I was the picture perfect prego -- glowing, wide-eyed, anticipatory, awaiting the arrival of my mini me who bounced and flitted around in my big beautiful belly. But then I found myself hurled down into the unfamiliar well of postpartum depression. I felt huddled and alone at the bottom of a huge well, the walls were slimy and slick with regret, fear and disappointment. I could see light at the top, but I had no way to climb out, or so I thought. No one could save me; I had to save myself, build my own ladder, and step by step climb back into the light.
1. Accepting PPD Loosens Its Grasp
I received a visit from the postpartum nurses the day after my daughter was born. They came to educate me on the signs and symptoms of PPD. I sat breastfeeding this beautiful bundle before me. I was listened half-heartedly -- there was no way PPD was going to creep into my life. I was too busy planning the perfect way to raise her for my mood to get hurled off a cliff and down into the depths of the worst despair one can feel. The feelings crept slowly in at first, and I was in denial. Then one morning I woke up and could not for the life of me leave the bed. My body was a limp lump of anxiety, fear and self-loathing. I ended up at the emergency room feeling like a failure, afraid to admit that the cold hands of PPD were wrapped around my heart and mind. I was in the well, and the first thing I had to do was accept where I was. It was in the acceptance that I could begin to plan my great escape.
2. Find Your Tribe
I was shocked to find I was not alone. I joined a postpartum group through the hospital. Anxiously, I arrived -- looking like a disaster -- to find that this was not the Stroller Strider Brigade dressed in their best wellies and peacoats; this was a circle of swollen-boobed, worn-out, tearful and fearful women trying their best to understand who, what, and why whatever it was took their joy. Each of us took a turn sharing our story, and I found great comfort in the camaraderie. The woman to my left, and to my right, felt just as resentful that "the old me" was someone so far from who she was in that moment. We connected outside of the group as well, through Facebook and phone numbers, and now I have an army of blues busters on call on the days when the darkness is at my door.
3. Medicine May Not Be a Maybe
I let mine sit in the cabinet for the first three months. I was afraid of the possible changes I would undergo. Thanks to the advice of my tribe, along with my doctor whom I trusted, I decided to start the medication. About two weeks after starting, life was less intense. I was not so easily angered or provoked. I began to smile. The tiny slice of rationality that I had left began to grow into a bigger piece of my mental pie. The daily anxiety and throat lumps became more manageable. They did not disappear, but the medicine softened my rigid edges, allowing me to absorb the healing process with more patience and grace.
4. Be Honest
My family was not comfortable with mental illness, especially the kind that clamps down during the time when you are supposed to be enjoying the new life you created. I did not want to appear weak to my parents, in-laws and friends. I leaned on my tribe to work through my woes, and after finding some assuredness that what I was going through was completely normal and that I was not alone, I began to speak up to my friends and family about my struggles. This is the hardest step on the ladder; this is where criticism could knock you down. But those who truly loved and supported me asked me what I needed and delivered. Those who criticize do not understand PPD, so take rest on the shoulders of those who love without judgement; there is great strength in what you perceive to be your biggest weakness.
5. Love That Baby
"Just enjoy it. Isn't it wonderful?" Yes, it would be wonderful except for the fact that it is truly hard to love someone when you do not love yourself. So here is what I did: No matter how horrible I felt daily, I kept one thing consistent: bath time. I would put her in her tub and look into her eyes, and her lilting laughter would fill me with delight, would make me feel like I was doing something right. After bath time, I would lotion her down and sing some silly made-up song as I caressed her from her tummy to her toes. The physical touch bonded us together, creating happy hormones. In keeping this routine, the closeness leaked out into our days, and our connection grew over weeks. I was able to attune and understand her cues starting with that one small moment and then moving outward. In a world where everything was feeling wrong, I was doing this one thing right! I was a good mom and my baby loves me, and that truth prevails over all the stupid perfect mommy myths that govern our generation. Hold tight to your right to be loved by your little one; it will carry you.
6. One Hour at a Time
"One day at a time" is too long, especially if you are at home alone or working a full day. When my baby would cry at 5:00 a.m. and the realization that the whole day was ahead would hit me, that is when I would lose it. I am going to be alone with the baby and my thoughts for the next 12 hours. Let the ruminating begin! The leader of my PPD group would say, "Not one day at a time, one hour at a time." Okay, this hour I am making breakfast, and then this hour I am throwing in some laundry, and the next hour she will nap and I can read or reach out to a friend if I need to. I will not Google depression. I will reach out, and walk, and put on some Jack Johnson, and hour by hour I will make it through. I will attend a few postpartum groups. I will schedule therapy and email a friend. I didn't concern myself with the unattainable; I simply broke the day down hour by hour and reached out to my safe zones, until my safe zones grew wider and suddenly I became busy.
7. Love the New You
I longed for the old me, the fearless and joyful girl I was before my joy was stolen, before depression threw me into the well. I never thought I was going to come back. My journey through PPD led me to a brighter, stronger version of myself. The version who feels compassion for the mom struggling with the screaming kid at Target. The woman who answers truthfully when someone asks how she's doing: "I'm struggling today, but I am getting better." I was becoming the woman who battled this Beast to the ground with steadfastness because she wanted her daughter to know her mother as courageous and resilient. Someone who can help someone else who might be hurting. The woman who climbs step by step out of the well of despair, picks up her baby, and points joyfully at the sun.
Postpartum depression is like the controversial cousin no one invited to the mental illness party, because we feel as mothers it is our most important job not to fail -- not to fail ourselves, our children, our family. The leader of my tribe says, "Some of the best mommas I've seen walk through that door." Seeking help and working your way back to the top of the well will strengthen every parental bone in your body because you are showing your future that you will not defined by the past. The well is deep. The climb is long, slow and hard. I thought I would never make it out. But with each step I took, I gained more strength to work my way up and stand firm and grounded in the healing rays of the sun.
If you -- or someone you know -- are experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression, please contact your doctor.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.