For five days, I could hear the sound of defeat clinking around from inside my purse. To the unsuspecting ear, it could have been an innocent box of TicTac mints or a traveling supply of Advil. But to me it was the sound of concession. Of giving in to something I have fought for the last three years. For five days, during each moment of stress or anxiety I would look at my purse, as if I was willing it to give me sign. I could almost hear it whispering, “Let me help you…”
I have postpartum depression.
As many as one in seven women in the United States, or nearly 15% of new moms, is believed to suffer from some form of mental illness during or after pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. I know I am not alone. Yet still, typing that sentence or saying it aloud is terrifying.
I have postpartum depression.
I grew up in a family that picked itself up by the bootstraps. Life is hard. You don’t wallow, you dust yourself off. Toughen up. Show up. Overcome. I’ve always thought of that as a very, very good thing. Until now, at this point in my life, where no matter what I do I feel like I just cannot overcome. Not on my own.
It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed. I am a mother. A wife. An employee. A boss. A sister. A daughter. A friend. A student. A landlord. A blogger. A volunteer. It’s tough to manage competing demands. When do I get time to just be myself? Each day it feels like nearly every person I come into contact with is grabbing for a piece of me. There is something they need from me. They take my energy, either physical or mental, and I willingly give it. By the end of the day, I have nothing left.
I worry about things. All things. Like how I’m going to fit in a trip to the grocery store to get milk? Did I remember to turn off my hair straightener? Will one of my children get cancer? Did I miss a homework assignment? What if Nora has cavities? When was the last time Charlie had a bath? What if I have cancer? Am I going to be late picking them up from school? Do we have enough money to pay for that? What if Tristan gets in a car accident on the way to school? How much laundry do I have left to do, and are we out of laundry detergent? How will I die? What will I do if my mother dies? Am I overdue for an oil change? Allthethings!!!11
I am exhausted.
To an extent, this is normal. Almost every other mother I meet and talk to feels overwhelmed and anxious. And tired. We are all tired.
The other day, Tristan left for a hunting trip for 4 days. The trip happened to fall on a holiday-not-holiday weekend, where daycare was closed but work was open. I stayed home with the kids, and we were stuck inside all day waiting on the delivery of our new couch.
It’s really hard to be inside all day with a 3 year old and a 1 year old, responding to work emails while also wiping butts and noses.
That evening, I had finally gotten Nora down for the night – though not without a valiant fight on her part. It was about an hour past Charlie’s bedtime, and he refused to engage in our nightly routine. The dullness of our day had gotten to him. He wanted “king candy” (this is his affectionate term for anything with sugar in it, derived from the one and only Wreck It Ralph) and to watch Shrek. We were on a one-way trip to Tantrum Town, and there was no getting of that train.
“No, Charlie. It’s time for bed.”
“I wanna watch Shrek. Mommy ***whaaaaa*** SHREEEEEEK.”
“Charlie. Bed. Now.”
I could feel it building, as if it were rising up from the tips of my toes. The power struggle between my toddler and I grew, and my inner struggle was boiling over. I tried to resist, but as the anger built I felt as if I was floating around outside of myself. And then I yelled. Loudly. In one cascading culmination of stress and anger and irritation. Then I shut myself away in the bathroom to breakdown completely, and pull the pieces back together. It was the soup incident, all over again.
“Mommy, can I watch Shrek?” I heard in a whisper from outside the door.
He fell asleep that night on the couch, watching Shrek. And I was racked with guilt. I yelled – I lost it. I am a bad mother. That’s it, I thought, I can’t do this anymore, it’s time to call the doctor.
But who do I call? My primary care doctor, who I barely know? Perhaps my OB/Gyn, but considering I’m not pregnant would that be weird? She talked me through the anxiety issues I had when I was pregnant with Charlie, but again – no bun in the oven now.
So I waited it out. And then in a few days I thought, maybe I’m fine. It’s just motherhood. I was just stressed out. It’s normal, mom-type stress. Toughen up. Overcome, I thought.
It turns out, my OB/Gyn’s office now does pre-screening for depression at annual visits. It makes a lot of sense, especially based on the recent study that shows nearly 22% of women have depression during the first postpartum year. And that two-thirds of women surveyed display symptoms of anxiety disorders. I went in last month for a regular appointment, with no intentions of owning up to any part of the fact that I feel like I am drowning 99% of the time. Like I am a terrible mother, whose family could probably get by just fine without her. Or that I read and re-read stories of terrible personal tragedies on the internet at night, and cry myself to sleep
thinking knowing it’s going to be my family next.
“How often would you say you feel overwhelmed or anxious. All the time, some of the time, none of the time.” The nurse asked me.
“All the time.”
“How often would you say you feel hopeless or disengaged. All the time, some of the time, none of the time.”
“All the time.”
“Okay… I’m going to need you to complete the rest of these on the computer.”
As I clicked my way through, answering the questions with words like “hopeless” and “disinterested” and “harming yourself” it was like a thousand pound weight was slowing lifting from my chest. I wouldn’t have to bring up any part of this awkward topic, because my honesty would fail this little test and do it for me. I’ve never been so happy to fail a test in all my life.
The verdict was mild depression. This led into one of the best discussions I’ve ever had in my life with a medical provider, as my doctor talked me through what postpartum depression is, or can be, for some people. At a year postpartum with Nora, I still fall well into the window of this being the culprit for me. She related to every, single thing I was feeling: Complete overwhelm. Incredible stress. And zero capability to cope with any of it.
The coping, that is my problem. I am internalizing stress into mild ulcers and insomnia and high blood pressure, letting every little thing build and build until I explode. Usually on my children or my husband. And then the incredible, intense guilt. And sadness over my inability to control any part of any of this.
“But then, you’ll have a few good days and you’ll think you can fix it yourself,” She said.
Yes. Exactly. Except for that I can’t. And, instead my life ends up turning into a roller coaster of great highs and very low lows.
We went on to talk about exercise and therapy and lifestyle changes. But that this is something chemical in my brain that I cannot immediately fix on my own. I cannot will the chemicals in my brain to just start working as they should. And they make medications that can help do that for me. And it’s nothing I’ve done wrong or failed at or given in to. It is an illness.
I left the office that day with a filled prescription of Prozac and an actual sense of calm, for the first time in a long time.
There is an incredible stigma attached to mental health issues, and especially to postpartum depression. Names like Susan Smith and Andrea Yates come to mind. But that’s not all it is and it’s not always that severe. We mothers have so many conflicting roles placed on us by the demands of our society. We are constantly bombarded with these annoying messages about doing it all and having it all. Yet for most of us, these things are completely impossible to achieve. Most of us cannot admit this kind of defeat, and so we suffer or struggle in silence. And we get by. But it’s not pretty and it’s not fun.
Well, just don’t stress about what you can’t change. That’s great. That would be great if I could somehow dictate how my mind and body function, biologically. I am not built that way. My entire life, I have had emotional reactions. Now as a mother, these reactions are amplified. And now more than ever before, these reactions have big impacts on other (little) lives, and that’s not something I’m willing to allow to happen anymore.
So I am willingly conceding this fight. I am, happily, defeated. Because I am tired of fighting something that I cannot control. I have been holding it together by a single thread since Charlie was born. I’m sick of living a life with no control over what might break me next. I am not going to feel embarrassed or ashamed that I need help for something that I did not create or cause, something that millions of other people also struggle with too. I am going to pick myself up by the bootstraps, with the help of my local pharmacist. Because life is hard. I don’t have to wallow, I can dust myself off. I can toughen up. Show up. I can overcome anything. I can overcome postpartum depression. Who said I had to do any of that alone?