“Here we go again.”
That was the major thought in my mind in March 2018 when I found myself being driven to the hospital in Jackson where I had always ridden out my suicidal urges. This time was more serious—I kept imagining picking up the big knife laying on the kitchen counter and chopping at my left wrist with it. Just go ahead and cut it and bleed out. Get it over with; be done with life. I don’t know if such imaginings are what’s called command hallucinations, but something serious was definitely going on.
It had started Monday. I had experienced such thoughts throughout my day through the afternoon. I told Bob, “I need to talk to you,” as soon as he came through the door with our youngest daughter in tow from dance practice.
He sent her upstairs to change, and I tried hard not to cry as I told him where my thoughts had been going throughout the day. We tried my doctor’s office to see if they had an emergency number for him, but there was none. We ate dinner, and Bob kept asking me how I was feeling, if I still wanted to go to the hospital. By now we had made my youngest aware of the situation, and being thirteen and us having recently had a talk about my troubles, she knew the situation was serious.
As we went through the nighttime routine, I got calmer and calmer. After dinner, we decided to watch old Bugs Bunny cartoons on DVD to get my mind off the seriousness of the situation. I sat and watched the classics on the DVD—where Marvin the Martian was introduced, the Barber of Seville sketch, one of the “Duck season! Rabbit season!” sequences, and ended with the “Kill the Wabbit” masterpiece featuring Wagnerian opera.
By then I thought I would be okay through the night. I took a hot bath and went to bed.
The next morning I called my psychiatrist, Dr. Bishop, and asked his office staff if I could be seen that day, that I was having an emergency. I already had two appointments that day—one a check up for my daughter and another a check on my cholesterol. They said they couldn’t see me at all–they were too busy that day. They offered me a 2 p.m. appointment the next day, and I said yes, thinking I could make it that far. I was feeling calmer and not so out of control.
But the further it got in the day after my appointments, the worse I felt. Every time I went into the kitchen for anything, there was that big knife again, with the same thoughts of how much it would hurt to cut myself but how good it would be to be done with life.
I don’t really know what made the thoughts jump on me like that. Yes, I had gotten rejections on my writing but that wasn’t anything new. Yes, I had some thoughts about how I was still upset at my job not working out at the first of the spring semester and feeling like dead weight in the household even though I handled cooking, laundry, scheduling, and some cleaning. But I didn’t want to spend my days doing just that. I wanted to work. I kept feeling more and more hopeless and helpless but held on until my youngest came home from school.
I thought that talking with her about her day would get my mind off of mine. But it didn’t. I finally called Bob at 4:20 p.m. and got him on the phone. I was terrified to start cooking dinner and handling that knife. I told him, “I need you to come on home.”
“Are you okay?” he said.
“No, I’m not. I can’t wait any longer on going to the hospital,” I said.
He said, “Okay. Call Mom so she can come get [our youngest] and I’ll be home just as soon as I can.”
I went back to the master bedroom closet and started packing. I pulled open drawers in my closet unit and pulled clothes off of hangers to stuff into my large duffel bag. I had the presence of mind to get three pajama sets and three casual pants sets and three sets of underwear. I thought I probably wouldn’t stay longer than that. I would get my medication adjusted or otherwise managed and be out.
After I packed my clothes, I called Bob’s mom to ask her to come sit with our duaghter until Bob got back. My father-in-law answered and said she wasn’t home and didn’t have her cell phone with her. I didn’t tell him what was going on, just said we would call back later.
I packed my contacts and makeup, knowing to leave my meds and other valuables at home. By then Bob was walking in to a hug from our youngest and asking me how I was doing. I stayed strong and didn’t cry in front of my daughter. We called Dr. Bishop’s office since it was still office hours for him, but the staff there told me to call the hospital directly. I called the behavioral health unit and was told to go to the ER since they had closed assessments for the day. Everywhere I turned it seemed I was being palmed off on someone else.
We decided to just drop our daughter off at Bob’s parents’ house, and Bob called to tell his father we were on the way. His father said that would be fine and wished me well at going into the hospital if that was what I needed to do.
We went to St. Dominic’s with very little talk, mostly about logistics and who needed to be notified that I might be going inpatient again. Again we landed in the ER, and again I was taken back to a windowless room with a wooden bed and a rubber mattress and asked to change into disposable scrubs. And once again, I was seen by the doctor and social worker and admitted to the intermediate ward, loading onto a bus to go across the street to behavioral health.
I came in around eight p.m. Again, we had an array of people on the ward. I played dominoes almost every day with two other women; sometimes we roped in another player, sometimes not. One young lady I’ll call Jane particularly touched me—she had lost her son to suicide and had attempted to follow him to the grave via three bottles of sedatives, spending three days on a ventilator in ICU.
Part of my angst about having my youngest daughter had come back to haunt me while I was in the hospital. Her story only made it worse—what kind of mother was I to regret having had this precious child when this young lady was mourning the loss of her son so intensely? I went to the nurse’s station in tears late one afternoon early in my stay and asked to talk to somebody—a counselor, a social worker, a doctor, a nurse, anyone. I was told to wait outside the door of the social worker on call that afternoon and that he would see me in a few minutes.
After I waited, the social worker Byron asked me into the office. I started crying again and talking about how awful I felt about my youngest child and what a terrible person I was and how angry I was at my husband for insisting we go through with the plan to have another child and how afraid I was at telling him how I felt. I asked, “What can I do with all this angst?”
Byron had listened. He said, “Well, I wouldn’t go to your husband with it the way you feel right now—he’s going to think he’s some kind of a son-of-a-bitch that made you have this child when you didn’t want to, like he raped you somehow and that this child is a product of rape the way you sound right now.”
He advised me to work with my feelings with my counselor after I was released and see what we could figure out in talk therapy. He was very kind to listen to me as I was saying all these horrible things.
But the next morning I woke up very early and was thinking about Jane and about my talk with Byron, and I realized something that set it all in a new light—I realized that some of my feelings were that we had gone through with the plan to have a third child hoping for a boy, and that hadn’t happened. I thought, “Am I mourning that child I didn’t have? Am I reacting to my daughter’s birth and my decision to have my tubes tied as if it were a death of a child named Robert Miller Whitehead III?”
Suddenly so many feelings made sense after that realization—the depth of the post-partum depression that followed her birth, my symptoms always being triggered right around her birthday in the years that followed, my thoughts regretting the plan to go through with the idea of another child, etc. I felt like I had finally found the right words to express my feelings—it wasn’t that I was sorry she had been born or that I didn’t love her. But it was that I was mourning the loss of the possibility of a son that had been brought about. My feelings made perfect sense in the context of my being in a state of denial over having lost out on having Robert.
Byron happened to be teaching the first group class that day, and after class, I asked if I could have another minute of his time. I told him what I had realized in those pre-dawn hours and asked him if it made any kind of sense. He said it did. I said, “And I have been stuffing this down for the past 13 years and denying it. No wonder I’m over the edge whenever I think about it.”
He asked me a couple of questions to think about—who did I blame for her being a girl and what would I have done differently if I had accepted the loss of our son early on as a grief issue. His questions convinced me I was on the right track—I needed to process my feelings as grief, not bad mothering or parenting. In a way it was a relief to have an answer that made sense—and in a way it was burdensome to realize that I was literally going to be starting a square one with this puzzle.
What do you do when recovery is coming this slowly in your life?
–Try something different. I arranged to go to an intensive outpatient clinic after I was discharged from the hospital to help me process this insight into why I felt so badly about having had a third child. I had been to the clinic before after an inpatient stay, but I went with a goal—to mourn this child that never was and to work my way through the grief.
–Stick with your treatment team. After I finished the outpatient program, I saw my regular therapist once a week for a month, then twice a week for a month, then back to monthly visits. We worked more on the insights I had gained and since she knew my history, we could connect the dots in a way that helped me enormously. The team that has helped before can help again.
–Stick with the process of recovery. Yes, it might be slower than you wish, but studies show that talk therapy combined with medication give you the best chances of living without a relapse of mental illness.
–Put the insights gained to use. Now I am able to love my youngest girl with no regrets and no longer feel angry or lost for having had her. I feel like I can share this story with the world now that it has been resolved and I found a way through the thick clouds of regret and anger that surrounded her person for so long.
Julie Whitehead currently writes and blogs from Mississippi at her personal blog. She has been a university lecturer, a disability examiner, and a freelance writer. She carries a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and blogs to create awareness and help others understand the disease and its effects.