In my 31st summer, I was learning how to live without drugs to control my anxious, extreme thinking. For three years, the antidepressant Celexa had managed my brain while I learned to take care of myself, to ask for what I wanted and stop trying to please everyone else first. But I had reached the point where it was time to take back the mental reins. And the ride was rough.
One Thursday, my husband Shawn and I were on our way home from a night of Ultimate Frisbee. I was already feeling lousy because I’d played badly and we lost to a team we should have beaten.
Then, during our post-game burgers and shakes, someone made an insensitive comment about our upcoming adoption, something about how we were getting out of a lot of work by skipping the newborn phase. I wasn’t in the mood to be gracious, so I snapped back, How would you like to have missed the first year of your daughter’s life, while she was cared for in an institution? He stammered and back-pedaled, realizing his error, but the air had already soured between us.
When Shawn and I got in the car to drive home, we started to bicker. He thought I should have let the comment pass without saying anything, and that ticked me off. Couldn’t he back me up? Wasn’t he equally offended?
We tried to talk about our plans for the weekend. I started to gripe about how busy I was, the days packed with picnics and breakfast dates, church commitments and meetings. Plus I had a difficult edit waiting for me at my job, and the prospect of talking to my boss about quitting so I could freelance.
What I really wanted to do was hole up in a room somewhere and write fiction. I had planned to do a writing retreat that weekend so I could finish a short story. But now I was stuck and I’d missed my chance.
I didn’t know about that plan, Shawn said.
I know, I said, because I never told you, because I’m an idiot.
He tried to offer suggestions, but I shot them down. I was angry with myself for not planning better, for letting myself be guilted or worn down into making plans that I didn’t want, and I wasn’t going to let it go.
We were nearly home when I tried to make up for how pissy I’d been. This is not about you, it’s about me, I said.
And that’s when Shawn got really angry.
How dare you get this upset and then say it’s not about me? It’s impossible for me to tell the difference, and it’ll certainly be impossible for a child to tell the difference. You can’t keep doing this.
He might as well have stuck a knife in my heart.
I went inside the house in shock, climbed the stairs to the loft, and began crying out my knife-stabbed heart, clutching my pillow to my chest as though to staunch the bleeding. I was thinking, What a shitty thing to say. As if I could ever be emotionally perfect. You know I’m terrified of being a bad mother and hurting my children. Don’t make it any worse by accusing me of such things.
My mind took what Shawn said and spun it to the limits. You’re sick and broken and can never get better. He can’t love an erratic woman who overreacts to a few weekend engagements. You’re going to ruin your kids’ lives and you don’t deserve to be a mother. I cried so hard I thought I would choke.
Shawn came up to talk to me, but I was too busy deciding whether I would end my pathetic life by cutting my wrists with our newly sharpened Henckels knife or downing the bottle of antidepressants still in my medicine cabinet.
In a state of utter siege by Shawn’s words and my own virulent self-hatred, I took a shower, using my little coherent brain power to devise other responses to this insupportable situation, to express how utterly wrecked I was at the realization that I was an ungrateful bitch of a wife, a total incompetent who should never parent, and a complete failure as a writer.
At least it would be over, I thought, if I threw myself off the balcony or drowned myself in the tub. Or at least he would know how much he’d hurt me if I let the birds out of their cage or killed the cat or burned the house down. These thoughts were like intoxicants, pushing me into a high of revenge and ecstasy, the exploding emotions requiring a dramatic act in order to release them. I do remember thinking, Careful, the further you go into these imaginings, the harder it will be to come back.
I lay down in bed, working hard at breathing and not crying. The thoughts continued, lots of abuse along the lines of You loser, you’ll never do anything right, you might as well off yourself, it’d be a relief.
So I’m lying there, worked into an agony of sadistic and suicidal ideation, and some small part of me says:
Amma, are you coming to get me?
I hold my breath, waiting to see whether my Mother God will hear or notice or do anything to look after me.
And on the slow exhale, I feel Amma settle into my body.
The sobs become cleansing rather than desperate, and I understand that I should sleep now, and I will know what to do tomorrow, and I shouldn’t do anything rash that will look all out of proportion in the light of day.
So I close my eyes and surrender to benevolent unconsciousness.
The next morning I got up before Shawn and showered. My eyelids were puffed up, smooth and swollen. If I slid my glasses a bit down my nose, they were mostly hidden. I dressed, ate, and left for work.
Two blocks away, the exhaust pipe in the car chose that moment to let go. I had to drive back the way I’d come, accompanied by the roaring exhaust and the clanging dragging pipe.
I went back into the house. Shawn was in the kitchen — clearly he’d been waiting for me to leave before getting up. We discussed the car, where to take it. I made a phone call. We settled on a nearby Speedy. He advised me to be careful about what work they did, that they would try to take advantage.
Why was I the one to take the car to the muffler shop, when Shawn was the guy, the car expert, the one who knew about parts and costs? Wasn’t that kind of mean of him, to leave that job to me in my depleted state?
Here’s what I think. I think it was a test. Shawn’s test of me, and my test of myself. Could I pull myself together after what had happened? Did I have the presence of mind to make decisions in a stressful situation?
I chose to be strong.
I drove the noisy wounded car to Speedy and held myself gently but firmly in the waiting room while they pulled apart the broken pieces and diagnosed the problem. When the mechanic tried to tell me that I needed this and that fancy new part, I knew what I wanted to do.
Just wire it up so I can drive it to my regular repair shop, I said. Bill had been fixing our car for years and I knew I could trust him to do only the necessary work and use the most economical parts.
The Speedy guy was taken aback. A woman refusing to follow his advice? He tried his sales pitch again.
I could feel the core of steel inside me, buttressed by Amma. Please just wire it up. I want to take it to Bill.
Just now, writing this story, I realize the significance of the exhaust system. Isn’t it too coincidental that the pipe broke the morning after, instead of the night before? The system that’s meant to take all the waste gases, relieving the pressure in the engine, and clean them up before discharging them into the atmosphere, the sound muffled to an appropriate purr?
The Divine is my exhaust system. She spirits away the toxic fumes in my head and keeps me moving forward.
Bill fixed our car with a discount part. Later that weekend, after the picnic and the breakfast date, I booked myself into a room in the university residence and wrote. That was Amma’s solution.
My mind has never again gotten out of hand the way it did that summer I was 31. I learned on the overstuffed couches of therapists and in the pages of books by Byron Katie, Eric Maisel and Neil Fiore that I wasn’t a prisoner of my thoughts. I could decide to fill my head with stories that made me feel happy and powerful. I could chuck beliefs that weren’t serving me into the garbage can. I could talk to myself the way Amma talks to me: You’re wonderful. You’re remarkable. I love you.
And that’s the best gift I could ever give my kids. A mother who is strong and reliable, who knows how to tap into joy and silliness at a moment’s notice. I’m grateful that depression taught me how to do that before I met them. I’m thankful for other gifts too: the way that healing required me to strengthen my relationships and change my life in ways that honoured myself.
I’m 38 now, and I may not be able to bench press my weight or deadlift a tractor wheel, but my mind is one pumped-up son-of-a-bitch. It pains me to see other people (especially my tribe of writers, artists, and creatives) get pushed around by their thoughts like 98-pound weaklings. So I gladly share my experience, because we all need a mental bouncer who will keep out the riff raff. I’m here to question our despairing stories about ourselves and offer an alternative.
You’re valuable. You’re beautiful. We need you. You are loved.