My Mother, Madness, and Me

I would like to welcome the newest member of our writing team, Gabriel Charonzec. In his first post with us, he talks about his relationship with his mother, and how she supported him through his struggles with anxiety and depression. Sometimes love conquers all, and we are glad that this was one case in which this came true.

I’m writing this article during another sleepless night. I’ve had insomnia since I was 15 years old, so for almost 20 years, although some periods have been better than others. My mother’s cat Gray is resting to the left of me and a stuffed animal my mother bought me is on my legs. My mother was always a great comfort and resource to me during insomnia bouts. I could talk to her at any time of the night. She gave me love and calm and compassion, sometimes chamomile tea, sometimes Ambien. She died of cancer in July. Grief, to me, is a type of madness.

When I was around eight or nine, my mother was hospitalized for six weeks for psychiatric treatment. She had gone a few weeks without any sleep at all beforehand. My big sister told me, “Mom had to go to the hospital because her nerves are sick.” I wasn’t allowed to visit her.

My mom took psych meds for depression and anxiety the rest of her life. She had mixed feelings about them and tried to go off of them or reduce them a number of times, which was often scary because she would start thinking about hurting herself. For the most part, though, from what she told me, she found the medications helpful and liked her psychiatrists.

Once, some time when I was a teenager, my mother suggested I see a psychologist. I cried and cried, angrily accusing her of thinking I was “crazy.” It must have hurt her. I wish I hadn’t reacted that way. While I’m not sure whether seeing a psychologist at that time would have been helpful or harmful, I didn’t have to be mean about it. She didn’t bring it up again.

When I was sixteen I was out of school sick for the better part of two months. I remember a lot of dizziness and fatigue. The doctor said I didn’t have mono, but I had a mono-like viral illness. Since then I have wondered if at least part of what I was experiencing then was depression. Certainly I wasn’t very happy or very motivated.

I had to get blood tests during that time, which was frightening for me and grew into more of a phobia. Possibly the only time I can remember feeling really betrayed by my mother was during the first of those blood tests. They put me in a big chair. I was terrified at the thought of someone putting a needle into my vein and taking blood out. I didn’t want it to happen. They had a hard time finding my vein and it hurt. After the second time they tried without success to get a vein, my mother said that they could try one more time and if it didn’t work we would leave. They tried another time, still didn’t get it, and instead of leaving my mom let them try a fourth time. After that, for many years, I passed out or had a vasovagal seizure every time I got a blood test or a shot. My needle phobia has finally gotten a bit better by now—thankfully, since I get a shot of testosterone every two weeks. I still can’t self-inject, but I have had some wonderful friends and lovers who have helped me over the years.

When I was 18 and away at college, I had my first panic attack. My friends and I had just seen a movie and we were on the bus heading back to the dorm. I started to feel nauseous—really nauseous. I was mortified that I might throw up on the bus and kept telling myself I couldn’t. I started sweating. My hands started to tingle and then almost all of me started to tingle. First I couldn’t move my fingers; then I couldn’t move my arms. They sort of folded in on themselves. I had no idea what was happening and really thought that I was dying. I finally got the attention of my friends who were also alarmed. Someone must have told the bus driver, who I guess stopped the bus and radioed for an ambulance. I remember the paramedics didn’t seem as concerned as I thought they should be; mostly they wanted my insurance information. At the ER, I remember a long wait alone on a white bed until a doctor came and told me that it was just an anxiety attack. I think he gave me a pill. He definitely told me to go back to campus and see a therapist.

I had two more panic attacks soon after the first. One of those times my friends insisted on taking me to the ER again, although I no longer thought it was necessary. No panic attack has been as terrifying to me as that first one; now I don’t think I’m dying when I start hyperventilating.

The therapist at my college counseling center asked me questions about my family. It was with her that I first realized how much my father divorcing my mother and disowning my sister had an impact on me. She also told me that I had panic disorder, which could develop into agoraphobia, progressively restricting my life and shrinking my world. She referred me to a psychiatrist for medication. With my mother’s help, I awkwardly and painfully navigated getting my father to agree to pay for such an appointment. Before I actually made the appointment, though, my therapist pronounced me cured. In fact, I did not have another panic attack for years. All of this took place over the course of just three appointments. Now as I look back on it, that timeframe seems totally implausible. Still, I remember it pretty clearly.

I’ll leave things like other therapists, comings out, and career for another article, I think, and skip much closer to the present.

Around a year ago, when I was 32, I decided to look into taking psychiatric medications. It was a liberating and empowering decision for me in many ways. My biggest impetus was a bout of insomnia worse than most. Over the course of maybe six weeks, most nights I couldn’t sleep more than four hours and some nights not even that much. I wanted to sleep and I wanted the drugs that would make that possible. But also, I didn’t really want to live with as much anxiety as I had. I said that out loud to my boyfriend, whom I’ll call T., and he said—“you know, maybe you don’t have to.” I also said that out loud to my ex-boyfriend, whom I’ll call L. L. also has an anxiety disorder and takes meds for it. He said—“yeah, I’ve sometimes thought you might benefit from meds.” I found those conversations profoundly validating. In the past, I think on some level I felt like had to be less functional to “deserve” help. T. and L. supported me in realizing I could be exactly as fucked up as I am, no more, no less, and still maybe need and deserve help.

I went into my first psychiatrist appointment, then, feeling fairly positive and powerful, if a bit desperate from sleep deficit. I came out of it feeling humiliated and with a prescription for Celexa in hand.

In most ways, the visit was nothing different from what I expected, so I’ve tried to figure out why I ended up feeling so humiliated. Part of it was the usual intense doctor/patient paternalism and power imbalance. Part of it was my own internalized shame about my revealing my feelings, accepting that psychiatric impairment could be a part of my experience, and asking for help. Part of it was the typical transphobia. As soon as I disclosed that I was trans during a review of medications, he said, “Ah. Would you please describe your genitals to me.” I said, “Why is that relevant?” He said, “It is important for me to know, to understand, where you are, with your genitals.” I said, “I’m not going to tell you that. I don’t think it’s relevant. I doubt you ask anyone who isn’t trans to talk to you about what their genitals look like.” To his credit, at that point he said, “Very well,” and moved on. Again, it wasn’t unexpected, but it just really sucks to be reminded that most people reduce us to what’s between our legs and think of our crotches as inherently their business, even in a “professional” context.

Nonetheless, I decided to try the drug. I’ve talked to other people who have had really great experiences with Celexa. For me, though, it was terrible. My anxiety lessened somewhat, but my insomnia stayed the same and my depression worsened. My psychiatrist added Ambien and increased Celexa. Ambien worked like magic—I could sleep!—but my depression kept getting worse. It got to a point where I felt pretty concerned—to the extent I could feel anything other than crushing misery and apathy. In the past I had always been able to at least do my basic job requirements; with this medication, I could no longer get out of bed some days. It would take me a full day of what felt like truly enormous effort just to do my laundry.

Finally, my psychiatrist switched me from Celexa to a high dose of Lexapro. I was skeptical that Lexapro would be different. From what I had heard, it was a very similar drug to Celexa. However, the difference was amazing. After just a week or so, it was like thousand pounds weights had been lifted from every part of my body. One morning, standing on a subway platform, I looked up and noticed the blue sky between the tree branches. My first thought was my god, this is beautiful. My second thought was my god, I can appreciate beauty again! I wasn’t sure whether Lexapro actually helped me or whether it just didn’t hurt me the way that Celexa does.

My mother thought I didn’t need an anti-depressant, but should have a sleep aid and a short-acting anti-anxiety med. I think she was probably right, although that still isn’t what I have and I’m still not sure.

She knew what she needed, in many ways, and was very concerned that she get her psych meds during hospital stays. She took a lot of Ativan every day and would start experiencing pretty awful withdrawal pretty quickly if she didn’t get it. I learned to advocate for her still getting her psych meds—especially Ativan—during hospital stays and ultimately during hospice. She ended up on a drip of it at the very end, which I am certain is what she would have wanted.

After six years of stage four ovarian cancer, my mother’s death was not unexpected, but it was (and is) nonetheless shocking, surreal, unhinging, and incomprehensibly painful. I’m still not sure how to live in a world without her. I’m also not sure how to write about it.

Some days I curl up on the floor of my office and just shake. Sometimes when sitting at my desk a wave of panic overwhelms me. Some days I go from giddy and restless to exhausted and nodding off and back again with no transition in between. Random-seeming words repeat in my mind. I get headaches. I get dizzy. At one point, Ambien stopped working and I stopped sleeping. Thankfully, I have a new sleep med now.

I dream about my mom most nights and think about her every day.

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