The last thing I needed was to be published at this point in my life. I was writing very dark fiction—full of death and destruction and sin. I couldn’t stay out of the hospital—every year between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, my mood went south, and I wound up suicidal. Bob was running himself ragged trying to keep up with my moods and the needs of three young children along with his obligations to his job. We stopped writing Christmas newsletters to our family and friends because there just wasn’t much good news to write about. I went through medication change after medication change to stabilize my moods. I would do well for a while and then spring would roll around again and I would be in a manic or mixed state, with depressive and manic symptoms all at once.
I started to finally even out in 2011—I was hospitalized for a very short time over Easter weekend and feel as good as I ever had once released. But I wasn’t where I had been in early 2005, and I knew it. And I was beyond mad at God about it. People had prayed for me and over me, I had been told that it was God’s will for me to be healed, and the frustration with my limitations on what I could do and what I could stand for had mounted and hardened into a doubt that God cared for me at all. Why would he have allowed this change to my life, my personality, my intellect to happen?
Six months after Rachel was born, Hurricane Katrina landed on Mississippi. Even though we were over 150 miles inland, the storm was strong enough to be a Category 1 hurricane when it hit us. We were without power for a week, and the children were off school for what seemed like a long time. I was afraid—of the storm itself, then of the upheavals we went through as a society—people exchanging gunfire over gasoline and ice. I stuffed down the anxiety and fear for several weeks until I had a dentist’s appointment.
When they put me under nitrous oxide to relax me for the procedure, I felt the walls I had built against the sadness and anxiety start to come down. I lay in the dentist’s chair and thought, “I am not going to have a nervous breakdown in the doctor’s office. I’m not going to break down.”
I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. Where was God in my life now? Why was I going through such a trial of my faith? What had I done wrong this time to be suffering so much in my mind? Those were the questions I asked myself. I started counseling again within a week for what I thought was post-partum depression made worse by the events surrounding the hurricane. I was wrong.
After the big breakdown nine months after Katrina, I realized that I couldn’t continue to work—I wanted so much to do so but just could not take the stress of daily deadlines any longer. I let all of it go—the food column, the business news, the gardening and religion stories, everything. I had one final assignment I wanted to complete—I had contracted for it before the breakdown and resolved it was my last job. I wrote 15 profiles of all the community colleges in Mississippi for a college prep publication and earned close to $2,000 that month. I resolved to continue writing on my fiction project I had conceived after the hurricane—it felt like a natural move to go to a new field of endeavor in writing since I couldn’t do deadline work any longer.
The problem was that it had been 15 years since I had written fiction, and I just wasn’t very good at it. I kept sending things off to be published and kept getting rejection after rejection. I started questioning myself again. Why was I failing at this writing? What was I doing wrong? Why had God given me these stories to write if they weren’t going to be published?
I felt arms and hands pulling at me to get me out of the car. I was pulled back with Rachel still in the car. I believe it was that moment that I lost my mind to bipolar disorder. I began screaming, “I want my baby! Give me my baby!” while fighting the men who were pulling me from the car. Two men moved to get her out and finally handed the baby seat to me with Rachel still in it. One man brought me my glasses, which had flown off into the floorboard without me noticing. Another handed me her pacifier. I accepted them and sank to sit on the ground, holding onto the seat and crying, unable to comfort the other two, who sat down beside me. I had called the police and dialed the cell phone to call Bob. All I managed to say was “You need to come home.” He said, “I’m on my way” and hung up before I could tell him what happened. He arrived white as a sheet and hugged each of us in turn. The car was totaled, but we were alive and that was what mattered most.
Only now I couldn’t drive by that intersection without remembering the screech of brakes that likely saved our lives that I had heard before the impact. Every day I saw the skid marks on the road where we had been thrown forward. I became afraid to drive my new minivan and stayed in the house with Rachel more and more. I could feel the familiar symptoms coming on but felt powerless to stop them since I was still nursing and couldn’t take any medication, I thought. I resolved to beat this myself and tough it out—I was older and wiser, I thought.
The rocky part came earlier in 2005 when we moved to a new house to accommodate the birth of our third child, Rachel. I remember the night I told Bob she was on the way. He was like, “Okay. Wow. That was quick.” Then after a while, he grabbed up a flashlight and walked out the front door—he said he was going for a walk around the neighborhood. That was unusual for him, and he was acting very edgy. I wondered if the news upset him, and I got a little irritated because the plan to have another child was something he had been enthusiastic about.
A few months later, he told me the full story of that night. He said as soon as I showed him the positive pregnancy test, he was overcome with a fear that he felt was irrational. His walk was a way to take a time-out and look at the fear and see where it came from. He didn’t solve the question but said he calmed down somewhat and prayed that the fear might disappear. It finally did, and he came back home. I don’t know if he was being tested by Satan or if he was experiencing a premonition about what would come with Rachel’s birth. The move was only a taste of the changes that were coming
She was born a month after we moved. Three weeks later, I caught the flu from Amber and was down for two weeks. Three months after that, we were in a serious car accident that could have killed all three of the children but didn’t. I was rearended at the entrance of our neighborhood by a Ford F-350 pulling a trailer of landscaping equipment. My car was thrown 30 feet from a dead stop into a neighbor’s yard as all four of us started screaming. Once the car finally stopped, I turned around and told Terrie and Amber to get out of the car. They were able to open a door and leave, while I struggled to pull Rachel’s baby seat from where it was wedged between the front driver’s seat and the back seat.
Bob and I decided to have another baby three years later, and I went off my medications and out of counseling. That was the beginning of one of the longest successful times in my life since graduate school. We had Amber in 1999; by April 2000, I started doing freelance writing for three publications in Jackson, and within a year I had earned enough money to get us out of debt and replace my current salary at the agency with freelance money. I left the agency for good in August of 2001 and started freelancing in earnest, turning in a story per day somewhere in the world.
Not even the economic slump after 9/11 hurt us much; I had earned my editors’ confidence and did feature stories on everything from extraordinary people to performing arts to food, to religion to gardening. At my peak, I was working for ten different news organizations and making around $20,000 a year after taxes and expenses—a cell phone and an internet connection. I had made a name for myself in the area and won an award for my first foray into political reporting, a series I did on people under forty making a difference in Mississippi politics.
Looking back I can see signs of slipping—my back would cut out on me when I had multiple deadlines to meet. I started to think nothing could go wrong for me. I rarely made mistakes, but when I did, they were doozies. (I once reported a local symphony organization had scored a $50,000 grant when it was actually only $5,000. Other arts organizations cried foul to the granting agency, who called my editor.)
What should have tipped me off was my work on the religion beat I was doing. I found incredible stories but was a cynical reporter—I took the easy way out of reporting on personalities rather than on their religious experiences. I had contempt for people that didn’t return my calls. How dare they blow me off like that? That sort of thing. I was a food writer who didn’t cook much beyond microwaving, a home and garden writer who couldn’t clean house, and a religion writer who wasn’t close to God anymore. I thought I was doing God’s will for my life since I was so successful. I am thankful that God blessed me when my children were young with work that made me happy and made me feel valuable so I could set an example for them of a Proverbs 31 woman who not only worked for her family but worked for pay as well. But I wasn’t working for the Lord as much as I was for my own self-satisfaction. I took pride in not working for free and in doing only articles I personally enjoyed. I kept up with the pace I set for myself for five years before my big breakdown in 2006.
After two years, Bob and I decided we were ready for children. We had Terrie in April of the next year, and I remember telling the nurse at my followup appointment with my ob-gyn that I was eating well, but it all tasted like sawdust in my mouth except for chocolate. I kept working, putting Terrie in day care at six weeks. I tried going back on Elavil, but I was drinking a six-pack of cokes a day to stay awake, so I stopped it.
And I started sliding downhill. I seemed to be prepared for parenting, and Terrie was an exceptionally good baby. But I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her in day care for a job I hated more than ever. Then my agency was reorganized, and I was put under a new manager with new co-workers—and I met another guy.
He was four years older than me but single. He loved 80’s music and had a wacky sense of humor. And I couldn’t catch my breath and be in the same room with him. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t good. I hated the job more than ever and didn’t mind who knew it. I had been searching for writing work and there just wasn’t any to be found. I remember my supervisor telling me, “You’re not leaving here unless we blow you out from behind that desk with dynamite.”
I thought, “I‘ll show you.” So I decided to start counseling to deal with this weird relationship in my head and my depression over my work.
My counselor diagnosed me with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. I started treatment with 100 milligrams of Zoloft daily from my ob-gyn for depression. I was in counseling for almost a year; I slowly got over my crush and learned techniques to handle what seemed like simple obsessions, with my counselor telling me that he had never seen someone who could resist compulsions like me. That was a point in my favor in my battle at the time—I escaped with my marriage unscathed.
Bob and I married in June, and I moved to Brandon with him working at the Mississippi Tax Commission and me not having a job at that moment—a situation I quickly rectified by finding a mall job ten days after we married. I worked there until Thanksgiving, when I found out I’d been hired for a state job working with the disabled that a friend from church had helped me find.
By this point I had been taking Elavil for what I called premenstrual syndrome over the course of three years. I had also been on birth control that long to help control my periods, which were long and brutal without them. My symptoms included distractibility, mood swings, and anxiety. I would run red lights, be unable to type coherently, and was weepy as well. But with the meds, the symptoms had disappeared, and I went on to have a successful life with my new job, my marriage, and new friends I was developing at church and work. I hated the job, though—my emotions stayed on a rollercoaster in dealing with all the illness and death that surrounded the people I served. I knew all the symptoms of every disease that would kill you graveyard dead, from exotic cancers to bizarre AIDS manifestations.
This job was my first exposure to mentally ill people. With the same kind of protective shell developed by doctors and cops, people in my agency traded stories of wacky symptoms and dysfunctional lives among our clients with each other. I discovered that almost all the teen thugs in the metro area had histories with our agency; I would look up their names in our database after they came out in the paper. I had one early client close all our conversations with “I love you, Mrs. Whitehead.” I had clients arrested for murder, prostitution, and drug dealing while their cases were active. We had people deluded enough to think the CIA was after them. I dealt with some psychopathic kids. And I discovered that clients with more than three marriages typically were diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I read up on mental illnesses, especially mood disorders. I knew by now I was prone to depression and wanted to find out more about it. The more I read, the more some of the cases sounded like me. But I was on an even keel at this point in my life, and I didn’t worry too much about my abilities to do my job and to keep up with my busy life.
That fall I was hired to team-teach with my business communication professor, and I scored another class of English Composition when enrollment was higher than usual. Bob had graduated and was working for his dad in Pearl. I got an apartment and lived on my own the next year. Bob and I got engaged that Christmas, but his parents still did not approve of me and let him know in no uncertain terms.
Late in the spring semester, just before I was going to get married, I noticed an MSU baseball player in my class with my business professor. He was smart, goodlooking, and did a heck of a job at first base that year. My energy was riding high again, and I suddenly developed a more than scholarly interest in him. I followed his games and complimented him on his play. I dreamed about him occasionally. I only told one person—my closest cousin, who encouraged me to break off with Bob and see what might develop. I knew that wasn’t an option, though—I had already bought a dress, and she was going to be my maid of honor in the wedding.
My professor noticed and asked me about him. I admitted that there was something weird going on. She wondered about Bob, and with rare insight, I told her I didn’t think it had anything to do with Bob. I was right—it was a bipolar-fueled crush that had no basis in reality; I didn’t know why it had happened, but I knew I didn’t want to give up Bob for him. I reasoned it would end once I didn’t see him at school every other day, and I was right.
But that summer marked a new beginning for me in several ways—the break in between spring and summer was all I needed to recharge my batteries. I took a course in business communication and garnered a job offer from that professor for the fall. My dad, ironically, suggested that I stay in college and try for a master’s degree, thinking I could use what was left of my scholarship money. That wasn’t possible, but I found out I could get an assistantship in the English Department and have my tuition waived and a salary to boot. I started a new relationship in Bob’s absence with an engineering major that was as fascinated with my intellect as anyone I had ever met. He saw it as an asset to me instead of something to be ashamed of. I had been particularly forward in pursuing him—something that was starting to be a pattern. I didn’t take the relationship too seriously, and neither did he—he saw it for what it was: a rebound reaction to the end of my relationship with Bob and was content with that.
I regained all my self-confidence I had lost but returned to school in a saner way—determined not to repeat my mistakes with my master’s program that I had made in my bachelor’s. I did graduate in August of 1990 and immediately started teaching and taking only nine (count them, nine!) graduate hours a semester. I worked two jobs, one for the business professor helping her revise a textbook and the other my teaching job—I turned down a third offer from the housing department to write for their newsletter, citing my course load and other work. I was supporting myself completely with no aid from my parents. I applied for a checking account and a credit card without their knowledge.
I spent the two years of my master’s program at peace with myself—the teaching wasn’t my favorite thing, but it paid the bills and enabled me to stay in school and grow up some more, which I desperately needed to do. I got back with Bob after several months–he was charmed all over again by my confidence in myself and my ability to support myself even having majored in something as silly as journalism.
I was writing in an atmosphere that exalted writing and having the time of my life, taking only courses that interested me and made me happy. My final semester in graduate school was stressful but manageable—I didn’t see any red flags coming, although I made only the fourth C of my college career then, and I was working a third job at an English department publication. So I should have known something was coming–but I didn’t.
But that January I started sleeping my life away—if I wasn’t in class, I was crashing in Bob’s dorm room during the day since I wasn’t getting along with my roommate. I would miss my early morning classes on a regular basis because I couldn’t get out of bed on time. I had been waking up at five in the morning ever since I started at State my senior year of high school, and I suddenly couldn’t get conscious until eight or nine. At midterms I had one A, two B’s, four C’s and an F. I couldn’t seem to grasp the concepts in my basic computer class—spreadsheets, word-processors, or basic computer programming. I was still working for the paper, breaking a story early in the semester on MSU being the first university in the state to offer co-ed dorms coming that fall. But I had trouble rewriting press releases and turned in a few stories that needed corrections run in the next edition. I was finally fired from there after my editor took offense at comments Bob made to her at the end-of-the-year dinner, but the incoming editor said he would accept a resignation letter instead.
I had met Bob’s parents earlier in the summer, who wondered at my manic state and tried to forbid him to date me. But as I stumbled through my senior semester, I could see the wheels coming off of our relationship anyway. I was trying to interview for jobs and land one for after I graduated, but the economy wasn’t doing well, and people were leery of hiring a nineteen-year-old college graduate. My parents only reinforced my fears at not finding good work by suggesting that I apply for secretarial jobs that didn’t require a degree—my mom commenting that I had “wasted” my education majoring in journalism. I knew I was depressed but put it off on my circumstances, which seemed dire to me. I was facing the prospect of moving back home after graduation and being a failure at life.
I kept going because I knew I would only require six hours of classes to finish my degree if I could only survive this semester. And survive I did, making four A’s, three B’s and a C. Bob and I ended the semester with an agreement to see other people over the summer—he was going to Germany for an internship, and I would be finishing my last two classes that summer. He had another year to graduate, and I still hasn’t found a job