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Flashback Friday: Postpartum Depression Isn't Funny (or is it?)

Postpartum depression hit me six months in. Like a chin hair, I never saw it coming and I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.

Twelve years ago, I was on a beach in Martha’s Vineyard in my skinniest body ever. I’m talking third-world-stomach-bug-and-hideous-breakup thin. My baby was six months old and I was rocking a bikini. But I wasn’t happy. An excerpt from my journal:

I threw up again this morning, an ache in my gut like a tumor and a feeling of anxiety so deep I had to remember to breathe. You’d think I was pregnant, but for a variety of reasons this is impossible. I have a constant fear of .... what? Who am I? It’s like the old me is dead. I just read the August issue of “O” magazine cover to cover, and Oprah is telling me to be grateful. I’m down with that, it’s just that I think it’s easier to be grateful when you’re Oprah.

I was in the grip of a voracious depression, one that rattled me awake with dry heaves in the morning, high anxiety in the afternoon and bottomless dread at night. Did I mention the six-month-old who needed me, like, every second? I had made the decision to quit my job after nearly two decades of working full time, and planned to stay at home all day in my rural neighborhood with a baby, while my husband worked and my former colleagues and ex boyfriends went on making fortunes, winning awards and generating stories in the Sunday business section of the New York Times. Super!

It didn’t seem like a mistake at the time I made the decision – it seemed like a dream come true to stay home with the child I had waited so long for and had to make in such a goddamn hurry before my eggs got any staler. Except...I didn’t think it through. I thought I was supposed to want to stay home. I wanted to want it. But after a lifetime of working and pursuing career goals, and making some of the best friends of my life through the world of work, the idea that almost overnight, something (someone) else took priority over everything in my life, wasn’t easy to grasp. Another excerpt:

My husband came home and asked me what I did today. I nearly punched him. A pleasant, innocent conversation starter, not the naked accusation it somehow felt like in my anxious, paranoid state. I glared, thinking, I did four feedings, two naps, a load of laundry and almost finished emptying the dishwasher. I think I had Advil for lunch. Can you please hold the baby so I can poop?

I had assumed leaving conference calls, PowerPoint and business class behind (never, ever take business class for granted) for burp cloths, play dates and ill-fitting yoga pants would be a natural, easy transition. For some women it is. But for me it was a Sartre-esque carnival ride through the twilight zone of existential doom. I was never going to be mother of the year. I felt like I was going crazy.

I loved my baby fiercely, but I remember staring at him in between endless hours of naps, nursing, dishes and laundry thinking, this is my life? That and, Oh my God I’m so tired. And, Why did I wait so fucking long to get pregnant? Also, This is way harder than pretending to be smart on conference calls. And I can’t believe my mother didn’t tell me how hard this was.

Perhaps the low point was attending a job seminar workshop in in a nearby suburb, a state requirement for collecting unemployment. I’d never been on unemployment in twenty years of working, and wasn’t proud of it, but we needed the extra income, at least for the transition period, and fuck, diapers were expensive.

Someday this will be funny, I remember thinking, as I trudged into the cheerless municipal building with assorted unfortunates, and a twenty-something guy dressed perhaps for a southern rave plopped down next to me and boldly announced that no, he hadn’t brought a pen. I thought of the woman in Los Angeles who took my job at the movie studio after I left to “go have a life.” She had my old parking spot, my old salary, and maybe even my old crush on Mark Ruffalo. She had my old life. I had cracked nipples, a dwindling savings account, and plans to make pasta salad.

I had everything to be grateful for. It didn’t matter. Nothing matters when you are suffering from depression. It is like a giant, deep and unforgiving well of darkness, the likes of which you had no idea existed. You are trapped at the bottom, and no one can see you or hear you or reach you. It is the absolute worst thing in the world. It is as real and parasitic as cancer or blisters, and you can not “just snap out of it” no matter how many well-meaning people suggest that is possible.

The shame was the worst part. Postpartum depression is a warp speed merry-go-round of emotions – you feel sad, lost, angry, confused, terrified and anxious, then you feel boundless shame for feeling all those things when you have a beautiful, healthy baby.

If you or someone you know has experienced this, please know that you are not alone. I am no expert on mental health, and I don’t play one on TV, but I do know what helped me: therapy, drugs, time, and keeping busy. And more drugs and therapy. I dated lots of therapists, many of whom simply stared and me and nodded for an hour, then wrote a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. They didn’t make me happy, but they pushed the terror a little farther away.

I also tried yoga, meditation, acupuncture, walking in the woods, spending time with friends, and bad-mouthing people who were well-adjusted. Sometimes these things helped. Sometimes I was aware every second that I was trying to outrun a demon that had moved in to my head.

My sister said, you won’t always feel like this. She was right. Sometimes I felt worse. But eventually, slowly, I felt better. I was lucky.

Please share if you know someone who has suffered from “the baby blues.” It was probably a man who coined that cute phrase.

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