Relapse: The Seven Letter R-Word that No One with Depression Wants to Hear

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If you had told me years ago that I’d be intimately familiar with the word relapse, I would have laughed. I thought that word only applied to those struggling with forms of addiction, but I was wrong.

I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since college. Before my relapse last year, I’ve had two other major depression episodes. When I say major episode, I’m talking no sleep or in bed all day, overeating or not eating at all, tears and straight zombie status. The first happened in 2012 (pre-children), and the other happened after my second child was born in 2018. That one landed me in the emergency room, leading to an intensive outpatient program.

I was in a good place before my relapse. I overcame the hardest period of my life through my recovery of Postpartum Depression. I finished graduate school and was advocating for other women struggling with PPD. Then, Memorial Day weekend 2019 happened.

My mom had a stroke, well actually, two. My husband and I were on a trip, so we drove home to be with her. She met with a neurologist, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists. She spent ten days in two different hospitals before being cleared to come home and continue outpatient therapy.

It’s a strange feeling to see your parent in a hospital bed. When I was going through PPD, she was my rock. She essentially lived at our house for weeks while I recovered, and my husband worked. I’m incredibly close to my mom and becoming the caretaker for her seemed like second nature, but it was hard to switch roles.

We celebrated a different kind of graduation that May; my mom’s graduation to go home! 

I had many emotions surrounding my mom’s situation. How could you not? I was fearful, but I pushed feelings away. I told myself to keep it together because she needed me. Worrying while also trying to survive my day-job was enough to make me want to sleep all day, but to top it all off, I had tiny humans to tame. At the time, my daughter was three, and my son was one. My husband’s job required him to work five evenings each week, which meant I was parenting solo. It got to be too much.

So, I broke down.

It started with irritability at work and then progressed into a panic attack. I sat at my desk, feeling dizzy, nauseous, and like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I did some deep breathing to calm down and called my husband. I then asked my mom to help me with the kids that evening after work. By the time I walked through the door to my house, I couldn’t stop crying.

I felt broken at that moment. I told my mom my kids deserved better than me. I felt like everything was all my fault, and it was just too much. I didn’t want to be around anyone and only wanted to sleep. My mom held me as I cried and told me to go to bed. I took one of my emergency anxiety pills and slept.

The next day was a blur, but I somehow managed to go to work and call my psychiatrist. I sat in her office crying, telling her there was something wrong with me. She said the seven-letter word – relapse. I was so angry for letting myself get to that point. I ended the appointment with an increase in my medications, a scheduled therapy session, and the message to lean on my support system.

I fell into a routine of sleeping and crying, with an occasional forced meal. We took the kids to my parent’s house for their annual Fourth of July gathering, but since I could barely function, I went upstairs to lay down. My version of interaction was sitting on the couch while others talked around me, and I gazed off. The rest of the weekend was like this. I thought about calling some of my closest friends but felt embarrassed. I had been tooting my horn about being an advocate and helping others. How could I possibly admit I was back to rock bottom? So, I kept to myself.

As the weekend came to a close, my husband asked me how I was feeling. I felt guilty that my family had to deal with this version of me, and I was a failure for the relapse. I should have called my psychiatrist sooner. I should have used my coping skills more. I should have asked for help. But you know what? What I really should have done is give myself some freaking grace. Beating myself up is the last thing I needed and went against everything I learned in my outpatient program.

a pill organiser full of depression medication
The pharmacy needed to get me out of bed each day.

I feel stronger these days and try hard not to feel guilty about what happened. My therapist helped me understand that while I might have missed some triggers, it was a learning experience that will help me in the future. She gave me a great analogy: as you prepare for a final exam, do you reread every chapter? No. You “refresh” yourself on what you’ve learned. You look at notes and build a study guide. I needed a “refresher” on recovery. I needed a “refresher” on how to cope and manage my anxiety. Thank goodness for that refresher because it’s really helped me get through this COVID-19 era.

I know an amazing woman that said you can still advocate even when you’re in the midst of what you are advocating for. I’m proof that mental health is something that has to be continually worked on. Too often, we start feeling good and then let up on our coping skills or allowing help, but we can’t.

There is a seven-letter word that I’m working on letting go of – relapse. Instead, I try to replace that period in my head with a new name, REFRESH.

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Courtney is a tiny human tamer, spouse, advocate, ambassador, and storyteller. And, after years of therapy, she's also unapologetically herself. Courtney is a journalist-turned-marketer spending daytime hour as a Director of Marketing and Public Relations. When the clock strikes 5 pm, the caffeine turns to wine, and the supermom cape comes out. Courtney and her husband, Kyle, are parents to Ruby (born March 2016) and Miles (born April 2018). After a life-changing battle with Postpartum Depression, Courtney found her passion for advocacy work. As an official ambassador for 2020 Mom, she brings awareness and fights for change in the maternal mental health field. As a Kansas City native and University of Kansas alum living in enemy territory, Courtney can regularly be found in KU Jayhawks or Kansas City Chiefs or Royals gear. Her recent accomplishments include earning a master's degree in Strategic Communication from Maryville University in 2019, joining the St. Louis Mom's Blog contributing team, and using humor and self-deprecation to get through most of life's crap, especially, uncomfortable situations.