Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Black and Blue

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Dear Marjo,

I had my first baby about six months ago. I was pretty emotional for the first few weeks, but I knew about the baby blues so I wasn’t surprised. But it’s gotten so much worse, and I’m pretty sure I’m going through post-partum depression. I’m okay with the baby—I hold him and feed him and love him, of course. And he’s sleeping through the night, so I’m starting to get past the physical exhaustion. But I can’t get past the emotional part. And I cry—a lot. Except for taking care of the baby, I have absolutely no energy to do anything else. Just getting dressed is hard, and taking a shower feels almost impossible.

I know I need help, but just thinking about it makes me cry (again). Even writing this email is hard. But I also feel like I can’t fix it myself. I just feel stuck, and I don’t know what to do.

Signed,

Flatline

 

Dear, dear Flatline,

I am so sorry that you’re going through this. Depression is so, so, so hard, especially when other people are cooing at the baby and smiling and congratulating you. When you’re surrounded by sunshine, your black hole looks even darker. And it’s embarrassing. I mean, this is supposed to be the happiest time of your life. Isn’t this what you wanted? You should be grateful! Stop being so negative!

Easy for them to say. While they are going to work and having lunch with friends and hell, just going for a walk without fifteen pounds hanging from their shoulders, you are stuck in a reality that you didn’t expect. All those Lamaze classes and books and doctor’s appointments prepare you for childbirth. They don’t prepare you for what comes after.

I am speaking to you as a veteran, so first, hear me when I say it’ll get better. It’s hard to believe, but you won’t always feel like this. And even if you don’t believe me, hear this:

Get help. I know it’s impossible. Do it anyway. You can’t bootstrap yourself out of this. Maybe asking for help has always been hard for you, or you don’t know who to call and don’t have the energy to figure it out. Or maybe, like I was, you’re too embarrassed. Just do it. Get help.

I lost two years of my life to post-partum depression. Within ten months I’d had a baby, turned 40, and lost my job (and therefore my friends). I felt stunned.

I spent long days in a rocking chair, not even bothering to turn on the lights, watching TV because when Oprah came on it meant my husband would be home soon. My personal hygiene was for shit. And I sobbed every single day.

Like you, I knew I needed help. But I’ve always been an overachiever, an oldest child, a manager, a mentor. I was used to being the helper, not the helpee. To make it worse, after long years of infertility, I was supposed to be overjoyed by my precious miracle. People kept reminding me of how grateful I should feel. And I was. But I also needed to grieve for what I had lost.

I was tearful at my baby’s six-week checkup, and the pediatrician asked if I was okay. “It’s just the baby blues,” I said. And maybe it was. He just smiled and handed me a box of tissues.

By the time his six-month checkup rolled around, I knew something was wrong. But when the pediatrician asked about my stuffy nose and again, whether I was okay, I said I was just getting a cold.

At his one-year checkup, what a coincidence—I was getting a cold again. And so it continued, until his second birthday. Happy chaos overflowed the playground, and my son was laughing and squealing as his dad swung him around and around like an airplane. As for me, I was sitting on a bench, detached, as if I were watching an interesting movie. I thought about the birthday party we’d planned for that weekend and wondered how I would get through it, dreading the company of the other moms. I imagined the birthday cake and my husband helping my son blow out the candles while I, again, stood back and watched. Just yesterday it had been one candle, and tomorrow there would be three. Time was flying, just like my son, and this movie was too long. Wasn’t two years long enough to feel bad?

I left that playground knowing that I needed help. I was so humiliated to ask for it that I couldn’t imagine saying it. My voice cracked when I practiced it, and I knew I’d cry—again—trying to say it in front of a doctor. So I wrote it down. Just three words: “I’m very depressed.” I cried and my hands shook as I handed the note to the doctor. He just smiled gently and said, “No problem.” Then he wrote me a prescription for Prozac.

Two weeks later I felt so much better, boosted, just enough to eat well and start exercising again and have fun with my now toddler. I also felt mad, that after all of that blackness, a little blue pill is all it took to save me. Why had I waited? Why was thinking about dying easier than saying three words that saved me?

This is the point where people say two things. First: “Meds are terrible. You should have tried acupuncture or counseling or yoga.” For many people that should be the first (and maybe last) stop on the road to mental health. But not for me, and my doctor agreed.

Second, people are often surprised when I admit that I’ve used antidepressants, like it’s a stigma, a mark of disgrace. To which I say WHAT? Seriously? Like I should be embarrassed about a little blue pill that almost literally saved my life? Just like depression is embarrassing? If anything, I now feel chagrined that it took me so long to ask for help, that I myself had attached a stigma to feeling depressed.

So, Flatline, it really will get better. But it’ll get better faster if you ask for help. Write it, sing it, use smoke signals if you need to, but find a way to say those three words. And please, keep in mind that I am not a medical professional. I’m just a mom who’s walked several miles in your shoes. So I can tell you that the first and biggest step forward lies in asking for help.

XO,

Marjo

Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.



Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.


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I also just wanted to add that I had a similar experience, but rather than turning to my family doc, I went to my beloved naturopath, who I had been seeing for over 5 years and I trusted. He made me a homeopathic, and I started taking it, and within a day, I was "normal" again. So, I'm not saying that Prozac is not the answer, because I work in mental health and have seen many people have good experiences with it, I'm just saying that there may be other alternatives as well. And like Marjo said, postpartum blues come in all shapes and sizes. Most of moms that I know have had it. There is no shame in it. It's biology. And there are remedies and antedotes that will help you attend again to life and your child in a way that you want to be. Best wishes!
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