I felt relief (“OMG! I’m normal!”), and then dismay (“Wait, this shouldn’t be normal…”), when I realized that my normally “high” level of anxiety had suddenly become “average,” for a pregnant woman. People expected anxiety. There were lists of things–foods, activities, local hospitals, doctors–about which relative strangers felt entirely comfortable asking, “Does that scare you?” It’s now clear to me that pregnant women and mothers are expected to live with the kind of anxiety that set off alarm bells and warranted intensive treatment for me, before pregnancy. In fact, our culture worries when a pregnant woman/mother doesn’t worry.
I won’t stand for that.
I’ve been in treatment, consistently, since age 21–twice weekly therapy, prescription medications, even a hospital stay. I became a mother in 2012, at age 28. I believe that my experience with diagnosed mental illness both before and during motherhood can offer some insight to the community here at Postpartum Progress. In fact, I can confidently promise you two things:
Second–you do not really want to go back to “before” your diagnosis, or your pregnancy, or your first panic attack, or your first depressive episode, or whenever you date the beginning of your struggle.
You have probably heard my first promise, before. I can’t say it often enough. It will get better, because you have done the hardest thing. You have admitted to yourself that you want to get better. Since I started blogging about mental illness, I have talked to a lot of different kinds of people about their mental health. I’m not a doctor, so I contribute by listening and sharing. I don’t promise everyone that they will get better, because I don’t always know that they want to. But mothers who join this community of Warrior Moms? Well, it’s in the name–you are fighters. And as long as I keep fighting, I get better. And so will you.
As for my second promise, I cannot tell you how many people, both strangers and close friends, have told me how they long to go back to Before All of This. I get it. I do. I have romanticized my own Before, sometimes, by seeing myself as others might have.
The darkest period of my life came just after a period of intense productivity, and I did not understand, at first, why I came crashing down from such a high place. Before my breakdown, I achieved. An outgoing, smiling, ambitious young woman, I made my own bright future with hard work and talent. I couldn’t keep it up, though, because no matter how well I did, I still believed that I was not Good Enough. When I realized that I didn’t like myself, even when other people liked me, praised me, and gave me their approval–that’s when I broke down. I get fewer awards, now, but I am now honest with myself. I even like myself.
I broke down because I didn’t truly believe that I was worth loving, no matter what, and that self-doubt is what “Before” now means to me. A number of good care providers have suggested that my mental illness began troubling me in early childhood, because I can remember insomnia and inexplicable stomach aches as young as age eight. I don’t know that I truly remember a time before anxiety played an important role in my life, so I may not have a true Before. But I date my Before at 21 years old, because that’s when I believed myself unworthy of love. In order to get through that darkness, I took their word for it–friends, family, doctors–that I was worth saving, that I was worth loving. I sat in a hospital, without any of the things that I thought I needed, and I found that there was a light in the dark. It may sound corny, but the only light down there in the darkness came from me.
What have you learned, in the dark, that you can keep, even when things get better? We can’t untangle those lessons from the “bad” stuff, from the public tears, or the times we couldn’t bring ourselves to pick up our crying babies, or the phone calls we didn’t return out of exhaustion. You may not yet have any words for it, but I promise that you have something, now, that didn’t exist Before. If your mood or anxiety disorder began after pregnancy or birth, then yes, it is true that you would not have your baby, if you went back to Before. No one does this work entirely for another person, though, and we don’t do it for only our babies or families. I had to want better, for me, before I could face just how hard I was going to have to work. What you have now, that you did not have before, is the drive to pull yourself up out of the darkness.
It does get better, and you can do it, because you want to. Because you are here. Because I made it through self-hatred and hopelessness without parenthood to push me. Because you made it through a day, a week, a month, a year of parenthood, even with this weight on your shoulders. You are already doing this. You typed, or you clicked, and you came here, because you want better, for yourself. The health of your family also depends on this drive that you now know you possess–to take care of yourself. Your family is stronger for it. The dark voice that whispers that you were better off, or even that they were better off, Before All of This is lying. The truth is that the everyone is better off, now that you see your own strength, the strength it takes to face mental illness.
I’m going to show my Geek Card, now, and quote Doctor Who: ”The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love.” I wouldn’t wish this struggle on anyone in the world. But as long as you are here, celebrate with me that Warrior Moms stand up and face our worst fears, so that we can keep going. You did not know, before, that you could carry so much, and still keep going. But you are doing just that, and never alone.