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Manic depression pushed Ashley Prentice Norton to the brink of suicide. It took six months, her husband’s love, and 17 rounds of electroshock therapy to bring her back to her kids–alive.
It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday morning in early May. My 8-year-old daughter, Anderson, and I hold hands and walk up the three flights to her classroom. Normally, she leaves me standing outside in the crowd of parents, waiting for her to blow me a kiss. But today, I’m helping the girls make sandwiches for the local community food pantry. In her free hand, Anderson swings the supplies I bought the night before: a pound of smoked Virginia ham, a pound of Provolone, and three loaves of potato bread.
Almost all of the girls are already there, sitting in their mini-chairs with plastic gloves on. I know these girls. I was here in October to help them put on their costumes for the Halloween parade, have had them over for play dates, have listened to Anderson talk about them at the dinner table. I know they’re all going through a Harry Potter phase, racing to see who can finish the books first. They are adorable, familiar.
I turn and greet their teacher, and she returns my hello with an effusive hug. “Thanks for coming, Mrs. Norton. We’re so happy you’re here,” she says. It’s the enthusiastic welcome you’d expect after an absence far longer than the 18 hours it’s been since school pick-up–and I understand why. There was a time when I rarely made it to pick-up or drop-off, when I could barely slap together one sandwich, much less help with 40. I couldn’t retain the name of Anderson’s teacher. Honestly, I wasn’t even completely clear on where the school was.
Two years ago, I was pulled under by manic depression. I threw my family into utter insecurity, exposed them to danger, and almost gave up trying completely and killed myself. It took all that I had, but I finally brought myself back from the brink. Now, when I play the simple melodies of family life–getting my girls’ tights on in the morning, brushing my son’s hair, deciding on a restaurant for a night out with my husband–each one sounds to me like a perfect concerto. Even when we’re all dead-tired, frustrated, or fighting, I can still hear the song.
Like all families, our story begins before the kids actually arrive. There’s some genetic bad luck on my end: At 18, I realize I’m an alcoholic, and in my early 20s, I suffer from painful anxiety. Both have easily grasped solutions: support groups, sobriety, the care of good doctors, medication. And there’s amazing luck as well. The summer I turn 19, I fall for a smart, good-looking boy, and–much to my surprise–he loves me back. Eight years later, we get married. I am so overcome with joy that I sob my whole walk up the aisle. Our priest tells my groom, “Take her hand, steady her.” Little do we know, we will cling to this mantra throughout our marriage.
It’s February 1999, seven months after the wedding. My husband and I are at a diner, having dinner with friends. Even though I haven’t eaten lunch, I’m not hungry. I order toast and enjoy the feeling of the rough bread on my fingers. I cut into the conversation, rambling about the poetic beauty of the cracked plastic that covers our menus… and I find I can’t stop. Every time someone tries to interrupt me, I slice through their words, talking, talking, and thinking I should be writing all of this down, it is so important. My husband puts his hand on mine and asks if I want to go to the bathroom before we leave. I say yes, only later understanding he just wanted a break from my incoherent remarks.
For the next five months, I don’t sleep, staying up watching CNN and making collages. I spend thousands of dollars on books I am too revved up to read, fancy designer outfits that have no place in my wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts, and cheap watches from street vendors. I am always on the phone, talking with friends or almost-friends who are surprised to hear from me. One day a bewildered telemarketer gets exasperated by my nonstop chatter and just hangs up.
My husband is there, of course, but I refuse to let him in. He backs off, I think, because he senses this behavior is not something he can fix–best to leave it to the therapist and psychopharmacologist I have been seeing for my anxiety. The night I don’t come home until 6 a.m., when he considers going downtown to search the alleys for me before he decides to call the police, he finally hits his limit. He contacts my doctors.
They are excellent caretakers, but I have lied to them about what I’ve been up to, so they have missed the signs. Once they hear the details, they diagnose me as manic-depressive and make a plan to send me to the hospital to bring me down, regulate me. I don’t want to go–I’m having too much fun–but as we sit on the couch in my therapist’s office, I feel my husband squeeze my shoulder and something clicks. A small, distant part of me knows I am on a precipice and I need his support to keep from falling.
As I fill out the intake forms at the hospital, I laugh at some of the questions. “Do you think you have special powers?” “Who is the current president?” When I am asked what I think will augment my treatment, I write: “Shopping at the mall across the street.” The director looks at me incredulously and says, “Just where the hell do you think you are?”
The reality is a locked ward, with a treatment plan directed at adjusting my meds and normalizing my eating and sleeping patterns. After 10 days, I’m released. I’ve glibly accepted my diagnosis of manic-depression, but I haven’t understood the whole implication. The disease is a horse with a double yoke: mania and depression. Or, to paraphrase fellow sufferer Carrie Fisher, mania is the meal; depression is the check.
Mine hits that June, four weeks after the hospital. I cry constantly and sleep four to six hours during the day, plus at least 12 at night. My husband comes home from work to a pitch-black apartment, though I think he prefers to find me inert in the darkness instead of out somewhere wreaking havoc. After four months of this, working with my doctors and trying new medications, the depression lifts, rolls away like a tumbleweed. With a daily cocktail of lithium, Neurontin, Celexa, and Klonopin, plus twice-weekly therapy, I am asymptomatic, a word I mistake for cured.
My husband and I have tested the “in sickness” part of our vows, and made it through. On our second anniversary, I smile at the “I Would Marry You All Over Again” on the front of my husband’s card, and his own words on the inside are equally earnest. He talks about looking forward to our many decades together, nothing to imply that my stumble has cost us the race.
In 2001, after three stable years, we decide to start a family. We consult with my doctors on how to continue treating my manic-depression in a way that won’t harm a fetus. We try to reduce my meds, but the side effects are too horrible: my mood dips, my vision gets blurry. Finally, we manage to remove the lithium and hope for the best. I get pregnant on the first try–and I’m terrified, not of a relapse, but of harming the baby with the other meds. In an effort to atone, I follow all the other guidelines: stop the coffee, skip the sushi, stay out of hot tubs. That April, our son, Prentice, is born, a perfect baby with bright blue eyes and a full head of blond hair that parts naturally on the side like a banker’s.
Over the next five years, as my mood stays level, we have two more babies, our daughters, Anderson and Adams. I dive into motherhood, wear out my BabyBjörn, read the usual parenting books. By the time Prentice is 7, Anderson 5, and Adams 2, I begin to wonder if the whole manic-depressive episode was just a fluke. I still play by the rules: take my meds as directed and tell my doctors everything, so if trouble comes, we can catch it early. We’re all so vigilant.
Yet spring 2009 arrives, and I enjoy it a bit too much. I fill our house with peonies because I can’t get enough of their smell. Then the mania revs full-blast. It’s more pronounced than the last time, and more dangerous, because I’m now responsible for three young children. I walk through Central Park barefoot, blessing people on their foreheads with the sign of the cross. I shoplift, my kids in tow, because I’m too impatient to wait in line to pay. I drive our SUV (alone, thank God) at high speed in the middle of the night, music blaring.
Part of the manic me is fun for my kids. I spend all day making and icing dozens of cupcakes with them, and take them to buy obscene amounts of stickers and Play-Doh. But as I speed faster, they get scared. I push them a bit too high on the swings. I read too many books at bedtime, even after they just want to sleep. My husband is always in my peripheral vision. As soon as he approaches, I push him away. I only pretend to eat, because I am never hungry. I hold in the torrent of words that are pushing to get out. My doctors order me to tweak my current meds and prescribe new ones, but I ignore them. Like any good manic, I know better than they do. But of course, I don’t.
The depression hits in late August. I wake up one morning and it’s there, all-encompassing. I can’t believe it happened this quickly. It’s as if I’d been holding a wad of hundreds in my hand, eager to spend, and the wind arrived from nowhere and blew them away. I call my psychopharm immediately–now I’m desperate, and I’ll do whatever he tells me. Given the past, I feel confident we know how to fix this; all he has to do is check my chart. We’ll tinker with a few things and I’ll be back to normal, perhaps even in a few weeks this time.
But the days drag on. I can barely get out of bed. The shower scares me. The meds I am on (my get-well cocktail now totals eight pills) cause me to gain 30 pounds in a month. I can’t read books or watch TV: They make me feel claustrophobic. I can’t keep my head up when I walk. It is like a heavy flower on a broken stem.
The kids are still there, wanting more cupcakes and trips to the park. But my inner battery is dead, and their energy is no longer contagious. Nevertheless, I worry about them constantly. Not about them, per se, but about being around them. I suddenly have nothing to offer them and find excuses to hide myself away. It hurts when they touch me. Even sitting and watching them play is unbearable. I know I am missing precious moments, and I’m devastatingly sure there will be no chances to Make Things Up.
That fall, Anderson and Adams each start a new school. In the “first day” picture, they look crisp in their uniforms, excited. My husband has his arms around them, and I lean in toward my family, just trying to seem like I am a part of their lives. The corners of my lips turn up, but they don’t soften my face. Later, I ask Anderson what she remembers about that time. “Mommy,” she answers, “it was like your smile broke.”
Again, my husband steps up, chaperoning school field trips, walking Safety Patrol with a neon orange vest over his suit. Family friends rally around us, having us over for dinner (even though I promptly find a bed to climb into). At least this time around, my husband isn’t bewildered; instead, he seems resigned. He never asks me to account for my empty days. He knows how hard I am trying, how I would never neglect the kids and him if I could help it. Even through my fog, I can tell the situation is weighing on him, but I’m unable to comfort him. At night, it is always he who hugs me, and I barely can muster the strength to hug back.
My depression goes on for four endless months. No new dosages, no combination of meds is working. When I think about the kids, it’s only to wonder why I had them in the first place–why I inflicted myself on them. I think about suicide, hanging myself with the curtain cord in the bathroom window. Before trying, I tell my husband, thinking it might be considerate to say good-bye. This is the final alarm bell, and my doctors sit down with us again. All agree that I need to go back to the hospital.
When we arrive, a nurse in teddy-bear scrubs goes through my small bag. My favorite drawstring sweatpants and my iPod headphones are confiscated–too dangerous. My husband helps me unpack. I don’t want him to leave, and when he does, I stare at the wall and finally cry. I had been too affectless to even do that, until now.
This time on the locked unit, the plan is not to attempt to regulate my patterns but to resuscitate me completely–my life is spiraling down, and I can’t reach the oxygen mask. I’m there to get ECT, electroconvulsive therapy. Shock treatment. Discussing this with my medical team calls to mind all the writers I love–Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace–who had ECT and eventually suicided anyway. But maybe it’ll work for me. My doctors liken it to pressing the control-alt-delete keys on a computer, hoping to reboot the system. As scary as the prospect sounds, I am in so much pain that I’ll try anything. Sadly, I can’t say my decision is influenced by the desire to get my relationship with my family back on track; at this point, I think only of myself. Depression is a party of one.
My second day at the hospital, the staff wakes me up at 6 a.m. for medications, and then, after what seems an interminable wait, I am wheeled (hospitals, it seems, want you to walk as little as possible) by the Teddy Bear Nurse into a room with a bed covered by a starchy white sheet. A woman wearing a tweed suit and hair pulled up into a severe bun is standing next to a large machine that looks like a stereo. She does not address me, and I am suddenly terrified. I have never met or even spoken to her before, and she is about to send a mass of electric volts through my head. Does she know what she is doing? What if she turns the knob up too high and erases part of my mind forever? I want to ask her something before we start, get some reassurance or at least a sense of goodwill, but Teddy Bear Nurse places a plastic cover over my mouth and tells me to count backward from 100. I get to 89 and I am still conscious. I worry they’re behind schedule and will start anyway, and that I’ll feel it all. My throat starts to hurt and I can barely breathe. Finally, I lose consciousness.
When I wake up in Recovery, my head foggy and my throat still sore from the anesthesia, I check eagerly, but I can feel that my depression is still there. I know it takes more than one time, but part of me needed to believe that the treatment would work on the first try.
I am in the hospital for over two weeks and have seven more treatments. The side effects of ECT can include memory loss and disorientation, and I end up forgetting much of my stay. What I remember most is my husband, coming day after day at lunchtime. Eventually, we are allowed to go to the hospital atrium for coffee, a trip that feels as far away as Paris. He must have tried to fill me in on the children, but I don’t remember anything he said. I truly do not miss them; I don’t have the capacity to even think about them yet.
When I am released, I have 12 more treatments, outpatient–a lot in just four weeks. Each time I undergo an ECT, they give me a yellow slip, which I store in a drawer like receipts. At home, I stay in bed most of the day. I still can’t make an effort to reconnect with my family–I put earplugs in to block out their cheery voices. Maybe I just need to kill some more brain cells, I think. Get some more yellow paper and it will happen. But here’s the real question: Are they still waiting for me? It terrifies me to think they might no longer be.
Finally, I start to feel better. There is no big, magical breakthrough, but my depression now has cracks, places where recovery can slip in. After months of not being able to read–my chief source of pleasure since I was a kid–I pick up a paperback in the supermarket. I have to skip some of it because I can’t concentrate, but I make it to the end, and I know I’m on my way. For me, getting well is not like emerging from a dark lake in a few easy strokes, but a long, slow swim back to shore. I’m still terrified of early evenings at home, when I have to face my children alone. I stop at the toy store almost nightly, hoping to find the magical “thing” that will reconnect us, or at least amuse them while I sit and watch. Our sitter covers the essentials–baths, food, homework–but I struggle with the hour between her leaving and bedtime. Anderson refuses to draw with me. Prentice plays video games. Adams screams for Daddy. My feelings are hurt, and I’m frustrated, but I’m glad I am well enough to even feel.
Slowly, slowly, things progress. The girls and I watch iCarly marathons and I’m finally able to laugh at the right spots. I go to Prentice’s hockey games, help him with history dioramas. My kids aren’t grateful for normalcy; they expect it, as children should. But I am. I love washing Adams’s hair and singing “This Little Light of Mine” as I soap her back. I love reading Little House on the Prairie with Anderson, and watching the old reruns on TV. (Who remembers that Michael Landon was such a hunk?) When Prentice gives me an iPod loaded with his favorite songs and the inscription “To the Best Mom. You!” my heart almost explodes.
As the months pass and turn into a year, my husband starts to take it for granted that I can walk the kids to school, make lunches. We’re happy; together. He sees me as a mother again, a woman, a wife. We have a nightly ritual where we kiss before bed, and if we’re too tired for anything else, we reach for each other’s hand as we drift off to sleep.
Do I worry I will relapse? Yes, because I could. No, because I haven’t. For now, I’m just a mom who shows up to make sandwiches at her daughter’s school.
There is deep gratitude in these sandwiches, of course. They don’t represent a 15-minute trip to the grocery store, but a hard knee-crawl back from hell. My story isn’t shameful: It’s a gift, in a way. It reminds me that we can take nothing for granted, not the sweet moments nor the tedious ones. I have learned that as a mother I have a responsibility to talk about anything that gets in the way of my parenting, and to ask for help. And to be on the lookout, reach out to others if they seem to need it.
So I encourage you to pay attention. That woman off to the side at school pick-up: mute, and maybe unshowered–she might not just be aloof, different, lazy. Approach her with a fresh eye. Don’t make assumptions as to why she seems to be falling down on the job. Maybe she is just like I was. Maybe you should ask her. Find out. Or, if this woman I’ve just described is you: Ask me.
Ashley Prentice Norton lives in New York City with her family. Her first novel, The Chocolate Money, will be published by Mariner Books in September.