My experience with postpartum depression was like the dream cruise ship Carnival Splendor: What I thought was to be the romantic trip of a lifetime turned out to be a nightmare.
There I was, adrift in a sea of inexorable chaos, both situational and emotional, no tugboats in sight. I felt complete despair and deep sorrow. I felt helpless, abandoned, and angry. Some of my memories are still beyond recall. It is though I was lost in a fog for two years of my life.
My depression began before the birth of my son Erik, during pregnancy. It was a period followed by an even darker phase of postpartum depression. In the fourteen months prior, I had made a series of changes in my life that I call irreconcilable choices. There was no win-win situation. It was nothing short of a recipe for disaster.
My husband Conrad and I met over the Internet in November 1998. It was as though we were meant to be together. He proposed in January 1999, and we began to plan how we might merge our families, each consisting of two teenage children. We planned an August wedding and decided to buy a home together that was a supposed “halfway point” to our current homes.
I found out I was pregnant in July. We rushed to put our wedding together, went on a honeymoon—complete with my mother-in-law in tow—and I moved my children to a community ninety miles away from all they had ever known. Everything was scattered. The people I loved were unhappy, and so was I.
My two teenage sons, sixteen and thirteen, were absolutely miserable. My eldest fell into a depression himself. He would come home from school midday, sneak into his converted garage bedroom, and sleep the day away. I continued my job as a substance abuse counselor, driving an hour and a half to work each way. I would leave the house with terrible anxiety, not knowing what would happen while I was gone or what I would discover when I returned home. I would regularly take naps in the juvenile justice interview rooms before driving home, because there were several prior instances where I had fallen asleep at the wheel.
As my due date approached, I became more exhausted and more depressed. I took maternity leave two weeks before I was set to deliver, and when that date passed, I was left feeling frustrated and desperate. I just wanted to have my baby and get on with my life.
On a Sunday morning, my water broke at home. The birth of my son Erik was traumatic as he was a posterior (face first) presentation, and weighed nine pounds six ounces. I needed an emergency C-section and my son was so battered and compromised from the ordeal that he was immediately whisked off to a NICU a half hour away. The only contact we had was my sticking my finger through the hole in the incubator and telling him how much I loved him and how sorry I was for him.
My son and I were separated for the first thirty-six hours of his life, and I felt like a wolf howling for her lost pup. During my pregnancy I wasn’t sure if I wanted him. Later, I chastised myself for those thoughts because we almost lost him.
At one point, during my son’s first week of life, I wanted to give up completely and not even go back to the hospital to get him. My unreasonable and illogical thinking told me he might be better off with another family. That deep grief and sorrow pervaded my life for months. Because I had moved far away from my support system, I felt alone and helpless. There were definitive thoughts of suicide, and a kind of emotional paralysis. Even simple decisions were too much for me to handle.
But the tugboats finally arrived to rescue my drifting vessel.
My first sponsor in Narcotics Anonymous nurtured me while my son was in the NICU. My mom also helped. She was my angel when my son was finally released from the hospital. At eighty years old she had trouble lifting things, but she rallied when I fell apart. She took care of all of us, and she and Erik formed a special bond. She rocked him, sang to him, and took him for short journeys in the stroller to escape the chaos in our home.
Watching my mom’s enduring spirit enabled me to reach out for help. Despite the sea of emotion swirling within, I managed to pick up the “2,000-pound telephone” they describe in 12-step meetings. My midwife had given me a business card for a therapist who specialized in postpartum depression: Dr. Shoshana Bennett. I called her and she told me everything was going to be all right. She was also able to see me within a couple of days, which gave me a glimmer of hope.
My son accompanied me to my first appointment with Dr. Shosh. It’s hard to remember the sequence of events from that evening, but I do recall one thing in particular. My son was fussing while I talked, and Dr. Shosh picked him up and cuddled him close to her heart. He heaved one of those big baby sighs of relief—a few successive inhalations followed by a deep exhalation. From that point on, I knew we were in capable hands.
Dr. Shosh was one of many teachers throughout my “dark night of the soul.” My journey with depression was painful, but it taught me a lot about myself. I realized that people could only cross my boundaries if I let them. They could only exploit me if I allowed them to.
It’s easy to take responsibility for the things in our lives that we judge as good. It’s not so easy to take responsibility for what we judge as bad. We tend to disavow the negative and claim those things are happening to us. We see ourselves as victims. But really, we have more control. Those perceived negative things are all just vehicles for finding our soul’s purpose and for learning lessons.
Postpartum depression has helped to make me the powerful intuitive, healer, astrologer, and yogini that I am today. All of the women in my family—my mother and three older sisters—have suffered from depression. Although my mother was a courageous, loving, and capable person most of her life, she also fell into a deep, dark place where she threatened to leave us or kill herself. I know that place well. It has taken strength and energy over time to face that the overwhelm was due to my own lack of self-respect and self-worth. I thought it was more noble to hand myself over to others rather than to take care of myself first.
To berate ourselves for not knowing better is to perpetuate a never-ending spiral of self-destructive thought patterns. Recovery from postpartum depression is about coming to know the self, with compassion and forgiveness for everyone. My PPD was learned by example. It was generationally profound. The women in my life did not know how to teach me to handle it differently. No one was at fault. Everything that happened was perfect.
We cannot change our past actions, but we can choose actions going forward that help to create a joyous future. In Kriya Yoga, we believe that when we find liberation from a piece of karma, we free our ancestors and descendants, both those who have come before us and those who will follow. That is the gift of my postpartum depression—and my beautiful, brilliant, lovable son Erik is my wise guru.
A Note from Dr. Shosh
We all process the postpartum experience in unique ways and take from it individual lessons. From Diane’s story, I offer several potential takeaways:
— Personal and family histories of depression are high risk factors. Every woman should have a plan—since no one is immune—but if you know you are high risk, it is especially important to have a solid, proactive strategy in place to help prevent mental health issues.
— Prenatal depression makes a woman particularly high risk for postpartum depression.
— Women need more support than ever both during pregnancy and postpartum. Not having that in place – especially when moving to a location far from your support system — can set you up for particularly hard times.
— Extra stress during pregnancy (like driving long hours to a taxing job) adds to the risk.
— Getting married is yet another big change, i.e., stressor, and our bodies cannot tell happy stress from negative stress.
— An emergency C- section will increase stress, and it didn’t help Diane’s already high risk situation.
— A child of a depressed parent is accustomed to taking care of others first. Here you must focus on yourself, which will give you the necessary strength to care for others.
— What may feel like a nightmare as you go through it can turn out to be one of the most important rides of your lifetime.
Image credit: Anne Worner