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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

redefining normal, pt. 1: postpartum depression

Normal. The word can hold a pretty heavy punch. There's something about the word that can strip away the urgency of what you're feeling. Sometimes that's a good thing. Sometimes it's not. As I began to see doctors the first weeks after Nate was born I kept being told, "What you are experiencing is normal." But you don't know what I'm thinking, became my inner monologue. You wouldn’t say that if you knew what I was thinking. It seemed absolutely impossible that what I was feeling, which I later learned was postpartum depression, could ever be considered “normal.” But it was. When I call postpartum depression “normal” I’m not trying to trivialize it or generalize it, and I’m certainly not trying to strip away its urgency. I’m saying that if you have postpartum depression you are normal because…
you are not alone
you are not to blame
you are not a lost cause

So that we’re on the same page, the CDC defines postpartum depression symptoms as: Trouble sleeping when your baby sleeps (more than the lack of sleep new moms usually get); Feeling numb or disconnected from your baby; Having scary or negative thoughts about the baby, like thinking someone will take your baby away or hurt your baby; Worrying that you will hurt the baby; Feeling guilty about not being a good mom, or ashamed that you cannot care for your baby.¹

One of the most terrifying and destructive qualities of postpartum depression is thinking that you are the only person experiencing what you are experiencing. According to the CDC, however, “8 to 19% of women reported having frequent postpartum depressive symptoms.”¹ That’s a lot of women. That means you know a lot more women who have experienced postpartum depression than you might realize. If it's so common, then, why aren’t we talking about it? Because talking about depression makes people uncomfortable. Because we don’t have (or at least don’t always understand) an explanation for what we’re experiencing. But mostly because we’re scared. We’re afraid of what our feelings mean, and we’re fearful of receiving judgmental reactions. Even though I’m convinced I should share my story and have shared it at least in part with many people, typing these words still makes me uneasy. I’ve been writing and rewriting this post for over a week. I'm afraid of what people will think when they read it. Will they think I don't actually love Nate? Will they think there’s something wrong with me? Will they think I shouldn't be a mom? Will they think they shouldn’t ever become a mom? Will they think...will they think...will they think...?

The first two weeks of recovery were the hardest days of my life. We had to see a lactation consultant several times a week, we bought and moved into our first house, and I was readmitted into the hospital a week after delivery with a uterine infection. All the while, we were in a taxing cycle of attempting to breastfeed, pumping, supplementing with formula, and trying to sleep. I knew logically that difficulty breastfeeding wasn’t my fault, but it was impossible to shake the feelings of failure when I couldn’t do what I thought my body should be able to do. This feeling was only intensified while in the hospital the second time. I couldn’t feed him, comfort him, or get him to sleep. I felt so ashamed, and I believed that Nate would be better off with someone else. I couldn’t breastfeed, so what difference would it make if he were adopted by someone else? I had even convinced myself that Nate didn’t know I was his mom. I felt so disconnected from him, and it was devastating.

A couple of days after being discharged from the hospital the second time, one of the standard postpartum depression survey questions popped into my head. I have no idea why. There was no stimulus. I think I was washing bottles, and suddenly there was the question: Have you ever had thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby? No. But from that moment on, it was all I could think about. I was not actually contemplating hurting myself or Nate, but I couldn’t get the thoughts out of my head. The harder I tried not to think them, the more they swallowed me up. I felt extreme guilt and fear because I could not honestly say that I had never thought about hurting myself or Nate. I was in a constant state of destructive and obsessive self-analysis, trying to decipher the source of and remedy for the thoughts. At one point the thoughts became so strong and persistent that I began to believe I was schizophrenic. I had no other explanation for how my brain was behaving; it was as though my brain had a mind of its own. I would have anxiety attacks, fearing that one day I would simply lose control of my brain and do something awful. If I couldn’t control my thoughts, how could I expect to be able to control my actions?

I would think about women on the news who drowned their children in the bathtub. Due to those mental images, I was afraid of giving Nate a bath for weeks. If I didn’t understand how someone who seemed perfectly normal could do that, then how could I be trusted not to do it? This fear gripped my heart in a way that I had never experienced. I couldn’t enjoy being a mom, and I believed I didn’t deserve to enjoy it. I remember one night looking at Nate and crying, “I just want to enjoy being your mom so much. I just want to love you and take care of you. You are so wonderful and beautiful and loveable, so why am I not happy?” In moments like these I would feel so much shame and guilt. How dare I claim to love my baby if I’m having the struggles I’m having? The worst part was that I convinced myself that if I told my midwife or a counselor about my ruminating thoughts they would take Nate away from me. I was convinced that if I said them out loud, there would be someone from social services on my doorstep in a matter of hours.

After two weeks, I had lost all hope of ever feeling better, and if these feelings were going to be forever, then I just couldn’t do it. I finally decided to talk to someone—someone I knew wouldn’t report me to DSS. I told her as much of my deepest, darkest fears as I could stomach to articulate. Relief washed over me as she said, “Me, too. You are so normal.” This time I couldn’t respond with, “But you don’t know what I’m thinking,” because she did know, and she still told me I was normal. Suddenly, I had hope. I didn’t feel great or even good, but that small amount of hope gave me the confidence I needed to ask for help. Through counseling and medication, that hope continued to grow. Maybe this actually won’t be forever.

In the first few weeks, I didn't understand that depression and anxiety can produce thoughts that you just can't explain. I had to learn that I can’t control whether or not I have postpartum depression, and because I can’t, I have no reason to feel guilt or shame over it. The thoughts and fears are from hormones and chemical imbalances and are not a reflection of the truth. Realizing this condition is out of my control was at first a terror but is now a comfort. I can’t control the chemicals in my brain, and there’s no magic formula for ensuring I have a good day rather than a bad one; therefore, I can rest in the good days, being thankful for them rather than trying to analyze them, and I can rest in the bad days, knowing that they won’t last forever.

I can’t choose whether or not I have depression, but I can choose whether or not I wallow in the darkness. I can’t choose whether or not I have anxiety, but I can choose whether or not I speak truth to my heart rather than listening to the lies. I don’t know if the doubt will ever completely dissipate. I might always struggle with some guilt over how I’ve felt. But I do know that with every story I hear from other women, the voice of accusation gets a little weaker. For example, I read a brave woman’s story on NPR today, and it gave me the confidence to keep writing.² So that’s why I share my story; you need to know you are not alone, things will get better, and you are normal.

Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, doctor, or licensed counselor. This is not a medical journal but a chapter out of my story. I am not claiming to be an expert on depression or anxiety. I wouldn’t even consider myself an expert on MY depression and anxiety. I share my story not as an expert but as someone who really needed the honesty and hope of other people’s stories in the darkness.

¹ “Depression Among Women of Reproductive Age”
² “Know The Signs: For Some, Post-Pregnancy Is Anything But Magical”
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