In 2004 I sat in a mental health facility across the desk of a 38-year-old psychiatrist, and listened to him tell me I had major depression and panic disorder. I don’t remember all that much of the conversation on that particular day, or the subsequent ones as I attended my appointments at this place with him and the other therapists, but I do remember him asking me how I knew I was going into panic and telling him that my feet would start to sweat profusely, which is something that I never experienced outside of this. But that was only one symptom. I was restless, day and night. I couldn’t eat or sleep and I remember having a conversation with my oldest sister and telling her that it felt as if there was a nail lodged into my skull (tension). I was in a constant state of torment, which sometimes impeded my ability to walk upright correctly — I was keeled over in agony and fear, from a sense of impending doom. Also at that time, I was disassociated with things. If I touched the wall, I couldn’t feel it. If I touched anything else, I couldn’t feel it. It was surreal and I felt as if I was on some kind of ‘high’. My vision even became cloudy and I couldn’t see all that clearly. The only way I knew I needed to eat at least something was to look at the way the veins in my eyes appeared, which would give me an indicator that I needed to put something in my mouth to try and avert low blood sugar. Other times I just wept. This all went on for a while and is all something I told the doctor at the urgent care clinic when I finally went in, before he told me what I was experiencing wasn’t physical, but mental. I also remember the psychiatrist telling me that he wanted to up the dosage of medications I was on at the time, prescribed by a different doctor I had seen just before him, when I was admitted to a emotional health facility, where I spent a few days.
Even though for a few years before this point I had begun struggling with depression and I’ve always been pretty anxious, though never to the extent I was at this time, I know that the ‘major’ part of this diagnosis stemmed from life circumstances — this all built up. Among various things that have gone on in my life and around this time, the greatest downfall happened about just over one year before all of this when my mother, at the age of 52, had a brain stem stroke, and was placed on life support. This was all very unexpected and over the next 11 days that she lived, myself and my sisters fought an incredible battle for her life — and lost. This was the most devastating moment of my life, and as you could imagine there were a host of complications that came along with this — including severe anxiety and panic that lingered. But I’ll tell you that that is not all that was happening at the time. Immediately before my mom’s death (while I was out of state visiting her in the hospital) I was told my position as a travel sales agent had been eliminated because of the toll the effects of September 11th, took on the airline industry. Immediately after my mom’s death, my marriage took a severe nosedive, but believe it or not exactly right before any of these things happened, I was on the road to becoming a mother, was so excited about it and was looking forward to being pregnant.
I haven’t been on any medication in a number of years, but I have been to therapy and counseling a points, which have been helpful. And over the past five years or so, the practice of meditation has significantly changed my life. Major depression isn’t even something I can fathom as being something that has anything to do with me, except as it relates to one part of my life. But I hear more and more folks talking about these areas and I begin to wonder. I’ve been thinking back on this time and wonder if I had actually gotten pregnant back then and had given birth during this very difficult period of depression, hopelessness, disassociation, what type of impact would that have had on my breastfeeding relationship? Even though I definitely wasn’t the very vocal advocate I am now about it, and even though I planned on breastfeeding, I absolutely believe that my state would have had an impact (if not outright ramifications) on what first foods my newborn would have received — meaning I know it would have affected my ability to breastfeed. And this was with having professional intervention. Who only knows what the (hypothetical) picture would look like otherwise?
Acquanda Y. Stanford is a critical Black feminist anthropologist, doula and a Certified Lactation Educator. She is also a PhD student of sociocultural anthropology, researching breastfeeding among people of African descent in the U.S. Follow her on Twitter.
This post is part of the Black Breastfeeding and Mental Illness: Struggling with & Surviving blog carnival.