All I can recall from my first few months of motherhood is stumbling through them in a sleep-deprived fog. I mentioned to a few people that I just didn’t feel it. That thing. The blissful all-encompassing love I thought motherhood was supposed to be. Everyone reassured me that it would come; that what I was feeling was normal and for some women it takes a little longer to fall in love with their babies. I assumed what I was going through was like most everything else in parenthood — a phase. So I waited for it to pass.
Having never been through this before, I thought I was experiencing normal waves of emotion to adjusting to life with a newborn. But the months went by and I wasn’t feeling much better. Eventually, with the help of my son’s pediatrician, I sought help and was diagnosed with Postpartum Depression.
Accepting my depression was a gradual process, and coming to terms with it was painful. My mom had suffered from PPD, so I knew my chances of developing it were increased. But I thought what all people think, it won’t happen to me. During my pregnancy I did everything I could to prevent developing a postpartum mood disorder. I quit my stressful job and decided to stay home with my baby, I encapsulated my placenta in an effort to stabilize my hormones, and I stocked the freezer with months of meals. When these efforts failed, I felt responsible — like I had caused my depression by failing somehow and that I alone could fix it by doing things differently.
The first few days after my diagnosis were emotionally exhausting as I slowly accepted my reality. I felt so transparent, like everyone could see through me and had known all along, — like I was the last one let in on the truth. I wasn’t sure what to do to improve my situation or how to address my illness. I hadn’t experienced thoughts of suicide or thoughts of harming my baby, which I thought were the biggest red flags of PPD. Assuming I had a somewhat mild case, I figured I could get through it with some adjustments in my life. For every other difficult time I had been through I could improve things by changing my environment and taking care of myself through sleep, exercise and nutrition. I assumed I could do the same again.
I put together a plan of action. I would take more walks, accept more help, and see a therapist. I saw a nurse practitioner at my OB’s office frequently. She was a lovely and kind woman with five kids and her own PPD story I could relate to. She suggested medication cautiously and asked me what I thought. I told her I didn’t really want to take antidepressants, but I would take the prescription just in case. She warned the medication would likely need several weeks to fully take effect and I should start taking them now. I smiled and nodded, but had no intention of doing so.
On an intellectual level, I could acknowledge that yes I had depression and yes medication could help me. But I still resisted. My first concern was that I would become dependent on the medication. I didn’t want to rely on drugs to feel like myself. I felt angry at the situation, and resentful that this was happening to me. It wasn’t fair. Other babies slept through the night early on, other babies didn’t cry for hours, other moms had family close and free babysitters so they could get a break. If my life looked more like that, maybe I wouldn’t be depressed.
For a few weeks adhering to “my plan” worked. I felt less like I was drowning and more like I was treading water, but things would get worse before they got better. The breaking point came when I stopped being able to sleep. I tossed and turned all night with tired eyes and aching muscles, but sleep wouldn’t come. Each night the insomnia got worse and each morning I struggled, dragging myself through the days that seemed 100 hours long. I felt such despair and hopelessness that I wasn’t sure I would ever be happy again, and I started to think about just not existing anymore at all. It was there at rock bottom, as I contemplated suicide, that I reached for the antidepressants in my medicine cabinet.
With a lot of help, support and yes, medication, I am a much different person and mom today. I am still taking antidepressants five months later, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. My depression didn’t have to get as bad as it did, but I allowed it to by internalizing the stigma I hoped to always fight against.
I left a job in abortion rights advocacy to be a stay-at-home mom. While abortion rights and mental health are two different things, I worked in a field that requires a lot of empathy, openness and willingness to hear others’ stories and struggles. Additionally, I have witnessed loved ones struggle with their mental health, and plead with them to take their medication.
“You have a chemical imbalance in your brain,” I once told my brother. “It’s not your fault. You need medication for your brain just like a diabetic needs insulin.” But when it came to my own circumstance, I couldn’t make the same logic apply to me.
There’s a pervasive fear among people experiencing any mental illness that they’ll be judged unfit to be at their jobs or in their relationships, and for me that fear was magnified a million times when I became responsible for another person. I didn’t want anyone to think I was incapable of taking care of him or that I didn’t deserve him. I was very public about my miscarriage before him, and felt that I didn’t deserve to feel sad about a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby. Little did I know at the time that PPD is so much more than feeling sad.
While there have certainly been advancements in mental health awareness and more open discussions about postpartum mood disorders, in our culture of individualism, mental illness is still very much regarded as a personal choice or a moral failing. We uphold people who seemingly succeed on their own, and look down upon those who don’t. I didn’t realize I was doing so at the time, but internalizing my own self blame about my depression made my healing slower and my circumstance worse. It’s a blame I wouldn’t put on another person, but is so pervasive in our culture it unconsciously became a part of my psyche.
That’s how stigma works, and how it is silently perpetuated. One way we can combat it is by normalizing our experiences.
Medication isn’t the answer for all moms who struggle with PPD, but it was for me, and that’s OK. My family needs me — the happy, healthy version of me and I will no longer let stigma and shame keep me from treating my depression.