As an avenue of healing, I wrote a story detailing one of the most traumatic periods of my life. This is one story of many in a book entitled Lessons in Living: Ordinary Women, Extraordinary God . Available on Amazon .
“White Woman’s Disease”
An African American Woman and her Antidepressants
1986 – “Mama, what’s wrong with that woman?” I asked my mom while staring at a lady out of the car window. The lady was filthy, bare-foot, and had a shirt wrapped around her head. What made me notice her was the act of her talking to herself, loudly. “Oh, that’s Ida, baby,” my mother said. She went on to explain that Ida used to be an intelligent, creative teacher. Some thought she was of genius level. Then, one day she had a breakdown and “went crazy.” She lost her job, her family wanted nothing to do with her and eventually she ended up living on the streets being known as the crazy lady. I felt sorry for her.
Fast forward twenty three years… 2009 – I am now a married, mother of a six-year-old and I have just earned a Specialist degree in School Psychology. Two weeks after my graduation, I learned I was pregnant. Shocking! I wasn’t trying, but I also wasn’t doing anything to prevent it. Five weeks after that, I learned I was carrying twins. Doubly Shocking! This is not what we planned. Not what I planned. I was moving up. Oh well…The pregnancy progressed without complications and my healthy twin girls arrived via C-section on Valentine’s Day.
Now, my story truly begins. Life changed, Boy, did life change! Not only did I now have two infants and a seven-year-old to care for; I had to heal from the C-section and the tubal ligation I elected to have at the same time. No more children for me. My body was outstandingly sore, my husband and I were sleep-deprived and we were still unsure as to how these two new beings would fit into our previously comfortable life. My husband switched to a job where he could work a night-shift in order to watch the girls during the day when my nine-weeks of maternity leave were over. This was the only solution we came up with for when I had to return back to work. Daycare facility quotes for two infants equaled our mortgage costs!
During the time I spent home with the girls, I guess I slowly started to lose it. Sleep deprivation is a bitch! The things it does to your body and mind are unbelievable. I tried to breast-feed my girls, but couldn’t. Actually, I probably did not try hard enough. It felt like those little girls were pulling at my soul each and every time the suckled on my nipple. I cried the entire time they fed. My milk was slow to come in and I was scared they weren’t getting enough nutrients so I quickly switched to formula that I could not afford. My appetite sucked. I basically survived off of bananas and soup (the only things I could stomach). Chocolate Ensure drinks helped sustain me. I felt nauseous when I woke up and often the first thing I did was vomit. Around mid-afternoon, I was able to eat a light meal and by nightfall I felt good enough to eat dinner, but then I threw it back up the next morning. The morning yuck was an un-ending cycle. My husband and family were extremely supportive, but it didn’t matter and it did not stop my once logical and reasonable thought processes from morphing into unrealistic, irrational pondering and subsequent daily panic attacks. I was an emotional wreck. I was malnutritioned, exhausted, and weak. The bleeding that followed my delivery was heavy and constant (I found out later I had an iron deficiency). I sobbed when the babies’ cried; I balled when my husband left in the evenings for work. I sniffled at Publix television commercials. Yeah, it was that bad. And believe it or not I could not nap during the day. I washed loads of clothes, did the dishes, made bottles and became best friends with the television. My butt became a constant fixture on the couch and why not… because that’s also where I slept for the nine weeks of my maternity leave. I slept on the couch and the babies slept on the ottoman surrounded by blankets. Sleeping on the couch allowed for the easiest access to the kitchen as I made frequent trips warming bottles. Also, with the pain resulting from the C-section and tubal ligation, it was easier getting on and off the couch than it was getting in and out of bed. At night, when you would think I would fall fast asleep, I couldn’t. My mind would not shut off. It raced and problem-solved made-up scenarios so I would know how to act or react, in case the situation ever arose. I thought of the constant financial issues and relationship issues that were cropping up. When I did sleep at night, in no more than two hour spans, my dreams were troubling and were pieced together fragments of things I had seen or heard during the day. Then it would be time to wake up for another feeding. For the longest time, I kept my downward spiral of mental stability to myself (or so I thought). My family and friends soon saw my suffering and once they announced their awareness, I fell apart. However, I felt so guilty and apologized constantly for putting them through my silliness. I felt lost and felt no one understood my emotional instability.
I broached the subject of my suffering with my obstetrician at my follow-up visit to check on the incision site; she referred me to a counselor and told me to exercise more. Who the hell was she kidding? How? I was so exhausted and that would make me even more tired which would impact the feedings every two hours. Loved ones suggested I pray and I did, mightily, but relief was fleeting. I was told to pull myself together so that I wouldn’t crack up and go crazy. My initial thought was of Ida from long ago and I thought, “Oh no, is that where I am headed!” Thinking of that and what could actually happen if I lost it made me even more worrisome and fearful.
Finally, a friend, also African American saw my struggle and revealed her struggle as another professional, African American woman with children and told me she took antidepressants. She also told me of another young woman we both knew who also took antianxiety and antidepressants. My friend also clued me in to medications that can be taken as needed and not long-term which I thought was the only way they were taken. Never once did I think of medication as the answer. In the African American culture, you just don’t do that. That is what white women do – take medicine to get rid of their problems. Not us. We are too strong for that. We overcome our problems, we beat them, we don’t let them take over, we pray about them and let God deal with it. We don’t become dependent on drugs. So sayeth my mother, grandmother and other elder African American women. Yeah, well, I was losing the battle.
So I went to my Primary Care doctor, unbeknownst to my family, and she placed me on a trial period of Klonopin. It was to be taken when I woke up in the morning so that I could get past the “morning yuck.” Once my mother and older family females and friends found out, they were not in agreeance with my decision to “turn to” drugs. My husband was afraid I would become a zombie and no longer be the woman he knew. However, he was also overly tired of what was going on and was just as scared of what the future held is I was unable to get things under control. Unfortunately, my trial period with the medication coincided with my return to work. My mother warned me not let anyone at work know I was on “drugs” because then they would think differently of me and perceive me as weak and not able to do my job. She wanted me to hide it. So not only did I have to get a handle on my extreme sadness and panic attacks and deal with my family’s disapproval of my choice, break away from my babies and function at work still on little sleep; I had to hide my emotional battle. I started the Klonopin a week before I started back to work and yes, it took the edge off of my “craziness.” I thought to myself, “This could actually work. I hope…? As you are probably guessing, the Klonopin did not work.
Work day Monday arrived. The twins were under the care of my sister-in-law until my husband arrived home from his night-shift 45-minutes away to take over. I took my eldest to school and off I went to start the day. I lasted until eleven o’clock before a call was placed to my mother to come and get me. I had spent almost the whole morning sitting on floor, under my desk in my dark office rocking back and forth, crying. Work, literally, welcomed me back with open arms, a full caseload and an early morning meeting on a student’s case I had not worked on for months. I felt so unprepared and I was so exhausted and I so missed my girls. My mother took me home to rest in her bed. I tried, without success, to take a nap. I turned on my mom’s sound machine and hoped the sound of rain (which I love) would lull me to sleep. It didn’t. I got up to tell my mom the nap wasn’t going to happen and almost passed out. I slid down the wall to the floor and my mom noticed my still flowing period had soaked through my sanitary napkin and had badly stained my pants. My mom called my husband to alert him of the going-ons. He brought the girls to my mother and took me to the emergency room. Two hours later, I was told that due to the extreme bleeding I was deficient in iron. I was prescribed supplements, told to follow up with my primary care doctor, and was discharged. I took off the next day and returned to the doctor. She then told my husband and me that I needed more long-term help with lasting effects and prescribed Lexapro, an antidepressant and antianxiety medication. She warned me it would take around 2 to 3 weeks to get into my system. My mother called the School Board administration office to request the rest of the week off for me and found out I had returned to work too early and did not have to be back until the following week. Whoo-hooo! So for the rest of the week, my family took turns staying over-night with the babies so that I could get rest. I took a dose of Lexapro at night and took the Klonopin when I woke up in the morning and every 4 hours thereafter until bedtime to keep the “crazies” away.
The following week, I returned to work and religiously took the medication. As the weeks progressed, I was able to function more and more every day. I stayed on the medication for 5 months before I weaned myself off. I went from taking it daily to taken it only during the work-week. Then I transitioned to every other day to finally not at all. I was so proud of myself for growing strong and beating the “crazies” and not being beholden to the “white woman’s disease.”
Yeah, who was I fooling? My whole chemical make-up was altered with the pregnancy and delivery of my twins. I learned that I suffered from an autoimmune disease and received an additional diagnosis of Vitiligo, a skin condition which causes you not to be able to regenerate pigment cells. It is better known as the Michael Jackson skin disease. “Well, on top of everything else, there go my looks!” I thought to myself. “I’ll have white blotches all over my skin.” The stress of functioning as a wife, mother of three, and having a full-time job was taken its toll on my health and marriage and I again started having panic attacks and crying episodes
One and a half years after celebrating my victory from the “white woman’s disease” and my break from the “drugs”, I found myself right back on the “drugs” in order to contain the now known as “any woman’s disease!” My doctor informed me I would probably be on the Lexapro medication for the rest of my life. She explained that my body possibly had a serotonin imbalance and that it was affecting my mood. She also said that the Lexapro acted as a replacement for the serotonin to balance my levels. It took her scientific way of explaining it before I could completely accept the diagnosis of depression and anxiety and be open to long-term medication. Also, I think whatever it took not to ever feel the way I felt, I was willing to do.
Through my journey, I learned that anxiety and depression does not recognize race. I learned I am not weak because I suffer from this and need medication to function. As explained to me by my doctor, if I had a heart condition, I would take heart medication to function. Well, I have an emotional condition, so I have to take emotion and mood medication in order to maintain and function. What I realized is that when I was advised to pray and did, God did not answer my prayers of taking it all away; instead He performed his will and did much better by allowing me to become more open, accepting and understanding of a plight any woman can suffer from. And that as a woman, any woman, you must do what you must do in order to maintain, function, and survive.
. I am happy to say I have not had any more panic attacks or depressive episodes. . I’ve had extremely stressful events occur during this time, but the medication balances me and allows for me to think clearly and rationally. I don’t become an emotional wreck unable to process information and am able to shrug off the little stuff. Furthermore, I have sung the praises of the antidepressants and antianxiety medications to anyone who will listen. No more hiding for me. With something that works so well for something so horrible, why keep the positive effects hidden. I have taught my mother to accept it and have shown her how healing also involves being comfortable talking about it to others and sharing your story with others who might be dealing with a similar situation. Slowly my mother, husband and other family and friends came around to accepting my diagnosis and need for medication as I returned to my normal, joking, sarcastic, intelligent, and caring self with a great appetite. Thank you God, for sending me my close friend to talk me into taking the medication. I wish it was more accepted and talked about in the African American circle, but until it is I am doing my part to advocate the benefits of medications for a condition I am sure a significant number of women of all races suffer, but do little about. Well, I am here to tell you there is something you can do. Too bad it was too late for Ida.