Postpartum Depression is the celebrity mom topic du jour. My journey was different.
I had no idea how much suffering would be involved in having children.
One look into my son’s eyes and I feel two conflicting sets of emotions. I feel an overpowering sense of love and adoration for him. And, also, the guilt, shame, and remorse from failing as a mother. These emotions truly torment me.
My battle with Postpartum Depression has ended, but the scars still remain from fighting through a very painful period in my life.
It was a perfect storm. The early days of motherhood were such a complex mix of emotions. While my reproductive hormones were changing rapidly, my body took months to recover from the excruciating physical pain of labor and delivery. Shortly following my children’s birth, I felt enslaved by the constant caregiving that had to be done: feeding, bathing, rocking my children to sleep, and never getting a break.
When I was finally diagnosed with Postpartum Depression in 2014, I was told to seek professional help, develop a medication treatment plan, and find support. With that my mood disorder was guaranteed to be cured. Instead, my diagnosis sent me on a path toward self-destruction rather than healing.
“Some of the greatest battles will be fought within the silent chambers of your own soul.” ~ Ezra Taft Benson
I briefly suffered through a general depressive period in my 20s, long before I even considered becoming a parent. I struggled with the most mundane tasks of daily life. I isolated, overslept, adopted a dog, and sought help through therapy. What I learned was my bout of depression wasn’t that unusual, and my genetic makeup made me susceptible to extreme sadness. Anti-depressants and a move from city life to the suburbs fixed my emotional instability.
Fast forward six years, and my previous experience with depression was a walk in the park compared to the tidal wave of despair that came with my postpartum experience.
I loved my daughter more with every passing day when she was born, and as she learned to roll, crawl, and walk within the appropriate range of time. I took pride in the fact that I was excelling at my job. I also worked full time while having two days a week to stay home with my baby. I breastfed exclusively and made my own baby food when it was time for my daughter to begin eating solids. I felt like I was getting an A+ in parenting, and I had survived the hardest part of caring for an infant.
Then at 14 months, when I was weaning my daughter from nursing, an abnormal sense of worry quite unexpectedly came over me. I was unaware at the time that a significant hormonal shift occurs again when a mother stops breastfeeding.
I began fearing for my daughter’s safety when I was not with her. It was a strange, unwelcomed, and foreign feeling. I worried about her getting hurt or ignored at daycare, and my mind raced with “what ifs.” Suddenly I felt like I had to protect her from unknown threats everywhere.
My anxiety went through the roof and an obsession with always being near her set in. I skipped social events and family time to be alone with her. I cut corners at work to come home sooner, and my fixation on her started to affect my job performance. The anxiety got worse, and the more uncontrollable my feelings became, the more I forced myself into a hole of isolation and fear.
My mood imbalances went undetected, and I soon became pregnant with my son, which provided temporary relief for my growing emotional instability.
It took about a year for the second major wave of Postpartum Depression and anxiety to kick in. This time it was even more cunning, baffling, and strange.
It fell upon me in the middle of the night suddenly and without warning. While going through the motions during a late night nursing ritual, I found myself feeling angry. My thoughts went from feeling purposeful about my role as a mother, to quickly being completely worn down by the endless cycle of caring for a fragile being. I began to fume with rage. I actually wanted to throw my child violently across the room. Suddenly I didn’t want him, the responsibility of caring for him, and the life I was living.
I knew my son wasn’t the cause of such terrible feelings, but in that moment I was unable to separate the way I felt toward him and the onslaught of harmful emotions I was experiencing. My anger turned to guilt, and I wanted my life to end. My only way to cope with my emotional state seemed to be to sleep, lash out, and drown in a pool of self-hatred.
“A true warrior is never at war with the world.” ~ Chogyam Trungpa
Paralyzed by my postpartum depression, I found myself retreating to alcohol to help. Self-medicating with booze seemed like the only solution when it really was the worst thing I could do to my family and myself. Riddled with shame, guilt, and numbing the pain to calm myself, I thought I could function.
What I really did was opt-out of life. I missed family gatherings, major events, opportunities to interact with other people. I took several visits to emergency rooms and psychiatric wards, sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes not. I always needed treatment for suicidal thoughts and alcohol, which only compounded the situation with my depression.
The worst moments were the lonely days in a dark room when time stood still. The isolation that ensued spiraled into questions of whether I deserved to live or die. Yet, I so desperately wanted help. I loved my children and husband unconditionally, but I was in such a dark place that there was seemingly no way out.
In bursts of desperation, I tried my hand at 12-step meetings, peer support groups, grueling therapy sessions, prescription cocktails tailored to addressing addiction and depression. I needed to figure out how to heal, and it took hitting rock bottom—then dropping through the trapdoor below my bottom—before I had a chance to get better.
Now 15 months later, having spent a good part of a year in an intensive rehabilitation center, I’m learning how to overcome the trauma and pain of the past.
Three practices have been foundational in my recovery:
1) Reinventing trauma by connecting the pain to a positive. The relationship between our experiences and our emotions is impermanent. We have the power to relive the past, and build a better memory. I am learning how to think back to my darkest moments, and dig for the important life lessons that came out of them.
Celebrating my son’s third birthday a few weeks ago was a reminder of how much of his life I missed because of my depression. But in that darkness, I learned how much I love him, and how hard I am willing to fight for my happiness and my chance to be with him and my family.
2) Embracing change. We all have moments when we want to go back in time and restore our lives to a place before the pain of our experiences set in. We long for an easier, softer way. But change opens up the door for new opportunities.
“Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” ~ Pema Chodron
My journey was costly in more ways than one. But I have found passion, purpose, and friendship in places I never expected. I’ve built a community of people who understand and empathize with the darkness I lived through, and I have experienced love and companionship in new and beautiful ways.
3) Getting out of self-obsession. Self-pity is a slippery slope. It blinds us from seeing the good in our lives. When we can get out of our heads and be of service to others, we learn how to focus on our gifts and talents.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” ~ Winston S. Churchill
No one told me that my children will always be my biggest trigger long after my depression is in remission. Being with them at any moment can bring back a flood of bad memories. Thus, I walk a fine line between diving back into the darkness and fully appreciating the gifts of motherhood.
I connect with other moms battling with Postpartum Depression through a peer support group I run today. I engage in regular volunteer work for families and children. I commit regularly to doing service in my recovery program. These actions keep me out of my own head, and in a place where I learn how to have compassion and empathy for others.
Postpartum Depression is crippling. One in five mothers will feel utter darkness and loneliness after a child. I found my way back, and every other mother can too. For those of us who suffer from this and other mental illnesses, we are good people and mothers who love our families, and we need help to get better. Our darkest feelings are foreign thoughts that do not belong to us.
Learning to love and forgive ourselves is the first step in the journey—and it will get better from there.
Author: Adriana Pentz
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Travis May