A Sea of Despair: Postpartum Pools of Pain

A few months ago I wrote about my struggle with depression and anxiety, and I was taken aback by the overwhelmingly positive response I received afterward.  It took me a long time to work up the courage to tell my story; I was admittedly afraid of what others might think of my decision to publicly reveal such a personal experience. But the kindness and support that followed was so moving that I’ve decided to revisit the topic today.

When I wrote that post, it was intended to be a one-time thing.  I don’t typically take myself too seriously, not on this blog nor in real life, and I’d rather others do the same.  But then something happened that I didn’t expect. Many of you reached out to me after reading my story to tell me how much my words had spoken to you, and that you understood everything I had gone through because you, too, had dealt with a similar struggle. It seemed that, like with many other aspects of motherhood, the difficulties I had experienced were also felt by many others. Apparently, I wasn’t as alone as I’d thought.

According to the American Psychology Association, up to 16% of new mothers experience postpartum depression.  Frankly, I think their numbers are off.  Perhaps a mere 16% actually report their feelings to a doctor, but I’m willing to bet a nice chunk of ladies simply suffer in silence.

With so many of society’s misconceptions about motherhood, it’s easy to see why so many women find themselves adrift in a sea of despair after becoming a parent for the first time.  Having children is rarely all you think it will be and more.  Sure, the highs are high and they feel amazing.  But the lows? Are so very, very LOW.  And you’ll find that these lows often fill the extra-wide gaps in between the fleeting, infrequent highs.

It seems like every time I flip on the TV I see some sappy diaper commercial featuring a mother tenderly singing her little one to sleep, humming soothing lullabies and swaying gently in a pastel-colored rocking chair. Unfortunately, those commercials are total crap.  Because they never show the four hours leading up to that endearing moment where the baby has finally drifted off—you know, the part where mommy’s  precious little angel was screaming and crying inconsolably until mommy “tenderly” considered chugging a fifth of vodka and sawing off her own ears.

For me, the hardest part of becoming a mom was learning to adjust to how shockingly different life becomes after having kids.  I got pregnant in my mid-twenties before I got married, and it was very unplanned.  While some women feel they are ready to settle down and start popping out some little people at that age, I was definitely not one of those women. 

Before I got pregnant, life was like standing on the roof of Rockefeller Center and looking down at the world below—breathtakingly beautiful, wildly exhilarating, enchantingly romantic.  Oh, to be young and carefree, just dreaming all day and playing all night.  Such blissful endless freedom. Nothing but opportunities at your door and time on your hands.

Until one day you pee on a stick and your life changes forever.

It took me such a long time to adjust to my life being so vastly different after having kids that I never even realized I was depressed.  The transition was happening at such a snail’s pace that I didn’t know it was actually changing me, like as a person.  For years I was just living my life in robot-mode, going through the motions, completely unaware that I was dying inside a little more every day.

From the very beginning I should have known I was in trouble, because when they tried to hand my son to me a few hours after my c-section I didn’t even want to see him.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love him or want him, I honestly just didn’t know what the hell to do with him.  What did I know about babies? I was practically still one myself. And that instant connection parents always describe?  That immediate gush of awe and amazement that everybody talks about after they’ve given birth? Yea well, I didn’t get it. Not right away, anyway.  I loved my little boy, of course.  But the fear and confusion and pain in my head were clouding the feelings in my heart.

I got the hang of motherhood quickly, I think.  A lot more quickly than I thought I would, at least.  There are women coping with such severe postpartum depression that they can’t even take care of their children.  Thankfully, that wasn’t me (and my issue technically might not even fall under the actual definition of “postpartum” depression, but who gives a shit about definitions?) Like I said, the depressed feelings I had were growing very slowly over time. Little by little, I was falling deeper into my own sea of despair.  And I was totally unaware that those feelings would culminate after a miscarriage and eventually bring me to a debilitating breaking point.

Some women don’t ever have a real breaking point. In some ways, a “nervous breakdown” is almost a luxury, as long as you bounce back from it. Because it takes you to such a low point that you literally have nowhere to go but up. And then it motivates you to stay up.

Motherhood is hard.  Like, crazy hard.  Every feeling you experience as a parent is magnified exponentially.  You’re not just tired; you’re exhausted.  You’re not just scared; you’re terrified.  You’re not just confused, you’re helpless. You’re not just lonely; you’re the last person on earth!

I wish I could say I had advice for those of you who are still drifting in your own sea of despair.  All I can say is that it will get better eventually.  I’m living proof of that.  Eventually, you will begin to feel more comfortable in your own mommy skin.  Someday you will start to realize that, even though the bad feelings are horrible, conversely, the good feelings are great.  The love you feel is unconditional. The pride you feel is insurmountable. The bond you feel is unbreakable.

Actually, I do have one piece of advice.  Whatever you do, don’t lose track of YOU.  I know that’s easier said than done, because becoming a parent takes over virtually every aspect of your life until you are pretty much unrecognizable to yourself.  But try hard to hold onto as many pieces of yourself as you can, and then use them to make you whole again when you find yourself falling apart.

Because your baby needs you. And in the end, the only one who can really save you…is you. ❤

382705_2705058153719_1429860384_n

**Update** It has been pointed out to me that I should mention if you are feeling this kind of depression that you should see a doctor.  This is absolutely, 100% true.  I didn’t go for a long time, and I probably could have saved myself a LOT of pain if I had.  While I do believe that you’re the only one who can save yourself, I think professional help will pinpoint how to do that.  And sometimes you may even need the help of medication because you can’t really do it on your own–this was the case for me at my lowest point. And it’s perfectly okay.  There are a thousand excuses not to go, and I’d know because I used them all.  But you’ll only be fooling yourself.  Thanks to aviets at Mom Goes On who pointed this out to me!

A Long December: My Struggle With Depression and Anxiety

1d

Every time I hear the theme song to that show Special Agent Oso, on the Disney Channel, I’m reminded of my nervous breakdown (or so it’s come to be known in my mind).  It’s a silly little TV jingle but somehow serves as a painful reminder of a very difficult time in my life when I was just physically, mentally, and emotionally ….not myself.  When I heard the song today while my kids were watching their shows, I was suddenly compelled to tell my story.

Depression is a funny little illness.  Because you look and feel like you’ve been through the spin cycle of a washing machine, yet everyone keeps telling you that you’re totally fine.  You’re fine, your family says.  You’re fine, your friends say.  You’re fine, the doctor says.  You’re healthy, your family is healthy, everything is perfectly fine in your life.

If you’re supposedly so damn fine, then why don’t you feel fine?

Why, instead, do you feel like every moment spent awake is an assault on your mind and body, like the very act of taking air into your lungs is earth-shatteringly terrifying, and like you are no longer even living inside of yourself, but instead just functioning as a separate, mindless entity, numbly hovering over your former self in the meager hope that someday you can return and feel, dare I say, normal again?

And all the while, as you’re feeling increasingly UNFINE, the world around you is spinning away.  People are still living their lives, still going to work, still caring for their children, still eating and sleeping and smiling and laughing every day.  They’re doing all the things you did back when you really were FINE.  Except now, everyone else is fine.  They are the “fine” ones.  They go right on living while you teeter dangerously on the brink of insanity, wondering how the hell you’ll make it another day, another hour, even another minute.

I had my miscarriage in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner.  I watched the parade, got my son dressed, drove over to my mom’s, and then sat down with my family at the table to eat.  Somewhere between my first stuffed mushroom and second slice of turkey, I began feeling the stabbing pangs of labor pain.  Two terrifying hours later, in an emergency room somewhere in Staten Island, I emerged from a public bathroom stall with a tiny, balled-up fetus wrapped inside of a sanitary napkin.  Horrified and shaking, I handed it to the triage nurse, who then told me I was running a fever and needed to calm myself down.

Don’t feel sorry for me; my story is only seemingly dramatic because hospitals, blood, and death tend to fill me with sheer terror, and retelling the events of that day is simply impossible to do without conveying just how dramatic it all felt at the time.  In reality, I was only eight weeks along, quite optimistic that I would conceive again soon, and I honestly thought I was going to be okay.  I mean, MUCH, MUCH worse things have happened to MUCH, MUCH more unfortunate people than me.  So after about 10 miserable hours in a dim hospital room, I went home and crawled into bed, feeling exhausted and sad, but also knowing that the worst of it was over.

Or so I thought.

I did not know, at that point, that postpartum depression could happen after a miscarriage, even one occurring in just the first trimester.  I didn’t know that the overflow of hormones coursing through my body after this event, coupled with the extreme loneliness brought on by a severely harsh winter, a young child who needed more from me than I could possibly give at the time, and a hardworking husband who was never ever home, would lead me into a frightening downward spiral so intense that I am still recovering from it today.  And it’s been three full years.

My husband used to leave for work around 6 a.m., and I’d wake up at 5a.m. just to savor the only adult company I’d enjoy all day until he returned, already half-asleep, around 9p.m.  Those mornings I’d sit on the floor in the foggy bathroom while he showered for work and we’d chitchat back and forth; it was the closest to normal that I would feel all day.  Then I’d climb back into bed when he left, around the same time my son would usually wake up, and we’d watch Special Agent Oso together (for no special reason, he just happened to like the show and it happened to be on at that time).  And then I’d brace myself for a very long, lonely, dreary, anxiety-ridden day.

Ugh, the anxiety.  The anxiety is always there.  Depressed or not, anxiety is like that extra layer of fat you can’t shed, or the crooked bone in your nose that broke when you were a kid and never fully repaired itself.  It’s that single, most hated, THING that will always be a part of you.  That’s anxiety for me.

The darkest period of my life was like one, long, drawn-out anxiety attack.  My days were spent pacing the floors of my three-room apartment for hours at a time, fingers tearing at the hair behind my neck and pulling until it was smooth, maybe even bleeding.  I’d clutch the phone in my hands and cry, praying for it to ring, wishing for someone to talk to, anyone at all who could distract me from my personal hell for a moment or two.  I’d open every shade and curtain in the house, hoping the daylight might flood my home and chase my shadowy demons away.  I’d wait by the window, praying, begging, pleading for my husband to pull up in his car and save me from the bitter, paralyzing loneliness.

My son was only two years old at the time, not nearly old enough to understand why mommy was starting to lose her mind.  But he knew something was terribly wrong.  I know he did. He would randomly break out in hives, or he would suddenly be covered in eczema patches on his arms and legs—but it only happened that winter and then never again.  Neither the allergist nor the dermatologist could explain the peculiar sudden onset of my poor little boy’s skin ailments.  “It’s just the harsh winter,” they said, and prescribed some expensive ointment or cream.  But I knew it was my fault.  My torment was spilling over onto my son, he was taking in my stress, my depression, and it was finding its way to the surface of his skin.  It might sound crazy to you, but it makes perfect sense to me.  My son was hurting, too.

One morning, after I’d gotten out of bed, I fainted as I poured my son’s cereal.  Boom, hit the floor, just like that.  It could have been dehydration, or anxiety, or maybe just plain hunger, as I hadn’t been able to force down more than a slice or two of bread in about three days.  I woke to find my son, confused and visibly upset, pleading with me to get up.  Seeing pain in the eyes of a two-year-old is not something you can ever un-see.  Knowing that his pain is a reflection of the pain in your own eyes, well, that’s rock bottom.

At that point, I really needed help.  For my little boy, my sweet, innocent, scared little child, I had to come out of this.  I simply had to.  There was just no other way.

Recovery was a slow, gradual process.  My family, namely my mother and sister, whom I spoke to most often at the time, held my hand through most of my struggle.  With the help of my family, some medication, and a whole lot of self-discipline and self-discovery, I eventually began to feel like myself again.

That journey was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. NO ONE in my life understands or has even half of a clue how difficult that was for me- how every single second of every single day was wholly consumed by my hunger to push forward, my drive to never let this illness consume me again, and to be around for my children, no matter what.

In March, I was thrilled to learn that my daughter was on the way.  This was a blessing for more than just the obvious reasons– I was forced to stop taking medication and learn to heal entirely on my own.  If I hadn’t gotten pregnant, I may not have stopped the meds so soon and grown overly dependent on them instead of learning to heal on my own.   My little girl saved me from what might have been a different kind of downward spiral.  My little girl saved my life.

You might be wondering why I’ve recounted this extremely personal story with you today, especially given that I’m prone to much more lighthearted subject matter.

Recently I came down with a pesky case of writer’s block, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint why.  I think, perhaps, my heart simply decided it was time to tell my story.  Or it could be that this bonechilling winter we’re having is a constant reminder of that low point in my life, and I needed to just blurt it all out before I lost my mind.  It’s almost like I’ve had this feeling in my chest, tugging at my heart, just sitting there and pulling at me with all its might, like a giant, malignant growth pushing to be set free.  Well, I’m setting it free today, for whatever the reason.  Perhaps someone will read my story and benefit from it in some small way. Maybe someone will read it and feel a little bit less alone. At the very least, perhaps I’ll be cured of writer’s block.

You don’t need to be a parent to find yourself coping with depression, although I know many are.  You don’t need to be married, engaged, employed, unemployed, grieving, sick, healthy, rich, poor….  You don’t need to have any reason at all.  For many of us, depression and anxiety are simply things we struggle with every single day.  They’re as real to us as breathing.

Your depression affects everyone around you, whether you realize it or not.  Your family, your children, your friends, your job.  Sometimes people understand, but most of the time, they don’t.  If you’re lucky, someone will get it, and they’ll reach out to you.  If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a place within yourself where healing can begin on its own– where you can realize how much the people in your life need you – and you can learn to be you again.

My journey is an ongoing one.  Some days are good, some notsomuch.  I know I’ll never be 100%.

But I’ll never stop trying, either.