Alexis Lesa: On Depression, Stigma … And Poop

Dear Girl Like Me,

This has to be my third or fourth draft of this letter. I started it several times, but could never finish it, and now I think I know why:I was trying to write a comtemplative, serious letter full of wisdom and strength, but after two paragraphs or so, I'd scrap the whole thing and start over. I guess I should have known that serious and contemplative just wasn't a good fit for me. I can barely make it through a blog entry without making a reference to body hair, poop, butt crack or sex, so I figured this letter would be almost dishonest if I tried to keep all the delightfulness from you.

I live in Utah, the land of the moral conservative and the supposed Supermom. The place where you can find aprons (hideously expensive and incredibly elaborate aprons that could probably double as prom dresses, but aprons nonetheless) in the mall — in the mall! — and where women wake up with faces full of makeup, no application necessary.

Suffice it to say, unwashed women with subpar grooming habits don't go over so well here. I got pretty good at hiding my three-days-without-a-shower smell, but there's just a certain frame of mind that accompanies poor hygiene. You can't really camouflage those bad feelings. But depression is nothing if not a closeted disorder, so I did my damnedest to always smile and nod in public. I was a new mother — what kind of new mother never smiles? A bad one, that's what kind. Or at least that's what I always thought.

So I smiled. Andwhen eventhat became too exhausting, I stopped leaving the house.

When I finally had a breaking point (you can read about that at my blog, depressionsandconfessions) and was diagnosed with postpartum depression — which later became your run-of-the-mill clinical depression — my reaction could only be described as relief. Finally, someone was telling me that I wasn't a bad mother (well, for the most part — I'd rather go to McDonald's than cook pretty much every day of the week, and I'm pretty sure that i won't be winning any mothering awards), I was just sick. Nothing was wrong with me, something was wrong with my brain.

I've never had negative feelings about depression; to me, it's just another illness, similar to the flu or diarrhea (see, there's the poop I was telling you about earlier). Depression is serious and can be deadly, but to my mind never shameful. It's not as though it stems from poor life choices or irresponsibility. It just happens. So when I was diagnosed, went on antidepressants, and told my entire family and certain close friends about my diagnosis and subsequent treatment plan, I was surprised at the range of responses. I got a lot of sympathy, which was appropriate, but also a lot of people telling me I was brave for being so open.

This bewildered me. Why wouldn't I tell people about the life-threatening disorder that I was suffering from? I couldn't imagine how I'd be able to live with depression without being able to talk about it to my loved ones.

Now, after starting my blog, doing research, and talking to other women with PPD, I understand why some would choose to suffer in silence. Nothing is more defeating and humiliating than hearing a mentally healthy person tell you that your debilitating depression is "all in your head". And it's really no wonder that a woman with PPD would hesitate to tell someone that she let her baby scream for an hour because there was just no way for her to get out of bed — that person probably wouldn't understand.

But a greater understanding is necessary, crucial. PPD is too deadly and too widespread for the stigmatization to continue as it has for so long. But how do you educate people about a disorder with symptoms so indescribable, especially when those who are in the clutches of depression may find it difficult to be in the company of others?

The solution lies within: within me, within you. The only way to educate the world about depression is to start with our inner circles. Because I was so naive about the way others in my life would feel about my depression, I found it easy to talk about it. And now that my "secret" is out, I feel comfortable talking to anyone (and everyone — I'm sure people have starting avoiding me so they can avoid my speeches about the effects of depression).

I'm not saying that all women with PPD will have it so easy. But the process, as painful as it might be, is important; I really don't see another way to destigmatize a disorder that shouldn't be stigmatized in the first place. If we, those who suffer, don't take action for ourselves, I can't imagine that anyone else will either.

Depression has become a topic of frequent and open discussion in my life, and I can only hope that others around me have benefited from my openness. Even if they haven't, I have profited immensely from speaking out about the disorder. I've unearthed a greater sense of peace and achieved self-awareness that I didn't possess even before the depression, and heard from many, many other women who are just happy to know that they aren't the only ones with "issues".

So there: that's my two cents (or is that more like a dollar's worth?)about depression and the stigma that surrounds it. There will be those who judge regardless of how you handle your life. All you can do is make the right decisions for you and your family and hope everyone else will join you for the ride. And if they don't … well, more space in the car for you and all your baggage.

XO,

Alexis

Alexis Lesa is a woman with needs: she needs to read, she needs to write, she needs to love, and she needs to be loved. She has nearly all of her needs filled by books, a trusty netbook, her husband and her two young sons. She gets everything else at Costco and/or Nordstrom and/or Sephora. She can be found kicking depression's butt at her blog depressionsandconfessions.

About Katherine Stone

is the creator of this blog, and the founder and executive director of Postpartum Progress. She has been named a WebMD Health Hero, one of the fiercest women in America by More magazine, and one of the 15 most influential patient advocates to follow. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

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Comments

  1. "The solution lies within: within me, within you. The only way to educate the world about depression is to start with our inner circles."
    So true! So many times I get that look, you know the one where you know you should probably change the subject but more times than not I get that knowing nod. Even if someone hasn't suffered qualified PPD, so many women experience at least the post partum blues and hey, any living breathing mother has had a whole lot of bad days. Talking about it is the only way to get the word out, really out, that PPD happens, it happens often and that it can be conquered.

  2. Connie Davis says:

    Alexis, this is a beautiful post that touches the heart. It brought tears to my eyes to read your honesty and openness. My husband deals with severe depression, so I am pretty familiar with the raw emotion that accompanies it.

  3. I haven't had children yet, but it's great to be aware of this problem. I have a feeling I will be predisposed to it, so knowing that it is totally normal, acceptable, and can be overcome is intensely comforting. I am so glad that you were able to overcome your illness (because, as we've agreed it *is* an illness) and go on to educate other women on this important subject!

  4. Alexis, this was perfect. I love how many times you said the word "deadly". I hadn't really thought of PPD being deadly, but it is.
    I love the billboard I've seen around "Happy Valley" that says, "You wouldn't tell someone 'It's just cancer. Get over it.'" I've never thought depression was something to be ashamed of and would like to think I wouldn't have a problem discussing it if I were diagnosed. But I'm a really open person. (I think most bloggers are.) I can understand wanting to keep it under wraps, too.
    Like I said, I think this was perfect. I love your honesty and humor and genuine desire to help.

  5. Man I love the way you write! I could read your stuff every day… oh wait I do! Love love love it. I'm so glad you found something that not only helps you, but I KNOW helps others also.

  6. Well said! I appreciated your "two cents." šŸ™‚

  7. Awesome as always Alexis…Perfect example of why I follow your blog!

  8. You are right, people will always judge. Good for you for being open and honest. We can make mental illness a talked about subject.
    LisaDay

  9. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    Alexis,
    I'm so glad I accidentally stumbled upon your blog. I love finding strong female voices who stand up to the stigma of mental illness. Thank you for continuing to share your story and make your voice heard. We need you.
    — Katherine

  10. great letter!
    "…body hair, poop, butt crack or sex…" your writing/thoughts crack me up!

  11. Amber @Beyond Postpa says:

    "So when I was diagnosed, went on antidepressants, and told my entire family and certain close friends about my diagnosis and subsequent treatment plan, I was surprised at the range of responses. I got a lot of sympathy, which was appropriate, but also a lot of people telling me I was brave for being so open."
    Wow. I had never thought about it, but that was true for me, too. I don't regret being so open about it, but it's interesting nonetheless to observe how people treat me differently now, even though I am well. Some are proud and know I am even stronger, but the majority still have at least a few unresolved issues with it…Was I weak/lazy/selfish and that's why I couldn't handle motherhood? Am I on the brink of a breakdown any given day? Am I "obsessed" (in an OCD way) with PPD stuff and that's why I spend so much time helping others and advocating? WE all know the answer is "NO!" but I can't say that for my parents, sister, or some close church or college friends. Amazingly, I have found more support and "friendship" through this journey online and with others in my city who are also Survivor Mamas than I did in my inner circle.
    I'll leave you with a comment someone made at a Mardi Gras event a couple of months ago (a full two years after I had recovered from PPD/PPA)…when I poured myself a little plastic cup full of wine. Said in all seriousness by well-meaning middle aged man, "Now, that's not good for your postpartum depression, you know?" HAHA!
    See, there really is MUCH more work to be done, friends.

  12. Thanks for the great letter.

  13. This letter was so well written. Love the honesty and humor. Rock on Alexis, one day at a time!

  14. I'm visiting here from Alexis's blog. She's great and such a fun blogger, I love how she opens up about her depression and is so honest.

  15. thanks everyone for your comments! i tried to respond to each one, but the site's not letting me–but please know i've read and loved every one!

  16. incredible letter. depression was one of the hardest things i've ever dealt with (okay to be honest it is THE hardest thing i've ever dealt with) and i, too, am always surprised when people call me brave for even mentioning the word. i'm glad there are people like you out there to change that. šŸ™‚

  17. That was totally like $1.50 worth.
    I love the way you write, I love the way you share you innermost feelings, and I love the way you are.
    that made no sense. but it's true.