Today we continue with part two of Gretchen Houser’s story on having postpartum depression in the 1960s:
After a few hours, the ER doctor releases me to my concerned and perplexed husband with a diagnosis of “neurasthenia.” In the 19th century, neurasthenia was a catch-all diagnosis for certain female maladies when young married women or young mothers found themselves unable to function due to strange, unexplainable symptoms. These were pre-bi-polar, pre-agoraphobia, pre-postpartum depression days, in which most illnesses were lumped into one large, and often unexplainable category.
I am returned home, to the scene of the crime. I cry for three straight days, maybe four. My mother takes over the children and my mother-in-law Margaret arrives to help. She sits by my bed in the darkened bedroom holding my hand. She looks bewildered, keeps saying, “It’ll be alright, it’s ok.”
My father, good and kind in every way, is clumsy in his efforts to soothe. He stands nearby watching, a puzzled look on his face.
After a few days when I can bring myself to speak, to look around at life, I ask my mother-in-law, “Why can’t I stop crying?” Over and over, I ask this question. Margaret wipes her own eyes and shakes her head.
Exhausted, I fall into a deep sleep for the first time in months. I sleep alone in the big bed; sheer heaven to be lying so still, listening to life happening around me. No thrashing, no snoring from the other side of the bed, no accidental crashing arms falling onto my head in the middle of the night. My husband cannot help it; he doesn’t sleep well and as a result … I have been powerless to move, to find another sleeping place. It felt impossible at the time, an alien concept sleeping apart from one’s husband. But it could have solved at least one of my problems.
Comforting sounds from outside the bedroom means life is being taken care of despite my absence. Murmuring voices reach me as I lie swaddled in safety. It seems incredible that someone else is choosing a menu, making dinner, washing dishes, running baths for the children who sometimes stand by my bed afterward, begging for a story, searching my face with their beautiful round eyes.
Hours and days pass and then slowly, life begins to pull me from the bed, lifting me up, bit by bit and at last, I rise. And so, the business of living returns. I have broken down but have no choice now but to get up. Get up! You have a war to win and a husband, two children; your family needs you.
My throat-lump has grown smaller but now there are different symptoms: a buzzing under my tongue shoots through me like electricity. One day, my lips are numb, another day, my arms tremble uncontrollably. My legs twitch, my heart flutters. Observing objectively is not something I’m good at, especially now. Everything feels so dangerous, but I can’t explain it; don’t know how.
I keep putting one foot in front of the other, and wait. I have lost the ability to save myself. Surely, there must be someone, somewhere.
A few weeks later, my husband brings word of a self-help group that meets in a church right across the street. It’s called simply Recovery, Inc. Despite the fact I have trouble going out of the house, to the mailbox, the grocery store, I attend my first meeting.
It is, to say the least, an odd but interesting group. Odd because they appear perfectly normal; interesting because I share many of their concerns and symptoms. Some people can’t be left alone, can’t wait in lines, cross a bridge, swallow food. I listen and absorb. Every Monday night for weeks on end, I attend these meetings. I can talk to these folks, eventually even joke around, feeling part of a special tribe of troubled people, our own unique breed.
One evening on the way out, I grab a big jelly donut and later, realize it’s the first time in months I’ve swallowed food without thinking. Amazingly, the lamp was lit that night. All I have been required to do is keep it on. Has it been easy? Definitely not but in hindsight, it hasn’t been that hard. Recovery has happened minute by minute, hour by hour; small gains some days, a step backward on others.
I am now 70 years old. On that faraway Saturday morning on October 12, 1968, I’d been an inhabitant of the world for a mere twenty-seven years, my entire life stretching out; billions of seconds, minutes, hours; all waiting.
It is true that I can write with dispassion about the incident itself, but the memory of that morning and the terror it held still holds sway. Not in a hurting kind of way, but rather to recall living through it and the tremendous strength it took. Every October 12, I think back to that person I was, there in the kitchen, feeling so desperately alone. I didn’t know it then but I had a battle on my hands, a war I fought every day for a long time. To my mind, equal any day to a soldier’s version of PTSD. We women went to war then too in our own ways, with no basic training whatsoever. We often fought alone, brave as any decorated soldier there in the trenches of our own kitchens.
~ Gretchen Houser