[Editor’s Note: It takes a long time to get over postpartum depression. Not just the illness itself, but the period afterward where you continue to look over your shoulder, or feel angry and bitter that you were deprived of a happy infancy with your new baby, or wonder what you ever did to deserve PPD. In this piece, Warrior Mom Kerrie Miller from the blog The Urban Escape writes about when the grief over PPD finally hit her, and what happened next. -Katherine]
This past October I was happily at the gym, after spending the day hanging off the end of my rope. I knew I needed to move my body, clear my mind, and was mostly glad I opted for the gym instead of slumping on the couch after putting the kids to bed. I bounced up on a vacant elliptical trainer and started to move while cuing my music. I eased into a rhythm and my mind drifted off, as it tends to.
I started to think about writing. I had quietly made writing a goal of mine when we moved in September, but had no idea what that would look like. Unsurprisingly, I found myself frustrated at not meeting the vague and ill-defined goal. I had written a bit about my postpartum depression; a present tense, first person account that was moderately traumatizing to complete. Turns out travelling back to the worst time of your life (particularly if it’s not quite over when you take that trip), camping out, and taking notes, can be … difficult.
As I strode away on the elliptical, I asked myself if I truly wanted to write at all. Given my tendency to impulsively make a goal, then rigidly pursue it without a second glance, this was a rather good question to be asking. There was a bit of a pause, then a hesitant yes. Well then, I asked, in somewhat of an exasperated tone, WHAT should I write about?
Myself, I heard. Just be honest with how hard this has all has been, how hard it still is. Stop ignoring it.
And at nearly the same time a thought thundered—if thoughts can thunder—into my brain: “Stop blaming yourself for what the disease did. You are not it.”
And whether it was the volume, or the element of surprise, I believed it. Finally, truly. In that precious moment of clarity, I saw myself and the postpartum depression as two separate beings. I was quickly, efficiently extracted.
And then, just like that, I thought my insides would split open.
I briefly contemplated running off to the bathroom to explode in private, but chose to stay, figuring everyone else is looking straight ahead, plugged in to their own music. My face curled into what was surely a very ugly cry and I started to weep, somehow never breaking stride on my elliptical machine.
For four-and-a-half years I had insisted I should be happy, that I was lucky. My boys were somehow well-attached, well-functioning kids. My husband somehow still loved me. I had a lot to be thankful for. And besides, there were women way worse off than me. There were moms who ended up taking their own lives, who had to suffer with vicious depression, and much worse, as single mothers, and I had heard of moms raising kids while living on vast garbage heaps in South America somewhere. The garbage heap moms had no time for grief.
In the midst of such blessing, any grief of mine seemed pathetically small and indulgent somehow.
For such a long time, I could not separate myself from the depression, and I think this can happen often with disease. I could not see where it began and where I ended or anywhere in between. I could not simply be sad for what the postpartum depression had taken from me, my family, and my friends. Sad I would never know postpartum without the depression, just like some mums never know pregnancy without throwing up every day. You don’t get to go back and change it, or ever know what it feels like.
Even now as I write this, I fight the urge to trivialize. I have talked myself out of writing this many times, but it’s these clingy bits of shame that I need to shake off the most.
There’s a woman I know, the wife of an old friend, who has stage 3 breast cancer. And in that light, what do I have to complain about? But that’s the thing: Grief is not complaining. It’s acknowledging, accepting, observing; it’s many things, but it is not complaining. It is not self-pity. And we all know how helpful comparing ourselves to other people is.
I don’t know what it was about the evening at the gym last October that allowed me to observe my grief and not run away or stuff it in a sack and beat it back down. Why I was suddenly able to cleave my self from my depression.
If I try to grieve the pain of the past years, but have forgotten (or never really believed) that the depression and I are not “one flesh,” it just doesn’t work. I end up grieving myself, because I am the cause.
Rather than being sad it happened, I spent years feeling sad I happened. I was sad I was their mother, his wife, their daughter, her sister, her friend.
But on this day grief showed itself, I observed it, and placed its five-year-old self where it belonged. It hasn’t always stayed put, as five-year-olds will do.
I came home from the gym and started to write in my journal. I had so much to say, to myself, which may sound strange. I could honestly, candidly, start to write out my hurt and my pain, instead of my shame, regret, and pleadings with myself, with God.
And I cried, oh my, how I cried.
Before having kids I was a ridiculously easy cry. I have cried watching The Simpsons and Fern Gully as a grown adult. But for nearly five years I had hardly shed a tear. I think it was partly due to the medication I was on, but mostly the herculean effort to make my outsides look nothing like my insides. The idea of showing real and true emotion was terribly frightening, because I felt it would lead somewhere dangerous. And because of that, I think that’s what was needed. I needed to survive, to get through each day. It was one of the many ways this dear body of mine tried to protect me, but it just went on for too long.
So I made up for it. October and November were, um, weepy months. Sure, part of me thought, “Hmm, should you be crying every day?” Another part of me thought, “Shut the hell up and pass me the Kleenex.” I was tired of telling myself how to feel, so I just let it all go. I was truly happy to have tears, to feel human again, and to somehow cry while watching Modern Family.
I am crying right now in fact, because this is hard to write about.
I have accepted that I may always look back on the very early years with my boys in a bittersweet way. Not traumatizing; that piece is graciously fading. Maybe the bitter will pass toom, but it doesn’t have to for me to be okay. I can hold bitter and sweet together and move on, grateful, and at peace.
“All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately. But what I’ve discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the experience of grief, will not heal it…..I’m pretty sure that it is only by experiencing that ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way that we come to be healed – which is to say, that we come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace.”
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies
What about you? Have you dealt with the grief? Like Kerrie, have you tried to push it down or convince yourself that other people have it much worse than you do?