A guest post by Megan Scanlon
Mom Genes. No, not the high-waisted, dorky, denim kind. The kind that live on chromosomes and with a roll of the dice determine the characteristics we inherit from those who came before us.
As a child I wondered, will I develop my father’s superior athletic ability or my mother’s musical flair? As a young girl when my younger sister sprouted breast buds my grandmother said, “poor thing, she’s inherited my juggas.” (As we grew into teenagers, jealousy, not pity seemed the more appropriate reaction).
Unlike freckles or bunions, mental illness is not visible in the mirror. But that doesn’t mean it might not be there – lying in wait. Mental illness has always run in my family. I have a close relative who has been on anti-depressants for almost thirty years. Another relative is bipolar, an alcoholic, and has been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities more than once. I have a cousin who at age 22 committed suicide. But three cheers for me, I was spared!
Or so I thought.
After giving birth to a child in 2008 and another in 2009 I found out I had merely delayed and had not dodged this bullet. My initial postpartum depression manifested itself, not in sadness or a lack of bonding with my babies, but instead showed up as a frightening loss of executive functioning. What I initially wrote off as “mommy brain” progressed into my barely being able to follow driving directions or remember how to make mashed potatoes. Going back to work full time as a lawyer was a daunting proposition.
I felt frustrated and almost indignant. How could this be happening? Things like this don’t happen to me, a former military officer, a successful attorney, and the life of the party. You see, I have always been an achiever.
At 18 after graduating high school I headed off to a prestigious national service academy. I did well there, and was commissioned as a military officer where again I excelled. I left the military after completing my service obligation and started law school. Again, I was successful, earning good grades and passing bar exams in two states two days in a row right after graduation.
In 2008, as a promising young associate in a national law firm, I was married, expecting my first baby, and ready to “have it all.” But things do not always go as planned. After the birth of our son in 2008 and compounded by my pregnancy and the birth of our daughter in 2009, my mental illness “gun,” which unbeknownst to me had always been locked and loaded, finally fired. Bullseye.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not find the person I had been. She seemed to be lost forever and worse yet – I had to come to terms with the fact that labels that I thought belonged to other people -“depressed,” “bipolar,” “mood disorder” now applied to me. I felt so sad, so discouraged, and at times even ashamed.
Accepting that you have mental illness is hard to swallow. It is (for the most part) an invisible disability. You have something that makes navigating the world an extra challenge, but from the vantage point of others, you should be making it just fine. Its kind of like when you see someone pull into a handicapped parking space. In our ridiculous human nature we observe the people emerge from the car and look for the physical disability that has earned them the premium parking.
Mental illness is most often invisible to the naked eye. It is frustrating, confusing, infuriating, and heartbreaking. It is frightening in that getting help often involves personal disclosure of our resulting failures and shortcomings and in a high-pressure job, there is the fear of major consequences. Harder still, you find yourself having to admit that you need help. Sometimes limping along seems like the safer option.
With the help of my family, amazing doctors, and taking some time off I am well on my way back to the “land of the living.” I know now and have come to accept that I will never fully regain the life I once had, the clarity of thought, the ease of starting each day without a care. But the life I have now is a better life. It is a life in which I appreciate each day. Like a cancer patient in remission, this is my “new normal.”
I possess a new found compassion for those who struggle with their own visible and invisible “differences,” with disabilities, and especially with mental illness. Like cancer, no one ever asks for mental illness. I am determined to make something out of these Mom Genes. I want to redesign them into something cool. I want to embrace them and make them my own. And if my children inherit them as “hand-me-downs,” I will help them find their way as so many have helped me find mine.
Megan Scanlon comes from a family with a long history of mental illness, mostly depression and bipolar, and thought she had dodged the bullet. Until she had her children 18 months apart and was diagnosed with a postpartum mood disorder. She shares her story to put an end to the silence and the stigma, so her children can witness her triumph over her struggle. Megan lives in Williamsburg with her wife Valerie and their son (7) and daughter (6).
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