Thursday, September 26, 2013

Postpartum Depression Series - A Look Back at the Beginning

(not the most creative post title, but it's getting late! :) )

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll write about my turbulent journey into motherhood and experience with postpartum depression.  It’s my hope that by being honest about my own situation, I can help other mothers get help when they might not have otherwise.

Most of the time, I felt hollow.  A bone without marrow, brittle and empty, ready to splinter under my own weight.  I desperately wanted time to myself, fantasized about it like water in a desert, but when I finally got it, it felt wrong.  A mirage of an oasis on a distant hill -- I reached it only to have a mouth full of sand.  I felt a tether attached to my heart; the organ was ripped from my chest every time I closed the door between me and my baby.  I would think “Finally, a moment of peace,” only to realize that I was even more stressed than before.  My mind raced, “What if she needs me?  What if my milk is drying up even more because I’m away from her?  What if she wakes up in ten minutes and I’m actually sacrificing time I could have been sleeping?”

When I did get time to myself, rather than relaxing, I obsessively completed “chores” that I held to be all-important.  I spent hours folding cloth diapers just so, even though there were going to be opened up and shat on again within 12 hours.  I organized the bottles and nipples and other crappy bottle-feeding accouterment with autistic precision onto the drying rack.  (bottles on the left over the sink, nipples in a row each in line with a bottle, nipple rings after that, then the blue “airflow” attachment standing up next, followed by the beige nozzle that fitted into the blue part on the far right)

It wasn’t normal.  I wasn’t myself.

I didn’t recognize it though, not for a long time.  It was hidden behind lack of sleep, behind feeding problems, behind lingering exhaustion from the birth, and behind the grey and cold winter weather.  And, I mean, is any new mum herself ever again?  Having a child changes your world forever, whether you end up with depression or not.  It is the biggest change one can have in life, I’d say, bigger than marriage or career or home-ownership, or a move across the country or around the world.  Those things don’t change who you are.  But having a child does.  You become “Mom.”  It’s the first time you live for someone else before yourself.  Sure, when I got married, I started to consider my husband’s life in my decisions, but we could discuss things.  He wasn’t wholly dependent on me, helpless without me.

It was terrifying.  

Of course, there were other emotions: wonder at my beautiful daughter’s already expansive repertoire of facial expressions, heart-wrenching bliss every time she fell (forehead-thudding) asleep against my chest in her carrier, excitement when she reached every new tiny milestone (“She has eyelashes now!  She has a voice!  She’s unclenching her hands now!”)  But, there was also terror, and a deep, deep sadness that it took me a long time to see behind all the other happy-new-mom feelings.  I always thought that postpartum depression would be a sort of catatonic-state turn-your-back-on-motherhood kind of thing.  I didn’t realize it could be both things.  It almost made it worse, like “If I’m so happy to be a mom, how can this sadness even be real?

I was afraid not just that something would happen to Ebba, but also about what would happen to me.  Would I ever be human again?  Was I absolutely horrible for even having that worry?  Was it unmomly to miss myself?  Because, I did.  I missed myself terribly.  I missed the way I would spontaneously break into dance in the livingroom, the way I accelerated uncontrollably if there were no cars in front of me, the way I snuggled into David in the night.  I missed my irresponsibility, I missed my youth, I missed my freaking hair; why the fuck did it keep falling out!?

I’m not sure what the worst part was, if it was the confusion over my situation, or the thought that I was all alone, that no one could possibly identify with me (though I had plenty of friends who said they did!  I just assumed they had no friggin’ idea), or if it was the fact that I looked ahead and for the first time in my life I saw no light at the end of the tunnel.  

Actually, I think the worst part was thinking that I had failed.  I had an image of how I would be as a mum, and the word depressed was nowhere in that image.  I thought of (and still do, sometimes) all the moments I had probably missed, all the activities I didn’t do: more baby yoga, mom meetups, babytime, babywearing groups, Mothers Unfolding, La Leche League.  The thought that these early moments as a new mum will never be offered to me again devastated me.  Even if I have another child, I will never be that fresh-out-of-the-shell new mummy, laughing and crying and commiserating with the other new mummies.  (the fact that I actually did do a lot of these things was beside the point! hehe)

Though I have had friends who went through depression before, it was still difficult for me to admit that that is what was happening in my own life.  I never really consciously thought, “I’m better than that,” before, but suddenly that’s what was running through my head.  “It’s not depression, because I’m better than that.”  It took one morning when all I did was cry to make me realize that I needed help.  I finally, after four months of this, reached out to a friend and started making the calls I needed to make.  I told my doctor, in a breaking voice (followed by a hurricane of tears), that I was “not dealing so well with the whole feeding thing,” and she jumped into action and got me connected with all the referrals I could possibly need.  I found myself on the (incredibly long) waiting list for Reproductive Mental Health at BC Women’s hospital, and I googled support groups to try and get help sooner.  Quickly, I found Hollie Hall at Pacific Postpartum Support and I attended my first support group two weeks later.

Once I acknowledged my problem and admitted it to people, there was an avalanche of support.  It’s out there, if you ask.  And, though at the time I didn’t think it would, it has helped immensely.  My only big regret is not getting this help sooner.  I enjoy life as a mom so, so much more now, and I wish I could have pushed that enjoyment earlier in Ebba’s first year, to when she was 2 or even 1 month, instead of 4 or 5.

My baby is going on 9 months now, and this milestone marks, in some way, my return to reality.  I’m starting to go back to work, and, more importantly, I have ended most of my postpartum depression supports.  On September 17, I attended my last support group, and on September 20, I met with the psychiatrist one last time.

As those who saw me the weekend after that know, I am not “fixed.”  A few days of bad sleep and a few too many hours of the Facebook comparison game rendered me a blubbering idiot once more.  But at least I am a blubbering idiot with strategies now, which (though it might not look like it while I’m crying into my tea at a cafe) makes a big difference.  Because, really, this is nothing compared to how I was in the beginning.

I won’t go into the story behind those early days, or even my theories on why I descended into depression.  It might have been the feeding stress, but many women have postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety (my diagnosis) without any such catalyst.  Maybe it would have happened to me anyway.  The causes don’t matter so much.  What matters is realizing that so many women struggle with new motherhood, whether it be a tiny hiccup or a huge hurdle, but it is possible to get better.  All you have to do is ask for help (again, whether it just be leaning on a friend over coffee, or talk therapy, or groups, or even medication.)

I am dedicating this post to expecting and new mums everywhere, whether you hit bottom as hard as I did, or just are struggling a bit with the hormonally low baby blues.  It’s dedicated to the moms like me who thought, “that happens to other women, ones who don’t plan properly.”  (Oh how wrong I was.)  It’s dedicated to the expectant moms who are already worried that it might happen to them.  It’s dedicated to the moms who wake up crying most mornings and don’t know why -- because they love their new baby so much, how could they be depressed?  To the mums who think it’s a passing phase.  And, you know, it’s even dedicated to the mamas who are totally blissed out, it’s dedicated to the bad days that even you have sometimes.  No one is perfect, and no one should try to be.

But this is also dedicated to me, to my experience and to the strength that I have tried to muster over these past few months.  And it’s dedicated to Ebba, for being so supremely awesome and helping me to overcome this without even trying.

I’ll write more soon with more specific information about my (continual) recovery process, so stay tuned and feel free to forward this to any new mums you know out there.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Cleaning Out the Activity Closet

Well, here we are with another blog post in just under one month (tomorrow it would be exactly 1 month from my last post...)  Getting slightly better at least!

Anyway, for those who are looking for the Ebba and Mummy updates, Ebba is now just over 8 months old!  Wow!  Time has flown by like a jet fighter, and yet somehow has also flowed as slow and sweet as honey.  Her birth feels like yesterday, and yet it's beginning to feel like she has always been here.

She's babbling now, and almost crawling!  (Time to get those outlet covers!!)  She's had her first long trip, to the Oregon Coast, and dipped her feet in the Pacific for the first time.  She's such a water baby, David had to restrain her from diving right in.  In two days, she'll take her first flight and visit the city where I grew up (well, one of them anyway).

Things are finally coming into a bit of order.  She naps somewhat regularly -- though yesterday she decided to skip her evening nap, which was not as terrible as I thought it would be -- and I have a lot less anxiety about her eating and sleeping and just living in general these days, which is fantastic.  (I'm planning to devote some blog posts to those darker days, though, as I feel like not many people share those stories.  But that's for another time and another post.)  Now, though, I'm just focusing on digging out of my clutter, both physical and mental.

According to Gretchin Rubin, a great way to restore happiness is to declutter the physical space.  So I've begun to clean out my closets and drawers and storage and cupboards.  Another Gretchin-Rubinism is to do a little bit each day, rather than waiting for a huge chunk of time to tackle a big project.  And, I hate to say it (mostly because I am not a huge Gretchin Rubin fan), but taking a few moments each day to whittle away at a large task is really working for me so far.

Let me take a moment now and answer the question I know you're asking: Who the hell is Gretchin Rubin?  She is the privileged, Upper East Side author of The Happiness Project, a book I picked up at Powell's books on our way home from the Oregon Coast.  (I've linked Powell's books because it's my idea of heaven.  If you can click only one of the links in the previous sentence, click that one.  The Happiness Project is lame.  More on that in another post.)

Despite my annoyance with The Happiness Project, reading it has, as you can see, motivated me to de-clutter and reevaluate my own happiness.  As I mentioned above, I've been working on getting more organization in my physical life.  In addition, I've been looking at what in my life makes me happy and what makes me less-than-happy.  

Figuring out which activities in life make me happy has been more similar to deciding whether to toss or keep that old Guns-and-Roses T-shirt than I thought it would.  Unconsciously, I think we all believe at some point or another that our clothes define who we are.  When we want to feel smart, we buy smart clothes.  When we want to feel cool, we buy cool clothes.  But, eventually, we realize that no matter what the shell, we're still just ourselves underneath.  Similarly, people say we are what we do.  Or that actions define a person.  To some extent, I still hold this to be true, but I also see that sometimes we pick certain activities just like we pick clothing.  In the same way I might see a girl looking free and awesome and happy in a neon pink mini-dress and then go buy the same dress for myself only to find it constricting and uncomfortable, I could also see someone having a blast...windsurfing, for example, and convince myself that windsurfing is for me, when it clearly isn't.

I realized I could decide which activities in my life to keep or toss based on which I liked best and used most often.  Lately, in addition to feeling buried under a bunch of outfits I never wear, I've also been feeling pressured to "do all my hobbies!"  Now that Ebba is here, I probably say "I don't have enough time for anything anymore!" about 20 times a week.  But part of the problem with that is that I have activities on my 'want to do' list that I don't even want to do!  This might sound stupidly simple, but it was a revelation to me.  I blame Facebook in part for this issue ("Oh look, so'n'so has taken up spear-fishing!  We've got to try that!"), but I think I had the problem way before Facebook.  It's so easy to see someone else enjoying themselves and think, "hey, that could be me."  I guess that's what the whole ad industry discovered ages ago.  I'm a little slower on the uptake. :)

Some activities I was convinced I wanted to try (or keep doing or do more regularly) include backpacking around the world, taking up lap-swimming, sailing, going on a cruise, owning a house, gardening, baking, scrapbooking, and sewing.  Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't refuse most of these things if given the chance.  For example, I do love sailing (when I don't have to do the work! :) ). But I was honestly feeling pressure to incorporate most of these things more into my life.  Every time I thought about my awesome sewing machine sitting in our storage locker I felt sad.  I felt overwhelmed with regret for not having lived out of a backpack for a whole year when I had the chance (ie: pre-Ebba).  I feel bad that I don't bake breakfast muffins or dessert cookies or home-made bread at least once a week.  

Why was I clinging to these "should-do" activities?  I don't know -- maybe they were like that lacy top I bought one year when I thought I should wear more Parisian chic; I wanted to change Me.  I had a fantastic visit from a very old friend a few weeks back.  She's a sort of free, bohemian hippie type who goes where her dreams take her and the universe always appears to have a path for her at just the right time.  (She also has a composting toilet.  Rad.)  Sometimes I'm envious of her.  However, over a fantastic dinner and a few beers (at Six Acres, one of my favourite restaurants) it came out that she was sometimes envious of people like me, all settled-down and kidded-up.  And we realized, seemingly simultaneously, that "we can't do everything."  She loved her life and I loved mine, but that didn't stop us from looking at the other and wondering, "what if?"  What if that were me?  What if I were the free, bohemian spirit?  Or what if I were that woman in the souped up BMW that drove by?  Or what if I were that artist on the street?  What if I were that shop owner?  What if I were that movie-star?  What if I lived there?  What if I did that?

It's impossible (and probably unhealthy) to not ask myself these questions sometimes.  But to add things to my to-do list just because I felt I had to try and be all the "Me's" I could imagine was just not serving me.  The days are short with a baby!

I went through this same kind of existentialist dilemma over a decade ago in high school, or maybe it was even middle school (okay, almost TWO decades ago.  Sheesh!).  I was frequently feeling paralyzed by decision making (you know, the paralyzing grade-school decisions of where to sit at lunch and which boy to dance with at the school dance...), when I finally told myself that every time I made a decision, there was another Me out there somewhere in a parallel universe who decided the opposite.  So, I should never regret deciding what I did because I was always somewhere out there doing the other thing as well.  The best of both worlds.  

So, today I'm reminding myself that somewhere out there, I'm sailing around the world with nothing but a backpack, I'm baking homemade bread everyday, and I'm wearing that Parisian chic top.  No need to add more hobbies to my already-packed life, because somewhere out there, I'm already doing all the hobbies I could ever dream of. :)

Now, to go do what this Amanda likes to do: eat Peanut butter toast and do some writing!