I’ve been reading a lot of posts and articles lately about postpartum depression, or PPD. Some of them have popped up in my Facebook newsfeed via sites like NPR and ScaryMommy. Others, I’ve searched for after reading those and remembering my own struggle from about a year ago. Ok, maybe less than a year, since my son’s first birthday is still almost 2 weeks away. But I do feel that the depression started before he was born. They call that antepartum depression, and the two can go hand in hand.
Let me start by saying that I absolutely adore my children. I love them more than life itself and always have. But those weeks leading up to and following the birth of our second son, N, were anything but loving and joyful. They were far from magical, and I wanted nothing more than for them to end.
Depression is funny thing. It’s symptoms can be so different from person to person, and in many ways I hardly feel qualified to write about it, because my struggle lasted such a short amount of time. The fact is, though, that it happened. And it was the most bizarre and lonely feeling for someone who had never before experienced anything like it, and didn’t know how to handle it. The best description I’ve found beyond those that simply list the typical symptoms, is this one by Elizabeth Broadbent of Manic Pixie Dream Mama in a beautiful, yet heartbreaking, post she wrote for ScaryMommy:
There is no logic to this depression. There is no reason; there is no explanation other than a trick of chemistry, and no cure other than the same. I didn’t ask for this emptiness. This grayness sucks at me – everyone tells me to enjoy every moment of you. But how can I enjoy what I can’t see? How can I savor moments spent gasping for air?
These people who rhapsodize about how babies don’t keep – those people can’t see the choking grayness around me. They mean well, truly. But depression’s invisibility is part of its own special hell: a drowning woman looks like she’s paddling in the sunshine.
That’s exactly how I felt. Like I was gasping for air and drowning right in the middle of a life and a family I was supposed to love.
I remember feeling completely lost and unprepared in the days before N’s arrival, even more so than I had with our firstborn. It was an all-consuming worry and fear that nothing would go right once this baby was born. With both pregnancies, I experienced what I assume was a normal fear for the safety of my unborn children; but with N, it didn’t go away. I worried about losing him right up until the moment he laid, healthy and brand new, in my arms. And then longer. I had this fear that no matter what I did, I was going to make some grave mistake, or that some tragic accident was going to happen and I would lose him, or his health, or his essence. But even in my worry, I wanted my distance from him, and from everyone.
I was fortunate to have family in town around the time he was born. They were a spectacular help as I had no energy or desire to do things like cook or clean (or exist outside of bed). But I remember having mixed feelings about their presence. I wanted to be thankful and present and enjoy them. After all, it wasn’t every day they came to visit from out of state. But with their company came this unspoken obligation to “entertain” and converse and celebrate. That feeling was not only unreasonable because I’d just had a baby, but because the family that came to visit in no way expected me to be at my best and cater to them. I have really awesome family that way. And they would tell me to sit, to relax, to let them do the cooking and cleaning and site-seeing on their own while taking the kids so I could rest. It was really all I could have hoped for in visiting guests. But I still felt compelled to be a part of things, so rest, I did not.
I couldn’t describe how I was feeling in any coherent sort of way. Not even to my husband. Every time I tried to talk to him about it, it felt like I was saying all the wrong things, describing it in all the wrong ways, making this apparent divide between us immensely bigger. One day, I tried my very best to explain it to him through Facebook Messenger, because “maybe this is a better way to communicate, since you don’t have to look at me crying.” Here is a snippet from that message, less than two weeks after N was born:
I think I might be depressed. I’ve thought that for a while, but have hesitated to say anything because I don’t want to sound like someone who blames my actions or inactions on something no one around me can see or confirm or do anything about. But the past few days, I’ve just felt like crying. It’s starts off being for no reason, and then I start assigning reasons to it. Maybe because it feels better (almost) to be crying about something rather than nothing. So I assign something that you did or something that [P] did or the stress of having family around or the fact that no one really cares when I’m gone until its time to feed the baby as a reason that I’m crying. and then I realize no one even needs me for that as long as there’s milk in the freezer and I cry some more. And I can’t make it stop. I want to. Because I want to be social and I want to be helpful. I want to spend time with everyone and especially with you, but that time just seems to be more enjoyable for everyone if I’m not around, and that makes me cry more.
There were a lot of other things I said in that message, some of them may have been a little hurtful. It was very easy for me at the time to nitpick all of my husband’s faults, which was often followed by a lot of apologizing, because I knew it wasn’t like me to say them. Things like that really hurt our relationship at the time. I was acting so completely different from myself. He was trying so hard to keep everything functioning while I was finding only dysfunction in every little decision he made. I hated the person I was becoming and I felt like everyone around me was hating me, too. Why wouldn’t they? I was becoming pretty unbearable.
It was shortly after this confession to my husband that I sought help. Sadly, it was not at the urging of anyone who recognized the abnormal state I was in, or at the assurance that seeking help was the right thing to do and I should not feel ashamed about what I was going through, because lots of women go through it.
No, the decision was my own and it was a conflicted one, to say the least.
I worried about what a doctor might say – would they believe me? Would they talk me through all the options? Would I end up on a medication I would never be rid of? What would my parents say if they knew I was considering medication? Would counseling be too expensive or time-consuming? Should I skip the doctor and just talk it out with friends? I’m usually a happy person; what if this is just a phase that I can wait out like a cold? I was doubtful and scared that anything suggested to me might not actually work. What if this was my new normal and I was stuck this way forever?
In the end, after speaking with my doctor about all of my options, I made an informed decision and chose the route of a low-dose anti-depressant that I needed for no longer than 6 months. Thankfully that was all it took to get me back on track.
It wasn’t an immediate change. But slowly the fog lifted and, even in the midst of the many stresses we faced during that time, I regained my optimism. I regained my appreciation for the little things. I noticed the good qualities in my husband again. I found energy to exercise and to write and to take my kids to the park. Not all at once. I don’t think I ever did all of those things in one day. But I was closer to being myself again.
Throughout this post, there are pictures of me and of me with my kids. Each and every one is a picture I shared on social media. Each and every one captures a me that was struggling.
My point in sharing this with you is to say that depression in all its forms, including postpartum, isn’t always as obvious as you might think. Looking back, it seems to me now that it would have been very obvious. But hindsight is 20-20, as they say. The people surrounding me at that time had their own things going on, and I had my own ways of hiding what I thought no one would be able to understand.
Smiling for pictures was one of those ways.
At the very least, let us all take some time to remember that Facebook is typically a highlight reel, and the people behind the happy photos aren’t always as they seem. Everybody struggles, in one way or another. Some are just better at hiding it than others.