Depression and Dance Parties: The story of postpartum depression and the journey back to health & happiness
“But you have so much. What could possibly be making you sad?”
I hear this question all of the time, in different versions, from people in all areas of life; family members; colleagues; readers; strangers on the street.
And the hardest part about the answer—about knowing the answer—is that the person asking is right. I do have so much. And I am sad.
If you have never experienced depression (which, as of three and a half years ago, I had not) it is very hard to understand. Even in the thick of things it can be confusing. Even in the midst of my trek towards recovery, I lose my way.
That is because depression is sneaky. It is not logical. It is devious and it is debilitating.
One of the hardest parts of depression, for me, is the feeling of abject loneliness. I can be surrounded by people, with friends, at a holiday dinner, not alone in any way, but still terribly lonely.
And when it does not feel lonely it can feel bleak. It feels like drowning.
But allow me to back up.
I am a 31-year-old married mother of two. I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I have a lovely home, an amazing family, a deep network of close friends, a sweet Yorkshire Terrier and a closet filled with sparkly shoes.
I also have diagnoses: Depression. Anxiety. PTSD.
And then I have something that looks like an eating disorder, as I am underweight and go to a dietician weekly, but is not a traditional eating disorder. My mood makes it hard for me to eat and so I am now what is called “clinically malnourished”. I want to gain weight, but, because of my mental struggles, I am having a hard time in doing so.
I became a mother on April 18, 2010, when my sweet daughter was born. She is my dream come true, and being her mother has been a magical gift. When she was two months old I started writing a blog as an online baby book, of sorts. I wanted to share that being a mother is enchanting, yes, but also hard; lonely; scary; overwhelming. But, with my daughter, I could handle things. Being with her made the sweet things in life taste even sweeter. She heightened my joy to peaks that I did not know existed.
In 2013 I became pregnant with my son, and, from the very beginning, I struggled. I had terrible prenatal anxiety, constantly worried that something would go wrong with my pregnancy or unborn child. The anxiety morphed into numbness which then morphed into sadness. At 33 weeks pregnant I had to see a neurologist after having had a scary, complex migraine. It is still hard to type these words, as they bring me tremendous feelings of guilt and shame, but I cried to the doctor. “I do not want to have this baby,” I said.
“I am not worried about anything neurological with you,” he explained, as he looked at me with kind eyes. “However, I am worried that you are going to have this baby and develop a walloping case of postpartum depression.”
And he was right.
My son was born on October 24, 2013, 4 days before his scheduled c-section. I sang to him in the operating room. I loved him instantly and intensely. Yet, I failed the postpartum screening test that the hospital gives to all new mothers. And still they sent me home. I believe that postpartum depression is a particularly insidious form of the disease, as it is extreme devastation, packaged along with an incredibly cute baby, whom you’re supposed to love and adore and feel lucky to have. And do you know what is worse than feeling deep depression? Feeling deep depression when the world tells you that you are supposed to be happier than ever. I did feel all of the good things, but I also felt so much bad.
I remember the text message from my husband from the first week in November, about 10 days after our son was born. It said, “I want to make sure you’re OK. I see the light starting to go out in your eyes.”
And I sobbed. Because I was so loved. And because he was right. And I was trying to fight the demons. But he was right.
My Fall and Winter of 2013/2014 got very dark. Before this time I had been a happy, lively, vibrant person. I was always smiling, loved children and music and had dance parties every day. But by the beginning of November, I started to experience classic symptoms of postpartum depression, which are actually very similar to those of classic depression. Now, I must say this: I am incredibly grateful that none of my depressed feelings ever had to do with my children; I was never overwhelmed by having two kids, I was never resentful towards them, and I certainly never wanted to do anything but love them. I did not wish to hurt them in any way, which, as crazy as it may sound, happens to some mothers and for those mothers I feel nothing but intense sympathy. Some other very crazy things did happen to me, so that is why I feel the need to be so clear and forthcoming.
I decided that in order to be the best mother that I could be, I would begin to seek therapy for my symptoms. They were classic: I was tired, grumpy, sad and weepy, could no longer find joy in the things that once made me happy…and then there were worse things. I thought about my life a lot and why it was worth living. I knew that it was, but it was hard to feel it.
So I found a wonderful therapist, someone who did not judge me, but took me seriously, and was willing to work with me and my family in order to get me out of my funk. I was put on medicine for depression and anxiety. I tried to manage.
But as my symptoms worsened, I started to face some resistance. I was becoming unrecognizable. My bad moments were getting more frequent than my good ones, and stronger medicines were encouraged, but when I rejected them I kept on going down a spiral of deep, deep devastation.
I was withdrawing from my friends. I was quiet in my online presence. I was not writing. I was slipping away.
And then things got worse. A lot worse.
The feelings that I had been having about my life and it’s meaning started to take over me like a demonic plague. I could not think rationally. I could not feel happiness or love. All that I could feel was pain. And I wanted the pain to stop. So, in order to keep me safe, my family members had to stay with me at all times, taking shifts. I was never left alone. The therapist reached out to my husband. She told him I needed to be hospitalized.
Over the next couple of years I was in both inpatient and intensive outpatient programs, all centered around different areas of mental health. I saw Psychologists, Psychiatrists, a Psychopharmacologist, a family therapist, a couple’s counselor, a dietician and more social workers than I can count. I went on and off medications. My weight, which had dropped almost instantly after giving birth, stabilized, but at a level that was much too low.
My depression has had a huge impact on my marriage. In many ways, it has changed us for the better, but it has rocked us, knocked at us, and, at times, divided us. Because it is not often addressed, I want to be completely honest in saying that marriage is one of the silent casualties of postpartum depression and, I would venture to say, all major mental health issues.
In the first year after our son was born, my husband had to be two parents, as I was dysfunctional and unable to help; he had to sleep in the hospital for days with our sick 8-week-old son, who was on oxygen treatments when he contracted RSV from his pre-school-aged big sister; he had to take me to doctors and therapists; he had to watch me hurt myself, something that I have not previously shared but have written about in the book that I am writing (which I will get to), so I figure that I better get used to opening up about it; he had to cope with my being hospitalized. He became more of a caretaker than a romantic partner. He tried to hold me tightly as I faded away.
And then something happened that changed things for me. I decided to open up about what was going on. I wrote a post on my blog entitled “The Hardest Post I’ve Ever Written”and I shared that I was struggling. My little blog exploded and started gaining readership in all 50 states and, now, in about 150 countries across the world. In writing—in opening up in the most vulnerable of ways to friends and strangers alike—I was healing myself but also helping others. I was determined to try to erase the stigma of mental health issues. Yes, I was a sufferer, but I was also still a lover, a mother, a singer, a writer, a teacher and yes, a dance-partier.
I started a private online support group for women so that they could share, honestly, about their own lives, connecting with others to whom they could relate. I became an advocate, for myself and for others.
I started to focus my attention on supporting others, and strengthening myself in the process.
I believe in intervention. I believe in therapy. I believe in medicine, when it is needed. I believe in alternative forms of healing. I believe in support systems.
I believe in holding your best friend’s hand and saying, “I am not going to let you go anywhere. Don’t let me go anywhere, either.”
We often talk about the fragility of life and the importance of gratitude and how much beauty is around us in the world. In some ways, I perpetuate that message, as it can be helpful to focus on the good instead of dwelling on the bad. But, like so many other aspects of mental illness, it is a double-edged sword of sorts; being reminded of life’s gifts–-people and things and nature–-can be helpful, but can also be devastating, as it is so easy to feel guilty for not being able to appreciate these things.
I am still on my journey towards recovery. I am stronger in so many ways and still working to grow in others. I go to many therapeutic appointments every week and I challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone in an effort to heal. I am writing my book, which will be released next year. I am taking on these small battles in order to ultimately win this great war.
Fortunately, I have an incredible support system of family members, friends and a treatment team, and they have held me up, even when I was (or am) close to falling. I still have a long road ahead. I have trauma to unpack, memories to face, weight to gain. I have strength to find and then exhibit. And, at the same time, I have two little children to raise. I have to take care of myself in order to model that behavior for them. I am the primary person guiding them through this thing we call living and I want to show them how to do it right; to have empathy; to ask for help; to dig deep, even in the hardest of times.
“But you have so much. What could possibly be making you sad?”
I will continue to hear this question, and I will continue to try to answer in the best way that I can. I will explain how grateful I am for all of my blessings. I will explain that suffering is not always logical. I will be honest. I will raise awareness. I will fight, with all of my might, for myself and for others. I will survive.
And, no matter what, I will keep having dance parties. Because sadness is a part of life, but so is strength. I am lucky enough to have both.
As I mentioned above, I encourage community and caring. If you need a friend, are looking for support or just want to share your story, please visit me atwww.mommyeverafter.com or email me at Rebecca@mommyeverafter.com. You are not alone. I’ve got your back. I promise.