Today I’m happy to feature Warrior Mom Christina Gleason, who writes the blog WELL, In THIS House. She shares how recognizing her postpartum depression led to the realization she had always suffered from major depression.
My son turns 8 this August.
I was never diagnosed with postpartum depression (PPD) the way I should have been, back in 2005. The doctor who had delivered TJ left the next day for a two-week vacation, so my first checkup at the OB/GYN after getting home from the hospital was with a different doctor – still male – but one I never really liked.
I was given a multiple choice questionnaire to fill out while I was in the waiting room. It was to see if I had postpartum depression. To this day, I don’t know if the PPD hadn’t yet kicked in, or if my Master’s in Psychology had trained me to fill in the “right” answers, but I passed the test… and no doctor ever mentioned PPD to me again. My baby was five days old at the time, and postpartum depression can manifest up to a year after you give birth.
TJ was a difficult baby. He had colic. He cried all the time. I couldn’t sleep. Even following that “sleep when the baby sleeps” advice, it took me over an hour to fall asleep, even at the worst of my exhaustion, even when TJ was awake every two hours. I tried to breastfeed, but it didn’t work for us. He couldn’t latch, so I decided to pump and supplement with formula. I was made to feel guilty about both of these things. I still defend my decisions on both.
I was made to feel guilty when I gave up pumping and switched exclusively to formula after six weeks. My supply just wasn’t working out. I took fenugreek supplements, I tried a “power pumping” schedule where I’d pump for 30 minutes every two hours, and I’d still only get about two ounces at a time. It was killing me. Both the (male) pediatrician and the (male) OB/GYN made me feel horrible about “giving up.”
Of course, I’d made the right decision. I may not have known the reasons, but I was not a healthy woman, and my body just couldn’t handle it. I had undiagnosed PPD and undiagnosed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Both conspired to make me feel horribly inadequate as a woman and a mother. My own family was little help, since my mom told me that being tired all the time and being sad was all normal.
The Depths of PPD
But I cried all the time. I cried the first time I let my mom take TJ home with her after going grocery shopping because I was just so exhausted I couldn’t walk straight. I felt like I should be able to care for my baby, but I just couldn’t cut it.
My husband was very supportive, and he is a very good dad – we had a schedule where we switched who got up for middle of the night feedings, and he always tried to comfort me when I cried. He would drive the car at 3:00 in the morning while I sat in the back seat begging TJ to stop crying and go to sleep. But my husband is only one man, only human, and there were deeper forces at work inside my body.
I would have terrible, horrifying thoughts. I had vivid visions of being responsible for killing my son – like missing a step while carrying him down the stairs, or being so tired I swerved into oncoming traffic or driving off a bridge. These are things I would never do intentionally – hurting myself has never been an option, no matter how depressed I get, and hurting my son was something I am equally incapable of doing – but the thoughts were so intrusive, and they wouldn’t stop. I had them all the time.
I didn’t dare tell anyone about my thoughts. I had hinted about the car accident one at one point, and my mother-in-law looked at me like she was convinced I was going to do it. I didn’t talk about them again after that.
I don’t know when I started to feel better – I just know that it did get better eventually. The intrusive thoughts went away. I didn’t cry all the time. Maybe it was after TJ started sleeping consistently through the night. I don’t know.
From PPD to Major Depression
Unfortunately, they got worse again. No, I didn’t have another kid. It turns out that I have Major Depressive Disorder, what is commonly known as depression. Real depression. Not the “oh-I’m-so-depressed” feeling people get when they face some sort of major disappointment. The kind of depression where you cry and cry and don’t want to get out of bed. The kind of depression where you apologize to your son and husband, telling them it isn’t their fault that you’re sad, and then go bury yourself under the covers and bawl until your eyes are sore and your nose hurts from blowing it so much.
I finally started seeing a psychiatrist in 2008, and I swear that he saved my life. Not in the physical sense that I would have died, but in the metaphorical sense that I never would have amounted to anything in my life, and I could have just sat in my house curled up in a ball without doing a single important thing.
Once I got on medication – my doctor likes to say that I was born with an Effexor deficiency – things got better. Oh, I still have bad days, but most of the time I can cope. I go to therapy every other week, as I do have both a true chemical imbalance in my brain and an ability to work through some of my issues through talk therapy. My psychiatrist has a strong belief in the mind/body connection, though, and he hopes that I’ll eventually be able to rewire the connections in my brain through therapy so I won’t need the medication anymore. I don’t know if that will ever be possible, but it sure would be nice.
A Sneaky Struggle
I’m sitting here writing this post during a break at the 2012 Type-A Mom Conference* after hearing Katherine Stone speak on the “We Still Blog” panel. I promised her over a year ago that I’d write her a guest post, and she inspired me to follow through on it when I heard her speak. (* I should stay that I started writing this post then…it took me months before I finally finished it and sent it over. Following through a bit late…)
It’s hard for me to admit this, but depression grips me even here. Last night, at one of the conference parties, I had two bloggers I respect tell me I have the face of a Disney princess. I flashed the smile I have in practically every picture ever taken of me, and I laughed with them as we talked. I’ve had some amazing conversations and some gut-busting laughter with blogging friends these last few days… but no one knows (well, not before now, at least) that I spent the first night here crying myself to sleep. I was here at this conference, where I’ve been looking forward to being for months, but depression snuck up on me and smacked me in the back of the head with a hammer. It happens sometimes, just like that.
And I hate it. I hate it because it’s not rational. There’s not always even a reason for it. And, unlike my anxiety attacks, there’s no quick pill you can take to make you feel better fast when depression has you in its grasp.
I don’t believe that PPD “caused” my lingering struggle with depression, like how gestational diabetes can become a risk factor for later developing Type II diabetes. I believe the depression was always there lurking in the background, but it had never leaked to the surface with any sort of real gusto until I gave birth. (I’d had an “incident” with severe anxiety following the September 11 attacks way back in 2001 that was likely laced with depression that I refused to acknowledge at the time.) But finally recognizing my PPD, after the fact, helped me put the pieces together when creating the full picture of my mental health.
I am trying not to feel ashamed of my continuing struggle with mental illness. I discuss it publicly in order to advocate for those who suffer silently, and as a means of connecting with others who are willing to talk about sharing the same struggle. But when it strikes, and I’m curled up in a ball with tears streaming down my face, the shame scours me to the bone.
I’m a work in progress. We all are. The good news is that I know my treatment is working; my good days far outnumber my bad days. It’s just that those bad days are so very, very bad.
~ Christina Gleason