Published on June 2nd, 2013 | by Evita Gahagan
Reaching Out of Postpartum Depression
I have fallen apart three times. Once as a teenager, when a brutal breakup plunged me into a six-month long depression. The second time blind-sided me as it followed one of the most happy, beautiful, and amazing events in my life: the birth of my first child. And third, just a year and a half ago, during a tumultuous season of change in my life. I may write about each of those times in the future, as so much gold was mined from those deep caves of pain, tears, and healing. But it’s the sneaky one, the one that came with a “label” (postpartum/postnatal depression), that I want to delve into here.
I wasn’t a little girl who fantasized about being a wife or a mom. My Barbies were Amazon-jungle explorers, North Pole scientists, and Presidents of the Land of Make-Believe (with some romance thrown in for good measure via the token Ken doll). And yet, in 2002, at 3 a.m., somewhere in the back swamps of Florida, I looked across at my best friend driving us across the state, and my breath caught in my throat as it dawned on me, “I want to marry this man…and no other.” He was “him.”
Ours is a story that makes most of our friends either swoon or gag. It’s that syrupy-sweet and amazing. And hot. I floated on a cloud of romance, through our moving to New York City in 2004, our wedding in 2005, and even through the pregnancy and birth of our first child in 2006.
It was while holding that precious, vulnerable, innocent, and LOUD one-month-old baby that I started to fall apart, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
My Puerto Rican culture says motherhood comes naturally to women and if it doesn’t to you, there must be something wrong with you. If you are still in your pajamas past lunchtime, it’s not because you forgot to get dressed as you tended to the needs of your child, it’s because you are lazy. Or unmotivated. Or don’t care enough.
But I did care. I was desperately motivated and have never been known to be lazy, yet I kept coming up short. I had envisioned this little baby simply joining our lives in New York, and when my life came to a screeching halt every time she was hungry (which seemed like every minute), I couldn’t cope. I felt like a failure. I wasn’t able to identify what would later be diagnosed as Postpartum Depression in myself. I wasn’t crying all the time, and I had a tenacious will to force myself to do the things I thought I should be doing. I read the lists of symptoms that my doctor gave me and would shake my head thinking, “That’s not what’s wrong with me. I just need to try harder. Something must be wrong in my routines, plans, character…there is something I can fix to make everything okay.” But everything wasn’t okay.
I robotically lived life: changing diapers, burping, swaddling, cleaning (barely), cooking (sometimes), not feeling the “warm fuzzies” my friends described when they brought their newborns home. Everyday tasks exhausted me or simply didn’t get done, and a constant fog of guilt threatened to suffocate me. My life was a mess. I didn’t recognize my body anymore. I couldn’t remember where I put the phone for 27th time, let alone if I had paid the phone bill. It was chaotic, dark, and lonely.
I had an adoring husband and a genuinely helpful network of friends for support. This didn’t lessen the guilt or the ache. It didn’t stop the thoughts in my head:
“You’re not cut out for this.”
“Sure, you’re good at some things, but motherhood is not one of them.”
“It’ll be a miracle if this baby makes it to one.”
“Where is that World Changer now? You don’t even shower regularly.”
I resented the little creature who had turned my whole world upside down–who had beaten me. Then I would hate myself for even thinking those thoughts.
One of the most priceless things I did to stop the deepening depression and take strides towards mental health again was acknowledging the fact that I WAS unhealthy.
I came from a worldview that really has no place for the thoughts that characterize depression:
“Feeling down? There is ALWAYS a silver lining!”
“Feeling hopeless? Nonsense – there is always hope!”
“Feeling incapable of living life? Just trying harder, and with enough sweat, tears, and determination, you will be fine!”
Accepting that I had fallen apart, that I didn’t have the strength to try harder, was the most life-changing and paradigm shifting step I took toward recovery. I’m saddened to look back and see that I would have been more easily able to admit my need if I’d had a more socially acceptable medical condition. I’d have no problem feeling helpless if I had broken a bone and needed a doctor’s help. But it took a painfully long time for me to realize my depression was no different. My mind had a “break.” I needed help to set it correctly so I could heal properly.
It’s okay to identify our brokenness, even though it is terrifying. Rather than beating ourselves up with guilt for the pain we are feeling as we walk around with a limp emotionally, the way to healing for me was to look around and say, “No. This is not okay. This does not have to be my ‘normal.’ Something IS wrong, and I’m going to need help.” This simple acknowledgment allowed me to experience things that were truly mentally healthy: counselling, peer processing, journaling, and redefining my role as a mother based on my unique strengths and not on society’s view.
My days now, as a mother of three beautiful girls, are still mixtures of light and dark emotionally. I am thankful for the longer periods of light these days. But when I feel the dark seeping in, I don’t run away from it. I don’t instantly try to fix it or “try harder.” I pause. I acknowledge it and take baby steps toward the light again by reaching out for help.
Photo by Ashley Speights for Wyn Magazine.