A couple of years ago, I had a friend approach me about contributing to a book she was writing. The purpose of her book was to bring increased understanding and awareness to the topic of mental illness. As she began to write it, she felt impressed to include other women she knew who suffered various degrees of mental illness. Having been open with her about my battle with mental illness, she invited me to contribute to her book. Unfortunately, that book has not been picked up yet. However, feeling passionate about the purpose of her book, and the cause as a whole, I have decided to share my portion of the manuscript here. My part was designed to comprise an entire chapter, which seems a bit much to process in one blog post. As a result, I am breaking my part of the manuscript into a five-part series. The first four posts will make up the chapter as it was written nearly two years ago. The fifth, and final, post will comprise my added insight that I have received since that time. Being that I have been diagnosed with having Bipolar II disorder, this series will wrap up on March 30th, which has been set aside as World Bipolar Day. I recently learned that this day was chosen because it is Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday, and it was believed that he probably had a bipolar disorder. Being that my mental illness was not first diagnosed as Bipolar II disorder, I felt it better to refer to this series as Mental Illness Awareness. I am all too familiar with a broad spectrum of mental illness symptoms. So, without further ado, I share with you my Mental Illness Awareness Series (Part 1 of 5)…
My husband will tell you that my battle with depression began the moment that I learned my mom had Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. While this news shattered my childish belief that my family was somehow exempt from tragedy, I consider that a time when devastating circumstances merely had a negative impact on my customarily cheerful outlook. I believe my true battle with depression began the first few days following the birth of my eldest child, Abigail. That’s when I began to notice the crippling effects of depression in my daily life.
Abigail arrived six weeks and one day early. We were, of course, completely caught off guard. Her early arrival came unexpected with no reason or cause. Every mother has a dynamic birth story; mine was comprised of confusion, excitement, fear, and anticipation. In less than 24 hours, I had gone from questioning the authenticity of each contraction to delivering my baby girl after four pushes and several failed attempts to slow down her premature birth. The moment I first heard Abigail cry out, I felt like I could take on the world. Giving birth was the most natural high I had ever experienced. It was everything after that point that didn’t live up to my dreams and expectations of childbearing. In my mind, she was supposed to be cleaned, wrapped, and laid sweetly in my arms. Instead she was poked, prodded, and then briefly held next to me for one quick picture and a peck on the cheek before being whisked away to the NICU.
It was three days before I even had the chance to hold my sweet baby girl. Even then, she was so fully wrapped in cords, intubation tubing, and padding that it hardly felt like we were connected. Of course, she still melted my heart in a million ways. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. In the moment, everything felt so surreal that it wasn’t until later that I realized how gypped and jaded I felt over the whole affair. I grew up with this idea of childbirth being a painful process that melted away the moment you held your baby. But I didn’t get to hold my baby the moment she was born. Instead, following her delivery, I sat alone in a hospital room waiting for my epidural to wear off so I could be cleared to see my daughter in the NICU. I thought, “This is not how it was supposed to go.”
Around the two-week mark, Abigail finally joined us at home. That was when I started to notice that I didn’t feel like myself anymore. Motherhood will certainly change you, but this felt different. I felt isolated and numb. The feelings of joy and zest that were once commonplace in my life were few and far between. Everything began to wear on me. I started to shut down. It got to the point that my brain couldn’t even process what it should be doing, let alone trying to complete such a task. I saved any ounce of energy I had for the needs of Abigail’s survival alone. To make matters worse, she was both colicky and dealing with acid reflux. I spent the larger portion of my day feeling defeated. I became jealous of my husband who got to leave for work. Then, upon his return home, I would be resentful of the smiles he would instantly receive from our baby girl. Again, I thought, “This is not how it was supposed to be.”
Before Abigail had even turned one month old, my husband saw the situation for what it was and knew I needed help. I was losing ground fast. At the time, he worked close to home and was able to come home for lunch. He left in the morning and gave me ONE chore to complete before his return for lunch. Just one.
We had a baby bottle warmer – one of those things that first-time moms think they can’t live without. The water inside needed to be changed. My one chore was to dump the water out and fill the cup back up. I didn’t have to clean it. I didn’t have to do any special treatment to it. I had to dump the water out and fill it back up. Guess what? I DID IT! I felt a brief moment of excitement having actually completed a task. My husband was so proud of me. He sincerely congratulated me and I enjoyed the satisfaction that came from that moment. This is what my life had come to. Prior to Abigail’s birth, I was successfully working full-time as an assistant to the CIO of a mortgage lending company and now dumping out water had become a great accomplishment.
As I sat in my 6-week follow-up appointment, my doctor asked me how I was feeling emotionally. I was so ignorant to the idea of postpartum depression (PPD) that I hadn’t even considered it at that point. Upon hearing his words, I began to cry. This whole time, I had figured it was just “baby blues” – those short-lived feelings of emotional instability that most moms feel after childbirth as their hormones adjust to non-pregnancy. My understanding was that PPD was designated for those who were so miserable they wanted to harm their babies. That was not me. I loved and adored my baby girl, even though our connection felt strained. Though, admittedly, I almost walked out on her one time just to stop from hearing the endless colicky crying. It was my emotional state that was the issue. It was my lack of desire to do anything. It was my realization that I was not finding joy in any of my usual activities nor was I accomplishing the basic daily tasks. I used to be so upbeat and cheerful that my brother would joke, “Have a bad day, Sara. It builds character.” Based on his belief, I gained more character in the first few months of my daughter’s life than the twenty-five years prior combined. I had postpartum depression.
Check back here next Wednesday for Mental Illness Awareness Series (Part 2 of 5)