I know by medical standards depression is considered a mental illness, but I never really saw it that way. I never thought of it as an “illness.” I never thought about it being a serious condition capable of incredible damage. And I never thought it would happen to me.
As a university student studying communication, I have spent a fair amount of time in classes related to psychology and human behavior. In the beginning my understanding of depression was that it is a mental illness which renders those suffering to be incredibly sad, which has effects on sleeping, eating, and communication patterns. If we are being perfectly honest however, I mostly just thought of it as an excuse that people made up to be lazy or emotional. This is possibly a product of being around many young adults claiming they have “depression” because they want attention, but I don’t really know why I thought of it that way. For the most part I just thought it was an excuse (excuse for laziness, being emotional, getting attention), and for the people that actually did have depression (were clinically diagnosed and on medication)well- I just categorized them mentally ill, crazy even, because I truly did not understand. I didn’t understand mental illness. I didn’t understand depression. I had no idea that depression is SO much more than just “feeling sad.”
Before reading this, I just want to warn that I am not writing this to share a happy ending or a pretty story about my recovery- because that is not what this is. After two years, I am still fighting depression. Every day. But I know (hope) I am on an upward climb and for the first time in years, I feel like I need to share my story. I want to help others who are struggling to know they aren’t alone, I want to raise awareness about what depression is and how serious it is, I want others to understand what I have been going through, and I hope that sharing will help relieve some of the burden that my story weighs on me. I also want to recognize that everyone has different experiences with depression and what I am sharing precisely is MY story in hopes that it helps someone else out there. I struggle specifically with postpartum depression- so much of my experience is directly related to my struggle after having a baby.
I want to also mention an incredibly strong young woman I know who struggled with depression and decided to write a blog about her journey. Reading that blog has really pushed me into realization about how dangerous depression is and how urgent it is to share our stories to let people know, they are not alone. Reading her story is giving me the courage to overcome my embarrassment and pain to share my own. Please check out her site for her story and additional resources regarding depression and anxiety at http://www.passiton5191.blogspot.com. With that being said, I am just going to give a final warning that this is a long, LONG post (because I want to tell my whole story) so get comfy!
The Light at the Beginning…
In December 2011 married the man of my dreams, my high school sweetheart, partner in crime, BFFL, and Netflix binge-watching-buddy. We had known each other for years and started our marriage adventure off at the Happiest Place on Earth (Disneyland, of course!) What is happier than that, right? I was in newlywed bliss…. until I got the stomach flu 3 ½ months later. At least I thought it was the flu for the first 5 days. At that point I received the shock of a lifetime as I looked down at the little plastic device, barely understanding the word glaring up at me from the digital screen. Pregnant.
Skip forward about 7 months. After a long night of throwing up I had decided to sleep a little later than my normal time one morning. As I was sleeping, I became vaguely aware of some noises. I could here footsteps. Tony typically left for work around 7:30 in the morning, so I thought there was no way it could have been him, as it was close to 10. I peeked my eyes open and saw a shadow move across the hall into the other room. For a second I felt confusion, was Tony home early for some reason? I propped myself up in bed to see if maybe I had imagined the footsteps, but something just felt wrong. Only a moment later, a strange man stepped into the doorway. My first thought was to yank the blankets up and hide (I’m in my underwear here!) but by then his eyes had found me. I don’t think I could have screamed if I tried. I don’t exactly know what came over me, but the only thing I could do was whisper “hello?” as a question, barely even audible. The only thing I could think was that I needed to protect my 7 month bump. It was clear I had surprised him, he hadn’t expected anyone to be home. There are so many ways this scenario could have played out, but God was watching over me because my intruder suddenly remembered manners and said, “excuse me, I’m so sorry,” and went running from the house. I just sat there, in a state of shock. I heard his partner who was upstairs at the time of our interaction go running across the floor upstairs and heard the door slam. I don’t think the word “shock” can even properly demonstrate what I felt at the time, but from then on out, I was afraid to fall asleep. I was so lucky, so blessed that nothing worse happened, but all I could think about was that fear. I couldn’t sleep at night. When I did sleep I had dreams of people breaking in. I think this is really where I started having anxiety. It started small at first, but it was there nonetheless. It wasn’t just me that needed protecting anymore, but also my beautiful, perfect, innocent and helpless child. I just hoped I could make it through each day (as dramatic as that sounds, it is true!)
Fast forward past the shock, nausea, tears, anxiety, emotions, and 9 months of an unplanned pregnancy (thanks a lot birth control) and I found myself sitting in the darkness of 4:00am holding my 8 lb, squishy little bundle with NO idea what I was doing. I was confused. I was a happy (I thought), but what I felt was not the “overwhelming love and bliss” that so many other mothers had said they felt. Don’t get me wrong, I adored and loved my baby, but I didn’t feel the “instant connection” or “smitten happiness” I was supposed to be feeling. I have more information about my unconventional birth story HERE. All I could keep thinking is, what is wrong with me? If I am to be perfectly honest, all I really wanted to do was put my baby girl back inside where I didn’t have to worry about her or worry about if I could take care of her. I had already been through a miserable pregnancy for a baby I had not planned on having for several years at least, and then all I wanted to do was put her back inside. To say I felt alarmed at my feelings was an understatement. I couldn’t be a good mother if I didn’t want my baby. It isn’t even that I didn’t want her, I DID. I really wanted her, but I wanted to have her when I was prepared, when I felt like I knew what I was doing. I wanted to be a good mother and I just knew that no matter what I did, I was never going to be what that perfect, innocent little angel deserved.
I discovered through research later having these feelings is not necessarily uncommon in first time mothers, and there is nothing to truly prepare you for motherhood, you just have to jump right in with both feet. It is also true that many moms spend the first two weeks in their pajamas crying after having a baby. All perfectly normal. I tried not to stress, but then two weeks came and went. A third week passed. Then the fourth. And then I had to return to work at 5 weeks postpartum, truly marking the beginnings of my journey.
The Path is Black and Twisted…
There is a moment during drowning that marks the difference between consciously fighting for life and blacking out. When your head is being held under water unable to reach the surface, your body surges with adrenaline as every muscle you have runs into natural instinct for survival and fights. Frantically, all you can think about is getting oxygen. Your heart pounds with panic, the longer you go, the worse it becomes. This feeling right here, is anxiety. Anxiety feels just like someone is holding your head under water and you are fighting for survival, only there is nothing there putting that pressure on you. Then, after all the thrashing and fighting and panic, there is a very slight, brief second where you run out of time and you realize, with complete hopelessness and failure, that this is it, you didn’t make it, there is no hope, you are going to black out, possibly die. That teensy little second between the thrashing and blacking out where you realize what is going to happen, that right there, THAT is what depression feels like. The utter and complete knowledge that you are hopeless, lost, and incapable of fighting any longer.
Baby blues are a fairly common thing to feel after having a baby, but typically disappear within a month or two of giving birth, as your body has a chance to readjust itself to post pregnancy. At first, I thought that maybe I just had an exceptionally difficult case of the baby blues. But as one month, then two months, then three months slipped by, I started to get nervous.
My behavior starting changing. I have always been strong willed, ambitious, competent and dedicated to everything I try. Suddenly I didn’t have the energy to accomplish anything. I started to feel weak and afraid of EVERYTHING. Tony would leave for work and I would be sitting on the bed crying, holding the baby- then he would come home after a full day, and there I was, still sitting on the bed crying, as if no time had passed at all. I couldn’t even find a reason I was crying, I just couldn’t stop the tears. I was so distraught I was missing doctor. appointments, school, and work.
Every single morning I had to fight to get out of bed, and most the time I couldn’t make it farther than rolling over so I was staring at the wall. If I did make it out, I would make it to the living room couch. No, it wasn’t because I was lazy or tired- I can’t even begin to explain what it felt like, other than I just COULDN’T… it was because the only thing I could manage to do when I woke up was think about how completely incapable I was of handling the day. If It was like I had run a marathon and my energy was already spent by the time I woke up and then being asked to climb Mount Everest. It felt impossible. As a breastfeeding mom, I would hear my baby crying in her crib, I would be completely engorged to the point of pain and leaking, and all I could do was pull the covers over my head and start sobbing. Sometimes in books or movies we see characters with depression…. usually they are unkempt, drunk, and laying around on the couch or the bed unable to get up. These stereotypes exist for a reason, because that is exactly how being depressed feels. Everything seems so difficult and all you want to do is get rid of the pain and struggle that is inescapable.
I lost my appetite and suddenly I became really uninterested in everything. I didn’t want to leave my bedroom, let alone my house. I couldn’t really laugh anymore, I just didn’t find things funny. I felt hopeless. I felt despair. I felt so lonely, all of the time. I had held on to my religious values strongly through my whole life, but suddenly I started feeling confusion. I felt my faith dying, even though I was trying desperately to hold on. I lost my work ethic because I felt like I couldn’t do good at my job anyway due to whatever was causing this (I refused to think it was depression).
One of the largest components of my depression has been feelings of guilt or inadequacy. Every single time she needed to eat, I felt incapable of being able to feed her, even though she was a total champ at breastfeeding. When she woke up in the middle of the night I would be shaking with anxiety through the entire time she was awake. When she would cry I would become so traumatized that I had to leave her in her crib and walk away. I could barely take care of my own child, which just made me loathe myself. I have always had strong self-confidence and loved myself, but feeling so hopeless and completely inept at being a parent made me dislike who I am and everything about myself. All I could think about was how terrible of a parent I was, how I would never be good enough for this perfect little angel, and how she deserved to be with a mom who could take better care of her. I didn’t deserve her. My husband didn’t deserve “that type” of woman to be the mother of his daughter. And I felt even worse because I couldn’t fix it either, I would like to say that I could have just “tried harder” and been happier…but I WAS trying. I have never tried so hard at anything in my life, yet all that came from it basically amounts to me being huddled in a ball that hadn’t showered in days.
Because I was putting so much effort into trying to do everything I could to take care of my baby, and still could barely manage, I was completely ignoring my own needs. I would forget to eat meals, and when I did eat I wasn’t even thinking about what I was eating. I survived on whatever box of crackers were in the cupboard. If I couldn’t just grab it and eat it “as is” it would almost scare me away because it felt so hard to prepare it. I started throwing up. A lot. After every time I ate. Sometimes more. I would feel so upset/distraught/guilty/anxious/whatever that I would literally get my stomach in knots so badly that I would force myself to throw up. I could barely force myself out of bed to get to work for a short 4 hour period, so the thought of trying to exercise gave me anxiety. I had no energy. And I would forget to shower. I just didn’t think about it. I know it sounds disgusting, but I literally couldn’t remember to take a shower for several days. I just couldn’t remember to do it, and when I did it was a struggle for me to actually get there. There were some weeks where I think I made it into the shower once. If at all.
In addition to feeling inadequate and being completely unable to take care of myself, I became exceedingly withdrawn. I would get phone calls and text messages and feel anxiety about having to answer them. My friends would all get together for an evening and I would start to feel panic about having to go out. I felt agoraphobic, afraid to leave my house almost. I love my friends, and for a lot of years I was inseparable from some of them. Suddenly, I couldn’t bear to see them. I remember one night my friend Sarah sent me a message to ask if I was going over to a little get together that had been planned, I had actually gotten dressed and ready (for the first time in 8 months) to go, but I felt so crippled with anxiety about seeing people, even people I knew loved me and that I have shared everything with, that I just sat staring at my phone trying to come up with an excuse not to go.
Once I had made up some lame excuse I felt so guilty that I started having anxiety and got shaky. I started crying. Within 5 minutes I was out of control sobbing and heaving, my heart rate was through the roof, and I felt like there was all of this loud noise and horrible voices pressing at me from all directions. It felt like I was being smothered to death. It was so bad I had to put my hands over my ears to try and block out the noise. I eventually rolled off of the couch and crawled into the corner and put my head between my knees until my breathing slowed down. I know it sounds like an irrational response to this situation, but anxiety attacks kind of happen whenever they want which is what makes them so scary. Anxiety attacks happen as your body produces a physical “panic” response to an irrational situation. I felt so guilty for telling her I couldn’t come out, but how could I have ever explained that to her? “Hi Sarah, sorry I can’t come hang out because I am afraid of being around people and I am totally crazy right now.” It sounded ridiculous and dramatic stating it bluntly to myself even, there was no way anyone would understand. I still have a hard time going out. While I don’t have anxiety attacks the way I used to, I still feel threatened by them every time I walk out my door, if I even have the energy that hasn’t been drained from bouts of depression to make it to the door in the first place.
I started to get these horrible, graphic images coming to mind of terrible things happening to my baby or my husband. I have no idea how much of this was fear and anxiety that started with the break in that happened while I was pregnant or how much of it was actually just my imagination running wild with anxiety. Suddenly I couldn’t walk into my kitchen without the image of my baby cooking in the microwave or oven coming into my head. I couldn’t give her a bath without seeing her drowning in the water. As I tried to fall asleep every night I was plagued by visions of her being ripped limb from limb by terrible people or being slaughtered in a horrific manner in some terrible accident. These thoughts were beyond control. They took up so much of my mind that it disrupted my behavior- I was so busy trying to NOT think about these things that I couldn’t do anything else physically, yet the visions just came. There has been research done that most women with postpartum depression suffer from these obsessive types of thoughts and anxiety more than actual “sadness” and in my case, that was very true. When people ask about my depression, I never say that I felt sad for two years because it wasn’t sadness I felt most of the time. What I struggled with the most was the anxiety with these fears and an utter sense of hopelessness.
When it wasn’t these types of things making my mind race, it was other fears. I knew my behavior had changed and I wasn’t the woman I had been when I got married, that fear alone stemmed so many horrible visions of my wonderful husband leaving me and taking my baby with him because the two of them couldn’t stand to deal with me and my “problems.” While I know he isn’t going to leave me, I felt this irrational sense of not being able to be good enough for my family and that they would feel happier without me. I discovered somewhere in the last few years that J.K. Rowling actually based the dementors in her Harry Potter books on her experience with depression. There is truly no way to describe how atrocious you feel, and the feeling that dementors give the characters in Harry Potter is probably the closest description you can get for accuracy without experiencing it. (Plus I had to throw it in because I love Harry Potter and I think it is amazing that J.K. Rowling took such a negative experience like depression and used it to impact her books.)
I think the most difficult challenge to deal with through my depression have been the overwhelming feelings of guilt. Guilt because I can’t be the mom my child deserves. Guilt because I don’t even feel like I manage to be a good mom. I felt guilt because can’t pull myself together. How long ago was she born and I still have a baby belly and cry every time I have to leave her at daycare? I felt guilty because I have to work instead of being with my family. I felt/still feel guilty because when I am home with her, sometimes I can’t do anything besides sit in the corner and try to breathe evenly to prevent an anxiety attack. I feel guilty because of classes I miss. I feel guilty for things I can’t control. I feel guilty of being a bad wife because I don’t do the things good wives do- don’t get me wrong, I still try every single day to be the best I can be, but I literally do not have the capability of forcing myself out of my slump to go about and be productive. Most days, I just feel guilt about being me, about being alive even. I know feeling guilty is irrational, when I look at it with an objective mind I know that I have no reason to feel guilty, but this overwhelming feeling of guilt just comes like a cloud and surrounds me. The feelings of guilt and being inadequate, especially as a mother, made me start to wonder if it would just be better off for my daughter if she could live her life without me. While I have been fortunate enough that I have been able to stop myself before ever attempting suicide, there were many times when all I could think was that I would rather be dead than keep feeling the way I did, and especially because I felt like my daughter would be better off without me than if I was just this dark, looming presence in her life. I understand now that one of the worst parts of depression is that it forces you to feel so guilty and inadequate and miserable, it often encourages suicidal thoughts just to escape from the feelings.
The Path is still Thorny…
For those of you who have not experienced depression or are not familiar with it, this post probably sounds really dramatic and I am sure I am coming across as “lazy” and “emotional.” I will admit, when people used to say, “I have depression,” I would roll my eyes because I thought they were just giving excuses and blaming having a mental illness for their incapability to do things. I thought depression was just being emotional, so when people would blame stuff on depression I would get annoyed. I had no idea. I didn’t understand that depression is SO much more than just feeling sad. I didn’t think it would literally wipe me of all energy, of my self esteem, of my capability to do anything. I had no idea how debilitating it is. It is so much more than just an emotional roller coaster, physically, I was unable to perform simple tasks. There were times when I would stare at the wall feeling nothing but dread or hopelessness, and I would have no idea time was even passing, only to find out I had spent several hours in that position and missed my classes. Honestly I had no idea what was wrong with me. After 10 months, my husband finally grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me one night. He told me he was tired of coming home and seeing me completely unresponsive to everything the whole night. We would go days without a conversation because I could barely utter more than a few words when I was able to pay attention. He pushed me to go to the doctor to find out what was wrong.
After a visit with the doctor I was officially diagnosed with depression and I was completely mortified. Because of how I knew I had responded to people who said they had depression, I didn’t want to tell anyone. I denied it at first. Once I realized it was my mental health causing me to feel this way, I figured it had to be something much, much worse than depression to cause me to act like this because depression is just “feeling sad.” When I finally realized how extensive and horrible depression is, I came to grips with the reality of the situation, I truly did (and do) have depression. But how could I tell anyone that? If I told anyone, people would think of me the same way I used to think of people with depression. How could I explain my performance at work was poor because I had depression or the reason I couldn’t go out with my friends is because I had depression? I couldn’t because I felt like nobody would understand. In fact, the first person I ended up telling came back with the response, “well maybe you should just try to not be so depressed all the time and start looking at life with a glass-half-full attitude.” It just proved my point- she didn’t understand and no one else would. I didn’t want to be that person. I was embarrassed.
As I got started on medication and through several times of changing medicine and trying to adjust the dose to the correct amount, I slowly started to notice my energy coming back. Once my doctor finally found the medicine and dosage that worked for me, I found myself being able to accomplish at least basic tasks (i.e. taking a shower, going to work, making dinner, taking care of the baby). After more than a year of feeling incapable of doing so, this was a huge step for me. I would still have anxiety every night before going to bed, tossing for at least two hours of worry and panic before being able to fall asleep and then feeling the hopelessness of depression in the morning, but usually after a couple of hours of being awake, I could function on a human level. I continued on the medication for nine months.
I still wake up every single morning and feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair for an hour or two before it eases up. Sometimes longer. I still have multiple days a week where I can’t control my urge to cry because I feel so stuck in the dark. Some days, it is difficult for me to get dressed or put make up on or get ready for work. I still very much battle depression daily. HOWEVER, having had medication to treat my illness for nine months helped tremendously to get me started in an uphill direction. I imagine I still have a long way to go before I end my journey, but there are actually small rays of sunshine in my days that I didn’t have before. Once I was able to start having days where I didn’t feel completely overrun by my depression, I decided to start doing something for myself, which is actually why I started this blog. I wanted to have something to distract me that gave me time to do something I liked doing. You can see my first post marking the first part of my upward climb HERE.
I was so embarrassed to admit I had depression. If I am being perfectly honest, I still feel embarrassed. I don’t want people to think I am using it as an excuse for not being as good as I could be. But I also don’t want to hide it as my secret anymore. I know there are millions of other people out there who have suffered depression and are still suffering that I hope will read this and understand they aren’t alone and it is not something to be ashamed of, it is a legitimate illness that needs to be treated properly and with some time and patience, can be healed. I hope that those of you who are reading this that haven’t experienced depression first hand can understand a little more about what it is like, and don’t just dismiss a person suffering from it as, “just being sad.” Having depression has been the most difficult trial of my life, and I intend to make use of my story to help other people. I would love to hear what other stories people have or if any of you have found things to help you or people you know through the struggle of depression so be sure to email me or leave a comment if you have something, anything to contribute. Together we can bust the blues!