It is January 23 in the Pacific Northwest. And I am happy.
Traditionally, these two things did not go hand-in-hand for me. Seattle is, from November to April, quite chilly, damp and gray. It took a couple of winters to figure out that my February blues could be attributed to the lousy weather. I thought I was way too tough for Seasonal Affective Disorder. I was wrong. I bought a happy light and upped my Vitamin D significantly.
I know that my current happiness is partly due to our impending adoption. In six weeks or so, our family of three will board a plane to Shanghai, and then another plane to Xi’an, where we’ll become a family of four. Our soon-to-be new son is almost three. He’s adorable. And I can’t wait to get over there and become his mom. I just can’t wait.
But I also know that my happiness, or at least my ability to focus on the happy parts of our upcoming adventure, has much to do with the little pill that I started taking in November. An antidepressant. A teeny, tiny dose that my doc calls a “therapeutic” dose. A dose I could stop taking whenever without any taper. A dose that has radically altered my mood.
Before this pill came into my life, I was kind of a mess. Even the tiniest bumps in the road would activate my emotional airbags. I radiated stress. I was always ready to do battle. I snapped at my loved ones and friends. And I couldn’t sleep.
I don’t know how I got that way, which was another source of anxiety and self recrimination. I was totally aware that I was touchy, reactionary and unhappy, but I couldn’t right the ship. When my insomnia flared up, in August, my anxiety found fertile ground in my exhausted brain. I felt like my nerves were tightly wound violin strings. I found it impossible to relax.
On the rare night when I did sleep, I had a recurring nightmare where Bini was hit by a car, and I was too late to prevent it. I would wake up gasping, my heart pounding so hard I thought for sure I’d wake Steve. I’d stumble from my bed and into Bini’s room, just to make sure he was OK. Then I’d spend the rest of the long night thinking stuff like: It’s a sign. It’s a message. I’m not fit to parent. I need to stop this second adoption.
I started spiraling downward. I felt like I was at the bottom of a muddy, slippery hole, and I couldn’t find my footing. I was scared.
There were reasons for this. The adoption process, this time around, was really hard. We said no to five deserving little boys before we were matched with our soon-to-be son. I tried to go cold turkey off my Lorazepam sleep meds and it made my insomnia much worse — a side effect I wasn’t aware of. We got some bad news, which I won’t go into. And I got into a terrible argument with a close family member, who still won’t talk to me. But people go through difficult times, all the time, and they don’t fall to pieces. Why was I so different?
I tried everything, really I did. I went to counseling, and did neurofeedback. I went to acupuncture twice a week. I started meditating, thanks to a handy iPhone app which featured a nice man with a soothing British accent. I cut out alcohol. I took L-Theanine. I went to see a sleep-specific naturopath. I started tapering off the Lorazepam, very slowly. Still, I was off-the-charts anxious. So I went to my doctor, for some blood work.
“Have you considered going on a low dose of antidepressants?” she asked.
“No. No way.” I replied.
Why not? Because I’d been on a low-dose of antidepressants before, when I had a terrible job and wasn’t sleeping at all. I have Paxil to thank for helping me crawl out of that muddy hole, get my resume together and get a kick-ass job that I loved. But the tapering process off that stuff was brutal, even though the dose was small.
I went on them again when Steve and I were going through infertility, and they helped. But I went off them after I sought treatment for my decades-long eating disorder, and that weaning process had also been brutal. Why do that again?
Because. Because my doctor pointed out that anorexic and bulimic brains have shown to be permanently altered after decades of endless punishment-reward cycles. I was an expert at both severe food restriction and hard-core exercise bulimia, which I camouflaged quite successfully as “training” for many years.
Because. When my doctor asked me how long it had been since I was happy, I really had to think. I knew what she was after, so I wanted to tell her “yesterday,” but in fact, the best I could come up with was October 2013, when Steve and I were in Paris.
Everything was a chore to me, even good things. A relaxing massage appointment was just another thing on my to-do list. Making cut-out snowflakes with Bini was just another thing for me to clean up. A night out with Steve was a temporary reprieve from the stressors of parenting, four pets and a house that always needed cleaning. Give me something good, and I would squash it under my Mighty Foot of Doom. It’s my gift.
“That’s not normal,” she told me. “That tells me that there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain.”
I made some sort of dismissive noise. “Chemical imbalance? Everyone I know is on antidepressants. Does EVERYONE have a chemical imbalance?” I went on to point out that great art, great music and great literature would have never been created if people were never sad. Anger and anxiety were normal emotions. They were part of the deal.
“Happiness is also part of the deal,” she said gently. “And you’re telling me that you haven’t been genuinely happy in a year. That’s not good. It’s not healthy.”
So I took the prescription. A week later, I got it filled. And a week after that, I started taking my therapeutic dose. I felt better almost instantly. (I’m very sensitive to medication. I took Vicodin once, and it made me sneeze uncontrollably.) Taking my tiny pill was like entering a warm, cozy house after trudging through the frozen tundra. I felt relaxed. Relieved.
Two months later, my hard edges are smoother. I absorb bumps in the road better. I am much more patient and kind to my son. I’ve quieted my savage inner critic, which was as relentless as CNN’s news ticker. I still feel anxious and sad and overwhelmed at times, but those feelings don’t dominate me anymore.
I’d be lying if I said that writing about this isn’t itself causing me apprehension. Once I hit “publish,” this goes public. Maybe three people will read it, maybe 3,000 will. It’s probably not great for my “brand” as a freelance writer to acknowledge my anxiety, and my little happy pill. There were be people who judge me.
To paraphrase Veronica Sawyer from the movie “Heathers,” I’m a human being, not a game show host. Writing authentically and transparently, at least in my personal writing, is all I know how to do. And throughout my career as a journalist and now, a blogger, I’ve heard from hundreds of people who’ve told me that my honesty was helpful to them. It certainly helps me. If someone doesn’t want to be my friend or hire me because of it, they can quite cheerfully bugger off.
We have a huge unknown entering our lives any day: A child that we don’t know, who doesn’t know us, and who’s lived in an orphanage his whole life. At best, it will be difficult, and at worst, it will be a disaster. But we’ve sought counsel from doctors, fellow adoptive parents and therapists who work with adoptive families. Steve and I have made the best decision that we can, given the information that we have. The rest is a leap of faith, of love, and of hope.
I know for certain that my tiny little pill is helping me handle the uncertainty. I feel clear-eyed, I feel strong. I feel ready, damn it. I am ready. I know we’re tempting fate. I know there will be dark days when I wonder what the hell we’ve done. But Steve and I are experienced adoptive parents. We have an extraordinary son. We can bring up another one. I know we can.
I do feel a little strange about my happiness, knowing that it’s due to a little tiny pill. It’s like winning a medal that I didn’t entirely earn. But I’ll take it. I’m choosing to look on the bright side, for once. It comes much easier now.