While there is a great deal of stigma about depression, as there is with any mental illness, I have never had much difficulty telling people that I suffer from it. My rationale is that the stigma will fade as more people who come across as "normal" reveal that they are sufferers. Admittedly, I may be doing other depressed people a disservice, since I most likely grossly overestimate how normal I appear. My eccentricities are just part of who I am and not a manifestation of mental illness, but try telling that to the man in the food court to whom I turned and proudly sang, "Tadaaaaaaa!" with a flourish after successfully emptying the contents of my tray into the trash. I thought it was my friend standing next to me, you see, but she had wandered off. Anyway, where was I? Right, depression. I am able to divulge that I suffer from it, but describing it is a completely different matter.
I was first diagnosed over ten years over ago. I suspect that I have actually been experiencing periods of depression since my teens. What is different now is how it has affected more than just my mood. Depression robs me of the ability to concentrate. Whereas I once was über organized, nowadays I rarely leave the house without forgetting something important. I used to read voraciously, but it has been ages since I have found myself truly absorbed in a book. I can't focus on my to-do list sufficiently to get anything to-done. That is a far cry from the girl who kept colour-coded task lists and loved vigorously crossing items out as they were completed. There are papers and photos and flyers strewn about on every flat surface in my home, which is quite a departure for someone who was known for neatly arranging the few items on her desk parallel or perpendicular to each other; the old me wouldn't tolerate any zany 45 degree angles, no way. (Heck, maybe my depression cured an undiagnosed case of OCD.)
Again, where was I? Oh, right, I was talking about depression ruining my ability to focus. Case in point: I began writing this post a couple of weeks ago. You might be thinking, "It's understandable. You're busy looking after your baby," but that's the pathetic part: I'm not. Kai is in someone else's care during the day and I have many hours to myself. I waste those hours. From the moment I say good-bye to Kai in the morning to the time I leave to pick him up, I am at loose ends. Other moms might speculate that I am just exhibiting the typical absent-mindedness of new mothers, but my uncharacteristic flightiness and forgetfulness predates my pregnancy.
What was new about my most recent bout with depression was its intensity and pervasiveness. It was not your garden-variety depression. It was post-partum depression (PPD), and it is by far the most painful experience I have ever endured. Yes, including labour. Between the sleep deprivation and the depression, I was unable to cope. Several months ago I found someone in the area to babysit for four hours every morning to give me a chance to catch up on sleep. When that person, a mom herself, realized that she had to return to her full-time job, she and I decided to pool our funds for childcare. Her one-year-old daughter and Kai now share an attentive, loving nanny, something Scott and I would never have been able to afford on our own. I feel tremendously guilty that I am not spending more of my maternity leave being, well, maternal, but for the sake of my sanity I needed to arrange childcare. Scott works out of town and he is often gone for 11 or 12 hours a day, sometimes longer. That was far too long for me to cope with Kai on my own back when he was prone to lengthy crying jags. Frankly, I was terrified of being left alone with him, not because I thought I would hurt him but because I simply didn't know how to manage. PPD does not infuse one with confidence.
I can handle things better now. I have gained confidence as a mother and I have finally tapped into my maternal instinct. Kai is no longer colicky, he sleeps fairly well at night and he is able to amuse himself for short periods of time. That all being said, I feel as though going through PPD has left me with another dreadful acronym: PTSD. I am realizing as I type this why I am having such a difficult time putting the PPD experience into words: I am afraid that delving into the details rather than speaking in generalities will cause me to relive it. I can't risk that, not when it is still nipping at my heels, not when the cry of a young infant still triggers panic. I will sum it up thusly: It was total hell.
The contrast between the lowest lows and the overwhelming love I was developing for Kai made me feel as though I were being drawn and quartered. I felt trapped. I thought my life was over. I wanted my life to be over. It sounds so silly and melodramatic, but there was nothing silly about it; at times I truly wanted to die to escape the pain.
I had a tremendous amount of help, as I've written about previously, but I still required a long time to begin to recover. I attended a group for PPD sufferers, my doctor increased my dosage of antidepressants, family and friends provided both practical and emotional support. I can't express how thankful I am, as I don't believe I could have survived otherwise.
I also had to do a lot of work myself. Like my other muscles, my brain does not get much exercise, I'm afraid, so I had to put in a great deal of effort to change my perspective. One day I was sitting on the edge of my bed, holding Kai to keep him from fussing, feeling crushed by the weight of overwhelming responsibility. Suddenly it dawned on me that Kai would someday be wriggling out of my grasp rather than wailing for me to pick him up. I realized that I would miss this someday. That was a turning point for me. That was when I began to understand that the saying "This too shall pass" was very true, and that I was missing out on enjoying what might later feel like an all-too-brief period in Kai's life. I began to remind myself of this whenever I felt the pull of the downward spiral again.
Remaining positive has not been an easy task, and I have faltered on many occasions. I know that fresh air and exercise would lift my spirits. As someone whose nature tends toward the hermitical, however, going to pick up Kai is usually the only time I venture outside. One route home from the sitter's house includes a walk through the local cemetery. During the winter this was often the only road that was cleared of snow, and since my neighbourhood is hilly it was the safest path on which to take Kai in his stroller. As beautiful and serene as the cemetery is, I struggled to avoid being further depressed by the headstones. The epitaphs of married couples depressed me, as did my contemplation of the presumably lonely years between one spouse and the other dying. Freshly dug graves depressed me. So did gravestones that had sunk into the ground so that only a corner was visible. Perhaps worst of all was the small section of the cemetery just by the entrance closest to my house: the children's section. Of course I had always found it sad, but now that I was a mom the sight of those tiny plots was almost unbearably heartbreaking.
Finally, as spring approached, I found a reason to look up. The cemetery is home to dozens of species of trees. Gazing at the newly budding branches was far more uplifting than reading headstones and staring at newly turned earth. Outside the cemetery it was the same: looking up lifted my spirits, while looking down discouraged me. With the winter snow gone the ground was littered with old dog crap and trash, but if I looked up I would see clouds and birds instead.
Now I regularly remind myself to look up, not down, even though I'm prone to tripping if I don't watch my step. I hope to encourage others to do the same thing. You can't pull yourself out of depression with positive thinking alone, but you can't recover from it at all without thinking positively. You also can't recover all on your own. Depression is an illness, not a state of mind. Asking for help or sharing your story should not involve a sense of shame.