Almost one year ago, my daughter Annelise was born. It was a normal, planned pregnancy, a smooth delivery, and a happy homecoming. I was adjusting to being a mom of two under two (which is a lot of work, let me tell you!), but things were really good.
Then, exactly 2 weeks and 4 days after she was born, postpartum depression hit me. It was sudden and scary and I didn’t know what was happening to me. I had never gone through depression before. It kind of took over our lives, in a lot of ways, and has been the major trial we’ve been dealing with for the past year. There have been struggles and tears and prayers and rock-bottom lows – but there’s also been acts of kindness, miracles, good healthcare, prayers, priesthood blessings, amazing support (especially from my mom and my mother-in-law, you are both amazing and I don’t know where I’d be without you!), really good friends, brothers and sisters, my two amazing children, and mostly a husband who’s the best support person I could ever imagine. For all of these things and for everyone who’s helped, thank you thank you. It all meant the world to me.
So now, a year later, things are so much better than they were at the beginning. But I am still struggling to fully heal from this mental illness.
Early on during the depression, I started writing this post that you’re about to read. I’ve been working on organizing these thoughts for a while, editing and rewriting and trying to get it just right. Because for me, going into depression, I understood so little of it. I know that understanding it wouldn’t have prevented it, but I want to help people understand, whether you’re going through depression yourself or know someone who is or even might meet someone who is someday.
I know my experience with depression isn’t the same as everyone else’s; I know it’s different for everyone. So this is just one example of one young mom’s struggle.
Since I’m a writer and a visual learner, I came up with analogies. Lots of analogies. These are the ones that helped me and those close to me understand depression most.
It’s like losing my happy jar
Let’s pretend that everyone has something called a happy jar. You hold it and walk around and catch all of the positive stuff in life, and when your jar is full, you’re happy. When bad or sad stuff happens, it evaporates your happy stuff away and you feel down.
I used to think depression meant that your happy jar was very low to empty. Like lots and lots of bad or sad stuff had happened to you and sucked all your happiness out. But now that I’m going through depression, I realize that was wrong. For me, it didn’t feel so much like my happy jar was empty: it felt like it was just lost.
Others noticed me feeling down, of course, and even knew that I had depression, so they rallied to shower me in happiness.
You’re such a great mom! Your kids are so awesome. Look how clean your house is! Want to go get a pedicure? Let’s enjoy the sun and go on a walk. Have you said a prayer today? Hey, what if we do something fun and spontaneous? Lunch at Chick-fil-a, your favorite!
The frustrating thing for me, though, was desperately trying to catch all of this happiness, but instead watching it just slip through my fingers because I didn’t have my jar.
Not to say that the positivity and happiness and compliments didn’t help at all. They did. They just weren’t the solution. I felt like I needed to give people a disclaimer: “Thank you for the compliments, and keep them coming, but please know they’re not going to cure me. What I really need is to find my jar.” The real hard part was when I kind of felt pressured to feel happier or better, because of all of this time and energy and love people were sinking into me, and realizing that I didn’t. I beat myself up for it, actually. So it just helped when I (and others) understood why.
But still, it’s not the perfect analogy. I don’t think any one single analogy is. That’s why I came up with so many.
It’s like having a weakened immune system
Depression felt like having a really, really weakened immune system. Except it wasn’t my immune system. It was my ability to cope. There are hard things that everyone goes through every day, all the time. Especially common to moms: guilt, comparing ourselves to others, frustration, fatigue, anxiety. And especially guilt. But we’ve learned and have been taught how to deal with these sorts of bad feelings, how to combat them and counter them – it doesn’t make them easy, but we get stronger as we cope: try to focus on the positive, keep an eternal perspective, stay grateful, focus on others, you know.
Depression felt like having all of those coping skills completely gone. So a little guilt over the smallest thing (like seeing that my newborn baby had lightly scratched her face in the night) was blown waaaayyy out of proportion and would almost incapacitate me because I felt like I was such a horrible mom and my children deserved so much better. Or being overwhelmed by something like doing the dishes (which, yes, is often overwhelming to lots of people) would be so overwhelming that I would literally lie on the floor and think that I could never get up. All my coping skills were gone. So it wasn’t like I had more sadness or more regret or more negativity in my life than the next mom. I just had trouble (a lot of trouble) coping with the small everyday hard stuff that happens to all of us all the time (and probably happens in especially large quantities to a mom of a newborn, which is why PPD is so unfair rough).
It’s like a sickness
At the beginning, when I was absolutely convinced that getting depression was my fault and meant that I had had a breakdown and that I was a bad mom, it helped to look at the depression as something like the flu. It totally wiped me out, it was hard. But it was an illness, something that wasn’t my fault, something temporary. I was doing all I could, just like I would have taken medicine and gotten rest for the flu. Now I had to just ride it out until it went away.
Depression really is a sickness. Postpartum depression is like…ooh, almost exactly like morning sickness. It’s this weird, awful very unpleasant thing that pregnant women might go through. Some do, some don’t. Some women might have morning sickness with one pregnancy, but not another. We don’t really know why except it’s probably hormonal, and there’s no way to accurately predict it, or to make it go away. If you get it, you just manage it the best you can. But a pregnant woman having or not having morning sickness doesn’t have a thing to do with her feelings about being pregnant, the quality of her baby, or how good of a mother she’s going to be. That would be ridiculous. Morning sickness is just one of those challenging things that we go through in order to create a new life, the biggest, most amazing miracle on the planet.
Think of postpartum depression in the same way. A new mom having or not having postpartum depression doesn’t have to do with her feelings about getting pregnant, the quality of her baby, or how good of a mother she’s going to be.
I think this is an especially common misconception, and definitely one that I had. I can think of a couple of reasons. First of all, I read in multiple places, books and pamphlets and official websites, about some of the risk factors associated with PPD: not having a supportive husband, an unplanned pregnancy, a difficult or colicky newborn. While a mom in any of those situations certainly may get PPD, just because you have PPD doesn’t mean you’re in one of those situations.
The second reason I can see why it’s a common misconception is that mothers who have postpartum depression probably say those exact lies all the time. “I’m a horrible mother. I never should have gotten pregnant. What was I thinking? I shouldn’t have had a second baby. I’m not cut out to be a mom. Why don’t I love this baby? I hate myself.” All of those are things that I thought or even said out loud. But none of them are or were ever true. That’s the way that depression distorts your thinking.
It’s like breaking both my legs
Later on I found another helpful analogy. Depression almost felt more like being in a traumatic car accident where you break both your legs. When you get the flu, it’s awful and it takes over your life and is no fun, but you take medicine and eventually it goes away and you go back to being healthy. Comes, goes, back to normal life.
But let’s say you’re in a car accident and break both your legs. You go to the hospital, there’s a lot of interventions (like surgery) at the beginning, lots of doctors and medicines and analysis. It’s huge and scary. You have to deal with the mental and psychological and physical trauma of breaking your legs and being in a car accident. It’s scary and big.
But life has to go on. So you’re released from the hospital and put in a wheelchair. The doctors say you will be able to walk again, but it will take time. Lots of time, and three-times-a-week physical therapy sessions with a physical therapist who can help you learn how to use your legs again, use your muscles again, re-learn to walk.
So you do the therapy. You exercise and take medications and pray and do all you can. But it’s a slow process, and really hard at times. Still, life has to go on, and in lots of ways it does. If you’re a mom, you still have to take care of your kids. If you work, you go to work in your wheelchair. You go to social events, you work on your hobbies, you try to be happy. Because you can’t just stop life until you can walk again.
But this wheelchair thing is a pretty big factor in your everyday life. Things are different. You can’t reach up high. You can’t walk or run. You can’t go up stairs. You have to make adjustments. Maybe before you loved to cook and prided yourself on the home-cooked meals you made for your family. But now you can barely reach the stove, let alone the kitchen cabinets. Cooking is completely different than it was before. But life has to go on. So maybe friends and relatives bring over meals a lot. Maybe your husband takes over the cooking for a while. Maybe you make the easy things you can make, like sandwiches. Maybe your family just eats out a lot. And all of that is okay. Because you’re doing all you can to heal. And, through all of the hard stuff and the frustration, you end up not only healing, but growing stronger. That’s what trials do for us.
Depression feels a lot like that. Except instead of my legs broken, it’s my brain. And no one can see it, not even me. But I’m going through therapy and training and medication to try to fix it. It affects my everyday life. A lot of things I could do before (like cooking meals, as a matter of fact) are really hard, and I’ve had to make adjustments. But as much as I can, I try to go on with life: be a good mom, be a good daughter, enjoy my sister’s wedding, put on Christmas, make friends, go on dates with my husband. And, slowly but surely, I start to heal.
What I would say to someone with a friend going through depression
Sometimes I wished I did have something on the outside, like a wheelchair or something, that people could see so they could know how hard each and every day was. Especially on the kind of better days when I was actually wearing makeup and out with the kids, and they were dressed and we appeared all normal and happy and great. And I smile and talk and interact, but deep inside me something is saying, “No, Paige, don’t do this! You’re fooling them again. Why can’t you just be honest and tell them how you really feel, how hard this really is?”
So I guess what I’m saying is it would have been helpful, sometimes, for people to ask more about it—I mean those who knew I was going through PPD. I think sometimes we don’t know what to say, or we’re afraid of hurting feelings or being insensitive. I know that’s exactly how I always felt (and how I still feel when I talk to people who have gone through trials that I haven’t). What do I say? What if that makes it worse? What would be the best thing she wants to hear from me right now?
And I suffer in indecision until I do nothing at all. So I guess what I’m saying is, maybe we need to worry less about finding the best or perfect thing to say or do, and instead just say something. Do something. Anything. I know, certainly in the church I’m a part of, there’s kind of a culture out there about prayers and being the perfect answer to someone’s prayer. About miracles: being the one to drop off the homemade jam that your sick neighbor, unbeknownst to you, was longing for that very morning. We hear stories like that a lot. I know that miracles like that happen. And they’re wonderful. But maybe more often than not, service isn’t quite as picturesque. Maybe you don’t provide the one thing that she prayed for that morning. Maybe you drop off peanut butter cookies and her favorite is actually chocolate chip. Maybe it’s a little awkward when you talk. Maybe you feel like you didn’t help a ton. But it’s okay. Maybe you don’t need to help a ton. Maybe you just need to help a little. And, believe me, on a bad day, the littlest help can make a big difference.
For me personally, any time I brought up postpartum depression with someone, it was because I was willing (or even really longed) to talk about it, to open up. So when I did and people didn’t know what to say and the conversation died or they changed the subject—that was kinda hard.
So when someone says, “It’s been kinda rough,” you could say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And leave it at that. Or you could say (very sincerely and non-judgmentally) “How? What’s been so hard? What can I do to help?” Maybe just that is all you need to do to help. Or, hey, there’s always food. Sometimes just having that sign that someone is aware of what you’re going through and recognizes that it’s hard for you is what you need. I know I have a long way to go on all of this, and I want to be better.
The other thing I want to say is this: If you were like me and assumed something like postpartum depression meant a mom wasn’t happy to have a baby, or that she didn’t value motherhood, or that she didn’t prepare enough, or that she longed for her pre-motherhood life, please don’t. Now that I know what PPD is really like, I feel so bad that I used to think those things.
So I guess that’s the last thing I would say. We never really know what’s going on in other people’s lives. And that applies to all trials and difficulties, not just mental illness. So let’s judge less. We really just never know. For me, one of the good things that’s come from this experience is a huge and humbling lesson in learning that there is good in everyone and everything, that there’s no one right way to be a mom, and that comparing myself to others (in either a self-defacing or self-elevating way) is never ever a good thing.
What I would say to someone going through postpartum depression
I know nothing I say will probably help much. Maybe you’re even reading this right now and thinking of all the ways it doesn’t help. I remember feeling exactly like that. But my heart goes out to you so, so much. If you were here I’d give you a big hug, even if you’re a stranger and even though I’m not much of a hugger. I just know how crazy awful staggeringly horrible depression is. I wish there were something I could say. But I don’t think there really is one solution. Just like, if you went through a car accident and broke both your legs, there’s not one magical serum that will make them unbroken. Instead, there are lots of things you can do: modern healthcare, exercise, physical therapy. Things to facilitate the natural healing process.
Just like there are things you can do for depression: exercise, talking to people, rest, getting help around the house, therapy, time for yourself, medication, workbooks, on and on. But you don’t have to do “the one” thing (or especially all the things) in your treatment plan to get suddenly “normal again.” For me personally, the workbooks my therapist gave me didn’t do much, though I heard how helpful they were to others. And I went through like four different medications before something even vaguely helped. And I wasn’t ever awesome at eating healthy or keeping a daily log of my feelings, like I was told to. But exercise, therapy, rediscovering my hobbies, and even distracting myself with a good TV series all helped. No one ingredient just “clicked” to fix it all. Lots of things just helped a little, slowly but steadily.
And finally, to my friends and family, if you ever want to talk or hear more or open up, I’m here. Seriously. Call me, even out of the blue. (Or email or message or text—I remember how overwhelming making a phone call felt.) I know how helpful it was, having someone to talk to or just to listen, especially someone who got it. And if I could in some way help or make you feel even a little better, I would feel like what I went through would be worth it.