When I think of the year after my first daughter was born, I remember a time of mornings spent staring at my baby girl in bed, choking back tears at how beautiful her little face was, evenings spent bundling her up to cheer on her dad’s football team, and an exhaustion from my night shifts as a nurse so intense that I can still feel the ache, like it’s been seared in my bones forever.
But intermingled with the memories I have with that overwhelming joy of my first taste of motherhood is a hazy fog, a cloud of darkness that seemed to color everything in its wake. There were moments when I stared at my baby and just sobbed — I have everything, I thought. So why can’t I just be happy?
Looking back at that year in my life, I had all of the classic risk factors to develop postpartum depression. An unplanned pregnancy, which increases the risk for postpartum depression, a job change, getting married, a move, giving birth, two hospitalizations for postpartum complications — and all within the span of five months.
I knew the risk factors, I had the signs and heck, I had even educated other mothers leaving the hospital on the symptoms of postpartum depression, but I still missed them in myself.
Instead of getting help for my depression, I lost a year in my daughter’s life. I spent every waking and even probably a lot of non-waking moments with her, but despite my happiness over becoming a mother, I was also lost in a dark spiral of depression. I wondered what the heck was wrong with me, why I was so ungrateful about all of the good in my life, and my marriage suffered as my husband looked at me, shaking his head that I seemed “off” but still not pinpointing that something could be clinically wrong.
I chalked up my feelings to the usual things — sleepless nights, my crazy night-shift hours, the fact that I was too stubborn to hire a babysitter, the pressure of supporting our family while my husband finished school, basically acting as a single parent — and told myself to snap out of it. Not once did the words “postpartum depression” cross my mind. That’s the kind of thing that happens to other moms, not me.
Without an official diagnosis or a clinical intervention, I found myself floundering through my first year as a mother, trying so hard to enjoy the simple moments at home with my daughter, pushing her on her baby swing in our backyard or watching the tractors drive through the fields out of our kitchen window, but through it all, what I desperately wanted was to find my way back to me. To feeling whole and normal and happy again.
So I tried to get there.
I vamped up my exercise routine, I got us outside in the fresh air more, I begged and pleaded my way into applying for a position on day shift, I started journaling and praying more regularly. In short, I did all of the “right” things to take care of myself — but nothing changed.
And strangely enough, the one thing that seemed to work was the one thing that I thought I would never do.
I went back to school.
As my daughter approached her first birthday and I saw a bit more freedom as she weaned from breastfeeding, I became invigorated by the thought of going back to school. Somehow, believing that I could do it, getting accepted into graduate school, and taking steps to leave the house, recharged me in a way I didn’t know I needed. Even the hour-long drive to class felt like a vacation as I listened to talk shows on the radio and made way too many late-night impulse purchases at the McDonald’s drive-thru.
Five months later, I had four classes under my belt and a new baby in my belly, but I was back — the cloud of depression had lifted and I found myself looking around cautiously, like a rabbit peering out of its hole, wondering what had happened and marveling at the sunshine on my face after a long winter.
These days, I am quite far in debt for half of a Masters degree that I will probably never finish and most likely never even use, but I would still tell you that it’s the best money I have ever spent. Undiagnosed postpartum depression is a very serious, very dangerous condition and I got lucky — extremely lucky — to make it through unscathed. Deep down, in my gut, the one that tells me my darkest secrets about motherhood, I know that those thousands of dollars saved my life. I know that somehow, taking the steps to go back to school somehow helped my brain turn off that switch that was set to “depression” and got me started on a path towards finding my new normal.
The truth is, there is nothing normal about postpartum depression. There is no cure, no “one-size-fits-all” method for treatment, or even a checklist to follow for healing, but my experience facing the darkness showed me that that’s exactly the point — postpartum depression can look different for everyone and it’s not how you get there or recover that matters, but in recognizing that you need to get help that will make the difference.
If you suspect you may be suffering from postpartum depression, please reach out to someone who can help. Call 800-994-4PPD (4773) or visit Postpartum Support International.