The picture at left was taken by my husband as I stepped onto the porch after work one day. He had the settings set very dark, so he didn’t think anything would come out. When he went to edit the photo, the image was there. This image is characteristic of the depression I’ve suffered over the past few months. During that time, all I could see was dark. But I was still there, buried in there somewhere.
Allie Brosh, the popular blogger at Hyperbole and a Half, recently posted a history of her own depression. Maybe that’s why I have wanted to write about it. Or maybe because what I have experienced since having my son has been like nothing I’ve ever felt in my life. Or maybe because I’m finally coming out of it now, so I can talk about it, in the hope of helping other women to heal after giving birth. It’s hard to say. All I know is that it’s important, and scary, and something that needs to be said, even if it’s just something insignificant in my small corner of the Internet.
I have always suffered from anxiety-related depression, and that has never been a secret. My anxiety knows no bounds. Self-esteem, finances, health, safety, relationships, work: you name it, I have obsessed about it. It took me many years to get it under control, and what worked was cognitive behavior therapy. I learned to combat the negative thoughts in my head with positive thoughts and reiterations of my own self-worth. Before having Henry, my therapist and I discussed how far I’d come, and how equipped I now was to deal with any postpartum depression that might come my way.
I was wrong. I wasn’t equipped. Sure, I can deal with my general anxiety. I’m a pro at that now. I handled mom guilt, nursing struggles, finding a reliable caregiver – all things that would have set off my usual anxiety. What I could not handle was the crushing weight of this new beast that I could not identify. From about three months after Henry was born until about a month or so ago, I could not wrap my mind around what I was feeling.
Aside from some moments of joy, pure joy that I had never felt before (all associated with things my son would do, of course) I had a hard time caring about anything. Nothing was interesting to me anymore. I couldn’t even get interested in books. I forced myself to play a role, trying to comprehend things my friends and family and coworkers were saying to me, but tuning out much of it. Because I have lived so much of my life as someone who is passionate about many things, it wasn’t hard. I functioned. But I was so sad. That’s the only way I can describe it. Besides Henry, there was nothing in my life that mattered.
I got through it by sheer force of will. I wanted to see my therapist, but I didn’t have time. We were sick, the holidays happened, we were sick again. Even though they felt like they didn’t matter, I kept repeating a few mantras: This too shall pass. Enjoy your son while he is small. You will get through this. You need to stay strong for your son.
And then the sun came out. I got out and started walking when the weather got nicer. I took some vacation days. I got on a reading “hot streak” and Beth and I talked about it on the podcast. Beth and I were on the cover of a magazine – okay, a local magazine, but still! Something to be excited about! It was like coming out of a fog. The sadness was gone. Of course, my anxiety quickly replaced it, but for the first time in my life I was excited about being anxious. To paraphrase Spring Awakening, it’s the dark I know well. I’d take it in a heartbeat over feeling like everything was meaningless.
I wish I had better advice for people who feel this way. I was kind of blindsided by it. I did what I could to deal with it; I was lucky that I had the foundation of CBT to build on, even if it didn’t help with the depression as much as it does with the anxiety. And I made it through OK. But not everyone is going to make it through OK. I have lost two friends to suicide. This is the first time I have ever truly understood why they did what they did. Not everyone has the resources I have: a loving husband, supportive friends and family, a workplace with an employee assistance program or the finances to get help. This is what worries me most about what I went through: that there are women hurting who don’t understand what has happened to their brains after giving birth. Women who are just struggling to keep themselves and their children alive, who are also feeling so sad, with no way to explain it or deal with it. If you are one of them and you need help, please, do what you can to get it. Talk to your friends, family, or if you don’t have anyone, go to your public library and talk to a librarian. I can’t diagnose your mental health, but I can find you someone who can. Check out NAMI, a grassroots organization dedicated to raising mental health awareness.
The picture at right, also taken by my husband, was shot in the sun on a beautiful spring day, with the true colors characteristic of the Minolta lenses he uses. I’m thankful for the return of that color to my life.