On top of my dining room table, where I used to write, sat a small, paper car. My then eight-year-old son received it one night when the two of us went out to Ruby’s Diner together for some Friday night cheer. He quickly lost interest in his prize, but the thing was too cool (and, truth be told, too pretty) to throw away, so I kept it parked next to my computer, where I could admire the creativity that went into its design. On the bottom of the chassis were directions for the assembly: fold, tuck, fit the tabs into the slots. Easy, breezy! Finished, it was a miniature Woody—spearmint green, with wood paneling on the doors and the tailgate. But what really struck me about the car was both how Ready-to-go! it looked, and how perfectly, utterly useless it was.
Before I got good pharmacological help for a radioactive (the word “severe” doesn’t quite describe it) anxiety and depression back in the fall of 2008, I was a Paper Woody. To everyone who knew me, I looked so cheerily Ready-to-go! On the outside, I appeared well put together; all my visible parts seemed to be in polished, working order. But if you’d pulled up the hood and peered inside, you’d have noticed the missing engine. And if you’d checked the fuel tank, you would have found it empty. And if you’d looked closely, you would have noticed that my wheels would not turn, not for love or money. When I was ill, the only thing with any appearance of ‘real’ was Me-as-shell, a hollowed-out car. It felt like, if someone had wanted to, they could have gathered me, crushed me into a tight paper ball, and tossed me into the garbage without even breaking stride.
A fancy Woody I seemed. But I was going exactly nowhere because I had absolutely zero traction–zero–and I could not rouse myself. Could. Not. Rouse myself. Depressives often use metaphors to describe their anguish. Mine was ‘quicksand.’ Picture it: shiny car, sinking into the muck, which squeezes out light and air as it swallows. Hard to go anywhere in quicksand. No, forget ‘go’: hard to survive when you’re in quicksand.
Five years later and worlds away from that time and that self, I now find that I’ll often notice individuals who look to me like Paper Woodies. I might see one in the grocery store, her shiny mask slipping momentarily as she waits in the check-out line, where no one else notices the pain that settles on her face for an unguarded moment. Or maybe when I’m stopped at an intersection, where, in another car, a woman stares ahead at nothing, her expression that unmistakable combination of Hollow and Desperate. I find myself wishing I could talk to them, tell them I get it.
Someone did that for me, actually, back when I was made of paper. An observant friend, herself a former sufferer, knew what she was looking at, and she helped me connect with a great doctor—a pharmacologist and diagnostician extraordinaire who talked me not only through my medication options but also through their chemical properties in order to help me figure out what might be the right place to start. I appreciated it, that he talked to me like I still had a mind fit enough for a real chemistry lesson. More than that, I appreciated that, from Day One, he believed me when I told him I thought my brain was a little broken.
Medication set me on a new path. So did deciding to write about my journey, which became an opportunity to reimagine what it meant both to be medicated and to be well. After all, therapeutic medication and earnest self narratives share the same goal: to relocate the lost You, the once Vibrant Person who began fading to dust when those testy brain chemicals started making life difficult.
Whether you are a Paper Woody or just love one deeply, you ought to know this: there is no shame in reaching out for help. In fact, nothing in my lived experience has felt more true. Had I not gotten help, I don’t know who I’d be right now. I don’t know what the landscape of my family would look like, though I can guarantee you it would be bleak. Nor do I know what the ultimate cost would have been to my sense of self-worth, an already fragile thing corroded by mental illness. I am an advocate for good treatment. After all, the help I got saved not only me but my family: if Mom’s not well, nobody’s well.
If you’ve ever joined me for talk of family, teens, travel, culture, you may have thought my life was charmed. It’s not. Most people have no idea how hard I have fought for my health and my happiness. I guess that’s why I decided, post-Spain, to shift the conversation for a moment, so I could address the theme of mental wellness, a thing so essential to successful mothering that it seems like a foregone conclusion. But the truth is not just that the mental health of a Mother impacts her family. That’s obvious, isn’t it? What’s also true is that Moms have the right to feel and to be mentally healthy, and when they don’t, too often they hide it–perhaps because they mistake unwellness for weakness. I did that, for a long time. I wore my coloful Paper Self around, never hinting to anyone close to me that up around my ankles, then my knees, then my hips, then my chest, the quicksand was thickening, threatening to swallow me whole. I feared that if others knew what I felt, they would judge me, that they would view me as Deficient. And so I kept silent. And suffered. It’s a common tale, and the fact that it’s so common mystifies me now. I ask myself, Why did I care more about the (often uninformed) opinions of others than about the health of my own mind?
I can be gentler with myself now, in retrospect. I realize that I was as much a victim of misinformation and misconceptions as I was my own illness. And I worried about the financial cost of treatment, not appreciating fully that the cost of languishing in the quicksand was far higher than the cost of getting well. One night, I sat the Eleven O’Clock Dad down and said, basically, “You have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into your business enterprises. I believe I am an enterprise worth funding.”
Every Mother is an Enterprise Worth Funding. Every single one. And for Moms who struggle with depression and anxiety or any combination of ills that damage mind and self-worth and eventually soul, a contribution to her fund–with acknowledgement, support, love, friendship, and meaningful help in all its forms–is also a contribution to the family that counts on her for its own wellness. The only reason I could ever be the Eleven O’Clock Mom?–I got better.
If you’re that woman in the grocery store check-out line; if you’re that woman at the intersection, I get you. I believe you. I was you. Yes, the quicksand is real (even if it’s invisible to everyone else). And yes–resoundingly!–you deserve the help that will allow you to address whatever it is that has caused you to sink, whether it’s chemical, situational, whatever.
Think of me as your Eleven O’Clock Sister, if you want. Your fears, your suffering, your story: all of it is safe with me.