therapy sessions and probably always will).

But as I write this I have hit a new low. This time it was the anxiety that came roaring back. It’s been bad. Like psych-ward bad (you’ll have to read the blog for that story). I’m out of FMLA at work. I have to go back in a few days. I’m terrified. And I’m certain my coworkers have had enough of this. I’m sure they wonder why I can’t just get my act together. I wouldn’t be afraid of that if I’d had a hysterectomy or cancer treatments. But this stigma of mental illness follows us and makes it that much harder to integrate successfully into society. I want to work to change that, and that’s why I agreed to write this post.

Though I’m not in a very healthy place now, I will work hard to get there … again. And again. And again. Whatever it takes. Because I’m still me — the me from my opening paragraph. Just older and wiser and with a chronic illness I’ll always have to battle.

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Joy Interrupted lives in the Midwest with her husband and three children. She works as a writer and editor. The “flood house” was eventually demolished and they were blessed with a beautiful new home two years later.  Read more of her story on her blog; www.seekingjoyagain.com 

  • Hasty Words

    I hope in time the flood recedes metaphorically…that you never stop swimming and that someday you will reach a peaceful shore.