Knit One Purl One, Part 2: A Story of Postpartum Depression in the 60s

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

About Katherine Stone

is the founder 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 top 20 Social Media Moms by Working Mother magazine. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

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Comments

  1. Gorgeous. :::wiping away tears::: The physical buzzing part got to me. I had it and it's the one symptom that no one – – friend, co-sufferer, medical professional — has ever really related to or has been able to explain. It's like I could hear the blood roaring through my veins. My best guess is that it was a combination high anxiety/high sensitivy. Like you, it also rendered me unable to eat normally. Just awful.

    Thank you so much for this gift of sharing, Gretchen.

  2. *sensitivity

  3. this whole story was incredibly moving.. .thank you so much for sharing it – beautifully written.

  4. Gretchen, this is an amazing story. You have a wonderful memory for the details and told it so well. I completely understand! I wrote about my own struggle with postpartum anxiety coupled with severe insomnia last year; my husband would say, "just go to sleep" and I could not. I nearly checked into a hospital myself. Hugs, and thank you for share

  5. Gretchen….I'm so moved by your story and your bravery. I suffered from postpartum OCD after the birth of my first son and I can't imagine how I would have coped without professional help targeted at this specific disorder and medication. I'm also so curious about what has made you stay on top of these issues after such a long time and how you found katherine's blog? It is really helpful to share a history with women around this issue as, we all know, this is a disease that is barely out of the closet! I'd love to hear more from you!

    • Gretchen Houser says:

      Hi Deborah: Thanks for sharing your story and for your comments. I stay on top of this issue because in those years, PPD infiltrated my life at a time of great vulnerability. And that sort of experience, of having lived through it, never really leaves. It's just part of who I was. But as it began to ease, I remember suddenly being aware of fall and the gorgeous colors around me. Almost like a re-awakening. I'm a freelance writer and came upon Katherine's blog while looking for a home for my work. I'm delighted it found a good place to settle, a location that might help others. If you'd like to chat, feel free to contact me at houseofwords@frontier.com.

  6. Recovery measured by grains of sand. What a beautiful message of hope at a time when I feel my own slipping away. It is very hard for me to phathom that there truly is an end to this horrible condition. Thank You for sharing your story of struggle and triumph. You have given me a bit of hope to hold onto.

  7. Charmaine Houser says:

    Dear Sweet-Sister-In-Law,

    I'm so sorry you had to go through all that. You are such a kind & compassionate person. Always willing to help in any way, now I know why. You lived it Dottie!

    Thank you for sharing & thanks for helping others. So proud of you & all you have accomplished & honored to be your sister-in-law.

    Love, Charmaine

  8. I don't know if anyone else feels this way, but I feel like I know my grandmothers better having read Gretchen's story. PPD or not, motherhood was much different, in both better and worse days back then. Women just didn't talk about "it" until recently, and even now, Gretchen's story is so powerful not because it is unique, but because there are so few of them being shared. Also, she is a fantastic writer, which helps us to be right there with her, in the bed, at the meeting, walking the journey of recovery.

    Thanks a million times, Gretchen!

    • Gretchen Houser says:

      I’m delighted you feel that way and that in my own small way, I helped you better understand the struggle of your own grandmothers. Progress is my most important product!

      Be well and prosper,

      Gretchen

  9. Gretchen, thank you so much for sharing your story. I, too, have my own date: Monday, February 8, 2010. Two years ago today. It is the day that has informed every day since. My husband asked the question which began my time in the hospital, which led to my eventual recovery. We'll never be the same, but by sharing our stories we can help others. Thank you again.

  10. I am so moved by this story and in absolute awe of the way you have written it down. You have helped me so much. I sometimes have a hard time dealing with how long it took for me to be diagnosed. But reading your story…you have been through the absolute worst and you survived.

    That makes me think I can too. Thank you again for sharing!

  11. I am in tears.

    I can't even imagine going through this during your time. My grandma suffered from depression and anxiety and it was so hard for her to get the help that she rightfully deserved.

  12. My mother had always been phobic, overprotective, negative, and nervous as my sisters and I grew up. Now 75, and in the hospital recovering from a broken hip, I mentioned to my father that she may be depressed, and her she might have s better prognosis if she got help. That is when he told me something I had suspected, but did not know was true. After my older sister was born with a collapsed lung in 1963, she had the “baby blues.” He went on to explain their months-long search for help for her, going from doctor to doctor without success. He didn’t elaborate on her symptoms, but having been treated for depression and anxiety for decades, I was intimate with most of them already. The fear, the trembling, the numbness, the jitters, the sleepless nights, the agoraphobia, and the constant voices that said whatever you did or weren’t doing was effecting your children in the most negative way.

    What I didn’t know was at some point she was climbing the walls with my grandmothers trying to calm her unsuccessfully, and an ambulance was summoned to take her to the hospital. She spent two weeks in the psyche ward and three months in an asylum where she received electric shock treatments.

    I wish I had know this, so as an adult, I could have tried to persuade her to seek help. You see, the anxiety and depression persisted, and limited she and my father’s lives to the point that they wouldn’t travel or try new things. My mother’s last trip to the doctor was in 1968 when my sister was born. Besides a fear of traveling in airplanes or by car, she had a phobia of doctors. When she fell down the steps last Sunday, it took my dad 15 hours to get her to admit she needed to go to the hospital.

    We live six hours away from my parents. I have yearned for them to visit us, so they could be more involved in our children’s lives. I am so sad that it is pretty much too late for that as my older children are grown and my youngest us 15. Not only that, to calm her nerves all these years my mother has smoked. Between the cigarettes and her nervousness, she only weighed 79 pounds when she was admitted to the hospital last Monday. She apparently has lung disease that was undiagnosed and probably does not have much time left with us.

    I hope her life was happy, but I can’t help but think, ‘what if…?’ I know that even with treatment, depression is a beast to fight.

  13. My mother passed away last summer at age 83. I was born in 1963. My life with my mom was very difficult. She had every symptom of a narcissist. Among her possessions I found letters sent home to her parents with a detailed accounting of her trip at age 25 from England to the U.S. As I read I was overwhelmed with emotion and feeling that this is a woman I would have loved to have known. Vibrant, alive, fun loving, free spirited, a traveler, made friends easy. The pages she wrote described several years of hiking, travel, fun working (as an RN) and so on. About 1/2 way through her journal I got the strongest feeling that she suffered from PPD. Never diagnosed. My dad was a very patient man and an introvert. So perhaps my mom pulling back from the social life she loved suited him just fine and didn’t trigger any alarms. Reading this website and this blog, I am convinced that my mother became lost with PPD. When menopause began, I recall doing everything I could to be away from home as much as possible. Home life (I’m an only child) became so difficult that as soon as I graduated from High school I moved in with my best friend and her family. Extraordinarily sad for her and for the little girl who she was not able to share this vibrant person she really was! Very grateful to have found this website and Gretchen’s story and to have uncovered a huge part of the mystery surrounding my mom! Thank you! <3