With Thanksgiving approaching and thankfulness practically in the air, it seems to be time for reflection. For me, this month is a reminder that a year ago I was just coming out of the biggest struggle of my life. Although I’d never say that I’m glad I had PPD, I have realized many times over that I am very grateful for what it taught me. Here are seven reasons why:
1) I learned who my village is.
As they wisely all say, it takes a village to raise a child. Amen, a million times over, to that. When I was alone with my son, I had this overwhelming, devastating conviction that I was a complete failure. When someone was there, I held it together a little better and logistically I needed someone to help keep me nourished, since I couldn’t concentrate enough to cook and was losing weight like crazy. I’ll never forget my little brother taking me to find a breast-feeding support group at the hospital and holding me while I sobbed because we were late and nobody could give us the correct directions to find it. Or my older brother stroking my hair after I failed again to get baby down for a nap. My mother-in-law telling me that the first moment she met me she knew I’d be a great mother to her grandchildren. My dad opening up to me about his own struggles as I sat huddled on the bleachers at the park. My friend telling me about her intrusive thoughts. For pretty much the first three and a half months of my son’s life, we had family staying with us on a rotating basis. This is my village and I’ll never again forget that it’s there.
2) It forced me to face my demons.
There were chapters of my childhood that I thought had been worked through and put nicely away, but they jumped right off the pages of my history and came back to life. My sweet little boy somehow represented for me the death of all things beautiful and safe in my life. His neediness and our physical closeness reminded me of being molested and controlled by a man when I was a little girl. It felt like I was really trapped this time with nowhere to go, because my son was going to need me for the next 18 years, right? I couldn’t figure out how I was going to survive this time.
But giving up wasn’t an option, and I was ready to kick my past to the curb. With the moral support of several moms who had been through similar struggles, a knowledgeable psychiatrist and the guidance of my therapist, I delved back into the past to connect the dots with my current struggles.With many tears and difficult sessions, I slowly was able to really understand what had happened and how my feelings and fears were mostly manifestations of stored memories and behavior. It was time to let them go.
3) It changed the way I see the world.
Once I started to recover and understood what depression is, with all its facets and manifestations, I felt like my eyes had been opened to a whole new dimension of the human experience. It’s a depth that is not easy to see, but it’s always been there. When I think now of war and those whom it affects, I now have a small inkling of what the soldiers on the front lines or those who are imprisoned must go through. What the mind can do is amazing but also terrible and so very difficult to see when you are in the thick of it. I’m thankful to be able to understand that experience more personally, even though it hurts.
4) My marriage became more healthy.
Although PPD seemed at times like it would tear us apart, and there were many times that the rift between us was wide, in the end it strengthened our relationship. I wasn’t aware of it but I was very codependent on my husband. At the height of my illness I couldn’t understand that he and I were different people. I spent so much time wrapped up in how he might be doing, what he might be thinking, whether he was happy with me, etc. This obsession was really fed by the paranoid state I fell into. Since I couldn’t concentrate enough to read or write, I drew. My journal is full of circles and bubbles that to me represented our souls. Some part of me knew that I needed to just take care of me and see myself as a separate being and that he could take care of himself just fine. Over time I learned to let go of these worries.
Although he was my cheerleader and never lost faith in me as a woman or a mother, as the months went by and I continued to get worse and talk about the same obsessive thoughts over and over, he withdrew into himself and we started fighting. He was very against medication and therefore so was I, but after four months and reaching a level where I was barely functioning, it was time to give it a try. Because we both had such strong feelings about this and had been fighting, we had a lot of work to do in repairing our relationship. Couples therapy was really helpful and we also have learned to make time to talk to each other heart to heart and remember what our relationship is about. It’s hard as parents, but so very important. We’re getting there.
5) I learned the power of meditation and mantras.
With my mood changing at any given time and panic threatening to rise up at a moment’s notice, I needed something to hold onto. My mind was full of so much turmoil and negativity. I started with belly breaths when I felt anxious-to keep my focus, I counted them. Meditation for me in the early days consisted of lying down with baby on my chest and counting 100 belly breaths. Sometimes it seemed so hard to find time for that but I always felt better afterward, even if just a little bit. To focus my flailing mind, I spelled words of kindness to myself. Forgiveness was a good one because I needed a lot of it and it has a lot of letters, so it occupied me for a while. F.O.R.G.I.V.E.N.E.S.S. L.O.V.E. F.A.I.T.H. If I caught myself worrying about stuff that was out of my control I’d ask myself “what are you doing right now?” and just observe what was happening in my environment without judgement. Over the two month wait for the antidepressants to help me, I found that I was even able to improve my mood with these thoughts. These are skills I’ll use for the rest of my life.
6) I grew some cojones.
First of all, there’s something about having felt like you are going to die or will never really be happy again that really puts the rest of the lesser problems in your life into perspective. On top of that, knowing that I am the one who pulled myself out of it for the most part really made me realize what a strong woman I am. After a lot of practice and hard work, I no longer really care very much about what other people think about me, because that was not something there was room for in my life anymore. Some examples from my life recently include teaching a music class to a room full of wily and restless high school students and kicking butt at an audition but not getting the job. Either one of these things would have likely reduced me to a quaking puddle on the floor before PPD, but now-I have faith in myself and know if people don’t like me, I don’t need them in my life.
7) It’s made me a better mom.
Because I had to learn how to take very good care of myself, not only am I now ok to take care of my son, but I can also teach him how to be independent too. One of the hardest things for me in the past was dealing with other people’s strong emotions. As a child I was told that everything was my fault and I often had to deal with negative consequences . But as a grown-up I’ve had to unlearn this and accept that others will be upset, with themselves and even with me, and that’s valid and OK. Letting my son have feelings and let them out without me overreacting will not always be easy but well worth it.
It took me a long while to get here. For a long time I was just angry and still very, very sad. If this is you, I get it. Go with that and stay with it as long as you need to. Please don’t feel guilty or strange about it-we moms have enough guilt-trips as it is! But maybe you’ll find someday that you are grateful. My wish for you is for it to become a list too.