Guest Column: Let the sunshine in: Recovering from postpartum depression

RBC | Imagine you’re at the gym and the guy next to you drops a 50 pound dumbbell on his foot You start to go for help when he grabs your arm and shrieks, “IT’S ALL RIGHT! I’M FINE! IT’S JUST A CHARACTER FLAW! MY FOOT IS JUST WEAK!” before trying to stand up and continue his workout as his foot balloons to twice its size.
You’d think he was nuts, right?
This is all too often how we view mental illness.
Maybe it’s because you can’t see any bruising and swelling. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t cause excruciating physical pain. We can still walk! We can still talk! At first, we can probably even still function okay. We limp along on a badly broken brain, ignoring the problem until it gets so bad it starts to ruin our daily lives.
I was the dumb guy at the gym.
Ten years ago, in my mind “depression” was synonymous with “laziness.” Depressed people just didn’t want to deal with their lives. I mean, come on. Turn off the infomercials, put on some pants and comb your hair. Voila! You’re cured!
In other words, I was a jerk. I had no compassion, no grace and no understanding.
So the universe, in all it’s karmic cosmic glory, decided to teach me all about mental illness. And because I’m a hard-headed Irish lassie, I didn’t figure it out until it was almost too late.
After my first son was born, I started having hard core panic attacks. I’ve had them, off and on, my whole life, but these were debilitating, curl-up-in-a-ball, I am dying, I-AM-DEAD-type experiences. They were exhausting, and they made it surprisingly hard to function.
When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, the problem escalated. It was like all the terror and fear latched onto the experience of pregnancy, and I became completely convinced I was going to lose the baby. The pregnancy progressed normally, so the fear shifted. I was going to lose her during delivery. I was going to lose her when she was two weeks old. I was going to lose her in a car accident when she was 16.
Officially, certifiably crazy.
I waited every day for a year for the other shoe to drop, and it wrecked me. I couldn’t bond with my baby. I stopped doing things I loved. I couldn’t muster energy to complete even the most basic tasks. I retreated into a shell of my former self as the nonstop thoughts droned on and on and on.
And then one day, I realized I could end it all. My brain latched onto the idea like a life preserver (the irony!), and everything became a potential way out.
On the surface, life was peachy. Nobody knew I was contemplating suicide, not even my family. That’s the most dangerous thing about mental illness, I think. You can’t fake fine when you smash your foot, but it’s fairly easy to hide a mess in your head.
I felt better during my third pregnancy, because, as I discovered later, my particular brand of depression is linked to hormone swings. I was over the moon excited to feel normal again. I had faked it, and I had made it!
After Kellan (my third child) was born, the reprieve lasted about six months before the problem came back with a vengeance. No, I hadn’t single-handedly conquered a chemical imbalance in my brain with positivity and stick-to-it-iveness. Imagine that.
Again, I didn’t tell anyone. Again, my thoughts went straight to just shutting it up, once and for all.
And that’s how I found myself at rock bottom, staring out across an impossibly gorgeous mountain lake at sunset, watching my beautiful, healthy family play, knowing my life was amazing and still not wanting any part of it.
My broken brain could no longer be ignored.
So, I told somebody. The guilt and shame were so overwhelming I could barely talk. I couldn’t fix myself, which meant I was screwed up beyond all hope and everyone would just be better off without me, right?
I started a regimen of medication and therapy, figuring out what led to the breaking point and how I could avoid ever ending up there again.
I realize now that I made the mistake many of us do—treating mental illness like a character flaw. It’s not. You wouldn’t recommend a rhinoplasty to someone with cancer or “why don’t you just try putting on some pants” to someone with lupus. You wouldn’t tell Gym Guy to “walk it off.” Mental illness is a legitimate, life-threatening disease, and you have to treat it like one.
The first step? Say something. If your life feels cloudy and your brain is acting up, tell someone about it. Maybe you’re in that dark hopeless place where I was. Please, tell someone.
You know how when it’s been rainy and dreary for a few days and a sunbeam suddenly bursts through the gray, everything seems a thousand times more beautiful than usual? Raindrops turn to crystals on extra-green grass and flowers bloom with almost overwhelming color. You breathe in that wonderful post-rain smell and feel like a slice of heaven fell to earth just for you.
That’s how it feels when you make the choice to fight. Be brave, speak your truth, and let the sunshine in.