Why “Before” Wasn’t Better Than “After”

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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:

Door To The SkyFirst–it will get better. There will be peaks and valleys, but once you commit to doing the work required to improve your mental health, nothing can stop that upward trajectory.

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.

 

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  1. Amen. I love the power in this piece and particularly love the Doctor Who quote. ;)

    Keep fighting. All of us!

  2. Thank you for this post, it came at a very good time for me. I’m well into my recovery but have been struggling with the final hurdle for a while. I’m beginning to realise this may be because I’m still YEARNING for before, desperate to forget this dreadful nightmare and just be “normal” again. And of course, the more I try to forget the more it’s on my mind – and this makes me angry/frustrated/frightened.

    I know I would get better quicker if I could just LET GO and accept the new me/try to see the positive in this experience but I guess it’s too soon and I’m too raw to do that yet. But I hope I’m getting closer.

    Thank you for your insight.

    • Laura, this is so raw and so familiar to me. If it helps, my “letting go” did not involve seeing the positive–it just involved allowing for the possibility that the negative “voice” in my head was not correct. I pretty much decided that I wanted to live, had no idea how to go forward, and thought I might as well trust these (clearly delusional, or so I thought) people who kept saying that it would get better. Since I was clearly not thinking helpful thoughts, I just started listening to all the cheerleaders. Mind you, I didn’t believe them. That came later. But I thought “Eh, I’ll give their way a try, since mine didn’t work out.” If that sounds really depressing, that’s because I was reallllly depressed. But that moment is now one of my proudest, because I let go of that horrible critic in my head and told it that it was wrong. And, just to reiterate that this need not involve any positivity, that looked on the outside like me, staring out a window, un-showered, with a blank face, shrugging my shoulders and saying “not really” when asked if I still felt suicidal. Don’t beat yourself up too hard if you can’t become a ray of sunshine, overnight. See if you can let go, for now, and wait on the acceptance and positivity. All three at once is a bit superhuman…

  3. Kristy Tandy says:

    This is so good! And so true.. I never thought I’d say it during my darkest days but I’m thankful for my struggle. I will never see the world the same again and I don’t don’t know if anything could be worse than my struggle with PPD was.. So I can do anything. I don’t know about you ladies but I’ve also learned thru this that I had underlying depression and anxiety that I’m finally free of with the right treatment :) thank you for this powerful post!

    • Thank you for reading. I’m so glad I was able to communicate my thoughts, because you’ve just said it! Moms who go through this are not “better” but we sure learn stuff that can only be learned in this awful crucible. I’m really glad to hear that you stuck with treatment through that realization about the depression and anxiety in your “before” life–it takes a whole new round of courage to keep working, after the crisis has passed!

  4. sarah freeman says:

    my gut response, aurghhhh. I am sick of struggling. And my illness makes it hard for me to want to struggle, to face up to this….I am not sure that warrior mum is a good title for ME. I was a warrior before I got sick. I pushed and charged, and forced myself. Now, for me, its not about forcing myself. Its about peace and being myself. ANd being happy with that. And if there is a positive to the word warrior, for me it means, being ok to stand still, mentally and emotionally, and when all else has finished, to be able to stand still.

    • sarah freeman says:

      and yup agree about no before and after and getting back…I am better now than ever before….but I don’t want any of it….angry angry angry….

      • There are many ways to fight, and it’s harder to fight when you’re tired and angry. But your words have fight in them. You will go forward, and anger is part of that right now. Two steps forward, one back, and so on.

        • sarah freeman says:

          they do have fight don’t they :-) I hate it when I don’t have fight, and all these half heard words in my head tell me to give up, didn’t realise how much self talk I do, and how negative it is…feel a failure and there is no point starting. I know I will feel differently later. Thanks for the two steps one step. Its good. We have a cartoonist, poet in Australia who puts good things into words and pictures. One is called “how do you get there”. You walk a little, rest, get up, walk some more, keep going. Take a break. But just keep going, keep going. That’s how you get there.

    • I think that it is harder to stand still in the middle of a state if being you dislike intensely, and be in that conflict, than it is to push through an obstacle that moves. If that makes sense?