Should I have died?

Disclaimer: I am upset as I write this. There’s a certain disillusionment and cynicism. If you’re a close friend of mine or married to me, you might not want to read this. It might be disturbing.


Today was supposed to be a good day. It marks one year from by breakdown, which caused me to admit I suffered from burnout, which ushered in an era of anti-anxiety medication, therapy, discoveries about my husband’s autism, and of taking better care of my kids, one of whom is suffering from sometimes debilitating anxiety and needs a lot of attention and care. The number of doctors, therapists, psychologists, and social workers that have been involved in this clusterfuck that poses as my life is noteworthy.

And, nearly two weeks ago, I took my last SSRI pill. I said I’d give myself some time to adjust to the life after burnout, depression, self-hatred, and drugs. I told myself I’d just sit down and relax (didn’t I rest after I had burnout, you’ll ask? Well, no. I’m dumb, and I didn’t.)

But today is not a day for celebration. The thing is – and Dimitra has been saying it lately – I’m a punching bag. I exist only at the convenience and for the convenience of others. This would be okay if I was talking about my children, but, unfortunately, the problem is way bigger than that.

First of all, I exist for my parents. My mother couldn’t have kids because of some hormonal imbalance that presented itself during pregnancy. She lost a baby in advanced pregnancy – she had to give birth to a dead baby, absolutely horrible – but then she got the treatment she needed, so my brother was born. Fully gestated, a healthy child.

Me? Not so much. She went into labour in the thirty-first week of pregnancy. They managed to delay my birth until week thirty-two, and there I was, a tiny baby who had to go into the incubator for four whole weeks. Cue early separation trauma. Still an issue to this day. Probably. What the fuck do I know.

But science saved me, and I survived. At the times of my life when I started to have suicidal tendencies, the hardships my mother endured to bring me to this world kept me from letting suicidal thoughts get too strong.

Science saved me eighteen months later, when I got whooping cough. I was hospitalised for a long-ish period. My mom was so scared she’d lose me, but, well, evidently she didn’t. Yay! Science won the second round, too.

Then nothing much happened, nothing much, that is, except mental health disasters, phobias, hemiplegic migraines – little reversible strokes, basically, during which a person loses their ability to talk and recognise writing because of parts of the brain shutting off due to elevated blood pressure; awesome, right? – shortly, the inability to live like a normal human in a human world. And then, just to fill the void of an unsuccessful and futile existence, I decided to have kids.

There’s no way I would have survived having a baby in the wild. First of all, my babies were huge for my 158cm/5’2. I saw women in the hospital, big German women, who had without an exception smaller babies than mine, and you didn’t much see the difference in their bodies before and after birth. That’s not the biggest problem – although of course I literally couldn’t walk after the sixth pregnancy month; my back pain was so debilitating that sleep (standing) was impossible for more than a couple hours (minutes), the belly supporting belt the doctor prescribed (the best in the market!) just burst open because it couldn’t support my belly (always a freak!), and after the C-sections, especially the first, I was for all intents and purposes an invalid who had large diastasis recti (gap in the abdominal muscles), which caused her innards to hang through the gap (yes, that happens – thank heavens for soft corsets) suffered from excruciating back pain, and was left to take care of a baby while she couldn’t use her thumbs (inflammations at the wrists – another sad story). All of that while my husband, who, in the case of the first child, took a month off to “help,” sat in front of the computer while I bawled my eyes out on the couch, unable to take care of household and baby because of the pain and the other pain and the inflammations, and feeling like an all-around failure, even at this thing that all women seemed to handle sufficiently, or with some difficulty, but surely not with the level of fail that I physically experienced.

But I digress. Not the biggest problem. The problem was the bicornuate uterus in combination with the huge babies. Both of them were breech. We even turned the second baby externally, but his head didn’t fit the pelvis, so he turned back head-up.

The verdict of the midwives was, neither he nor I would have survived an attempted natural birth without hospitals and surgeons. If it had come as far as a birth of a term baby, that is. With my first, I had to remain in the hospital on a contraction-suppressing IV drip for six weeks until gestation was advanced enough for the baby to not be in substantial risk.

Science saved me a third time. This time it saved my kids, too.

The question in my head now is: Should I have survived this past year?

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I collapsed one year ago. I had to be given tranquilisers to keep my blood pressure down. For weeks before that, my body hurt, my muscles wouldn’t cooperate, at times I couldn’t even walk, and I thought I was basically dying of some weird disease. Then, they gave me the SSRI (magical thing!) and the chronic stress, gathered through a lifetime of that shit you read about and much more, started getting bearable. The pains receded, the overly contracted muscles (yes, stress does that) unclenched, and I could walk, sometimes sleep, exist.

You might think that the stress wouldn’t have killed me, but high blood pressure in combination with the hemiplegic migraines – which I described above – is not very encouraging. I would still probably have survived for some years before getting debilitating strokes, like both my grandmas did. I don’t know if they had hemiplegic migraines, too. It’s a very rare condition. And, if they had, how would anyone have known? Illiterate housewives, slaves to society and their husbands, if they didn’t get visibly sick, they wouldn’t tell anybody.

Let’s call this last part a half-win for science. Science probably didn’t exactly save my life, except maybe by delaying all the strokes I’ll surely get later in life and by helping me take fewer risks. For example, at about this time last year, I had a strong urge to take the car and start driving on the Autobahn as fast as I could. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, but I didn’t think there would be something wrong with me hitting a truck and dematerialising. I’m not adding much to the universe, after all. Except, I take care of others. That seems to be my only role.

Of course, my parents would be devastated. My kids would have no mom–huge trauma, that one. Couldn’t do that to them. My husband – the man whose failure to give emotional care, and whose emotional gaslighting (“it’s not that bad,” or the you’re too needy implication, never uttered, always felt) needs me, too. Do I need me? Do I absolutely have to exist, just because others want me to?

After the breakdown, I said I’d take care of myself, so I started going on excursions. I recruited a friend for that purpose, a post-doc at the institute I used to work for, who loves excursions and trips and adventures, and who was excellent company for all the things I planned to do without kids and without a grumpy husband who gets and causes stress whenever he puts his foot out of the door.

But my friend (who still had six months on his contract and would leave Germany at the beginning of 2021), had a hard time adjusting to COVID Germany. This pandemic has been hard on all of us, after all. I felt for him, stranger in a strange land, as Heinlein wrote and Iron Maiden sang. I tried to help.

Actually, I didn’t just try to help. I went in full-on saviour-syndrome mode and tired myself out in the process. Why the fuck do I always do that? I think it’s because it’s the only way I feel even remotely useful. My friend didn’t really ask for much. I just overexerted myself all on my fuckin’ own. Because, that’s what I’ve learned: I exist for others. The universe refuses to give me reasons to exist for myself.

A couple months ago I tried to get off the SSRI for the first time, but I found I couldn’t cope. I asked my doctor, who said, “you’re the one holding this family together” – daughter in therapy, husband trying to adjust to being around us, the usual. This struck me as true, but also weird. Why doesn’t somebody else have to take the measures I do? Others don’t have to lift a finger. I have to be stuffed with drugs for the sole purpose of being able to take care of everyone else. That’s the main objective. Because, newsflash: I don’t matter. My only function is to be a nanny, a cook, a manager, a therapist (I’m constantly acting as the therapist in my family, because even after all of this, I’m still the most psychologically capable adult around here. Which says a whole fuckin’ lot.)

January to March was a hard time. The friend mentioned above – who was my only company last year, other than my overwhelmed and overwhelming family – had left for his home country. We were in full lockdown, and my daughter’s stress was through the roof. She wouldn’t sleep, she would cry all the time, she was pale, and school and homework were given zero attention, but they did exist in the background and caused more stress. Of course, like every problem in the family, this was my problem to solve, and I desperately tried to find help for her (thankfully, I did, with the assistance of one of the therapists and social workers who’re on our case).

In that state, I tried to reach out to the aforementioned friend, telling him I was kinda sad he didn’t keep in touch. The answer was that he’d been overwhelmed because his employment situation hadn’t gone as expected – totally understandable, of course – and – I remember the next part word for word because of the sheer unfairness of it – “I can’t fulfil your expectations, friendship-wise.”

The thing is, I could tell you the exact date and time when I told him I had no expectations. I know where we were (at a parking lot, southwest of some lakes about 50km south of where I live) and what we were doing (parking the car, and forgetting to pay for the spot, because my brain barely functioned for a full year) and what the weather was like (low temperatures but sunny enough to make you sweat) when I, disappointed by a life of lacking emotional support and now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t friendships, told him that, although I’d miss him, and I’d like for him to be in touch, my experience has been that people move away after their PhDs and post-docs, and they don’t keep in touch, and I’d just wait and see what would happen, because he’s not big on, well, keeping in touch. I was the one consistently keeping the relationship going, as I do with most relationships (I am not important, remember? I don’t really matter enough for someone to exert any effort for me). I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was up to me. I’m many things, but I’m surely not stupid enough to think people can change their ways from one day to the next.

But still, overwhelmed by the year I’d had, I craved for someone to make an effort for me, too, for a change.

And it appeared he did: on that cold and sunny day, he tried to convince me, with many eloquent words and lengthy explanations (he’s exceptionally good at words and explanations) that indeed, I matter, and indeed, I shouldn’t think I don’t, and that he’d do everything in his power to ease my mind. I remember that vividly, too, because nobody had ever promised before to do whatever they can to ease my mind. They mostly didn’t bother to ease my mind at all. I didn’t even think my mind was worth easing. My husband can’t use words, so he never even attempted to ease my mind, even in my worst years of bawling into my pillow and not wanting to exist.

See? Someone was kind to me for a while. And then he accused me of having expectations.

Crash. Burn.

So, here I am. I have no expectations. Not of my kids, not of my husband, not of said friend, not of Dimitra, not of my brother, not of the state who’s failed to vaccinate me even as I am teetering on that precarious edge of the “second breakdown” gorge. I don’t even think I can believe anyone’s promises anymore – except maybe Dimitra’s, but she doesn’t promise me stuff, and I’m sure she’s wise not to do so. See, I take promises seriously, and she knows and understands that. I still love my family and friends, of course – I just have to adjust for what they can give. I shouldn’t judge others by the measures of my ability for self-sacrifice. My therapist says that, to them, what they give is a lot. I am the one who has to understand that.

There have been so many other ways I’ve been a punching bag throughout the years. My sister-in-law who bashed me in front of husband’s family, while I sat there and nobody – nobody – came to my defence, not even husband himself. The girls at elementary school who shunned me for taking an ice cream from the tennis club fridge at a party (It was a rich fucks’ school. I wasn’t rich, just a teacher’s kid). Even the parents joined in the assault towards a nine-year-old. The culmination came yesterday, when I was bashed and insulted – for the umpteenth time – by a close friend whom I’d gotten to trust, and whose behaviour I’d always been excusing because he has serious mental health issues. After being shocked by the excessive brutality and vindictiveness of this latest assault, and while still trying to get my bearings after quitting the antidepressants (let’s see how long that’s gonna last) I was shaken enough to shift my perspective entirely. Suddenly Dimitra’s (and Sasha’s, and Kate’s) words, which they’d been trying to get through to me for the past year, blazed in front of me:

It’s not your job to save everybody. Not even if you feel for them. Not even if you understand them and where they’re coming from and you don’t want them to be in the situation they’re in. Your mental resources are not infinite.

You have to protect yourself. Just because you can handle something that hurts you doesn’t mean you have to stay down and keep being beaten. You don’t have to accept the hurt. You can also walk away from it and avoid the bruises.

Your mental health matters, too. Just because you’re strong doesn’t mean you have to take on additional emotional injury. Others understand that and protect themselves. You should do the same.

And, Dimitra’s favourite motto: The only person you should be investing in right now is yourself. I don’t do that at all, she accuses me. “You take too little care of yourself and too much of others,” says my husband. “Even the kids. Even me. Take better care of yourself!”

Here I am. After nearly forty years, finally breaking free of saviour syndrome. I should fuckin save myself.

It’s been a year since my breakdown. Maybe I should have died many times over, but I’m alive, and it looks like I’m going to be functional, even without the antidepressants. The universe wanted me dead, but here I am, mother fuckers. I’m still alive.


If Jane Austen wrote erotica, this is how she would have written.”

John and Stella have lived, loved, and been hurt. But now they’ve found each other: a middle-aged couple who know what they want, they start exploring kink after decades of self-repression. But their relationship is tried by strong external forces – and by John’s tendency to always, always have his way.

Self-acceptance and fitting in

My therapist is adamant: in the core of all mental health progress is the concept of self-acceptance.

That’s a tricky one. Humans are fundamentally social beings. Without interaction within the species–speech develops simultaneously to complex thought–humans don’t develop to be, well, functioning humans. Today’s individualism culture tries to chip away that fundamental aspect of human existence, the inter-dependency of all people. It would have us be units, alone, while enjoying occasional interactions. But one look at societies shows this is pernicious wishful thinking: who of us can live alone in a cave without utilities, medical doctors, clothes, butchers, wheat growers? Even doomsday preppers hoard guns and cans of food–the know-how that goes into manufacturing guns and cans of food has taken millennia to establish, and the manufacturing chains, from raw materials to finished products, involve a staggering amount of experts and well-coordinated work. Wether we like it or not, we are all parts of a network, and we can’t exist outside it. And that doesn’t even get into the realities of mental health and emotional need, which make the existence in a community crucial for a person’s well-being.

Having a sense of self that’s attached to a group seems to be of fundamental importance. In many civilisations, individuals are defined by the clan, the tribe, the family. It’s a distinctly western thing to be so cut-off from the group. If you ask me, that’s good for some people. Some of us are just weirdos and don’t fit in anywhere. Our tribe stifles us, although we still benefit from its perks–high-speed internet surely being one of them. It’s just as well.

Maybe this is what my therapist means when she says, “accept yourself.” The problem with accepting myself came from my extant inability to belong in a tribe. It’s no coincidence that one of the first things she said to me was, “you’re allowed to be yourself.” I’d been trying to squeeze myself into a mould that didn’t fit me for so long that I became seriously mentally ill (okay, that wasn’t the only factor, but it surely was a factor).

I remember very well when I started feeling that I was somehow different. It was in kindergarten. As long as I was home with my parents and my brother and an aunt or nanny to take care of me, I was fine. At four years of age, though, I got to meet others of my species, and I immediately felt uncomfortable. It all went downhill from there.

So, how does someone like me survive in a highly interdependent, social, mutually-defining collection of individuals?

Therapist’s answer: “By accepting yourself. Self-acceptance should come from the inside.”

Now, I was skeptical of that at first. You can’t think you’re awesome if everyone else thinks you’re dumb. When does self-acceptance stop and delusion start? I’ve met enough delusional people in my life to know it can be a fine line. I certainly do not want to be delusional, feeling I’m a wonderful being, while others look at me and think, “ugh, that arrogant weirdo.” Because I still need to be accepted by certain people, too, for all that I don’t really belong in a tribe.

It’s a tough balance. My solution is: be picky. Instead of breaking yourself trying to fit the moulds created by different groups and communities, be yourself–like Therapist would have me be–and just accept those into your inner circle who can accept you for who you are. Also, be selfish: I don’t click with just anybody (actually, very rarely do I meet someone with whom I click), and that’s okay. I just can’t bother with parties, outings, groups of acquaintances, even with my extended family. I feel positively awkward when I’m in larger groups of people. Like the odd one out. When I try to make myself likeable to many, I mostly fail.

Now that I’m on my way to actually accepting myself, I find I need fewer people in my life. I don’t need to be validated by everyone, and this actually helps with my existing relationships. I’m also an introvert, albeit a very communicative one, and one thing’s clear: as soon as I finally started accepting myself, I started needing to be alone even more. My new motto is: if it feels better to do an activity alone, don’t be pressured by societal norms to, well, not. And these days–probably since I’ve never lived alone and the hardships of the past year have exhausted me–nearly everything feels more relaxing when I do it alone. Sitting at a restaurant: I’d rather be alone. Going to the movies: better alone.

This poses some problems. For example, I’m seriously worried I’ll alienate my few friends. But I think they’ll understand. I had a nervous breakdown complete with burnout one year ago, and I didn’t let myself heal. I took care of others instead–and yes, I know this was monumentally dumb. I’ve been running on fumes for a whole freakin year. Even small talk exhausts me now. I need to avoid a second breakdown, and if I have to retreat into myself to do it, well, this is what needs to happen.

So, friends, if you’re reading this: I love you. You’re special to me. I’ll get back to you when I have replenished some of my energy.

Going off the meds

It’s finally time.

Burnout, breakdowns, a year of crying and therapy. Three fourths of my family is in therapy right now. My husband is in the process of (possibly) getting an autism diagnosis. My daughter is learning to cope with stress – and with mentally ill parents. And, last but not least, the person who holds this whole thing together: my humble self. I’m in the process of accepting myself as a valid human being (the jury’s still out on that).

That’s no small feat. I’m not going to go into the details now, but feeling like an alien has been my norm. I haven’t had a “normal” childhood or a “normal” youth (what is that, anyway?), I haven’t had “normal” relationships with friends and family (again, what’s normal in that case?), I haven’t had a “normal” career path, and I haven’t had a “normal” – or sane – relationship with myself.

One year minus two weeks ago, I started taking a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, an antidepressant whose purpose was (in my case) to treat chronic stress. It worked like a charm. I was able to go to therapy and solve the problems that had been plaguing me for twenty years – or a lifetime, depending on how you look at it. I was never at peace, after all. Nine-year-old me wasn’t at peace. Even four-year-old me was starting to feel something was off.

This year, thirty-nine-year-old me has a chance to be at peace. Therapy, drugs, the help of a loving family and wonderful friends and encouraging readers, and things are slowly getting where they should be. I can’t break free of the idea that I’ve just lost so much, but there’s nothing to it now but to make the best out of the second half of my life. At least I won’t have a mid-life crisis – one of the consequences of doing things “the wrong way round.”

This time, I’m taking things one at a time. Okay, I’m not an independent adult, and I’ve never been. I can’t solve that right now. I still have a phobia or two. I can’t solve that either. But I’ve solved so much, so I can focus on one thing at a time. And that thing is now: be off the meds without suffering from debilitating anxiety. This means I’m going to take some weeks “off” – i.e. I’m going to treat myself as well as I can while doing the basics to take care of my family. I’m going to do my best not to feel guilty that Urban is working and has to do laundry and other housework. I’m going to sit and colour with my favourite felt-tip markers because this is something that soothes me. I’m going to read fiction and non-fiction. I’m going to give myself all the time in the world. I’m going to do yoga and learn a language while training myself not to feel guilty when I’m not progressing with my hobbies as much as I’d like to. I’m going to write, maybe. I’m going to market my book, but only when I feel like it. I’m going to make stress dissolve but tackling that overwhelming guilt that has been accompanying whatever I do or not do for as far as I can remember.

Some months ago, I halved the SSRI dose. Then I halved that. When I took the last quarter-pill, last Sunday, I was only taking that every second day. A single subtle sign of anxiety has returned during the past week or so – the persistent tinnitus in my left ear – but this time I’m determined to be as calm as possible. Let’s hope I can make this work.


If Jane Austen wrote erotica, this is how she would have written.”

John and Stella have lived, loved, and been hurt. But now they’ve found each other: a middle-aged couple who know what they want, they start exploring kink after decades of self-repression. But their relationship is tried by strong external forces – and by John’s tendency to always, always have his way.

And if I can’t, I have my doctors and my therapist, and science happily has given me a way to deal with all this.


So you think you know what fatigue is

A couple weeks ago, and just as we’d finished the lunch I’d lovingly prepared, my husband told me, “I’ll go out for a walk, okay?”

By the way I looked at him, he knew how I felt about that. He didn’t understand, so I told him how hectic my day had been up to that point, at just about 1:00 p.m.–not even halfway into the day. I hadn’t gone for a walk, of course. After the first three sentences, he shouted, “Stop, I’m already stressed!”

So, let me explain to everyone who’d like to listen what mental load is.


I wake up groggy and tired. My neck’s hurting again. Bad posture at the computer? Who the fuck knows. Husband is sweet–he makes me coffee. Daughter has school at 8:30, which means my office is hers for as long as the zoom meeting with her teacher lasts. Her teacher says it’s always one hour long, and if it’s going to be longer, then she’ll send an email with the info. I haven’t gotten any emails today, so I decide to go out for an hour’s walk. I’ll be back when her lesson is over.

Another ten minutes of quiet to finish my coffee–I’ve allowed Son to listen to an audiobook while Daughter is in “school”–and I put on my hiking top and shoes. I have to do some walking every day, and if I don’t do it now that it’s early, I won’t do it later, when I’m swamped. Our health has been deteriorating during this lockdown. Our eating habits, too. We’ve had fries for three meals in a row. I don’t have ballet right now, which was my way of staying fit and active, and I’m only getting fatter. It’s okay, you’ll think, but it’s really not. I don’t get fat in the “nice” way–or what is considered acceptable in today’s society, at least–not at the hips or butt. My extremities remain matchstick-thin while my midsection bulges. When I’m fat, I have a fat belly, a fat back, and no waist. I’m like a barrel with legs. It’s unacceptable.

But that’s not even the main reason I have to go outside: I have to go outside every day because otherwise I ‘ll lose my god-damned mind.

It’s not only exercise, either. I take with me an invitation to Son’s birthday celebration, which I’ll throw in his friend’s mailbox (only one guest allowed. Corona!). I also take a lot of change with me. Some people don’t bother with small coins, so I regularly have to see that I do something with Husband’s change. It’s such a bother for him to deal with the insignificant details, so he just doesn’t. But my thinking is, we shouldn’t be throwing money away, now should we? The change is for buying eggs at the nearby farm. They have good eggs.

I pop some Ibuprofen before I leave. I can’t count on the walk to fix me–if the neck-related grogginess continues, I won’t be adequately functional today. And there’s a lot of shit to do. Ibuprofen wakes me up. Lately, I totally get why soccer moms in rich neighbourhoods take stimulants. I’d be tempted, too.

I start my route tracker and go first by Son’s friend’s house. Letter in, check, first thing done. I’ve walked 4 km by the time I’m back in my neighbourhood and at the farm. Workout, check. It takes me a while to count all the change, but when it’s done, I pay, and, check! Another thing taken care of. Along with the raw, free-range eggs, I take six cooked, coloured ones (pink, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple) for the kids. Maybe it’ll improve their mood, and they won’t freak out when I tell them to do their homework. Maybe it’ll just make them happy for ten seconds, and I’ll have ten fewer seconds of grumbling.

I’m back. Run upstairs, Daughter still in front of the computer. Why the hell do they make the kids sit in front of a screen for so long? This is not healthy. They get pale and lethargic. Son is playing some game on the old iPhone I’ve given him, so I tell him to stop and get up from the chair. He gets headaches if he plays for too long. He can walk around the room or do some stretching while he listens to a book. No child should be sitting for ninety solid minutes.

Back downstairs. I have to prepare food. Look in the fridge. It’s a whole logistics nightmare to make sure we have everything we need but still not too much, so that it doesn’t spoil, and heaven forbid I forget to buy Son’s favourite sausages or Daughter’s favourite muesli.

Not that I ever forget. I have a detailed database in my head. This is where all the sugar I eat goes: the planning capacity of a caretaker’s brain is endless.

The boiled potatoes have been in the fridge for several days, so has the salad and the rice. I have to figure out how to make meals everybody likes without throwing stuff away. That’s an everyday struggle. Okay, we have lots of cheese–so, potato gratin for lunch, a salad for me and Husband. Phew, that takes care of two out of three. I can make a stir-fry with the rice for tonight; I still have those expired vegetable cans that can go in there, after all. There’s also chicken stock, so I’m thinking noodle soup for the kids (they don’t eat Asian food, the soy sauce and all the crunchy vegetables are just too weird for them).

The kitchen’s a mess; I have to cook and clean at the same time. The plates from breakfast are still on the table. As soon as I’ve put one in the dishwasher, I see the stuff in the sink that needs to be washed by hand, so I do that. Then I run upstairs again. Is the lesson finished? No. It’s been nearly two hours–Daughter is going to be exhausted after this. My blood pressure rises just thinking of the torture that’s going to be convincing her to do homework. She’ll blow up and cry, she’ll get stressed and start fidgeting, she’ll start shaking. I’ll have to be her rock, keep her sane, hug her, tell her to give me all her stress. Mommy’s here.

Is Son playing instead of listening to the audiobook? No, he’s on his feet, listening intently. Phew. Lower probability of hyperactivity and headaches later. Back downstairs. Dang, why are there still plates on the table? Did I get sidetracked again? Duh, of course I did. And, gosh, I should wash the bedding today. Haven’t done it in two weeks. How grubby can sheets get before they’re too grubby? Never mind, I’m never getting this done today. I have to cut potatoes and grate cheese. Clean salad, soak the buns for my french toast tomorrow morning. I made banana buns last week, and nobody’s eating them–and I refuse to throw away food. My breakfast for the week is settled. Fine by me.

When am I going to finish the proofread I have to hand in next Monday? I only managed ten pages yesterday. I don’t even know if I’m doing a good job. My brain’s just too addled and distracted these days.

I have a first appointment with a child therapist tomorrow, because Daughter has been depressed, crying, stressed. I have to take care of her mental health, because nobody else will. Don’t get me started on Husband’s family. They’re willing to ignore all elephants in the room. I’m talking about roaring, stampeding elephants. If they can pretend a problem doesn’t exist, they will, and we all know humans are perfectly capable of pretending problems don’t exist. And the problems I sought a therapist for are only the recent ones, which are on top of all the issues Husband’s possible autism and my chronic anxiety have been causing for years: the hypersensitivity, the panic attacks, Daughter’s debilitating anxiety, her insecurity, her difficulty sleeping. I’m in charge of the family’s mental health. I have to fix it.

Husband’s coming with me to the therapist tomorrow, so that she gets a complete view of what we think’s wrong. My mother-in-law calls to say she can’t make it to babysit, but grandpa can come here and stay with Daughter for two hours so she’s not alone. She gets so insecure. I think it will be nice for her to spend some hours with grandpa.

Mother-in-law and I agree to talk again at 13:00. I set a reminder on my phone because there’s no chance I’ll remember.

I’m grateful I’ve been able to get help for all the members of the family, and at the same time I’m just a little resentful that nothing happens if I don’t do it. Our daughter would be irrevocably traumatized hadn’t I stepped in and set the wheels in motion. Now three of us–all except Son–are in therapy, plus there are the family therapy sessions. The progress is slow but significant. We need a lot of work. Husband doesn’t always see it. One little success, and he thinks we’re finished. I have to convince him anew every fuckin time that he has to continue therapy. (Yes, that’s my job, too. I have to keep this family together.)

Husband has his first autism evaluation appointment next week. The family therapist has been insisting he do it for six months now. I almost had a breakdown during our last family therapy session, so this time the family therapist told Urban, “You’ll keep postponing it forever, so do it now. Call the autism center. Today!”

Really, I’m telling you, I was close to burnout for a couple days there. It was touch and go. Now, second burnout in a year, that would have been an achievement. But that’s Urban. His inertia is a thing to behold. I still love him, for whatever reason. (I know the reason: he’s the only absolutely logical person I know who’s absolutely secure in his skin and nevertheless has no ego–he admits what he does wrong and he’s willing to correct it. If the inertia doesn’t take over, that is. Which it usually does. Still, have you ever met someone who’s 100% secure but not selfish and insistent on his opinion? The line is so fine that pretty much everyone falls on one side or the other. Not Urban. He’s just absolutely okay.)

Where was I? Ah, Husband and his possible autism. He goes to therapy, but I’m not allowed to talk about it with him anymore. I posed too many questions. I was too critical–of the therapist, mostly. If you ask me, his therapist knows nada about adult autism. She thinks the person who has to have everything at right angles on his desk and freaks out if you touch his stuff just had an overprotected childhood.

Fuck. There are still two dirty plates on the kitchen table. Why are they still there?

Daughter comes down after two hours of zoom lessons. She’s exhausted. I have a plan for homework, but if I tell her now that we have to do homework, she’ll explode. I’ll be there for her, of course, like yesterday, and I’ll sit her down and gently insist we do it. I’ll write down the math exercises for her, while she tries to soothe her trembling and her nerves by drinking some water or eating a snack. I’ll try to soothe her by showing her just how good she is at math. This is how we do things these days. She can do everything on her own, of course, under normal circumstances–her teacher can’t believe I have to help her so much at home since she’s a model student in school. Her teacher doesn’t get school is different from home. Her teacher doesn’t understand the difference between having to obey a person of authority and the insecurity caused by an emotionally unregulated parent. Every single time Husband berates Daughter has her questioning his love for her and freaking out about whether she’s made him sad. Teacher doesn’t get any of that.

So, no homework. I reckon it’s snack time. I know they’ve barely had breakfast, so I sit them down and cut some bread. They dive in, and the ham and salami are gone in a second.

Mental note: buy more salami. Open app on phone, note down salami. While they eat, I sit and help them. I’m actually sitting!

Now I tell them to get carrot leaves and parsley to feed the piggies. They must stay occupied for half an hour or so. The piggies are fun. Thank God for the piggies. They make me feel less lonely—you already know about my husband and my loneliness.

Maybe I can steal a couple minutes’ work while they play with the pets.

Daughter does her schooling at my desk, so I have to sweep the eraser bits to the floor. Who cares about some dirt—next week it’ll be swept by our cleaning lady. She’s not all that good; if I have a basket on the floor, she wipes widely around it, not even bothering to push it to the side and wipe beneath it. But again, who cares. The important thing is that we’re not filthy.

Trim nails (I hate my nails hitting the keyboard when I type), light candle (soothes me!), get my cold tea. Ready. Open document. It takes a while for me to concentrate. I have to be well concentrated for a proofread. Am I doing a good job? I did a second pass yesterday, and I found things I’d missed. In my mental state, I’m terrified I’m still missing things. Okay, then, it’s settled: two passes for everything. Even if $4/1000 words aren’t worth the time I’m investing. But I want to do the best possible job. Four dollars are more than zero dollars, after all.

 The kids come before I’ve done two pages. They want to watch TV now, or play on the phones. But there’s another drama: they want to use my computer (it’s the only place where they can play a specific game), the same one on which I’m working. You’d think giving them a smartphone each to use for the time I’m indisposed would be entertainment enough, but no. (Mental note: tell Urban to finally make a kids account on his computer so they can play when he’s not here.)

Okay, new idea: I’m buying Minecraft for Son. I promised it would be his birthday present. His birthday is in just two weeks. It’s fine, he’s just getting his present early. It’ll keep him occupied. Then maybe I can work for this meagre fee I’m charging. Maybe I can even make the 7.99 Euros I spent for the game in the little time I have until lunch.

Probably not.

Son returns with the phone. I have to remember my Microsoft account password to log into the game (why? WHY?). Fat chance. I set up a new one. This takes another five minutes. While I’m doing this, Daughter comes in and wants my face ID to download something. I berate her—”You see I’m writing something right now,” I tell her, “why do you think I can do it? Wait, please.” I kid you not, she came yesterday to ask for my fingerprint to download a game while I was on the toilet. But if I open the door while she’s on the toilet, there’s hell to pay. “Do you like it when I do this to you?” I asked her, and she was mortified. But still she stayed until she got the ID. Kids don’t really have boundaries, but hell, they’re big enough now, they’ll have to learn.

Where was I? Work. Let’s continue the proofread until Urban comes back from his therapy. Darn, he’ll be back any minute. Lunch. I got to make lunch. I’m hungry.

Deep breath. Another one. A sip of my nice cold tea.

I can proofread a little more. On to the next page. I do my best to concentrate again.

Son comes back. “I can’t play!” How the fuck do you play Minecraft? Holy cow, why does this have to be so fuckin hard?

Okay, I need to start with the salad now. I’ll proofread tonight, when the kids are asleep. Theoretically, I like to shut down the computer in the evening and wind down, but yeah. Ha-fucking-ha.

I managed seven pages. Maybe 1.5k words. 6 dollars, maybe 4 Euros or so. Well done, Ioanna.

I go downstairs and make lunch, leaving them to play. Daughter comes down the stairs, and I tell her to leave the phone and come for lunch now. “But we have barely played!” she starts–already in the ear-piercing half-crying mode I can’t stand. “I don’t give a shit,” I snap. Of course, she deteriorates to sobs, and I immediately regret it. I apologize, hug her, hold her until she’s calm again. I apologize again and again. No matter now swamped mommy is, no matter if she needs to work on her computer and the kids insist they want to play on there too, no matter how much of a struggle it is to make them do homework, cook, get groceries, do wash-up, keep them fed, physically healthy, mentally healthy, coordinate as best as possible so that Husband doesn’t get overwhelmed (hint: everything that’s not organized and figured out overwhelms him, so basically everything in a child-full life), no matter what, Mommy has to stay calm.

Okay. I’m calm. Lunch.

We sit down. Daughter’s not eating, she’s just sitting there. The three of us are happy with the food Then we’re finished, and while I clear the table, I tell them about homework. Daughter very nearly has another meltdown, but I hold her and soothe her and tell her we’ll do it together, and it’s going to be fine. I don’t know why she keeps having these meltdowns. She can do her homework all right. It’s not too hard for her.

She brings the printouts of Monday’s exercises (it’s Wednesday today, but we’re taking it slow. She wasn’t doing any homework until last week). She makes a mistake. “I don’t want to show my teacher that,” she says. In the meantime, Son is climbing on and off his chair, fidgeting, looking at the simple (for him) math sheet in front of him, he grumbles, he throws the pencil around. He doesn’t do math. I try to convince him to do it quickly and go play, but no dice. “Go tell daddy to print the page again,” I tell Daughter, “so you can do it as nicely as you want.” I try again to motivate Son. “Come on! We’ll do it together! I’ll tell you and you’ll write!” We’re cheating, but who cares. He’s good at multiplication, it’s just such a drag to write everything a bunch of times. But he doesn’t stop moving and fidgeting. He just won’t sit down and do it.

Daughter comes back. “Daddy was in a meeting, but he turned off his camera and talked calmly with me! And he said he’d print it! And he wasn’t mad at all!”

“YAY!” we say together and throw our hands in the air. Daddy is patient! Daddy is learning! Daddy didn’t shout! Yay! The little joys!

Son is grumbling, mock-crying, fidgeting, while Daughter is trying to do math. She starts half-crying, too. “Come on,” I tell her, we’ll do it together!”

I turn to my other side, to Son. “Come on,” I tell him, “it’s easy! You wrote three times two is six, look, the same calculation exists in all exercises! Write it in all of them and you’re halfway there!” I binge on their Kinder chocolate all this time. Who fuckin cares about weight right now. I have to stay sane. I have to get them to go out today, too. Since I started forcing my daughter to get out of the house every day, she’s less pale and doesn’t cry all the time.

Husband can’t do homework with both kids at the same time, he says. Too confusing. Too demanding. Too exhausting. It can’t be done.

Not like I have a choice, right? But he does. He has a choice. Why does he always have a choice?

After a while, I don’t feel like torturing them (and myself) anymore. I let them do whatever they want with the phone and come to my den to write this post. I could have proofread several pages in the time I wrote this, but I didn’t. I wanted to write it so that you know and I remember. This is my life. This is why I collapsed last year. This load, emotional, mental, and physical, that nobody–not even your closest person–can understand.

This is what most of the people I know don’t get: the mental load of doing yet another thing is almost insurmountable. So much mental energy is expended in overcoming the mountains of doing things that are emotionally difficult. Do you know how much strength it takes to know Daughter’s meltdown is coming and steel yourself, and stay there, and be their rock, and push on? Most people leave. Urban leaves. The emotional strain has reached destructive levels.

And this happens every day.

But I fuckin stay.

“It’s easy,” a violin-playing friend said when I said I just can’t muster the strength to practice every day. But it’s not easy, because I truly, honestly forget. God knows I have a shit-ton of things to keep in my head, to organize, to bring to fruition. “You just have to practice for five minutes a day,” he said. “Do it in the morning.”

Thing is, I know it only takes five minutes a day. Only, before the five minutes, you have to tune and figure out where you left off. You have to make sure your music stand is steady (you had to disassemble it–floor cleaning, kids throwing stuff around, you know) and then you have to make sure people who barge in the room every three seconds are otherwise occupied. Before you do all that, it already feels like a huge hurdle to overcome–never mind that you feel the weight of all you have to achieve in the next eight hours already now, now, which raises stress levels already to red. And, by the time you’ve tuned, flexed, practiced, re-tuned, wiped down, loosened, tucked in, put together, disassembled, at least have an hour is gone. And in your state of exhaustion and anxiety, going to the other floor, where the instrument is, is a hurdle. Opening case, tensing bows, tuning, wiping, it’s all a hurdle. Trying to concentrate: huge hurdle. It’s not a five minute thing. The mental barriers of stress, tiredness, reluctance are the worst. Why don’t we all have good habits if it’s as simple as that? (Hint: read James Clear’s Atomic Habits and all your questions about habits will be answered. This is not product placement. I just loved this book. It helped me make my walks into a habit. Thank heavens. Thank you, James.)

This was half my day. A chaotic process of jumping from one subject to the other every four seconds. Brain science and psychology tells us it takes a lot of energy to change focus all the time. This is why multitasking is a huge drain of mental energy. And let’s not go into the emotional energy, of which you need to have endless reserves in order to deal with a possibly autistic husband, a child with anxiety, and all the rest. Emotional load is a real fuckin thing. It’s crushing.

Thank goodness I’ve dealt with most of my own issues–the Rejection Sensitive Disorder, the chronic anxiety (really! I didn’t even get dizzy once today!), the borderline borderline, the body dysmorphia (but see “barrel with stick-legs”–am I really over that?) and whatever else there was. They’re not gone, not all of them, but who has time to think of her own mental health right now?

I still have to make dinner, make sure the kids go outside for at least half an hour, do homework with them (stress levels hitting deep red), send Daughter’s teacher her exercises, work some, tidy up Daughter’s room with her. (Tidying up is a long process. We started one week ago. There was no floor to be seen. Now we see the floor. It’s going to take a month or two. Her room was like a rubbish damp. I won’t start.)

The kids have to shower and wash their hair today, but Husband can take care of that. All in all, it’s 15:38 and I haven’t really finished even half my tasks of the day.


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“That, my friends, is a great book.”Rebecca Hefner, author

19. Discovering you matter

<< 18. When he cries

It’s been eight months since my last post, and as you might imagine, a lot has changed in that time.

Where do I start? There have been so many discoveries about my husband, myself, my children, my feelings and their feelings and even other peoples’ feelings, about perceptions and misconceptions–some of them truly astonishing–that I find it hard to focus on one.

But let’s try. The biggest thing is something both my therapist and our family therapist suggested after observing us for a while: my husband might be on the autism spectrum.

Now, this was a shock, but maybe not for the reasons one would expect. To me, it was mindblowing for the simple reason that I finally realized I matter. You might not be able to understand how someone in a long-term, devoted relationship might be horribly lonely and think they don’t matter, but this is exactly how my life came to be after years (and years!) of being lonely while being with someone.

The times I screamed at my husband, “If you don’t want to be with me, just leave!” are too many to count. Nearly every evening of our life as a couple I spent practically alone–he had his computer, his programming books, his podcasts, the videos about fountain pens. Excursions were hell. Okay, we had small kids, which does complicate trips a lot, and it turned out I had high levels of chronic anxiety, so excursions were bound to be a strain, but still: my husband got squirmy, he resisted, he shouted, everyone got stressed whenever I tried to get us out of the house. Not a nice way to spend days that were supposed to be relaxing. But staying home all the time wasn’t an option either. Kids need fresh air and movement. They go crazy if they’re home all the time–something that has become obvious to many parents during this long, torturous lockdown.

So, here I was eight months ago: I’d never traveled as I wanted, because Urban never wanted to move from his favourite place–which is a chair in front of his computer. Stressed, juggling the emotional health of the family, dealing with a sensitive daughter who suffered from anxiety issues herself, and trying to keep dad on an even keel because his outbreaks were seriously damaging the peace in our family. And on top on all that, I realized I didn’t even want to spend time with my husband. I didn’t even feel remotely inclined to have a meal with him at a restaurant anymore, because there was nothing to talk about. I was bored. I knew there were things that interested him, but he sure as hell didn’t talk about them with me. So, I’d have meals alone, with a book, with a friend.

When I told my therapist all of this (and a bunch more), she frowned and asked, “Is he autistic?”

Welp, turns out the family therapist had the same suspicion, which is why he was insisting on Urban starting therapy ASAP. We found some online tests (on serious websites!) in which he scored highly, which means that there’s a high probability he’s on the spectrum. My husband was shocked. It couldn’t be. Could it?

Then we started thinking about what we knew to be his quirks. Never tolerating help at tasks like repairing things (trying to help him is a surefire way to cause a serious meltdown). Not being able to cope when days don’t follow their usual pattern (this is why Saturdays have been hell for the past 8 years). Not understanding what others feel. And, most of all, not being able to connect emotionally with me, although–it turns out–he actually has feelings. Strong feelings. Feelings he thought were clear.

Now, as you might expect, getting a diagnosis of adult autism during a lockdown is, to put it mildly, nearly impossible. There are precious few experts on the matter of adult autism, and stats show that high-functioning adult autism is often hard to detect because individuals learn to adjust and mask so well when questioned by others. The reason we came to the conclusion was that I knew Urban so well. In a conversation with someone who doesn’t know him, he appears perfectly neurotypical. This is why his therapist, I think, isn’t convinced. She doesn’t see the meltdowns. She doesn’t know about the fidgeting.

Anyway, next week Urban has a first appointment–with volunteers, not a therapist or psychiatrist, sadly–for a first assessment. We don’t know if they’ll find anything, or what they’ll find, but I surely think the suspicion of ASD has helped us already, if only by making me understand things aren’t always what they seem to be. Hostile reactions can have reasons other than mistrust or dislike. Being overwhelmed by tiny things as an adult is perfectly possible. And, most importantly, just because you don’t feel love from your partner, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It might just mean his way of making connections is underdeveloped.

Anyway, that’s it from me for now. I’m writing, editing, trying to fix my family’s mental health, and as you might imagine, I’m exhausted. Still, I decided to not postpone publishing my books anymore. My writing is what brought this change about, and I’m going to keep writing and publishing for as long as life and our mental health journey can perplex and inspire.


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“That, my friends, is a great book.”Rebecca Hefner, author

18. When he cries

<< 17. Confirmation, contradiction, confusion / 19. Discovering you matter >>

“Did you find a therapist?” the family counselor asked Urban.

My husband hasn’t found a therapist. I understand his inhibition. It took me years to pinpoint and accept my issues and finally ask for help. God knows it’s not easy. You need some time for the idea to settle inside you, for it to stop feeling intrusive, disruptive. He needs to reconcile himself with how things are. I can’t begrudge him that.

“Why didn’t you?” the counselor asked.

 “There’s always so much to do, with work and the kids… I didn’t have any free time…”

The psychologist, calm as always, explained that, in all probability, there’ll never be time, so Urban will just have to bite the bullet and do it. I contributed my insights: he’d have to, 1. Pick up the phone, 2. Talk to someone he doesn’t know, 3. Explain the situation and 4. Impart its seriousness (he’s always lukewarm in his expressions, things are “not bad” or “fine,” mostly accompanied by a shrug). It is a huge feat of willpower, and he’d have to overcome his rather strong inertia. And therapists are busy, they don’t take on patients who don’t have serious problems.

The counselor wanted to help, and so he asked Urban to repeat a sentence which, in his opinion, imparts the seriousness of the situation in a concise way:

“I must learn to deal with my anger, which threatens to destroy my family.”

Oh, boy, that was hard. Getting out of the car, Urban fell in my arms, crying. It doesn’t help that our daughter—increasingly sensitive to his slightest change of inflection, just like her mother—keeps breaking down in sobs at the slightest provocations, shows physical symptoms of stress, and insists that “papa doesn’t understand me.”

“I made it all so bad,” he kept saying as he melted down in my arms. On the next morning, out of the blue, he started crying again. I hugged and soothed him. I’ve only seen him cry three times, all of them in the past five weeks.

I don’t know if he’s just now realizing it. I’ve been telling him for months that I wouldn’t last long in this situation, there were signs, my stress became overwhelming, my fatigue unsurmountable. Still, he just wouldn’t register my words, weird though it seems now. I think he’s one of those people who need to feel the effect various situations have on you. He doesn’t lack empathy, he just can’t access it through academic disquisitions.

I’ve been resting for six weeks now, and he’s been working, taking care of the kids at least half the time, cleaning a little now and then. I know it’s already exhausting—duh, I did this and more for years—but I let him do it, at the same time doing my best to suppress my feelings of guilt for not helping enough (he says I do more than enough, but I suppose this is not easily measurable). I figure, he has to come closer to his kids, so that the daughter doesn’t feel that “papa doesn’t get it,” so that the son bonds with him a little more. They’re so cute, the three of them together. There’s lots of love to go around. I think we’ll make it, but it will take lots of effort, and time.

Yesterday, I heard him saying to our daughter, “I haven’t had a minute to myself the whole day.” He gets cranky in the evening, he wants the kids to go to bed so that he can sit down and relax for a little while. I understand it all, but still, there were months, sometimes years in a row when I didn’t have single minutes to myself the whole day, nearly every day. Is this a strange, new occurrence to him? Was the distribution of mental labor in our family so skewed?

I think it was, and my guilt is probably misplaced. I should take time to heal—I still get tired, although not as much as three weeks ago—and I should do my best to sleep more and spend more quality time with the kids. I’m still the emotional pillar of this family, after all. This takes effort, it sucks so much energy out of you. It’s no wonder I find myself so often exhausted.

And I have other plans for taking care of my mind and soul. I’ve decided to do something I’ve always wanted: learn how to play the violin. But more on this in the next post.

17. Confirmation, contradiction, confusion

<< 16. Reassessing two decades / 18. When he cries >>

What is all this body positivity we’re bombarded with doing to us? I can tell you what it did to me. Bear with me, this has to do with the story of my mental recovery.

It’s not only the body positivity that I’ll talk about. It’s the constant pushing of a certain body type—we all know what that is, we grew up with it, television, cinema, advertisements, magazines—and then, after you’ve internalized the message you’re inundated with, when you finally feel that you’ll never be good enough, thin enough, attractive enough, no matter how hard you try, then you’re told, what’s wrong with you? Why are you so unhappy? You should like yourself the way you are! The implication is clear: if you don’t accept yourself as is, there’s something wrong with you. Look at all those chubby people, perfectly happy with themselves. If I had a penny for each time I was told my only problem is I’m just not confident enough!

Only, most of the chubby people—plus sized models, my ass, they’re normal women—also have that certain body type, just slightly rounder-looking, still with perfect skin and wonderful analogies. The message is the same: you’re just not good enough. And I won’t get into the whole subject of mothers’ ravaged bodies: nobody wants to see that, we all pretend the saggy, wrinkly parts don’t exist, we call stretch marks “tiger stripes.” Well, that might give some women comfort, but to me, it’s just another way body positivity makes me feel even uglier. I don’t have stripes; it’s all pitted and puckered, disfigured beyond recognition. There are no lines. Even in that standard of beauty—the wonderful tiger-striped mommy belly—I’ve failed. Miserably. Which animal am I, since tiger will not cut it? A very old, wrinkly tortoise?

I’ve been fighting with the image of my flawed body for a while (wink wink: I’ll give my heroine Stella some more poignant moments of self-doubt in the next books of my series! Inspired by real life!) Last week, to give myself some comfort, I searched for the mombod hashtag on twitter. Lo and behold: perfectly toned bodies, smooth skin, abs showing under lean flesh. Where were all the moms like me? Why aren’t we showing our bodies to the world? My therapist keeps making a big deal of the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that flaws don’t define you, that, first and foremost, you should like yourself. But—I thought—since I don’t quite love my wrinkly mess, let’s see what others think of it.

So, I posted a photo of my mess on twitter. To my surprise, the reactions were mostly positive: other moms applauded the honesty, one or two posted their own mombods (with proper stipes—lucky tigers!). That gave me some hope. If only for a little while, I was able to distance myself from my need of confirmation—confirmation that, in my life, has been lacking to a pitiable extent—and look at others, how they feel, how I can help them achieve the self-acceptance that for years I’ve been struggling to find.

My therapist thinks it’s okay to look to others for confirmation. “But, first and foremost, you have to like yourself,” is her mantra.

“Okay, I do like myself,” I told her last week. “When I’m alone with myself, I’m fine. It’s society’s opinion of my body that does the damage.”

“What do you gain when you get that confirmation?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” I really didn’t understand the question. What do I get? Well, confirmation. She said so herself.

“Emotionally,” she explained. “What do you gain, on an emotional level.”

I had to think about this for a while. “Well…”

And then I saw it. “I see that others don’t find me as horrible as I find myself.”

The therapist smiled, that triumphant smirk she gets sometimes when she’s proven a point without actually having to spell it out for me. I don’t begrudge her that. This was another breakthrough, one I will remember for a long, long time.

16. Reassessing two decades

<< 15. Don’t be a superhero / 17. Confirmation, contradiction, confusion >>

Things have changed. Not just the little things my doctor expected, like less stress, more calmness, better interactions and fewer fights in our family. Yes, these aspects of life are improving, but they’re not what I want to talk about today. The more surprising changes are the ones I didn’t expect, the big ones, the ones regarding those ever-present problems in life I thought were solid parts of me and my mental state.

Turns out, my brain has been tricking me for the past two and a half decades.

They told me the SSRI would take about three weeks to reach its full effect, and they were absolutely right. First of all, it took three weeks for the tinnitus to stop. Now the buzzing’s completely gone. And one or two of the chronic high-pitched components are gone, too. If this isn’t an advertisement for this drug, I don’t know what is.

On Thursday, I went to my psychologist with a list of all the changes I’ve noticed after these first three weeks. If I’m honest, their magnitude has shocked me. It’s not because I didn’t know that I was troubled, but rather because I hadn’t realized just how much and for how long. Trying to think back to the last time I was in my current state of mental calmness brought me back to my early childhood, and that’s certainly a shocking statement.

Just think about it: we’re talking about a whole lifetime of anxiety. Which is one thing, sure; but the most painful aspect of this is that I had no fuckin clue. I didn’t know this wasn’t normal—if anything in life can be said to be normal or abnormal—I had no idea I was living in a constant mist of anxiety which intruded into and corroded every joint holding the parts of my being together.

At my psychologist’s office, I took out my list and started enumerating all the changes I’m noticing.

“I can fall asleep,” I told her.

“Couldn’t you fall asleep before?” she asked.

Duh. Of course I couldn’t. Ask my parents: it started when I was eleven or whereabouts, and falling asleep has been a difficult business ever since.

“Is that not normal?” I asked her. She shook her head. Apparently, most people can fall asleep.

“I don’t binge eat anymore,” I continued.

She knew about the binge eating, of course. We’ve discussed it before. What she didn’t know was the disgust and self-loathing that goes with it, the unconquerable compulsion to ingest sugar in any form, the powerlessness to stop even when it makes you physically sick and you’re mortified at your own self-destructive urges. She didn’t know about the constant state of hatred toward your own body, the guilt at every bite—even at healthy bites, at the things you’re supposed to be eating; you shouldn’t be eating anything, after all, you’re fat, repulsive—and she didn’t know about the shame of eating in public, the constant, intrusive thoughts: are people looking at me? Do they know I’m a disgusting pig? Do they think I’m hideous? Do they see me as I see myself? And with that comes the dysphoria, the feeling of being trapped in a body you can’t accept, that nothing else matters, only what others see, and what they see is layers of fat, a revolting being who doesn’t deserve to be desired or to call herself a woman.

But three weeks of antidepressants, and the binge eating just… stopped. Poof! That was it. Twenty years of trying to manage my eating habits, of diets, attempts at mindfulness, at listening to my own body and heeding its needs—mindful eating is the goal, after all—and all it took was 21 pills. And, suddenly, the self-loathing has receded, it barely even registers. My body has its flaws, sure, but it’s mine, and it’s fine.

“I don’t hate my body anymore,” I told her.

“Why would you hate your body?” she asked.

Well, why not? Guys never liked me, and in today’s society, being desirable is pretty much the only widely acceptable measure of a woman’s worth. So, how could I like myself without any affirmation? Where I grew up you were ridiculed for gaining a couple pounds—and oh boy, did the pounds pile on when the binge eating started. In the society that shaped my subconscious, men are misogynist and cruel. Young me wasn’t liked by young men—and it wasn’t just my appearance, they didn’t like my character either—brash, aggressive, troubled, anxious, clingy, phobic, and intelligent and ambitious to boot; altogether too much work for those twenty-something-year-olds who preferred easy booty and had a disinclination to be challenged in any way that put their own perception of their masculinity in danger.

The psychologist let me ramble on about it for a while, then put down her papers and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. She looked at me with that expression people sometimes get when they think you’ve been greatly deceived and see it as their responsibility to set things straight. “You’re an attractive woman,” she said.

Well, sure, okay. But I’m also a practical person, quite obsessed with problem-solving, and, although her observation made me think about the possibility of her statement being true, it’s not like I’ll ever be able to really internalize it, to actually feel like an attractive woman.

Or will I?

This drug is making me not only see things differently, it’s making me approach things in an emotionally new way. Interestingly, it’s annoying, and my ego is suffering slightly because of it. I battled these problem for years, and now, 21 pills and they’re gone. Was my mind not strong enough? My willpower? My logic? I pride myself on my methodical brain. Why couldn’t I solve this for so long? God knows I tried my best.

“You wouldn’t blame a diabetic for taking insulin,” Tyler says. “They have a condition, and they need to take medication to survive. You have a chemical imbalance in your brain, and you take the medication to get better.” In short, I’m sick, he says. Contrary to what society sometimes tells people with mental health issues, this is definitely not my fault.

I asked my doctor if I could continue the medication for longer than the couple of months she had initially envisioned. I explained to her that this is not just a stressful phase, this has been my life for practically as long as I can remember. She said I don’t necessarily have to discontinue, and a huge weight was lifted off me. Sure, I might want to try to see if I can manage my stress without chemical help, but my doctor understands, my psychologist understands, my family understands, and my friends understand.

What’s more, I don’t think the antidepressants affect my ability to write.

So, Tyler is right. This is what I need, and I won’t beat myself up about not being able to solve everything with sheer willpower anymore.

15. Don’t be a superhero

<< 14. Unemployment and anxiety / 16. Reassessing two decades >>

Yes, that’s my advice. Don’t be a superhero, like my mom was, like I tried to be. Don’t take care of the household, the kids, make sure everybody’s safe and fed, bring in money, put everyone else’s needs before yours and ignore your own physical and mental health. You have to pay attention to the signs your body and mind are sending you: if you break, you can’t help anyone, now, can you? The others can share the load. Even children can be taught to help with nearly every chore, including organizing their own time.

 Urban is adamant that we’re going to share the load from now on—and I’m not talking about housework, I’m talking about those most insidious of burdens, which break down your defenses from the inside: the evil twins, the mental load and the emotional load. And yet, I’ve ordered takeout a bunch of times in the past couple of days because he doesn’t always remember to cook. And let me tell you, recovery has now made me hungry! I need big, nourishing meals!

You might think I’m spoiled, expecting my husband to work and cook every day, and you might be right. But think of the fact that, for twelve years, I made sure we had three good meals every single day. Every day I asked myself, does Urban have enough food? And when the kids came, with their incredible appetite and their hypoglycemia-induced tantrums, this became a real need. Small kids don’t wait for the food to be ready; they cry because for them, hunger is a dramatic occurrence (all right, I’ll admit it, I’m also a drama queen when it comes to food). I don’t know if it was love or my near-OCD—I suppose it was a little bit of both—but I always had good food in my home, even when things were tough, sometimes even when I was sick or when I was leaving for a work trip. Now that I’m not well—and that Urban is temporarily working part-time due to Covid—I was kind of expecting a similar treatment. I wanted there to be food before I get hungry, because I get hangry. Urban is the kind of person who, two hours after our usual lunch time, will come and say, “Shall I make something?” By that point, I’ve already raided the fridge and I’m already feeling neglected and not at all pampered.

Anyway, lack of pampering aside, the point I was trying to make before that brief excursion was: don’t be a superhero. I had this crazy idea that I can do everything, that I should be able to do everything, that my endurance and energy would just never run out. On the day of my breakdown, mere hours before, I told Tyler, “I have so much energy! I have so much to give!” Little did I know, a few days later I’d be on the couch, barely able to keep my eyes open at six o’clock in the evening. All right, the sleepiness might be because of the medication, but still. I crashed, hard, and it took days to be able to even go from the bedroom to the bathroom. Don’t do that. Don’t push yourself to exhaustion. Don’t be me.

So, from now on, we’re sharing the load, apparently. Do I believe that? I know that Urban’s intentions are sincere, but he has this tendency to get comfortable and let others do the work, although he does do his share without complaint when he has to. But by not being physically with me and the kids most of the time, he gets off doing a lot of stuff, and this I’m also a little resentful of. I understand that I can’t have everything be done my way, and I don’t expect to have my way in every issue that comes along. But there has to be communication, which is a skill Urban was never trained in. You can see it in his parents: his dad is the same kind of uncommunicative introvert—when he tries to engage you in small talk, it feels like an interview, or rather an interrogation—and his mom just takes care of everything—no communication needed there. Urban is, moreover, used to ignoring us when we speak, which is no wonder, since his mom will just go on and on, and if you don’t have that skill, you can barely survive ten minutes in her household.

I’ve started cooking now, and I think it helps us all to have regular meals again, when we can sit and eat like a family, instead of the kids getting hungry and munching on random stuff and me getting cranky and irritable. And I also think it’s a good way of starting to be active again: cooking is one of the easiest chores for me. When Urban cooked, we were a little scattered, since all the snacking meant that the kids weren’t hungry anymore at mealtimes. I am assuming again the role of the manager of the household, I guess.

But it has to be different this time. It can’t reach the point where I break from the strain of fixing everything. I know I have to let them figure it out, even if it causes some agitation in the house.

So, yep, no more superheroes here, folks.

14. Unemployment and anxiety

<< 13. Getting flatter / 15. Don’t be a superhero >>

Everyone tells me not to think about other things right now—unemployment, for example—and to focus on getting better. But anxiety is not an easy issue to tackle, and I’m already worried what will happen when I stop taking the meds. This is another thing they tell me not to worry about: don’t think about what problems you’ll be facing in a month of two, they say, just concentrate on the here and now.

But, how can I?

The job situation is difficult. As a mom of two in traditional—code for sexist—Bavaria, without real-world experience in a real-world job, and having drifted in academia for years without really publishing and without becoming an expert in one subject, the chances of finding employment at my age are, let’s say, not stellar. I’m now finally unemployable in academia—not that I want to reenter that soul-crushing space, Urban is adamant that I should leave that behind for good. And industry sees someone with no job experience or expertise in one specific subject as a liability.

Sidenote #1: If you thought industry values versatility and breadth of talents, you’re wrong. They mostly like dedicated workers who don’t get too many ideas, even when their job is to get ideas, like for example in consulting. Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of those bizarre facts of life. You’d almost think HR departments don’t understand the skills of astrophysicists.

Anyway, in the past couple of months, and as I was heading at breakneck speed towards burnout, I felt more and more like I couldn’t handle the normal loads of work, family, career, home. I knew a full-time job would be near-impossible for me to balance with the responsibilities of kids and with my passion for writing, and this was another cause of intense anxiety. We have a mortgage, after all, and there’s the added insecurity: what will I do if my husband gets hit by a bus? I made him buy life insurance, but that kind of money doesn’t last long. I need to be in the position of finding a job, of earning a living on my own—anything else causes me too much insecurity. But I also need some time off, to recuperate from all the stress, to figure out where it all goes from here. And I thought it would be difficult to stay afloat only on Urban’s salary—which is exactly what is going to happen in three weeks, when my contract with my current employer ends.

Urban tried to apply for some well-paying positions, some of which he could probably get, but this freaked me out even more: more money, yes, but he’d be out of the house (he works from home now, even pre-corona) and there’s just no way for me to reliably take care of the kids day in, day out, every day. I get debilitating tension headaches. Then, you have the hemiplegic migraines. And now, there’s this new adventure, which forces me to stay away from sources of stress, and I’d say job-hunting would be one huge source of stress. All doctors are unanimous: I absolutely have to take it easy!

But I also can’t take on the role of housewife. I need someone to take care of me, too. It’s not even unfair: I worked and took care of everybody for years. Now, I just can’t. And I can’t even heal on my own. Urban is in a bad situation: he has to earn all the money, take care of the kids and of the mentally ill wife, too.

My anxiety rose to red shortly after the breakdown. How would I manage if he really got offered another position that would require me to be the caretaker on weekdays? I could barely walk from the couch to the bathroom in those first few days—who knew that anxiety and a mental breakdown could cause very real bodily fatigue—but he said he wouldn’t accept another job offer, which reassured me, big time. Still, how will we survive?

It turns out, now that we’re keeping careful tabs on what we spend, expenses are not as huge as I thought they were. For the past couple of years, and even though I had a small salary of my own (did you expect part-time researchers get paid a lot? Nope), I rarely ever had a couple euros left at the end of each month. But now, with Urban working only part-time thanks to covid and me saving my whole salary in order to survive the months of unemployment that I know are coming, our situation is not that strained. What happened?

Urban is what happened. For years he spent money, without my knowledge, without keeping track of what he spent and when. You see, he’s a little like me: when he gets obsessed with something, he goes all in. His latest hobby is fountain pens, and in a few short years he’s accumulated a fuckton of them, and I don’t know how many hundreds of different inks, and notebooks, and pen pillows (google it, it’s a thing), and I don’t know what else. I don’t even mind that—his hobbies are important to me, as my hobbies are important to him—but what I do resent is all the stress it caused me. Racking my brain how to make a couple hundred euros last me weeks, with grocery shopping and the kids’ needs—never mind the stress I feel now, when I’m thinking that my mental health problems might ruin us because of my inability to contribute financially. The times I felt guilty for buying expensive fruit! Why? Why?

This bothers me more than I can express. I can forgive a lot of things, but someone causing me this level of anxiety is hard to swallow.

Urban makes spreadsheets now to track our income and expenses. When I get stressed all over again, he shares the spreadsheets with me, so that I know exactly what’s going on, in real time. He’s promised full transparency and to continue keeping track of everything.

And it’s not that I’m completely without talents either. Today, I organized my writing and editing space in the attic. It’s a room where I feel completely in my element. Who knows, maybe soon I’ll be able to bring in some small income from my new activities too.