Post-partum depression, one year later

Posted by on November 8, 2012 in Friendship, health, Heavenly Mother, hope, mental health, self worth | 25 comments

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?

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25 Comments

  1. Libby, this is beautiful. and I’m grateful for the insights and reminders.

  2. Thanks for this. I’ve been feeling kind of crazy lately – listless and frustrated. Really strong PMS the past couple of months. I’ve been praying – the monthly period I’m fine with, but WHY the hormones? Thanks for reminding me that hormones out of whack are part of being mortal.

    • Libby
      Thank you for writing and speaking up about such an important topic. Depression, whatever the root causes are affects so many people. There should never be any shame in getting appropriate help for ones self or in taking medication as a means of controlling these feelings that we get.

      However ,I would be cautious in who I told at church, I was told by several people at church that I was filled with Satan and that it was my choice to be depressed. As far as I’m concerned , this is spiritual, and emotional abuse which only compounds the feelings of depression.

      @Morgan, Please go to an Endocrinologist. Your thyroid could be slow and could be whats contributing to your feelings of listlessness.

      • Diane, I’m so sorry you had that experience! People can be astoundingly hurtful.

        I think one of the things this has taught me is that as awkward as it is to talk about (I’m still a little embarrassed by this, and I was very cautious about who I told last year), the conversation is necessary. All of those thick-headed people need to know that mental illness isn’t a moral failing. It isn’t a choice. It simply IS. I have a friend who says she used to be one of the people who said depression was a choice — and then she went through post-partum depression and now wants to bear her testimony of antidepressants in General Conference. I wish she could!

  3. What a lovely essay. A good reminder to treat ourselves gently.

    For a long time after my period started my husband said THAT’s why you were so cranky. I hated it. I thought 1) I am NOT cranky (grrrrr), 2) stop being so sterotypical! Then I thought, maybe he’s right, I have been kinda cranky, and he’s giving me a pass! Yay for free passes. Then I thought, maybe there is an internal reason why all these external things are making me so mad; I should pay attention to that — be gentle to myself but mindful that my initial response might be out of scale with the thing that’s upsetting me.

  4. This was really beautiful, Libby. I’m proud to be on your list (whether or not my name was on the literal one on your fridge) and hope I will be forever.

    • And, I forgot to add, I’m so happy you’re on my list.

      • Always.

  5. Ah yes, I weaned my daughter three weeks ago. THAT is why I am a mess. Thank you.

    Thank you also for your story.

    • Hang in there, Kate. For some reason it had never occurred to me that weaning could wreak such havoc with my brain.

  6. Libby,
    What a beautiful post. Life can sure throw a curve ball at us sometimes! You are awesome. As to your questions, I find that I turn to my girlfriends when I need to vent, bounce ideas, etc. Lots of free therapy!! Love ya

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Libby. And I’m so glad someone helped you make your list– I think I’ve longed for one without even realizing it.

    • I think everyone should make such a list — whether it’s pinned to your fridge or written down on the back of an envelope and jammed into your purse. There’s something very powerful about naming the people who matter in my life.

      • Wow! Great post, Libby! I particularly like the list too:

        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.

        Love this: the list as a reminder that there are people who care for and love you, even when you’re not using it to get in touch with them.

  8. This is beautiful and perfect. Thank you for writing it, Libby.

  9. Thanks for being willing to share your experience with this sensitive issue. It is a subject that impacts so many women yet is still very misunderstood. There is a lot more work to be done educating women about its affects. A few years back I had difficult bouts with both pre- natal and post- partum depression and I remember feeling totally blindsided, overwhelmed by it. I felt guilty about it, like I needed to keep it a secret. I think kind words you offered to those that suffer with depression are helpful. I love your thought “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.”

  10. You are an astonishing writer, Libby. Both in your naked vulnerable honesty and in your vivid prose. So glad you are still fighting the mortal fight with the rest of us hormonal creatures on this planet.

  11. I just want to praise this lovely sentence: “I still have afternoons that yawn at me like enormous sharp-toothed beasts.” Terrific.

  12. Libby,

    Many thanks for expressing what all to often goes unsaid. It is a relief to know there are other women who have experienced similar situations and can talk about it and share their own experiences. I have felt at times frustrated and constrained by my mortal body because of the hormones and other processes…. thank you for writing this post.

  13. Libby, thank you for your raw honesty and vulnerability here. How I appreciate it.

    This sentence gave me chills: “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. “

  14. Thank you so much for this post, Libby! I have been dealing with hypothyroidism and anemia since my last pregnancy, both of which cause all sorts of bizarre symptoms, and I think it is important to talk about these things because it helps us recognize the sacrifices involved in carrying children and because it reduces stigma associated with hormone-related illnesses. At the same time, it is hard for me to talk about hormone issues as a feminist because I worry that doing so will perpetuate unfortunate and untrue stereotypes about women and how hormonal we supposedly are. It is very meaningful to me to see another feminist like you modeling how this can be done well.

  15. Thank you Libby for sharing your experience. I like your sentence that “someimes our bodies betray us”. It is an unfortunate reality of life in many ways. I think it is great you had the strength to check yourself in and that you hsve emerged from the depression.

  16. While these exact struggles are not personally my battle, I have other things that leave me feeling powerless and angry. I love the phrase, that we are mortal and that we fail in infinite ways. I also love the idea that there is no way around, but through. Love me some Libby!

  17. I belong to another online community called Sheltie nation, its for owners of Shetland Sheepdogs(of which I’m the proud owner and Momma of my beautiful Beau) One of the owners happened to be out on a walk when she decided to change her mind and go in an opposite direction. She then stated that she was glad that she did because she would have witness the successful(totally not the right word) suicide. Another owner came on the site and basically shamed the man, saying that there are always fixes and people just “take the easy way out” I reprimanded her by saying if we don’t shame people who are diabetic, or those who have cancer, those who have heart disease, why do we insist on shame those of us who struggle with depression, it really solves nothing and to those who say that there are ‘always fixes, its not always easy to get the help one needs for a variety of reasons.

  18. Thank you for sharing in such an open, honest ways. This is something I have not and will not experience …. so I appreciate learning from others. You gave me new insights. Thanks you.
    Suzette

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