Saturday, January 24, 2015

Let's talk about mental illness, shall we?

How’s that for a blog post title?  But seriously, this subject has been on my mind for a while now, and I have some stuff I want to say about it.

I have been on an antidepressant since Baby Sally was born six months ago, and it has helped me a lot.  I have always had what I call a “melancholy” disposition.  I'm not naturally a downer or anything--I actually think I'm naturally optimistic and grateful--but I’m a deep thinker and sometimes life with all of its complexity really troubles me.  I’ve had bouts of deep discouragement over the years, and heaven knows my worrywart nature has sometimes bordered on anxiety.  But I’ve never been on medication before now, and I’ve always been able to manage.

That changed after Sally was born. As my hormones were leveling out, I had crazy physical symptoms, such as chills, uncontrollable shaking, nausea, vomiting, and night sweats.  I had major insomnia, so even when the baby was sleeping, I couldn’t.  I felt afraid to go to bed at night because I knew that I would just lay there and ruminate and my thoughts would go to crazy places, and I would say to myself over and over, “You need to sleep, you need to sleep, you need to sleep…” which would make anxiety take over.

Most troubling was my overwhelming, irrational fear that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my children.  I cried all the way to the hospital when Ryan and I went for an appointment with a lactation consultant.  I didn’t know quite why I was crying, but whenever I looked at the baby, I felt a surge of inadequacy that bordered on panic, and I just couldn’t hold back the tears.  Feeling so out of sorts left me wondering, “Am I ever going to be myself again?  What if I get serious depression and can’t care for my children?  What if my personality changes and I’m never the same?”

The kicker was when I had a full-blown, world-closing-in panic attack one afternoon while I was trying to take a nap.  We are talking heart racing, deep breathing, pacing around the room, sweating bullets, fearing that I was going to die in that moment.  It was one of the scariest things I have ever felt. After the panic attack, I called the doctor and asked to be put on an anti-anxiety medication. 

The doctor put me on a low dose of Zoloft, and it has made a huge difference for me.  I feel like I am the best, truest version of myself now.  I am more patient, happier, and less of an irrational worrier.  I still have hard days on occasion, of course, but it’s not like it was before.  I actually think I probably should have been on medication long before the baby was born, but it took a major event and a major breakdown for me to see what has maybe been clear to the people closest to me for a while.

Will I stay on this antidepressant forever?  I hope not.  I’d prefer not to be on any medication forever.  But if I had a thyroid problem, I would take my thyroid medication without feeling weak or guilty.  So if I have to take an antidepressant forever, it will be hard for me, but I will continually remind myself that it’s okay—that mental illness is just an illness like any other, and there is no shame in that.  And of course, I will continue to try to do all of the other things that help: getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, having outlets and hobbies, and spending time with loved ones.

I have several friends who suffered with depression for months, even years, before talking to their doctors because they felt weak and ashamed and didn’t know if their symptoms were “bad enough” to merit asking for help.  That just breaks my heart, and I'm grateful that I got help quickly, before things got too debilitating.  It helped to think about other women whom I love and respect who have taken medication for anxiety and depression--it made it feel “okay” somehow, and it gave me hope.

I think there's a misconception that anyone who has a mental illness (such a scary term, isn't it, but I'm not sure why--it really is just illness that requires treatment and sometimes medication, like any other) is really crazy or not normal--and no one wants to be labeled that way.

So, if you are struggling emotionally right now, or if sometime in the future you find that you are, maybe it will help you to know that I have been on an antidepressant and it was helpful.  I also wanted to put this out there in case anyone ever needs to talk to someone who has been there or wants advice about whether to seek support from a doctor or a counselor.  You can always talk to me about anything—truly.

I recently read a blog post written by a woman who struggles with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder since surviving the earthquake in Haiti five years ago.  Though I have never lived through an earthquake, I related to so much of what she shared about her experience with anxiety, and it also reminded me of my experience with physical trials and illnesses, such as my very hard pregnancy.  (The more that I live, the more that I realize that though the trials of life vary from person to person, so many of the feelings we experience during those trials are similar and unify us, if we allow them to.)

This is a portion of the blog post that really stood out to me:

“I have an irrational and driving need to appear capable and stoic.  Sure, I mock my foibles in the little things from time to time, but in general I go to great lengths to avoid seeming flustered.  I am like a duck who is gliding across the water, appearing graceful and effortless, all the while with two feet just under the surface, desperately paddling in circles to stay afloat…

DON’T LET ON THAT YOU ARE A MESS.  Keep the anxiety under the surface.

I continue in my charade because a) I am in a good bit of denial myself, and b) people don’t like a mess.  Not for any length of time, anyways.  There is a statute of limitation for what is acceptable for grief.  My succession of miscarriages taught me this painful fact. One or two miscarriages? People are there for you. By five or six? People are uncomfortable. People stop calling. And you start to get the sinking feeling that people see you as a lot of work…

It was too exhausting to explain myself to others . . . too tedious to continually remind people that I’m still compromised.

‘How are you?’

When the answer to that question continues to be negative . . . when people seem disappointed and irritated when it remains stagnant. . . it gets easier to lie.  Or to avoid situations where I’m asked. Because the only fear I have greater than seeming like a mess?  Seeming like a burden.”

Oh have I been there.  Wanting to be capable and stoic.  Fearing that people will find out that I’m a mess.  Not wanting to be a burden.  Fearing that I will be seen as “too much work” in a relationship if I really let on to how desperate I’m feeling. 

So I want to end this post by saying this to my friends who struggle with anything in life, physical or mental:

I get it. 
And I believe you.
And you will never be too much work.  Ever.

I am imperfect and hurting too—so let’s just talk about it.

 A few favorite resources on depression/anxiety and mental health:

"Like A Broken Vessel" by Jeffery R. Holland
"Upon the Top of the Waters," Ensign Oct. 2014

         ^I recorded this podcast for Power of Moms about what I learned in counseling 

Helping a spouse or loved one who is facing depression


  1. I love that you own this. I've seen a lot of my family deal with depression and it's hard. Let me know if you need anything. Ever. Love ya Rach!

  2. Mental illness is so stigmatized and I agree with you that it needs to be more normalized. I have struggled with depression myself, as well as with the idea of taking antidepressants. I think you are wise and excellent at reaching out to other women around you. I admire that so much. Thanks for sharing, friend.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this, it made me tear up. And also, thank you for all the support you gave me. You are an amazing woman!

  4. You are such a beautiful and brave human being, Rachel Nielson. I love you.

  5. You're the bomb diggety. I totally love that you are open with your struggles. I totally agree with the medication thing. I hate that Emme has to take medication, but if she had diabetes would I give her insulin? Praise the heavens for medication.

  6. Better living through chemistry! I believe very strongly in medicine, I'm so glad it's been helping you. My first anxiety attack was the scariest thing I've ever experienced, I hope you don't ever go to that place again. But if you ever do, remember that attacks aren't self-sustaining and eventually, it will end and you can move on with your life. You're the best. Hope you and your fam are doing well!

  7. Don't feel remorse. I took Zoloft with my last three pregnancies and my mom took it with menopause so I plan to take it again in the future. My cute neighbor has a blog "" all about her depression and she is an amazing writer like you. I am interested in following your eating disorder stuff. I am doing a couple different weight loss challenges right now. It is an ongoing life long journey ;)


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