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  • Writer's pictureKatie Beucus

On Mental Health

We learned about the mass on Aaron’s vertebrae by receiving his MRI results via email on a Sunday. Super Bowl Sunday to be exact. That’s when my grief began. I’ve been actively grieving for almost 15 months. It’s also when my anxiety began. I mean I’ve always been a bit anxious, but not like this.

I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I’d stay up late to cry after I knew Aaron had fallen asleep. I never wanted him to know how scared I was. I started therapy almost immediately and by the time Aaron began chemo in April, outwardly I was in a better place. I could eat and shower and sleep as much as any caregiver and parent of young children can.

But even still, my body was in a constant state of fight or flight. I would wake up at the smallest sound in the house. Aaron would try to sneak out of bed on his own to go to the bathroom, but after he fainted during cycle 1 of chemo, he realized that wasn’t going to fly. That incident was enough to keep me on high alert at all times.

And then in November, we learned Aaron’s cancer was back and my nervous system went haywire. My histamine levels were through the roof. I became severely allergic to bees. Now I carry two epi pens and a bee kit. I developed an irregular breathing pattern from anxiety. I couldn’t even mimic it today if I tried. I’d take repeated deep breaths, and still feel like my lungs weren’t taking in air. I’d have tingling in my fingers or toes and get dizzy sometimes. My throat would feel like it was closing. I was having silent panic attacks multiple times a day.

Aaron always said he slept better when I was with him at the hospital not for any other reason than that I was there. So on the nights when he’d go into the OR super late, I would stay and I’d get my makeshift recliner bed as close to his as possible and just hold his hand while we (mostly he) slept after surgery. So to leave on any other night was the worst of it.

In order to leave the hospital so I could be home when the kids woke up each day, I’d make the 50 mile drive with my window down the entire way. Even when it was raining. The cold air hitting my face slapped me out of it, if even for a short while. I never told anyone about this when it was happening. Not even Aaron. If he knew he would have felt guilty, and I was never going to let that happen.

So after a few weeks of this I made an appointment with a nurse practitioner. I knew if I was going to carry Aaron through the end of his fight, I had to take care of myself. I had sought help from my primary care physician months prior when I couldn’t eat or sleep and had lost 20lbs in 3 weeks, but was advised to just continue with therapy at that time.

This time, my nurse practitioner recommended I begin a low dose daily medication for my anxiety. And I agreed.

That day I began taking Lexapro. Lexapro is an SSRI that is generally well tolerated but everyone is different. Right around Christmas, after being on medication for about 5 weeks, my silent panic attacks subsided.

And then Aaron died and I couldn’t breathe again. I couldn’t even properly cry because the cartilage between my ribs had become so inflamed from the stress and anxiety that inhaling felt like my sternum was being crushed. I barely cried at his celebration of life. 90% because I knew I needed to be strong for the kids and 10% because I was afraid if I cried I would pass out and how embarrassing would that be to do in front of 600 or so first responders, family and friends.

When I still couldn’t breathe after Aaron’s celebration of life, we decided to up my dose of Lexapro. It’s been about 10 weeks now, and as of the last week or two I am breathing again. And for the first time in over a year, I feel like myself. I had begun to wonder if I would ever breathe normally again. Would the elephant living on my chest ever leave. I really want to make an inappropriate boob joke or something here because when things get uncomfortable I get embarrassingly awkward or laugh at the worst possible time but I’ve got nothing right now. This happened with my brother and I as we spent Aaron’s final hours with him but that’s a whole different story for another day.

The plan for my healing is to continue at my current dose for the next three months and then begin to wean off until the end of the year. There is no way I could have shown up for Aaron, his family and our family, had I continued to ignore what my body was screaming at me. I honestly didn’t realize how bad it was, until it was gone. Probably because mental health still has a lot of stigma around it.

Yes sleep is important, yes diet is important, yes exercise is important. But I can assure you that you can’t eat, sleep and exercise your way out of the trauma that comes with your spouse dying and becoming a single mother of two in your 30s or any age for that matter. Most people struggle to hit all three of those targets on a good day let alone while being a full time caregiver, having a full time paying job and raising two children……steps off mini soapbox.

Without question, regret or shame, this was the best decision I ever could have made for myself and I decided to share because maybe this is the nudge someone else like me needs, to care for themselves too.

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