Glowing on the Outside; Crumbling Inside – Depression, Anxiety and Motherhood
I am a work in progress.
Actually, if I am being fair, I am many things: I am a wife; I am the mother to two awesome kids; I am a writer; I am a singer, a shoe collector and an over-sharer; I am the worst dishwasher loader ever; and, I am a sufferer.
On paper, I am four different diagnostic codes, determined by the DSM-V.
If you were to shine a light on my life or put it under a magnifying glass, which one of the above describes me the most? It all depends on who is looking.
I am a thirty-two-year-old woman from the suburbs of Philadelphia and, before 2013; I was not even one “diagnosis” let alone four. I have had mild anxiety my whole life but, when my parents had me evaluated, the psychiatrist told them that I had “First Jewish Child’s Syndrome” which is a way to say that I had the stereotypical neuroses that one attributes to those in my demographic. My anxiety was noticeable, but manageable, and never interfered with my daily life.
I got married to the boy from around the corner in 2008, had my daughter in 2010 and life felt enchanting. Motherhood was/is hard, but I cherished that time with my little girl. There was a lot of tutu-wearing and magic. I had a new identifying label: I was someone’s mommy. It was the best label in the world.
When I got pregnant with my son in early 2013, everything changed. I now know that I experienced prenatal anxiety and depression, which are the lesser-known (and not-so-nice) cousins to the more commonly talked about postpartum depression. I was no longer in control of my thoughts and emotions and so I spent those thirty-eight weeks on a proverbial seesaw, teetering between anxiety (“Is the baby okay?” and “Will I survive another cesarean section surgery?”) and a profound numbness (“I do not want this baby.”)
It is gut-wrenching now, and feels like a betrayal to my beautiful, four-year-old son, but I did not—could not—feel for him while he was in my womb. This particular breed of perinatal distress is exquisitely difficult because pregnancy is supposed to be the happiest time in one’s life. On the outside, I was glowing; on the inside: crumbling.
When my son was born in October, 2013 I loved him immediately. For a brief period of time, (corresponding with my time on pain medication after major abdominal surgery), I felt happy. I thought that my mental health struggles were behind me and that, while the pregnancy didn’t agree with me, this new phase of motherhood would be as enchanting as the first time around.
I was wrong.
I failed the postpartum screening given, as protocol, by the hospital, and yet they sent me home.
In the winter of 2013-2014, I suffered from severe postpartum depression. My negative thoughts were never about my children; I loved them both, dearly, always. I just did not like life. I went from a slightly neurotic person to a shell of a human, no longer interested in the world around me. And, on top of my own struggles, my son got sick with RSV, a common respiratory virus that many preschoolers get, but one that can cause major respiratory distress in infants. We spent Christmas week in the pediatric ward of the hospital as my tiny baby was hooked up to oxygen, his lungs working so hard to breathe that his belly would suck in so violently as he gasped for air. He was just under two months old. We were both struggling to breathe at the exact same time; his was on a literal level and mine was emotional. I was trapped inside my own mind and I did not know how to survive. Sometimes, in my darkest moments, I did not want to.
Fortunately, I had an incredible support system around me, including my husband, parents, friends, and a treatment team. For the first time in my life, I was put on medication (an anti-anxiety medication, two SSRIs for the depression and a mood stabilizer) and, when they began to work, the world started to have some color in it once again.
By the spring of 2014, as the flowers were blooming once again, I began to bloom, too. I had the right doctors, was on the right mix of medication, and I could find some joy, most days, in life. It was not magical, but it was manageable.
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Looking back to the early days of my suffering, I can pinpoint one of the greatest things that I did for myself, which was, at the time, incredibly scary: I shared my story, publicly. I had been a “mommy-blogger” since 2010 and always took pride in writing honestly about the ups and downs of parenthood. But, in February of 2014, I came out with a post called, “The Hardest Post I’ve Ever Written.” In it, I confessed that I was suffering from postpartum depression.
I knew that by sharing this post—this diagnosis—that I would be forever labeled. I would no longer be the mom known for crazy calls to the pediatrician (we once made a frantic call when my child had a huge, scary red rash…when, in fact, it was a stain from cherry water ice) or daily dance parties (it is kind of a thing). I would be someone with mental illness. I worried about how this would impact my reputation in the community, my blog, my friendships, and even how other parents would feel entrusting me with their children for play-dates.
However, I told myself that, if my writing could help just one other person to feel less alone, it would be worth it.
And it did. And it was.
It has been a long four years and, during this time, I have learned more about humanity than I ever thought possible. I have also learned about recovery. Recovery does not happen in a straight line. And, without sounding too trite, it will often be one step forward and then two steps back and then three steps forward and then another two steps back. I have fallen. I have been hurt and bruised and found myself so weary on my trek towards wellness. But, I have gotten back up. I have given myself first aid. I have had an amazing support team on whom I can lean when the journey seemed too arduous.
Recovery is not a destination but a journey. I am constantly working to better myself and to practice self-care. For me, this means that I go to many therapeutic appointments each week, including a visit to my psychologist, a visit to my psychiatrist, a visit to my dietician (as a side effect of my depression was an unhealthy level of weight-loss) and, often, a visit to a couple’s therapist. The latter is not because I am having marital troubles but, rather, to fortify our bond as partners and parents; to go back to being husband and wife and not caregiver and “sick person.”
Then, there is the other kind of therapy, like my weekly lunch dates with my girlfriends and getting to sing in rock concerts with an awesome friend and band-mate. It is cuddling with my two kids, now seven-and-a-half and four, as we get “comfy cozy” under my daughter’s soft duvet. Despite my own rocky start with my son, he and his sister are the best of friends. They choose to sleep together every night, finding comfort in each other’s presence.
Speaking of my son, here’s how my postpartum depression has impacted our relationship and my recovery. He and I are bonded deeply and love each other fiercely. He is fiery (and not just because he came out with red hair) and strong-willed and he tests my patience every day, but I love him for it. I am all about a good rebel.
He has helped me in my recovery because he brings me joy. He reminds me of the parts of life that are so fleeting and yet so profound, like when he asks me for a hundred kisses or tells me that he loves me for no reason. When recovering from any mental health issue, especially when it is an acute episode, it is so important to surround yourself with good support and that is what he is for me (along with the rest of my tribe).
As far as my label as a sufferer, I have not only chosen not to hide it, but I have embraced it. I live in a house where we have normalized feelings. By this I mean that my children know that it is “okay to not feel okay” and that they can feel deeply without feeling ashamed. They know that I do not distinguish, in a hierarchy, between physical illness and mental illness, so my second grader does not have to come to me with a feigned “tummy ache” if she is anxious about going to school or an activity. She can tell me that she feels yucky in her heart, and knows that I will understand and take it just as seriously as an illness that can be measured with a blood test or thermometer.
I write and speak about my struggles with prenatal and postpartum depression in public and private settings. It is part of who I am, but it does not define me. I believe firmly that, if someone is going to judge me for having suffered from these afflictions, then I do not want that person in my life. Who needs that?
Recovery is an amazing thing. In my experience, I am not “back” to who I was before my illness, but, rather, I am a new, better, stronger version of myself. My grueling climb has afforded me with muscles; my trek down the long road has given me stamina and sturdy legs; when I fall down, it is easier to get back up.
Just this morning I drove my son to his preschool wearing tie-dye sweatpants and high-heeled, embroidered booties. I could not find any other shoes and I was rushing. And so, I took my son to school in a truly ridiculous getup, as opposed to the other moms who were dressed in cute, coordinated outfits, with their hair done, and metallic sunglasses gleaming.
But…BUT…I drove my son to school. I drove him to school after having fed him a hearty breakfast, dressed him in freshly-washed clothing, as he carried his meticulously packed lunch and the sound of many “I love you!”s. I had also gotten my daughter dressed, fed, packed up and loved-on this morning an hour prior.
So, perhaps I was not as “put together” as other moms, but I was there for the things that count. There is plenty that I cannot do, but there is far more than I can.
I am a work in progress.
Sometimes, when the stars align, I am a painting, being completed with complementary colors and fine brush strokes and with tremendous promise.
Other times I am an abstract piece, where the message is not readily apparent, but there is beauty in the chaos. I am interesting. I make people stop and think.
And then, still, there are times when I am a wrinkled piece of white paper, smudged, with scribbled pencil marks erased haphazardly. I feel messy. But, in me there is still purpose. I still have value, smudges, wrinkles and all.
I am a wife, a mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an empath, a fighter, an advocate, an ally and a person with a few diagnoses.
So, if you do put me under that magnifying glass, you will see some cracks, but I hope that you will also see the light that shines through. Even when times are at their darkest, there is always that light, though I know that it can be so hard—nearly impossible—to see. And, like I tell my kids, it is okay to not feel okay. But, you deserve to be heard without the fear of stigma or a label because you are so much more than a diagnostic code or the notes on a doctor’s chart. You are color.
You are light. You are life.
You are everything.