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Mental Health

My Daughter is my Guardian Angel

The joy of a new child might not always feel so joyful

Donna Lea Zwick

Reprinted in "Mood Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2000, 1(11), p. 15

stock photoFour months after my second child, a daughter, was born, I strolled along the boardwalk of Steveston pier with my husband, children, and my children's godparents. It was an unusually bright and warm early spring afternoon and I was in a particularly joyous mood.

I had spent the last week with a specialist who told me I had manic depression in combination with seasonal affective disorder. I also suffered a rarer form of seasonal affective disorder in which, instead of sleeping excessively, I developed insomnia with the shorter days and darker skies. The specialist prescribed numerous drugs for me to take for the first two weeks, after which she would work out some maintenance prescription that I would take for the rest of my life. She further recommended I not consider having any more children, as I would suffer a severe breakdown should I have a third. Breastfeeding would have to stop, as the drugs I was prescribed would pass into my breast milk and could affect my daughter.

Why I was so joyous certainly had nothing to do with how I was physically feeling, because the drugs were knocking me for a loop and I felt distinctly crappy. And I wasn't particularly overjoyed to be diagnosed as mentally ill. I am a registered nurse - mental illness isn't an asset. "Hi, my name is Donna, I'm manic today and I will be taking care of you. ROLL OVER! And don't worry if the injection isn't in the right place - my medication tends to make my eyesight blurry… Sir, where do you think you're going?" No, I felt joyous because for the first time in more than 20 years, I finally learned why I have always felt different.

Since the early '80s, I have been in and out of hospitals for breakdowns, seeing various psychiatrists and doctors. I suffered emotional damage due to misdiagnosis, improper treatment, personal denial, and guilt over broken relationships. For years, I considered myself damaged goods and unworthy of love and attention.

In March of 1993, I suffered a severe breakdown. It took until the end of that summer to gain enough confidence to return to a fraction of my normally energetic self. I married in November and by August of the next year I gave birth to my son and, 14 months later, my daughter. I noticed no postpartum depression with my son, but my daughter's early infancy was troubled. I had bled during my pregnancy and, after fighting to keep her in my womb for 38 weeks, I finally gave birth. It was October, clouds were rolling in and the days were getting darker. Seasonal affective disorder was plaguing me, but I tried to ride a high of new-baby happiness. By February, I was riding high all right, but more due to exhaustion, tension, and weeks of little to no sleep. I was seriously losing perspective.

I remember calling a friend to babysit my children while I ran to the library. Looking up seasonal affective disorder, I found on the exact opposite page a description of postpartum depression. I immediately knew this was my problem. I visited a specialist the next day and started medications.

You may not see my turnaround as a big deal. But I had been fighting my head demons for 20 years with very little proper medical attention. As a nurse, I had denied their existence was anything more than a fault in my upbringing and personality. There were no lab tests, CAT scans, X-rays, or ultrasounds that could tell me what I had. So, if it could not be measured, in my mind it had to be my fault.

My daughter changed my attitude. To take care of her the very best I could, I had to confront my illness head on, take whatever treatment and medications I needed, and begin to understand and trust how the "new me" thought and felt. My daughter is truly my guardian angel - she survived a problematic pregnancy so that I could finally be taken care of. Her birth and her life have brought me my own health.

I wonder what is in store for my son and daughter as they grow up. I worry about the mental illness in my family that stretches back at least two generations and encompasses more than half of all my living relatives. However, I know now that with my decades of experience, along with my wisdom as a nurse, I trust my instincts and judgment when it comes to my children, their behaviour, and their idiosyncrasies. And when I am uncertain, I do not hesitate to ask a professional for answers. I feel joyous in ways some mothers will never know. I feel extra good when I get through a stressful day at work or at home without feeling like I need to run away from life for a while. I pride myself when, instead of being completely furious about some incident, I can get ticked, talk about it, and laugh it off. I feel lucky to be able to share my illness with my present colleagues who neither judge nor condemn me. This has not been the case in most other nursing jobs I've had where a code of silence still operates in the mental health arena.

I feel happy when my husband notices things I now do with ease, that two or three years ago I would not have mastered. I feel lucky that the medications give me almost no side effects and that my ability to create, concentrate, and poke fun at myself is sharper than ever. I am lucky to have my husband and son. My daughter, though, will always be the one who saved me from myself. No, I don't spoil her more than my son. I just remember that day at Steveston and what her life has given me.

About the author

Donna is a registered nurse who lives in Delta


Originally appeared in The Province, April 4, 1999, B4. Reprinted with permission.

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