by Robyn Rowley
I expected motherhood to be hard. I was nervous about having a baby because I’m not great with kids and I loved going to work every day. I was pleasantly surprised the first few nights home from the hospital when I was (sleepily) excited to wake up to my baby’s cries and feed her. Despite recovering from major surgery and labor, motherhood didn’t seem as difficult or as dull as I had imagined.
But I began to struggle, and I soon couldn’t remember why I wanted to have a baby. My initial major difficulty was the inability to sleep, even though my baby slept like a champ at night. The exhaustion soon made me desperate, and I tried everything I could think of to get precious shut-eye. I counted sheep. I sang lullabies to myself. I relaxed every part of my body until I ran out of parts. I wore ear plugs. I removed the clock from the room so I couldn’t look at the time or hear the ticking through my ear plugs. I took melatonin before going to bed. And then I started taking melatonin every time I woke up during the night to help me go back to sleep. I decided one bleary morning when I had only slept two hours that I had discovered a new definition of hell.
I had plenty of support, especially from my husband, who studied at home to help with the baby. Despite his efforts to give me a break and let me rest as much as possible, I just couldn’t relax.
The anxiety quickly became unbearable. That, plus a sleep deficit, was giving me headaches. I lost my appetite. The thought of doing something as easy as putting in a load of laundry overwhelmed me. I panicked out of the blue and had trouble breathing because my throat constricted. My jaw ached with tension and I ground my teeth at night when I actually could sleep. I had trouble relaxing my leg muscles. I cried a lot but couldn’t figure out why. The thought of being alone scared me to death.
I began to think that I needed to give my baby away to someone else because I couldn’t handle anything anymore, and I didn’t feel like it would ever get easier. I resented my baby. I had persistent dreams about dying, and about her dying. I started feeling like I would gladly welcome death, because then at least I could rest. Sometimes it took all my strength just to want to survive the next few minutes.
I did not love being a mom. I did not love having a baby. I felt like I hated friends who announced they were pregnant, because how could they possibly be happy about having a baby? My life was awful.
I hated thinking and feeling and dreaming those things, and felt shocked that I was, but I couldn’t shake them. I felt out of control. Sometimes I would have a really hard day, but the next day I would feel okay and think I had just imagined all those awful feelings and thoughts. My bad days and moments didn’t feel real to me on good days. I literally felt broken, and like a stranger to myself.
Although I had read a lot about postpartum depression before I was pregnant and knew the symptoms, I still had a difficult time recognizing them in myself. There is still a strong stigma associated with depression, especially when having a baby should be the happiest time of your life. Some told me that bad days are normal for everyone. Others reminded me that all new moms are sleep deprived and exhausted (as if I had expected to sleep in every day…). I was also patted on the back for just being a typical loving mom worrying about her baby. But I eventually realized that what I was experiencing could not be so easily explained away.
When my doctor diagnosed me with postpartum depression, I felt immense relief. My struggles had a name and an origin and a treatment, and this craziness wasn’t my fault! It was so empowering to have that validation. I had never been happier to take medication, to eat well, to exercise, and do whatever else helped me emerge from the darkness. As I left the clinic, however, I thought about women with postpartum depression who cannot or do not get help. I probably had the most ideal circumstances possible: unusually easy access to healthcare, money, education, and support from family and friends. So how do other women survive this monster, especially when there is still plenty of shame involved in admitting you have depression?
Why is it still so hard to talk about mental illness? Even now, as I work to overcome depression and feel a strong desire to speak out and help others, I often keep quiet when I could open up. I don’t want people to suddenly see me differently–fragile or weak or insane–just because I have been diagnosed with depression. When someone says they have a cold, we might not shake their hand, but we don’t think that they are their germs and their runny nose. We try to sympathize with their pain and wish for them to get better, and perhaps offer some kind of assistance. We need to start thinking of mental illness as a true physical problem and stop thinking that it’s just somebody’s personality or weakness.
Thankfully, even though just a few months ago my tunnel of depression seemed interminable, I now see an end to that tunnel, and that there is also light. Now more than ever, I believe that Jesus is the light of the world, shining through darkness (2 Corinthians 4:6). Although I couldn’t feel that very often in my darkest moments, my heart wanted to believe it, and held on to that hope.
I think that on the stormy seas of depression, and life’s difficulties in general, Jesus is our lighthouse shining through the blackest nights. However, He still needs us to be the lights along the shore.
Let’s speak out and reach out. Challenges like this should not be swept under the rug or kept hush-hush because we think we need to be embarrassed by them. They are very real difficulties, and we need to wrap our arms not just around those who deal with them, but also wrap our minds around the illnesses and disorders themselves. Be aware and sensitive to someone who might be struggling. Show you care by listening, by acknowledging that mental illness is not imagined or feigned, by resisting the temptation to be shocked by frightening details of their struggle, and most of all by offering help in whatever form they most need. Be their light along the shore.
About Robyn: I am a 26 year old new mom with a 6 month old. I graduated from BYU with a bachelor’s in psychology, and served a mission in Paris, France. I work from home for a healthcare IT research firm, and my husband is in medical school.