Saturday, March 17, 2018

My journey with postpartum depression.

I have been slowly sharing a little about my journey with postpartum depression, but I wanted to write out the details of my experience. I know that some people may judge me, because there is a stigma around depression, but there are a few reasons that I want to share my journey:
  • If struggles like postpartum depression remain a secret in our culture, people will suffer in silence and not get the help that they need. If I wasn’t able to read people’s accounts and descriptions online of what postpartum depression looked and felt like, it would have taken me a lot longer to realize what was happening to me. Further, it would have taken me a lot longer to realize that there is hope that I would overcome it, and that I wasn’t just experiencing a shift in myself that I would have to live with forever. 
  • There is such a stigma related to mental illness. Even though I was well educated on the topic, I still thought it would never happen to me. When it did happen to me, I felt shame. I thought that I should be able to make myself happy; I thought that if I just worked harder to be happy, I could do it, but that wasn’t the case. If I had experienced some other medical illness such as cancer, sought out treatment, and then overcame it, I would share that experience, but with depression, it feels like something that people are supposed to keep secret and feel embarrassed about. 15-20% of mothers experience postpartum depression, so I know I am not alone. Giving into those feelings of shame or embarrassment and keeping the struggle a secret is not helpful for anyone. 
  • I hope my kids will be happy all the days of their lives, but I know that is unrealistic and that they will struggle, because that is the human experience. I want them to know about my struggles, so that they know they are not alone. I want my kids to know that we can go through hard things and come out the other side. I also want them to know that no matter what they go through, I will always be here, offering to be a support to them.

When I was experiencing depression from May- August, I wasn’t able to journal at all, when usually journaling is an important part of practicing gratitude for me, so I have been slowly journaling about my experience since then, and this is a compilation of my thoughts.

This is a story about how 2017 was the hardest year of my life. This is also a story of how I overcame postpartum depression, and so it is a story of hope.

Postpartum depression completely snuck up on me and overtook my spirit when Cambria was about seven months old. Until then, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job at this whole motherhood gig, and although it is challenging and exhausting, I was enjoying being a mom of two and the rhythms I had developed for our days. All of a sudden, something completely shifted within me, and I began feeling like a complete failure as a mom. I started believing that no matter what I did, my kids would grow up to resent me. I subconsciously began eating less, without even realizing it. My baby began sleeping more, but I would lie awake for hours at night obsessing over parenting and feeling like a failure. I would lie awake worrying about all of the things that could go wrong and all the reasons my kids would grow up to hate me. I google searched hypothetical situations that I was sure would come true. I had a physical tightness in my chest 24/7, and I would cry at random times for no reason at all. I felt like my kids deserved so much more than I could offer them and I felt like a complete failure as a mom. I felt like this new person I had all of a sudden become would be my new normal, that I would have to just go through the rest of my life like a zombie, walking around going through the motions, but feeling dead inside. I accepted that I would go through life feeling like this forever and would be unable to experience joy or success or fun.

The thing that is most surprising about depression is that I actually believed all of these things. Now, I can easily stand back and realize how illogical they seem and that they are not grounded in truth, but at the time, especially at first, I truly believed them.

It was hard for me to admit to the people I am closest to that I was struggling, because I do not like to appear weak or feel like a burden. I was embarrassed to admit that I really didn’t have it all together, but I have tried to shift my mindset around this. It is not weak to have a struggle with depression. It is brave to admit the struggle and begin the work to try to move through it.

At first, I thought I was just having a bad couple of weeks, but when those feelings of darkness didn’t go away, I knew something was not right. One night, I admitted to Matt how I had been feeling and cried a lot, and he encouraged me to get help. The next day, my mom came to my house, and I shared with her how I was feeling and spent a lot of time crying, and that day I set up an emergency therapy appointment. 

Here are some moments that stand out to me from when I was in the thick of depression:
  • Being at church and feeling unable to take Communion, because that would mean someone  would look me in the eye, and that sounded so overwhelming to me. 
  • Celebrating Everett’s third birthday, and feeling like no matter what I did, I could not feel happy. I felt like I was badly faking it the entire day.
  • Forcing myself to eat food that Matt made me, even when food tasted like nothing. 
  • Crying in front of Matt and Everett a few different times at home for absolutely no reason, and Everett asking why I was crying. My only response was, “I feel sad,” and his response was, “it’s okay to feel sad sometimes, mama.”
  • Going away for two nights for our anniversary and not missing my kids even a little bit (usually, I miss them a lot). 
  • Trying to journal a gratitude list and instead just writing these words: “It’s too hard to be alone with my thoughts. A feeling of tightness fills my chest. I can’t escape the negativity. I just want to be myself again.” 
  • Crying on the drive into Yosemite on the Tioga Pass. We had been in Mammoth for almost two weeks, and I was feeling horribly depressed, and I couldn’t shake it. I was telling Matt that I was having such a hard time, and I didn’t know why, and I was just sitting there crying, while Everett and Cambria were napping in the car. We were driving on a beautiful road to my favorite place in the world. I should have been overflowing with joy, and yet, I couldn’t feel it. 
  • Thinking that things would just make more sense if I got cancer or got in a car accident, because then at least I would have a justification for my feelings of sadness. 

I like to think that even in the difficult times, there are lessons to be learned, that life and beauty can rise from the ashes. I have learned that when life is hard and messy and yet I still choose to show up and live it, eventually better times are ahead. This is a belief I hold onto.

My experience has given me a deep empathy that I hope I can offer up to others, including my children, when they are going through a challenging time. Life is hard, but it is also deeply and profoundly abundant and beautiful.

When I think about the kind of example I want to set for my kids, I want them to be true to themselves and live into who they are. I do not want them to be perfect, and so I am working to let go of the need I feel to be a perfect mom. My kids do not need a mom who is perfect, but they do deserve a mom who is real, authentic, and vulnerable. If perfection is what I am striving for in parenthood, I will never feel like enough and will always come up short, but if what I am striving for is honesty and openness and making mistakes and saying I'm sorry and still trying my best over and over again, then I know I can be a good mother. 

Perfection is overrated and boring and unattainable anyway. 

The weight of motherhood almost crushed me, but I am now in a place of joy and hope. I will at times fail at being a mother and I will let my kids down, but I will also love them immensely, support them, and watch them become who they are meant to be.

I put a lot of effort into trying to overcome my depression. Here are some things that helped me:
  • Running
  • Yoga
  • Help and support from my husband and mom
  • Leaving the kids with Matt’s parents and going out of town overnight with Matt
  • Sharing my struggle with friends and crying openly with them
  • Getting sleep
  • Eating more
  • Doing things that used to bring me joy even when I couldn’t feel the joy. Depression seems like a self fulfilling prophecy, in that the more depressed you are, you don’t want to do anything, and if you don’t do anything, you feel more depressed. So I tried to force myself to do things that brought me joy in the past, even if I was unable to feel joy. 
  • Therapy
  • Reading facts and stories online about what postpartum depression is like, and realizing that I am not alone and that I could hopefully overcome it. 

I put a lot of effort into trying to overcome the darkness. 

For me, depression was not just something I could will myself or my body to overcome. Trust me, I tried. I tried really hard to do all the right things to overcome it. 

I met with a psychiatrist in June, in addition to my therapy appointments, and I decided that I was going to try to overcome my depression without medication, but that I would stay in tune with how I was feeling and revisit the idea of medication if I felt like I needed it. 

After three months of struggling, Matt and I had a heart to heart in August, and we talked about me going on medication. Honestly, nothing really worked to make my depression better long-term until I started medication.

Going on medication was not a choice I made lightly. I don’t want to have to be on depression medication to feel like myself, but it was what was necessary for me. They say that it takes about a week for it to work, and almost exactly one week after starting the medication, I began to feel like myself again. At the time, it felt like a miracle. I think there are two reasons I was hesitant to go on medication: 1) There is such a stigma around mental illness in our society, and for some reason, the thought of going on medication made me feel uneasy. 2) I was worried the medication wouldn’t work, and then I would really have to face the fact that being depressed would be my new normal that I would have to live with for the rest of my life. 

Since August, I have still had therapy and psychiatry appointments, and my psychiatry appointment in October is the one that stands out the most, because it was the first time back in the office that I felt like I was on the road to recovery. It was such a huge relief to not just sit on a couch and cry nonstop for an hour, which is what all of my appointments were like from May to August. It was such a huge relief to fill out the depression questionnaire and realize that I was no longer struggling with insomnia, lack of appetite, feeling like a failure, secretly hoping for something tragic to occur, or fantasizing about leaving my life. When I first started therapy, I scored a 9/10 for depression, and by October, I scored a 0/10. 

It felt so good to thank my psychiatrist for his help and support, and to report that through medical help, I had begun feeling like myself once again. I am so grateful for the mental health care I received during my struggle with depression. 

Other things have helped me since I began taking medication. One is setting aside time each day to photo journal, because it helps me focus on the positive and is a gratitude practice for me (which is why I share glimpses of our daily life here on my blog). Photography has also been a gift to me in this season. Even though it feels silly sometimes to lug around my big camera, there is something life giving to me about documenting our day to day. There is something beautiful about stepping back and observing my children through a camera lens, capturing a moment in time so that it can be enjoyed again later. Another important part of my life is exercising, particularly taking yoga sculpt classes that kick my butt so hard and make me feel like a badass, which is good for both my physical and emotional health.

I wish I had some profound conclusion, but I’m not sure that this story is over. I am past the heart wrenching struggle of postpartum depression, at least for now. For the past six months, I have been well. I am now in a place of joy and hope and gratitude, and those are not things I take for granted. 

I know that I will struggle again, maybe not with depression, but with something else. I am old enough to know that we don’t just face something, overcome it, and then everything is good. 

We go through seasons of light and dark, we learn lessons through them, we connect more deeply to ourselves and to others through them.

That is the human experience that we are lucky enough to get to live for as long as we are able to reside on this earth. 

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