“Kay, are you alright?” I hear a knuckle tap my door. “Can I come in?”
I bury my tear-stained cheeks in my pillows and whimper. There is nothing easy about being twenty years old.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
I consider the best way to answer my mother’s question: my body is livid that I went another month without getting pregnant? ISIS has taken over my uterus? Or should I stick with what my gym teacher taught my 6th grade sex education class? “Girls, your period will surprise you, but I can help. When it comes, stop by my office and tell me that your ‘friend’ is visiting from out of town. That’s our secret code.” WHAT? Thankfully I’m an adult now, which means that I can tell the truth. I unbury my face and glance at my mom with sad, smeared eyes.
“I have my period.”
“Aw, I’m sorry. Did you take any medicine?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not taking medicine for periods anymore.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Why not?”
“So I’m prepared to give birth.”
The door clicks softly; I can hear my mother chuckling as she walks away. Isn’t she proud of me for my valor? Why doesn’t she commend me for good planning? She returns with a glass of water and 600 mg of ibuprofen.
“Sweetheart…” She strokes my head in a someday-you’ll-understand kind of way. “Nothing–absolutely nothing–can prepare you for the pain of childbirth. Take the medicine.”
Years have passed since my short-lived medication embargo. Now I bolus tylenol and ibuprofen when my ‘friend’ visits from out of town (within safe limits, obviously). In hindsight, I can see that my rationale for avoiding medication was more than just preparing for childbirth; I wanted to toughen up. I didn’t want to be weak, and I associated medications (especially prescriptions) with being weak.
There aren’t many prescription medications that I’ve taken in my life. But there is a certain class of medications that were most difficult for me to take: mental health medications.
Over the past few months, as I’ve shared my own story (the one to follow, not the one regarding periods), I realized that I am not alone in my sentiments. Countless friends have whispered to me their own anecdotes of anxiety that are seasoned with loneliness, purposelessness, weakness, and fear that there is no help or hope to come.
Three hundred and sixty-six days have passed since I had my own mental breakdown. I am finally ready to share my story. I hope that my experiences resonate with you so that you know you’re not alone.
-March 28, 2017-
Despite eating every meal, I had gradually lost weight for months. A dark stress shadowed my every move. I wasn’t sleeping; I had transformed into a dark-eyed zombie. I couldn’t invest in people so I withdrew from groups. Mentally, I wasn’t often present anyway. Social interactions made me nervous. I starting eating meals alone in my room. The workload never ended. Cynicism tucked me into my bed each night. I had no energy to invest in loved ones. I felt like a failure.
I remember vividly crying that Tuesday afternoon in the crew physician’s office on the Africa Mercy. I couldn’t believe what the doctor had told me. All your labs are normal. I think you have anxiety. What?! I had thought I had cancer. Or hyperthyroidism. Or both. NOT anxiety. This scared me more. Anxiety seemed like something I couldn’t control– instead, it was something that controlled me. She prescribed medication for me and told me I needed two things: sleep and time away from the ship.
Six days (and hundreds of tears) later I arrived in a 70-degree Cape Town at the home of a dear friend and mentor. One week with Trudi Venter was enough to fill my emotional gas tank from 0% to around 50%– just enough to sustain me for the remaining 10 weeks on the ship. I survived my last two months on the ship but those days were still taxing. I certainly wasn’t fully recovered after only a week’s vacation in South Africa.
After I returned to Michigan my primary care physician bettered my prescription and referred me to a counselor. Before I left his office that day, he told me one of the most empowering truths:
“Kayla, you don’t need this medication. But I think it will make your life easier for the next few months as you transition back. It will make your relationships, your work, and your personal life go more smoothly. I really don’t think you will be on it forever.”
My doctor’s soft words communicated a crucial message to me: you are exactly as you should be. You have endured more than most. You have done an excellent job. Now you need support–relationally, professionally, spiritually, medically. Use your supports to get back on your feet.
I knew that I had reached my limit in every way. Quick-fixes I had tried for months (serving, exploring, working, investing, distracting myself) no longer eased me. So I decided to take my doctor’s advice.
With a prescription bottle in hand I walked into autumn slowly and firmly. I attended counseling sessions. I spent time with loved ones. I said “no” to opportunities I knew I couldn’t handle. I knew I wasn’t living the most glamorous season of my life (I mean come on, I moved back in with my parents and worked part-time at a clinic). Eventually, though, my kinks worked themselves out. Now I am feeling stable and grounded.
I recall one evening last spring when I was out for dinner with AFM physicians Lindsay and Dianne Sherriff, and my co-workers, Ria and Rachel. The Sherriffs asked us to verbalize a goal for the upcoming year. This was an easy question for me to answer. The only thing I craved was to feel like myself again. To return to normal. Almost a year later I am certain that I will never return to my old self. But that’s a good thing.
Life ebbs like foamy ocean waves, vacillating between high tides and low tides, but it’s always shifting. We are only stuck if we refuse to move our feet. Do not fear walking into tomorrow, for it could be different from yesterday. Accept the break from work or the prescription or the counseling or the kindness, grace, love, support, etc. If you don’t want to be on medications longterm, then act while you’re taking them so that you can get off of them.
The illusion that you are not allowed to be weak is neither helpful nor sustainable. Be honest and vulnerable, and ask for help.