The Unraveling – Some Thoughts After A Nervous Breakdown

Suddenly your life stops. All you know is that you are not okay. All you know is the fear. All you know is that your body is shaking, violently, as you sob. You are overwhelmed and scared of everything. In my case, I kept saying that “they” were going to find me and hurt me physically.  It took me about 30 minutes to get out of bed. I couldn’t eat anything and felt like I was 6 years old again; it felt like all the tears I ever wanted to cry were flooding my face. I got dressed as though I was going to class but after Googling “signs of a nervous breakdown” and walking outside, I knew going to class was not happening. The whole time I was scared – I did not know what was going to happen to me. I had this thought that I was going to lose my mind and collapse, that this was the end of my sanity and I would never be able to function the same way again.

I know mental wellness is not easy when you have been struggling with it for a long time. I have been anxious my whole life. I only know moments of complete peace and calm swimming in a sea of anxiety and depression. And somehow, I can be incredibly calm and level for others, which has made me a great doula. The paradox of my life.

I kept saying for weeks now – my nerves were shot. Way too much for this body in this lifetime. If I had the desire, I could tell you down to the most minute detail why I had a breakdown. Everything from childhood trauma to depression to moving a godawful amount of times post-college to sexual violation and everything in between would do it. I’d go as far to say that estaba mala de los nervios – one of the ways a nervous system disturbance is described in the Latino culture. Mostly women dealt with their nervios. It was a common expression for the women around me when I was growing up. I never got an explanation and still knew what it meant based on how upset and anxious the person was who spoke the statement. At 27, this was the first time I used it to refer to myself.

I used to contemplate how terrible it must feel to lose your mind. I sat in the Dominican Republic on a rocking chair after staring into the eyes of a photo of the woman who birthed me. I could read her sadness, her dissonance. The picture told  me that her illness had begun years before the diagnosis.

When you walk up the hill coaching yourself not to lose it in the middle of the busy crosswalk, reach the hospital and sit in the mental health unit knowing that more than ever you had to speak to your therapist immediately, it feels beyond terrible. I could not speak without sobbing into a tissue. Even communicating with the receptionist was a task in and of itself, trying really hard not to break down in the waiting room.

That morning, my therapist saw me and after some talking, he realized I was having a panic attack/nervous breakdown. He suggested hospitalization for a few days after I told him I wanted to just sleep and pass out for a while. I was initially against it when he mentioned Ativan. We spoke some more and he came back to the fact of the matter – I needed a long time out. He mentioned the hospitalization and medicating me for it. At this point, I was game. I just wanted to rest and stop shaking so much. He said I had been too strong for too long and need help. Finally, someone outside of myself understood this. I’ve been taught by society that as a woman of color, I apparently don’t have time to fall apart. Which makes me angry because goddamnit, I can’t be strong for this long. And not breaking down doesn’t make anyone much more stronger than me. As a matter of fact, regardless of whether or not I made “time” to “breakdown”, it was already happening.

I spent about 8 hours in the hospital. I admitted myself until I knew my fiance could come and get me, as I did not know about my safety if I left the hospital alone. I didn’t know anything actually that day outside of the basic facts – where and why I was there. It’s a trippy feeling to be in a hospital gown and pants for most of the day, in a room alone on a bed with the sweetness nurse I have ever had the pleasure of being cared for. It was my first time spending that much time in a hospital as a patient.

The discharge paperwork spoke about Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I haven’t been officially diagnosed and yet, every single symptom and the entire description fit what I have been feeling for all if not the majority of my life. The desire to “relax and not worry about it” has been something extra challenging to learn. It was a “fucking finally someone understands I don’t worry because I like to” moment.

I feel a lot of things as I recover from last week. I feel embarrassed, like I should have been able to keep my shit together for longer. As though mental wellness and lack thereof is a weakness and I failed the strength test. I have had moments of not knowing what to do with my life anymore. I picked up all my shit, closed all the chapters where I was and moved yet again. Part of this has felt discouraging, as it has thrown off my aspirations for the future. And strangely, beneath all those feelings is relief. Is the knowing that finally other people outside myself understand that I truly do need help, that I’ve been doing this alone for too long and I need a break.

It’s Not Complicated. Just Help. Period.

I asked a group of 99.9% [white] women doing birth work this question, as it really is one of the most important to me:

“What is being done to help and reach pregnant women of color? As you may or may not be aware, women of color are suffering and dying at a disproportional rate in this country.”

Crickets. Then…

“Yeah, not enough is being done here.” (and that was the end of the thought.)

And the icing on the cake:

“The issue is incredibly complex here. We talk about it all the time. Here, why don’t you contact so-and-so about it?”

I kid you not, I lost my mind when I got that response. I wanted to flip over tables and reach through the computer screen and strangle someone.

HELPING SOMEONE STAY ALIVE IS NOT THAT COMPLICATED. JUST HELP.

I’ve been stewing quietly about this next statement I’m about to make: there is a certain level of privilege that exists in this “go natural and claim your birth” movement. Shocker: women of color/pregnant teens/impoverished women who really need to know some of the things privileged women have easy access to don’t. The women who need the most help do not have access to or have knowledge of birth pools, or Lamaze classes, much less health care providers who listen to them and actually want to empower them.

How many of y’all are on public assistance? Have you met some of the health care providers public assistance folks have access to? *Raises hand*

It hurts to be told that it’s complex to help women of color in birth. What does that really mean? Does it mean “I’m too scared to venture out of my comfort zone and do what needs to be done?” Perhaps it means, “I like when it’s easy to help women. Besides, if they really wanted to help themselves, they would just come to me.”

I was trained as a birth doula by an exchange of energy. I received my certification through a fellowship in exchange for helping 3 low-income families with their births. From that experience, I learned that the work is not easy. It took stepping out of my own privilege and being with women who were tuned in with themselves enough to get in touch with the organization that connected me to them. Truth be told, I don’t know that they would have had a doula at their birth if the volunteers did not exist.

I mentioned the demographic of women as white, not to pick on white folks but to make it painfully clear that in some cases, the well being of women of color is really not their concern. And you know what? I’m done asking anyone, black, white, red, yellow, whateverthehell, to pay attention and do something. Blessings to your path, homie. I ain’t about that life.

Which brings me to one of my conclusions on the matter: Women of color are still dying and suffering at an alarming rate. Yes, all women need help and I’m the first person to not care about race, religion or creed when it comes to this topic. With that said, there is a real issue with the privilege that folks have that women who really need the help do not have. And to be fair, women of color, teenage mothers and impoverished mothers really need the help. It’s not that complicated. Will people automatically be open to the help? No. Will it be hard to reach them? Yes.

You just do it. Even if you get through to one person, you have changed the entire course of a person’s life. Don’t tell me it’s complicated. Women and children are dying. Just help. See your privilege. Acknowledge it, cry me a river, build a bridge and get over it.

When You Stare Into The Abyss, The Abyss Stares Back At You: Healing From Anxiety and Depression Pt. 1

When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. – Friedrich Nietzsche

As I reflect on my life, which is a habitual activity for me, some thoughts come up about living in a cycle that I am breaking – one of anxiety and depression. There are many factors to why I have lived with these old friends of mine. To start at the very root, the group of humans that are related to me suffer from varying degrees of emotional issues, from manic depression, anxiety, chronic fear, the effects of immigration, and other subjects along the same lines – all in the family of nervous afflictions.

The woman who gave birth to me suffers from bipolar disorder, among other things. From my understanding of pregnancy and how the 9 months of gestation affect the child, this piece of information is of vital importance to me. I wonder often what she must have been feeling, thinking, experiencing, and sensing when I was inside of her absorbing all of it. Because being bipolar is not an overnight occurrence, I know that I am prone to it from having its effects imprinted in my limbic system.

To better understand the limbic imprint, we need to understand the basic structure of our brain. At the tip of the spinal cord there is a segment called the brain stem (sometimes called the reptilian brain), responsible purely for the physiological functions of the body. Even when other parts of the brain are unresponsive, such as in the case of a coma, the brain stem ensures that the basic physiology of the body is still functioning. A comatose person’s lungs and heart still function. Women in a coma continue to menstruate, and pregnancies continue to gestate.

The exterior of the brain is called the cerebral cortex, and it is responsible for our mental activity. Sometimes referred to as the “gray matter,” it’s what we usually think of as the brain—the part that’s responsible for our cognitive functions, such as logic, memory and calculations.

Within the cerebral cortex is the cerebrum, which is divided into five lobes. The innermost of these is the limbic lobe, which is responsible for our emotions, sensations and feelings. The limbic lobe is not directly connected with the cortex. During gestation, birth and early childhood, the limbic system registers all of our sensations and feelings, but cannot translate them into memory, because the cortex hasn’t developed yet. Nonetheless, the echo of these sensations lives in the body throughout the rest of our lives, whether we realize it or not.

– Elena Tonetti-Vladimirova

I have pieced together what I could about my earlier childhood and what I remember when I became more cognoscente. I have also found something else. My spirit has been protecting me this whole time, helping me cope with the emotional conditions of my life. I gravitated to writing and reading very early in life. I was able to create a world and a safety place from what I perceived to be painful and, to be quite honest, escaping from what I cannot completely put into words. As I became an older child, I kept myself in my books and isolated, for I thought my self to be too weird and misunderstood by those around me. I was also suffering from very low self esteem; feelings of hating my skin, thinking that I was generally unattractive and ugly, and feeling very much like an outcast.  I remember towards the end of elementary school, I began to see writing as a way to relieve pressure from my mind. I would often feel overwhelmed by my thoughts and emotions, so I used my journals to get it all out.

High school brought out the seeds of depression and anxiety much more pronounced. I dove into poetry more. I spent a lot of time alone, often preferring my own company to others. I was always seeking something, and was becoming increasingly aware that something was not right with me. My senior year was the biggest hint, and it was then that I dove right into the abyss of my soul, only to find myself still journeying its depths 10 years later.

I have been healing from anxiety for all my life, and I mark the beginning of college as the conscious onset of my healing from it. It has been painful. It has been hard. It has been rewarding to know that a relentless spirit within me decided that I would break the cycle of inherited trauma. I bless this anxiety and this depression that I have made friends with. Perhaps if I hadn’t been born to this life, I may have never cultivated the amount of compassion I have for others nor have the interest in facilitating the breaking of cycles from conception in becoming a midwife about 4 years from now.  In the second part of this, I will share how I have embarked on my healing journey and where I find my self now.