‘What’s wrong with Mommy?’ I began to feel the cracks forming as I choked back tears packing their lunches.’: Mom of 4 overcomes maternal mental breakdown

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Disclaimer: this story contains details of suicidal thoughts and ideation that may be upsetting to some.

“I guess it’s all about the timing. I never really thought about how timing worked. Things in my life just seemed to happen, without planning or intention. Timing never really factored into it, or if it did, I was oblivious to it. That was before. That’s how I define the timeline of my life now: before and after my breakdown. It so profoundly changed me there is no other way to look at it. I am a woman changed.

Before, I was young and frivolous and naïve. I had no idea how my collective experiences, and my reactions to those experiences, would shape my mental health. After, when the life I thought I wanted was suddenly ripped away, I didn’t know who I was. And it was scary as hell. I am a mom to three wild, beautiful, scrappy boys and as of 2020, one sweet baby girl. In 2016, the year of my breakdown, my boys were seven, five and two years old.

Family of six take photos together in a field of sunflowers during the sunset
Courtesy of Jessy Milicevic

At this time in our lives, we lived in a small ranch-style home, a starter home we felt lucky to have. It had a bright red door and blue shutters and a small winding path that led to the front of the house. We had a big scaly bark tree in our front yard, which had great climbing branches and leaves that turned stunning shades of yellow in the fall. The grass was patchy in the backyard where little feet had pattered across it and little hands had dug for buried treasure.

It was fenced in with a worn wooden fence and backed up into dense forest, which cast a wide shade that cooled us in the sticky Carolina summer months. We would sit in the backyard in those months until the sun was worn out and fading, watching the kids chase fireflies and listening to the tree frogs sing as the scent of honeysuckle danced in the humidity. My husband, Ranko, would sit next to me on the patio, wrap his arm around my shoulders, and breathe in the strength of the little family we had built.

My husband is this courageous and kind man, tall and broad and warm. We had been together for 13 years in 2016, as we had married young and started having babies soon afterward. He was my greatest ambassador, my best friend, and challenged me in ways that helped me grow and evolve. Our love was so big, it filled our home and oozed out of every crack and crease, spilling into the outside world and making it better.

Young married couple with three sons share an intimate gaze with one another while taking photos in their backyard
Courtesy of Jessy Milicevic

In 2016, I was in a transitional period of my life. I had been a journalist for six years and was trying to break into the world of corporate marketing. I was tempted by the idea of a high paying salary, going to work each day in a designer suit and heels, running meetings and globe trotting. Forget the fact I had no training or experience in marketing; it was the role I wanted to play. Power suit. Power Mom. She-EO.

I’m not sure why I felt so dissatisfied with my life at the time. When I look back on it now, I guess it was ambition or the desire for more that drove me. My sweet little life felt small, and I always felt I was destined for greater things. I wanted to feel accomplished and admired, like all the women I had looked up to as a young woman in Cosmopolitan and now on Instagram. I had myself convinced this was real life, and more so, that it was attainable. If those women could have it all, so could I.

Working mom of three poses in front of a scaly bark tree in a green tank top, looking like a She-EO
Courtesy of Jessy Milicevic

I had watched moms on Instagram for years play both power roles – that of the career goddess, beautiful and bold and breaking ceilings, and that of the perfect mother, whose children were never dirty and always dressed on-trend, whose homes were styled by West Elm and always in perfect order. They played their roles well, and I bought every image they sold me. It’s the life I wanted, I craved, and it was the life I was determined to have, starting with my new job as Brand Manager at a global networking organization.

I was originally hired by a kind woman who was encouraging and wanted to show me the ropes and help me grow into my position. I felt excited to take on this new challenge with a mentor who was just as excited to teach me. When I started my job, I would wake up each day with a fresh sense of purpose and optimism, excited to get myself and my three boys ready for school, daycare and work. I felt like I was one step closer to the perfect life I dreamed of.

Working mom of 3 boys takes a serious selfie in the car, all primped and ready for work, while stopping at a gas station to fill up
Courtesy of Jessy Milicevic

I was 31 years old and six months into my corporate marketing job. The joy of my life had been drained out of me, slowly and efficiently, by the failures I felt I was making every day both at work and at home. The heavy, deep sense of failure sank into my soul and settled like a thick dust, covering every inch of me. Without formal training, I was struggling to find my footing at work. The manager who hired me had left, and her replacement made it known she didn’t like me. She had cut her teeth in the corporate world at a time when women climbed the ladder by stepping on other women, and I was in her way. I couldn’t do anything right, and my anxiety skyrocketed with each hour I spent at work.

I carried my work anxiety with me into my personal life. I became erratic, angry and short tempered with my kids and husband. I yelled and screamed over small atrocities, unable to handle the minor stress of the boys arguing or my husband not taking the trash out. I didn’t want to help with homework, or cuddle with my husband, or ride bikes with my sons. When I was home I wasn’t present – because I was constantly checking emails and distracted by a very real fear of letting someone down at work and getting fired. I would hear my kids ask my husband, ‘What’s wrong with Mommy?’ and my heart would break. Their little voices sounded so sad, wishing they had their old mommy back, and it felt like a solid kick to my gut. I felt like I was failing again, except it felt even worse because the mom guilt had coupled with my work anxiety, turning it into depression.

Mom of three snuggles one of her sons while at a school function in his classroom
Courtesy of Jessy Milicevic

My depression crept up on me slowly and quietly until one morning, I woke up and it was front and center, demanding attention. Like I said, it’s all about the timing. It was 6:30 a.m. I sat up in bed, which had been tossed about with the constant flipping and flopping of my restless body. My husband was getting himself ready for work, and I began to get myself and the kids ready for their day. My heart was already racing at the thought of heading into work, as my boss had just given me a formal warning about my job performance the day before. My anxiety manifested into anger as the boys refused to move quickly, and I could feel my temperature rise as they bickered and moved about at a snail’s pace. I began to feel the cracks forming as I choked back tears while I packed their lunches.

The drive to school was foggy. Silent tears ran down my cheeks. I didn’t speak one word to my kids. I couldn’t even say ‘I love you’ when they went into school. Six months of anxiety, fear, rejection and anger was making its way to the surface and I was trying hard to quell it. I felt the mom guilt well up inside of me like a balloon filling with boiling water as I kept thinking, ‘Who treats their kids this way? What kind of mother are you?’ It played like a record in my mind, looping at a high speed. ‘You’re a terrible mother. You don’t deserve to be a mother to these children.’

The voice in my head berated me with it’s subtle, commanding tone. ‘You’re a failure. You’re a failure. You’re a failure.’ As I pulled away and drove onto the busy interstate to get to work, I ran over my failures over and over again out loud. ‘You are terrible at your job. You’re so stupid and unqualified. You’re going to get fired and everyone will know what an incompetent failure you are. Your kids are scared of you. You’ve scarred them for life. They are damaged because of you.’

Suddenly, I thought, ‘I’m driving 70 miles per hour. I can swerve into oncoming traffic and end it all now. I’ll never feel pain again, never be unworthy again, never let anyone else down again.’ My hands were shaking and balmy as I gripped the wheel tightly, ready to jerk it to the left as hard as I could. I managed to somehow make it to work, pulled into the parking deck of the corporate park, and dragged my body into the elevator and up to the 7th floor.

My entire body was shaking. My jaw, which I had unknowingly been clenching tightly, tremored as I held back reckless sobs. I stepped off the elevator, snuck over to my desk, and shrank into my chair. I curled up and pulled myself into the corner of my cube, and with trembling hands, texted my Pastor. He had been open with our congregation about his suicide attempts and struggles with depression, and I felt safe talking to him. ‘911,’ I texted. ‘Call me immediately.’

Mom of four takes a photo with her pastor, the man she credits for saving her life
Courtesy of Jessy Milicevic

He did. The phone vibrated seconds later and I ducked into a nearby conference room to talk to him privately. When I answered, I let go of the breath I had been holding since I woke up and heaved convulsive gasps, barely able to speak through the drench of tears. I told him I couldn’t do this anymore, I didn’t deserve to live, I wanted to end my pain; pain that had built up not just over the past six months, but through my entire life – through rejection, disappointment, anger and insecurities not dealt with.

He spent more than an hour on the phone with me as I made my way from the room to the lobby, and then to the busy highway outside of my building where I was ready to walk into traffic and end my life. As I stood next to the highway, I felt the sharp and quick breeze of cars as they sped past, and the smell of exhaust assaulted my senses. I closed my eyes and let the cool air blow my hair back. Standing there on the precipice of relief, I felt almost light, like I could float onto the highway and painlessly vaporize into the void if a car hit my body. The sound of engines and tires spinning against the asphalt were loud, almost drowning out the desperate plea of my pastor to step back and take a breath.

‘Jessy, please, keep talking to me. Jessy! Do you hear me? Jessy! Think of your boys, who need their mommy. Don’t leave them, Jessy!’ Suddenly, images of my sweet, smiling boys came into view. I could hear their laughter, could feel their hugs wrapped tightly around my neck. I could hear them whisper, ‘I love you, Mommy,’ as I tucked them into bed at night. An intense need to hold my children pulled me out of my trance and away from the highway, and I stumbled backward onto the grassy meadow behind me, falling onto the warm grass.

Mom snaps a photo of her three sons smiling in the backseat of her car while on the way to school one morning
Courtesy of Jessy Milicevic

My pastor convinced me to get into my van and drive home. The keys, which were in my purse I hadn’t yet taken off, shakily made their way into the ignition. I had reached a new emotional state, no longer able to cry but instead, feeling completely empty and flat. I had nothing left to give. I had nothing left to say. I felt nothing. I backed my van out of the space and onto the highway; the same highway where I had just thought about ending my life. I have no memory of driving home, or meeting my husband there, or of the next several hours. I just sat on the couch, staring ahead, letting the world spin on without me. When a close friend suddenly appeared in front of me and took my hand, I looked over at her without true acknowledgment of her presence. She held my hand and stroked my hair, and said softly, ‘Come on, my love. Let’s go.’

She walked me to her car, opened the door and latched my seat belt. I watched my husband stand in the doorway of our little house as we pulled away towards the mental health ER, his face filled with pain and worry. I said a silent goodbye to the great climbing branches and the patchy grass; to the red and blue tricycle in the driveway and the sweet honeysuckle scent of my family. I didn’t know when I would see them again or what lay ahead of me. I just sat there in the car, a woman changed, suddenly feeling the impact of divine timing.

I spent five days in a psychiatric facility. For five whole days, I didn’t need to answer emails or phone calls or take emotional blows from my boss. I didn’t need to be held accountable for anyone else’s life but my own. I had spent the better part of my adult life making sure everyone else around me was happy, satisfied, and content. Now, it was my turn.

Of course, it didn’t feel that way at first. The facility was clean but sterile. The staff was warm but distant. It felt cold. It felt lonely. It felt foreign. The plastic cover of the mattress in my bare room made noise every time I laid down. The nightly checks to make sure we were safe always woke me up. But the therapy…oh, the therapy. For the first time in my life, I was able to bare my soul, all the darkest and deepest parts of it, and release the pain. During outdoor time, I sat in the grass and let the warm fall sunshine wash over my face, and suddenly every one of my senses was alive. I was alive, and I could truly feel it for maybe the first time. I took a deep breath and knew I was changed. I didn’t know how yet, but I knew I would never be the same.”

Mom recovering from a maternal mental breakdown wears a shirt that says "WOMAN: Wise, Hopeful, Mighty, Authentic, and Kind"
Courtesy of Jessy Milicevic

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessy Milicevic of Fort Mill, SC. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her podcast. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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