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.

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.


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.