I’ve been writing this series on mental illness for more than 6 months now, and we’ve finally come to the end. This last post is the story of someone’s experience with depression, specifically postpartum. At seven typed pages, it is easily worthy of a series on its own, but here it is in its entirety. While very long, if you have a mental illness, know someone who suffers from a mental illness, or have any desire to know what a mentally ill person really feels like, consider this must read material. Of everything I have read, nothing captures the depth of depression and the long road of healing better than this person’s experience.
To the anonymous person who gave this story, you have the most deepest and sincerest sympathies and prayers for a better tomorrow. It is an experience I cannot comprehend, and the fact that you made it is a stunning testimony to who you are and your own inner strength.
I have grown-up struggling with depression my entire life. My mom also suffers from it, so I am very familiar with the signs and symptoms of it as they relate to me and my family. I also grew up dealing with depression on my own and not seeking out aid. This learned behavior proved to be the worst thing that I could have done, and it was nearly the end of my life. After the birth of my daughter, I began to recognize the signs and symptoms of major depression. Now I know you can that this was postpartum depression, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was still a clinically diagnosed severe/suicidal depression.
I was tired all the time and nothing held any interest for me. I knew, logically, that I should be adoring and devoting all my time and energy to this little bundle in the crib, but I couldn’t do it. I resented her. I had to force myself to pick up and hold her. I fed her, changed her, and took care of her because that’s what moms do, they take care of their babies no matter how they feel. I also did the household chores mechanically, if I did them at all. I was supposed to be a “good wife and mother” and a good wife doesn’t let the house get messy, though a lot of things slipped by for several days before getting done. I just didn’t have the energy or the desire to do anything.
When my daughter suffered from colic, I would pace the apartment with her screaming for hours at a time late during the night, and I would cry silently begging her to sleep so I could put her down and go to bed. I prayed as I cried that Heavenly Father would soothe her and calm her enough that I could put her in her crib and get some sleep. I prayed for a way to fix the colic so that she wouldn’t scream anymore. I dreaded nighttime. I also began to question why I had decided to become a mother. Maye I wasn’t worthy and this was Heavenly Father’s way of telling me.
I began to eat what made me feel good. I ended up gaining a lot of weight after the baby was born. I knew I was gaining weight, and I hated it. I hated feeling fat in a city full of thin college girls, but at the same time, eating what I liked made me feel good, if only temporarily. The situation began an awful cycle. I felt awful, tired, and drained, so I turned to food. The constant overeating and poor diet made me gain weight, which led me right back into feeling bad.
As the depression progressed, I would find myself contemplating suicide. My husband didn’t understand why I was miserable, and I had a hard time explaining it to him. I just couldn’t find the words to say what I was feeling, to explain the depth and intensity of it all. The sadness was so overwhelming, so consuming, and so hard to put into words without sounding trite or even melodramatic that I had a hard time forming sentences to describe it all. I felt sure that if I were to vanish from the face of the earth, he could find a better wife who could do a better job and who would adore this little girl like she needed to be loved. At times I was positive that’s what he wanted, too. I even felt sure that Heavenly Father would understand and might even agree that it would be better to have me removed from this life and this family so another more able-bodied woman could take over.
It was during those times that I would stand in the kitchen with a knife in my hands and wonder just how much it would hurt to slash my wrists. I even thought about the type of knife I should use. Would a regular knife or a serrated knife be better? Would I panic after cutting one wrist and call the ambulance? Or if I could be brave enough just to stab myself in the gut and be silent about it so I didn’t wake up the baby? Could I find my heart and stab myself there so death was faster? Would stabbing myself with scissors be better?
I did think about what my family would have to go through if I killed myself, but it seemed like such a temporary bit of grief compared to continuing my life with these feelings, shortcomings, and other potential hardships that the trade-off seemed more than fair; it seemed better. On days when my thinking progressed that far, I would actually start to press the blade into my skin. Several times, I slashed, but I couldn’t seem to press hard enough to cut anything deeper than a shallow cut.
My husband tried to counsel me, but all I heard was how bad of a mother I was. I didn’t compare favorable with his own mother or the other mothers in the ward. Even though he was trying to help, all I heard was the continual list of my shortcomings and fault. I felt judged and that he was right. It was as if there were a checklist for being a good mother, and I couldn’t do any of it right. I wasn’t the cheerful “Molly-Mormon” who wanted 6 kids and could handle it all, and it was my fault. I was a bad wife and an unfit mother. I felt that he expected better of me, but “better” was beyond my reach. I began to resent him because I thought he was continually comparing me to women I could never be like.
Because of his work and school, my husband was gone a lot of the time, and I felt abandoned, that he didn’t really care what I was going through. He would have to go to campus to study or do research, and I would get angry that he was leaving me alone with the baby. It just reinforced the thoughts that he didn’t want to be around me or to even have me around the apartment. I didn’t know anyone I could turn to, my family lived in another state, and the ward members never came by to see me or the baby. I felt that if I vanished, no one would even remember me or they would have vague memories of me that would be easily forgotten. I was sure my own baby would forget me and would be happier with a different mother.
I remember hiding one day and just sobbing because I couldn’t figure out why the baby was crying. I had tried everything that I could think of, and I just couldn’t handle the baby’s cries anymore. So I shut the door and hid in the bedroom closet while I cried and hugged myself, desperately wishing I could just vanish, that I had never been born, pleading with God to kill me so I could be free of all of this.
My husband came home and found our daughter crying and got angry with me for neglecting her. He yelled at me, and I felt extremely guilty, angry, and desperately sad. I couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling, and I knew I was failing as a mother. I didn’t feel like I was capable of bonding with my daughter, that there was something so wrong with me that it couldn’t be fixed. This only proved it to me further. I couldn’t figure out why she was crying, I was totally inept. I didn’t deserve to be there, I didn’t deserve my husband or my baby.
I was worthless.
I can’t tell you how many hours I spent curled up sobbing in bed or crying silently while folding laundry or doing some other mundane chore. I honestly don’t remember, but I know that if I wasn’t crying, I was numb and indifferent. I would hear the baby cry, but I mad no emotional connection to her crying. I didn’t care if she was wet, dirty, hungry, or tired. I took care of her needs as I became aware of them, but I was an emotionless zombie. It didn’t bother me as to why she was crying. I had to be a good mother though, so I went through the motions. The detachment was so profound that I felt empty, that I had lost the capacity to care.
That’s when the rages started. I would swing from being suicidally sad to blind rages with long periods of emotionless detachment in between. I would get so angry, and it would happen so quickly that all thinking would stop. Counting to 10 or praying during those instances was impossible for me. I was literally incapable of forming thought during a rage, physically, I couldn’t even speak.
I already resented the baby for her hours of colic, the time and energy she required, and the fact that I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything that I was used to doing. Having to have physical contact with her was so repulsive to me at this point that I was nearly physically ill. I would stalk to her room and snarl silently at her from the doorway before forcing myself to pick her up gently and take care of her. I didn’t want to look at her or even to have her touch my bare skin. She was rapidly becoming a “thing” or parasite to me. To say I was beginning to loathe her would be accurate.
I knew such thinking was wrong and that I shouldn’t feel that way about a baby. The guilt from having those thoughts and feelings mingled with the loathing, and I began to hate myself.
I also knew, deep in my soul, that if I hurt her deliberately, that I would face the wrath of God for harming one of his most innocent. So I would hurt myself instead during those rages. I would grab the heaviest, hard-bound book I could find and would hit myself with it. I used the corners of the book and would bruise my arms, hands, head, and legs. I hit walls with my fists. If I was in the kitchen and a rage struck while the baby was crying, I would ram the back of my fist into the corner of the counter top just so I wouldn’t go hurt the baby. I would gouge up my arms and wrists with my fingernails until they bled, then I would put on a shirt with long sleeves so people wouldn’t see.
It was during the pain, after I had hurt myself, that I found I could think again. It was as if the pain was enough to break through the sheer fury and return some semblance of sanity. It was also then that I recognized that I was being selfish for hating the baby for something she couldn’t control, that she was innocent in every sense of the word, and then the sadness would return, intensified, with overwhelming guilt and self-disgust. How could I blame her? What kind of disgusting, selfish person was I, that I would blame a baby? I would sob and apologize to her profusely for resenting her, that I knew she was innocent, that I would try harder, but it just magnified my own faults and the emotional pain I was feeling. I also frightened myself with the amount of violence and rage that I felt.
When I went to church, I was so numb, tired, or resentful that the Spirit could have used a megaphone two inches from my ear, and I wouldn’t have heard or felt a thing. I wanted to be anywhere but at church. I resented the happy couples that we saw in our ward and all I could do was compare myself with the other wives and mothers. I was so sure that my husband was comparing me with other women and the he was seeing all the areas in which I was lacking. I was convinced that he thought he got the raw end of the deal and several times I nearly suggested a divorce just so he wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore. Divorce or suicide where the only two options, as I saw it, to ending this misery. I was sure my baby also resented me back and preferred her daddy over me. He alone seemed to be able to get her to calm down when she had colic.
The ward members who did try to interact with me at church didn’t know how to deal with me. Most of them treated me like I was going through a phase and would outgrow it, like a toddler. I resented such a condescending approach, and I wanted to lash out, to make them hurt. How dare they treat me like some ill-mannered three-year old! Some were sympathetic, but I honestly doubted that any of them had been through something like this and I thought they were just blowing well-intentioned wind, so I brushed them off. What did they know since all they did was, as I saw it, mouth platitudes and empty reassurances? Others recognized a change in me and didn’t know to do or say, so they avoided me. I felt alone and that no one really understood what I was going through.
At my husband’s insistence, I approached the bishop about counseling through LDS Family Services. I don’t know if the bishop knew how to handle me either, but he was honest about it and told me what I needed to do in order to contact the right people. He also told me that he believed my depression wasn’t caused by sin, that it was a real, physical problem that needed treatment and that he would do what he needed to do to see that I got that help.
He also acknowledged that just reading the scriptures, praying, or even asking for a blessing wouldn’t “cure” this, which was reassuring to me. It meant that I wasn’t being punished for something that I had or hadn’t done. This was a problem as real as heart disease and needed professional help.
It took months of professional counseling, stopping one medication, and being put on another before we started to see an improvement in my moods and behavior. It wasn’t a fast recovery either. This was literally a day-by-day, fighting for improvement with every step, every moment of every day, type of recovery. I’d do better and then some days I regressed, and I’d have to fight even harder to regain the ground I had lost. It truly was a process and a learning experience.
The therapy helped me to see when I wasn’t thinking clearly, though it’s hard to recognize in every instance. The new medication also helped balance out the chemicals in my brain so I wasn’t fluctuating between the rage, numbness, and depression anymore. I did still have problems with emotional numbness, just not to the extreme that it had been. I just had a hard time feeling happy or being involved, but I wasn’t sobbing hysterically anymore and as far as I was concerned, that was a great improvement.
I had to learn to bond with my daughter. I would look at her and had to learn how to truly see her for who and what she was. I was given the task of taking her with me, to show me what I could do with her, take her to the park, the library, or go for a walk with her in the stroller. It taught me that, while my life was permanently altered, it wasn’t lost to me. I could still live and enjoy many of the things that I used to do. I just now had to share them with my daughter, and some things were more fun because I shared them with her. Seeing her delight and wonder helped me see her as a person. I still struggled at times, but it got easier. I began to play with her and to enjoy hearing her laugh. Seeing her smile at me was something that I came to look forward to.
I had to learn how to evaluate my thoughts and emotions and then see if there was truth to them or if they were exaggerated. In the midst of depression, my thoughts were so distorted that I had begun to think in absolutes that reflected what I was feeling. “I’ll never be able…” “I can’t…” “I always…” I had to learn how to counteract the exaggerated thoughts, to see that absolutes like that weren’t true, and then keep a written record of the wrong thoughts and how I tried to fix them. When I started thinking things like “I’ll never by the type of good mother my daughter needs” I would have to stop, write it down, and then ask myself if that was a true statement. From talking with the therapist and my own testimony of personal progression, I knew it wasn’t true but I had a hard time seeing it. I would have to consciously counter the thought with “I am learning to be a good mother. I’m not perfect, but I’m learning.” Then I had to write that next to the old thought and label the old one “False” and then label what I had countered it with as “Truth.”
I had to accept that just admitting that I was making progress, no matter how slow, was good. I have always had very high expectations for myself and was frequently unrealistic in what I expected of myself, especially when it came to my progress in dealing with my depression. I struggled with feelings of not having done enough, even though at times I wasn’t capable of doing any more. I had to retrain the very way I thought and really had to become self-aware so I could counter the negative thoughts immediately before the cycle got vicious.
I was given the task of keeping a daily “To Do” list so I could see that I was capable of doing things that were worthwhile, that my actions, my very life, had value. Every night before bed, I had to write out a list of all the things that needed to be done the next day and then add the things I wanted to do or was assigned to do by the therapist. They were things like “Do the dishes” or “Take a walk” and then I had to check them off when I was done. I also had to stop and look at what I had done, to acknowledge consciously that I had just done something worthwhile. When I came back from a walk, I had to ask myself, “Am I glad I took that walk?” Sometimes I was tired and indifferent, but most of the time I found I was glad. When I cleaned the kitchen and did dishes, I had to stop and look at the clean kitchen and dishes and tell myself that I had done a good job, that the kitchen looked nice, and I could now go relax.
The things that didn’t get done that day where transferred over to the list for tomorrow and usually took top ranking places. It became a type of motivation to get out of bed. I’d look at all the stuff on my list and would have to start planning my day out so I could get them all done. It was also a way to get me to stop thinking inwardly about how miserable I felt and to make me think outside of myself and focus on tasks that required my attention.
I was held accountable to my therapist, too. If too much stuff piled up without getting done, I’d have to detail what happened that caused that pile up, all my emotions, thoughts, actions, or lack of actions. Then we’d pinpoint where I had gotten off-track, and take steps to correct it. More changes in the way I thought, things I could do when I felt overly tired or stressed, and things that I needed to let go of, that I couldn’t change.
Most importantly, I had to learn how to rely on the Lord. This was something the therapist pointed out to me. I had to learn that, even in the darkest moments I was having, I could call upon Him and He would strengthen me beyond my own weak capacity. It was a hard thing to to do, to acknowledge that there was something I wasn’t capable of doing on my own, but it helped me see that I wasn’t a super-hero. I couldn’t MAKE myself get better by sheer will-power. I had to have help. It was very humbling to acknowledge before Heavenly Father that I was struggling and that what I was capable of doing wasn’t enough. It really solidified that the power of the Atonement was both for me and this cross that I had to bear, that I could cry out in my grief and pain, and receive help. It also was comforting to know that Christ, by the power of his Atonement, had made up the difference and was there to plead my cause with the Father.
It also proved to be the way that I felt the reassurance, love, and support of my Heavenly Father. There were countless times when I fell to my knees and cried out for the strength to continue because I had nothing left to give, and I was strengthened. Times when the sadness would return and I, sobbing, would cry out, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m so tired of it all!” and I could literally feel His arms around me and feel the love and comfort pouring into my being. I also felt the request from Him not to give up, to keep trying and the promise that He would help me.
I was able to keep getting up at all hours of the night, and not resent my daughter for it, as I came to understand that she depended on me for everything, just as we depend on the Lord. I also learned that she trusted me implicitly in everything I did. It’s something you know logically, but you don’t really KNOW it or internalize it until you experience it.
I found myself understanding my daughter more and more. I could feel my compassion returning as I watched her learn and struggle with simple things that were frequently beyond her control. It opened my eyes and gave me a greater understanding of how Heavenly Father must feel at times when we struggle with things. He can and will comfort us, but sometimes we need to have the experiences, no matter how painful they are.
When I had run out of patience and prayed the prayer of the frustrated mother, I was granted a longer perspective and became able to see, far better than before, how to deal with the situation. I learned at this point to ask myself if the situation was really worth getting upset or angry over. I had to ask, “Is this really going to matter in the long run?” And when I found myself reaching the beginnings of a rage, I found I could turn to God and even the simple, barely coherent phrase “Heavenly Father, I can’t handle this. Please, help me” would bring an additional calm that I knew, and still know, was sent from Him to help me. There were even times when I was made aware that I had two choices on how to react. I could either get mad or I could just take it all in stride. It was during those brief moments that I was shown the futility of getting angry at what had happened and that helped me see that sometimes it was just easier on everyone, especially myself, if I just shrugged it off. That was, and sometimes still is, very hard for me to do.
Even praying just to feel His reassurance that I wasn’t forgotten and that He was aware of my struggles was helpful. It helped me be able to do what I needed to do when I felt uncertain about my own capabilities. Not only was He aware of my struggles and feelings of ineptitude, but He had confidence in me that I could overcome. That was such a relief to me, that He would trust me, that He DID trust me, and was there for me no matter what. I started to hear the messages He had been trying to send to me through scriptures, testimonies, and hymns. I began to really listen to the words of the hymns, and I was frequently moved to tears because of the impressions of love, comfort, and the personal witnesses that I received that He really is aware of us, as individuals. To this day, there are some songs that I still can’t sing or even listen to without crying because the witness of His love for me was so strong that it is still carried in the words and music.
Emotionally, coming out a depression that deep was like getting over a long illness or cancer. I felt doomed and struggled with the despair. then the decision to fight was made. I fought long and hard. As I made progress, I felt better. When I regressed, I felt tired and drained. The “bad” days while on medication and in therapy were drastically, measurably better than a “good” day when I wasn’t being treated. There was also a great deal of relief as I was able to look at where I had been, how bad it had been, and where I was as I improved. Just being able to see that I was getting better, even though it was very slow and gradual, was encouragement enough to keep trying. Heavenly Father was right, with His help I could overcome this.
I still struggle with depression, though not nearly as severe, and I am not medicated for it at this time. It usually manifests itself as being overly tired and a lack of enthusiasm. The cycle of negative thoughts, like self-hating, sadness, and sometimes resentment, sometimes starts to appear again, too. When that happens, I tend to withdraw and try to avoid contact with people. I am able to apply what I learned in therapy to fight the negative thought cycle, though it doesn’t always work, it’s than what it used to be. I also do better at letting those around me know when I’m struggling. Some days it takes a combined effort from my loved ones to help me through.
It was during therapy that I was also diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder. It’s pretty mild, but it sometimes feeds into the depression. It is the main source of my desire to be left alone, and it is the cause of a lot of the self-destructive thoughts that I have. The therapy really helped me understand this and the retraining of my thinking also has helped me identify when my social anxiety was making things worse.
I have also more recently learned that as I relied on the Lord more and more that He has expanded my capabilities, even while depressed. As I try to magnify my callings and serve those around me, I have found that, with the help of the Holy Ghost, I am able to step outside of the depression and anxiety, for a time, and do the work that is need of me. Even, sometimes, that the service helps alleviate some of the sadness and fear as I look beyond myself and see someone else who is in need. Even the simple act of doing my visiting teaching helps bring me beyond the sadness and helps me see things more clearly. It’s hard to do though. To be able to reach beyond the fear and sadness and do some act of service is much easier for me when it’s in the context of a church calling. To try and do it on my own is almost paralyzing.
Honestly, I don’t like having depression and SAD. I would dearly love to have them removed from me, but I know that this is something that has shaped me into who I am today and will continue to shape my life and the lives of those closest to me. It’s something I have to deal with as surely as I have to deal with the fact that I am exactly a foot shorter than my husband and will likely be shorter than all my children. It has become something that I have accepted and must work with, rather than something I can deny and pretend doesn’t exist. Denying that I have these problems won’t help me or my family.
As a family we are more aware of the struggles that I have and we work together to cope. We are also more aware of how bad things can get again if we aren’t watching and taking the necessary precautions like talking to the doctor as soon as we are aware of the changes.
After she had written this and gave it to me, I showed the text to her husband. He had two simple comments:
- As soon as she started therapy, it was like watching the sun rise after a very long night. I finally was getting my wife back.
- I had no idea.
If there are any lessons I would like people to take from this series, it is those two comments: There is hope for the mentally ill and, if you’re on the outside, you really don’t know. Save a life; take the time to understand.
Thanks to everyone who has contributed and will, in the future, contribute. It was a good journey.
Administrator Note: After some consideration, I’ve decided that this series on mental illness should continue. Click here for details.