Tomorrow marks a few milestones for me. My son turns 1 1/2, and despite his frighteningly early birth and warnings from doctors that we could be dealing with a lot of delays and health issues, he’s pretty close to normal on the developmental chart and is healthy (robustly so) and strong (he handles the stairs in our second-and-third-floor condo at now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t speed). It’s the 23rd anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, something seared into my brain because I’d spent several weeks the previous summer in what was then the Soviet Union, and despite people talking in cafes about independence and our translator’s curiosity about free markets and the nuts and bolts of owning a small business, Eastern Europe still looked like an unpickable lock. It’s the birthday of a few friends, one in particular whom I’ve known since childhood.
Tomorrow also marks a year since I signed myself into a psychiatric ward, suicidal, untrusting of family, resentful about church, furious with my husband, feeling desperately alone. I stayed for a week and a half, waiting for a new combination of medicines to work, waiting to trust myself around sharp objects and empty spaces. I slept a lot, went to workshops and meals when I felt I could, put together jigsaw puzzles and then pulled them apart again.
While I was in the hospital, one of the occupational therapists on the ward handed me a list of events that could trigger post-partum depression. Nearly all of them applied to me. Unexpected pregnancy? Check. Complications during pregnancy? Check. Early delivery, baby in NICU, long-term separation of mother and baby? History of depression? Recently stopped breastfeeding? Check, check, check. I hadn’t chosen any of these things. No wonder I was feeling that my life was in freefall, that nothing I did had any effect or meaning.
I think I re-emerged from the depression seven or eight months later. I couldn’t give you a day when I knew I was going to be all right; I still have afternoons that yawn at me like enormous sharp-toothed beasts. For the most part, though, I am myself again, and I am grateful.
About that post-partum checklist: Everything on it represented either an outside stressor or an internal hormonal shift. We are good at recognizing stressors for what they are, but hormones are stealthy, and they are serious. Men are subject to them too, of course, but the word “hormonal” conjures up a specter of a wild-haired, wild-eyed woman at the end of her rope, screaming at her children and threatening her husband with a carving knife or cast-iron skillet. It’s chiefly a female attribute, and it stands in for unstable, unbalanced, irrational, emotional — the opposite of what men tend to pride themselves on being. Label a woman hormonal and she is immediately the other, the unknowable, an embarrassment.
I have a lot of resentment about this, but other than pointing out that hormonal changes are actually normal, I’m going to leave the men-have-hormones-too, emotional-is-neither-better-or-worse-than-analytical arguments for another time. Because yeah, hormones have huge effects on me. I knew that I was pregnant each time — taking a pregnancy test was only ever a confirmation of something I’d already known from fatigue, nausea, and blurred vision. I can feel it when I ovulate. I know when I’m too weepy or too angry or too withdrawn (or maybe just more weepy or angry or withdrawn than usual) that my body is marinating in some new chemical mixture.
And I guess what I really want to say with this post is, first, that sometimes our bodies betray us. We secrete chemicals that change our reaction to the world around us, that alter our lens on reality. I think it must be inherent to mortality: these bodies of cells, dependent on DNA copying over and over correctly, dependent on chemical messages, dependent on small electrical charges lighting up parts of our brains, have constant failures. It’s in the design. It’s miraculous that it works at all, so none of the failures are surprising, and some of the failures are bound to be distorted messages that say “null” instead of “whole,” “harm” instead of “bless.” Things break down. It doesn’t mean that the universe has betrayed us or that the presence of God has withdrawn. It just means that we are mortal and our bodies fail in infinite small ways. Sometimes, like starfish, we are self-healing. But sometimes, because we are social beings, we need someone else to help us heal.
The second thing I want to say is that things do regrow and heal, and that we are not alone. You are not alone. Someone — a visiting teacher? — made a list of people who knew me and loved me, people I could turn to when I felt most helpless and most unloved. Phone numbers. E-mail addresses. I left the list hanging on my refrigerator for months. I rarely used it, but when I did my friends never failed me. Even reading their names made me feel safer. Following this blog and hearing other women’s stories made me feel less “other.” I spent hours reaching out to my Mother in Heaven, asking her for help and feeling her beside me, whispering to me that I would be all right someday, that the only way around was through. I read and re-read Sara Burlingame’s Prayer for a Friend Contemplating Suicide and thought, Other people have been through this, and they have survived, and I will too. It has been a year, and I am still here, and I made it through, and I will keep making it through.
Who and what do you turn to when you feel alone? What are the things that help you see more clearly or feel more connected?