"Are those vitamins?" Mayzie inquires one rushed school-day morning.
I ponder my answer as I hold my pills in my hand and look at Mayzie now 4 and Annika now 6. Two of the pills I hold in my hand are in fact vitamins. The large beige pill is a multi-vitamin and the small squishy gold one is the extra vitamin D that I take because I live in the Midwest and don't get nearly enough sunlight. These two pills are not the issue. My girls take vitamins every day, so they surely understand the fact that mommy takes them too.
The other 5 pills in my hand are the issue. There is the long capsule that contains the medicine that supposedly regulates my serotonin, or something like that. Then I have the medium-sized round white mood stabilizer, two small white anti-anxiety pills, and finally a diamond-shaped one that is supposed to boost the power of the other ones despite the fact that it is marketed as an anti-psychotic. These are as much a part of my morning regimen as my coffee, and all of the above will give me a headache if I don't have them.
Yes, I am one of the millions of Americans that takes psychiatric medication on a daily basis. I am not ashamed of my mental illness. I come by it honestly with a loooooong family history of mental illness on both sides of my family, including some institutionalization (not me) and too many stories to count. No, I do not believe it to be a moral failing on my part. I refuse to be defined or stigmatized because of it either. My diagnosis: Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, which really means that my awesome psychiatrist thinks I should probably be diagnosed something that isn't recognized in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM) anymore.
I have wrestled with my mental illness for all of my life. I remember contemplating suicide in the 5th grade. I got so depressed my senior year of high school that I stopped eating for a while, but it thankfully never developed into a full-blown eating disorder. One of the worst episodes happened just after Andy and I got married. I could NOT get out of bed or stop crying, and I was soo mad at myself because being a newlywed should have been one of the happiest times of my life. Funny enough, I never got post-partum depression, despite having all the predispositions. I have crippling anxiety, which typically leaves me incapable of making or receiving any phone calls or leaving the house sometimes too. Our year spent in Germany was especially trying!
Upon our return to the U.S., Andy finally convinced me to go to a psychiatrist. I am admittedly not a very good patient. I question everything a medical doctor (or PhD for that matter) tells me, like the good medical anthropologist that I am. I understand the cultural patterns of mental illness and the culture of medicine that likes to throw medicine at people instead of solving underlying issues. Intellectually, I struggle with my own personal need for medication, often to my own detriment. I question classification of illnesses, doctors' intentions, and all things psychiatry related. I read too many anthropology and medical academic research articles. I am either a doctor's most hated or most beloved patient, and I can tell. I can dissect everything, but it always has to come back to my bottom-line of the fact that I mostly cannot function without taking some sort of psychiatric medication.
The question then becomes: how do I relay this information to my children without making them think that I'm a sick person and at the same time convincing them that mental illness happens and is manageable? How do I teach them in a way that is age appropriate and won't scare them? How will they process this information? I want them to understand that I'm alright, and that they shouldn't think about me any differently because I have a mental illness. I don't want to burden them with too much information or with worry for their mother. This conversation isn't in the mother's handbook.
So I sit down at the breakfast table with the morning light streaming in our back door. I take a deep breath and gather all the wits and bravery that I can muster. I AM going to have this conversation this morning. I will answer their questions to the best of my ability.
Me, "Yes, two of these pills are vitamins that I take every morning."
Annika, "So what are the other ones?"
Me, "They are pills that help my brain work better."
Annika, "Do they make you smarter?"
Me, "No, they help me think more clearly."
Mayzie, "Are you sick mama?"
Me, "No buggy, mama's not sick."
Annika, "So why do you have to take them?"
Me, "My brain doesn't work right. Sometimes it makes me really sad and I just want to cry. Sometimes it makes me really scared and I want to hide. But this medicine makes my brain work the way it is supposed to."
Annika, "Oh, ok. So it keeps you healthy?"
Me, "Yep. Any other questions?"
Mayzie, "Can I have some juice?"
And that was that. That was the whole conversation we had...so far. I know this will come up again. I know this will be a conversation that happens over and over. For now, my answers sufficed, but they won't always. As I continue to struggle with my mental illness, so will I continue to struggle to define it to my children. Difficult conversations are certainly in our future. For now, mommy’s medicine makes her brain work better, and that’s all they need to know.