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.

5. Victory coffee

<< 4. The storm and the calm after / 6. To take, or not to take (the drugs) >>

On Sunday morning, I made coffee.

It’s not a big deal, you’d think. But the process of actually making it and deciding what to have for breakfast at the same time (always, always the breakfast issue) was just a little too much for my fragile state. Before actually making the coffee, I sat at the dining room table (we have an open plan kitchen) and pondered the coffee-making process for about two hours.

When my friend Elise and I met, I’d invite her and her kids over for playdates. Our children got along wonderfully, and the two of us would sit in the kitchen while I cooked one or two main courses, at the same time baking dessert and cleaning the kitchen. For years, I was unstoppable. Tired, yes, but unstoppable. Cooking and baking are two of my passions, and I’d cook at least two meals a day, plus something sweet on most days.

Two years ago, I was already stretched thin, but I carried my tiredness around like a badge of honor. Yes, I had a family and a job (in research—part time, still mentally demanding) but I wouldn’t just sit and let my body get flabbier. It was bad enough as it was. So, I dieted and started ballet, which helped bring my body to a halfway acceptable state (body image issues feature prominently in my life story, but let me go on with the more serious subject). Ballet did wonders for my mental health, too. But then I remembered I’d always been a language nerd, and I hadn’t even attempted to learn a new language in years. That wouldn’t do! When Arabic was offered in our local Volkshochschule, I enrolled.

So, are you keeping score? Arabic, ballet, diet, a mentally demanding work in research, while keeping track of the kids’ activities and tasks for school and kindergarten, shouldering the mental load of the household, including managing everyone’s schedule, and handling the emotional load of Urban’s dysfunctional family, while cooking and baking on a daily basis. And then I took up writing.

Yup. Those were the days.

So, where was I? Ah, Sunday morning, I made coffee. I was chatting online with Stevie, asking him what to eat (I did mention the overwhelming difficulty of breakfast, didn’t I?). He said, “eat the first thing you see.” I saw apples, tomatoes, and cake, so I supposed cake would be the sensible breakfast option.

And I made coffee.

Two hours into my day, that was my victory. By afternoon, I was exhausted, and had to ask my friend—who had kindly visited to see how I am—to leave, because a face-to-face conversation was just too taxing.

Strangely, writing is the only thing I can easily do.

4. The storm and the calm after

<< 3. Raising an adult / 5. Victory coffee >>

On the Sunday after the breakdown, for the first time in fourteen years, I experienced silence.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, then you’re not familiar with the concept of chronic tinnitus: a constant ringing, humming, or buzzing in your ears that never, never goes away. I’ve had chronic tinnitus for fourteen years—actually, I have several tinnitus components, of different frequencies and intensities, which fight with each other over who gets to be the loudest.

It was 2006, about the same time of year—late spring—when it started. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Doctors prescribed medication, but it didn’t help at all. I was stressed about my studies, depressed, suffering from phobias and a sense of overwhelming self-loathing (is there a name for that condition?) but I lived in Greece, where mental health issues are still brushed off with your typical macho shrug and get-over-it attitude. I didn’t get a lot of help. My parents tried, but they didn’t understand my problems at all, approaching them with cold hard logic, which you definitely cannot apply to phobias. They eventually sent me to a psychologist who was used to working with young children, and whose approach was “you’ll do this, because I’m telling you to.” Needless to say, it didn’t work.

My solution to all my mental health problems was to get a PhD scholarship and move to Germany, the land of peace and Ordnung. After years of introspection and self-therapy in this safe environment (and some real therapy, with a real person, of the certified kind), I’m proud to say that I’ve come a long way. Still, the tinnitus remains. But hey, that’s faulty wiring, right? Tinnitus is not psychological—or so I thought until today.

About a month ago, a buzzing in my left ear started. It came and went, seemingly at random. It was different than my old friends, the other tinnitus components, and it drove me crazy: I felt it, it wasn’t a more or less discreet companion, like the gentle ringing and chiming that had been with me all those years. It was intrusive, disturbing. It kept me from sleeping. One physician told me he couldn’t do anything about it, that this was not an acute problem, and I could listen to some music to mask it—he’d give me a referral to an ENT doctor eventually. How this affected my mental health was all the same to him. I went to the ENT doctor anyway (thank heavens for the German health system which allows me to visit any doctor I want, as often as I want, no cost, no questions asked), who told me he couldn’t diagnose anything I was not experiencing at the time of the visit, and advised me to keep a record of the problem and drink lots of water.

Fast forward to two weeks later.

The intermittent buzzing was not intermittent anymore. Day and night it was there and getting worse. On that Thursday, as we were putting the kids to bed, I realized the buzzing was louder than ever and my heart was pounding. I just sat for a while, relaxed, but my pulse was still too quick, and the unease didn’t go away. My body felt off, like I was sick, and I knew something was seriously wrong. It finally dawned on me that a persistent buzzing in the ear could have a vascular cause.

I asked Urban to take the batteries out of our youngest one’s nightlight and put them in my blood pressure meter. The result was not reassuring. I got more stressed by the minute, and even though it was cold and dark and I only had pajamas on, I put on my shoes and told Urban I’m going for a drive—on second thought, a walk, who knew if I could drive in that condition. He said he’d wait for me.

That’s when I flipped out. Urban can’t really operate on little sleep.

“You’ll wait for me?” I shouted. “It’s late, you have to wake up early because the kids have school tomorrow, you’ll be cranky all day because you won’t have slept enough, and then I’ll have to pick up the pieces.” I was imagining the fights, the screaming, the slammed doors, and I was already hyperventilating. Tears were flowing—I have no idea why—but he gave me a big hug and promised he wouldn’t be cranky. I went for a walk.

I had my phone with me, and I was texting Dimitra during this whole episode. Outside, as I walked alone in some back streets in the night, the tears kept flowing. I don’t remember what I wrote to Dimitra, but somehow she knew it was serious. “You are having a panic attack,” she wrote to me. “Go back home. Tell Urban to call Markus”—our neighbor—“ and have him drive you to the hospital.”

I don’t know how she knew. The next day, she told me she’d seen it coming for a long time. But I’m stubborn, and I insist on doing everything, and Ι rarely take breaks. And that’s not even the real reason why this happened to me: the emotional strain had more to do with it than any physical activity.

I’ve told you Dimitra’s my guardian angel, right?

Dimitra insists on me taking Lorazepam during these first days, even though the very strict—and a little cruel, if you ask me—doctors sent me home with a blood pressure in the red and the warning not to take it—only for emergencies, they kept insisting, because a blood pressure under 180 is not dangerous for someone my age.

On the Saturday after the panic attack, I woke up with vertigo and a very, very loud ringing in the left ear. The buzzing was gone, but this new sound was nearly unbearable. At the same time, I was horribly sensitive to sound: just opening up the tap caused me to recoil. Everyone had to be very quiet—Urban was nice enough to warn me every time he wanted to turn on the coffee machine. I asked him to bring the kids to his mother, and when he returned, we tried to decide if we should visit another doctor.

I didn’t have the strength to explain the whole convoluted story to yet another non-specialist who’d only have the generic advice I’d already heard, so I drank water and waited to see what happens. The vertigo subsided quickly, and the tinnitus and sound sensitivity—it’s called hyperacusis: what a nice word, instantly understandable to Greek speakers—were less severe by the afternoon. At that point, I relented under Dimitra’s nagging, and I took a Lorazepam.

The symptoms disappeared a couple of hours later, and I enjoyed a good night’s sleep. On Sunday morning, I woke up with a normal, low-level tinnitus—lower than it had ever been in the past fourteen years. Not gone, mind you, but still, the difference was striking.

It was 5:30 a.m. when I went down to the kitchen. For the first time ever in this house, I could hear the buzzing of all appliances. I stepped out onto the patio and took in the early morning sounds: the chirping of the birds, the distant humming of the cars on the Autobahn.

It’s Sunday afternoon now, and although all my old tinnitus buddies are here with me, they’re chilled. Respectful. They don’t intrude at all.

Oh, my God. I have to tell my doctors. Is there a chance I can actually live like this?