I gave a presentation last month and afterwards one of the attendees came up to me and gave me a compliment that took me off guard. She told me, “You are just so happy and full of life!”
This compliment threw me because of my experience the previous year. I felt gratitude someone witnessed my light. My inner light had been shut off for a while and it wasn’t until about six months ago that I really felt my light turn back on; that is, felt myself return to “normal.”
The Dark Days
This time, one year ago, I was in one of the darkest spaces of my life. I fell into a deep postpartum depression. My baby was colicky and very hard. I was getting very little sleep and the chronic sleep deprivation felt like it was killing me. I also had two other young children who demanded my attention, both physically and emotionally.
I knew I was at risk for PPD. I had more than one risk factor going into this pregnancy and delivery. But I had given birth three times before and not experienced anything beyond what I would call transient “baby blues.” As a psychologist; especially someone with a background in research on prevention of postpartum depression, I put too much stalk in my ego that somehow I could prevent or avoid PPD.
It crept in, slowly and insidiously. Here is part of a journal entry I wrote one year ago:
“I’m finally owning to myself that I am experiencing postpartum depression. And it’s gotten worse this last month. When I started experiencing insomnia; paralyzation at making small, insignificant decisions; feeling nauseated; and so sensitive to any remark that it’s like an emotional sunburn, I admitted, this is more than just having hard days, or having a hard time.”
Later in that same entry, “Dr. Packard” weighed in, “Here’s what I know about depression: It reveals work that needs to be done with myself as well as my relationships. It also fundamentally skews reality and pitches everything with a negative, dark light.”
It’s hard for me to share those intimate details of my experience but I want to put more of a voice and a face to what postpartum depression can feel like. The CDC estimates that between 1 in 9 women, to as many as 1 in 5 women experience PPD.
Having a baby is such a positive life event. Perhaps one of the most magical, valued, beautiful life events we, as women, can experience. That beauty doesn’t negate that it is also so hard. Even easy babies are work. No one prepares you for how soul sucking exhausting newborns are! Or how nursing can be quite complicated and emotional. Or how painful healing after a delivery can be. Or how you just want to cozy up and hibernate with your baby but life continues to demand you move along with it.
Having a new baby is also isolating. It’s hard to go out when you are so exhausted. And there are GERMS out in the real world! And the baby takes almost an hour to nurse and how is that feasible in public?! It’s easier to just stay home and binge watch Netflix with unfolded laundry sitting at your feet. Doing anything becomes a million times harder when depression is on board.
Since this wasn’t my first rodeo with depression, while I was struggling, I also relied on some important tools to manage my experience.
One of the most powerful tools I use is the personal mantra: Emotions inform my experience; they do not control it!
I know that while depression makes doing anything difficult, I can still act in line with my values and live my life in meaningful ways. I know, clinically, one of the most important things to do when feeling depressed is to move. Literally, get up, out of bed, shower, get dressed, exercise or go on walks, get out of the house, be social even when the very thought of socializing is painful, and continue to live your life! I think many people would be surprised to learn that I had postpartum depression because I still showed up! I still went to work. I still taught my class at church. I still volunteered in my kids’ classes. Etc. Getting moving is half the battle! When I did show up for these meaningful activities, I felt a natural lift in my depression. And even if I didn’t feel better in the moment, I felt proud of myself for doing hard things.
The flip side of this was my ability to recognize my limits and prioritize self-care. There were some things I stepped back from and said “no” to because doing them would have depleted my already-empty tank. It was humbling for me to do this but healing from depression requires the balance of pushing oneself while protecting and respecting my limits.
Another important tool is to Reach out. I waited longer than I should have to reach out for help. I’m stubborn, prideful, and felt embarrassed, even ashamed, to be having the experience I was having. But I reached out to some close friends who I knew I could trust with my feelings. I also found a support group, which was incredibly helpful. While friends and support can’t solve the pain, it sure helps to know you aren’t traveling a dark journey alone!
Finally, I sent myself a lot of self-compassion. I have been working on developing these skills for years and postpartum depression felt like the ultimate test. It took consistent, chronic, effort. When we feel depressed, it’s so easy to step into a state of self-loathing, shame, and guilt. It’s so easy to spin down that dark hole. I felt so guilty about being depressed, I consulted with a lactation specialist about whether I should stop nursing because I thought my depression would somehow get into my milk supply and ruin my baby’s chance at happiness! The lactation specialist reassured me my milk was just fine. But when we are depressed, we can feel guilty about everything.
The way I sent myself compassion, was to find a simple message to tell myself repeatedly. The one that felt true to me was: I am doing the best I can.
Sure there were things I could’ve done better, or done sooner, or resources I could’ve utilized that I didn’t. But I honestly felt I did the best I could in the circumstances I was in. There is a lot of power and healing in recognizing that.
I want to acknowledge that depression is so painful. That journeying through it is messy and that journey can feel endless. It is also so lonely and heavy. I hope those who experience PPD or depression, know they are not alone! In that journey, I offer my last piece of insight. Having experienced multiple episodes of depression in my life, I have a solid personal understanding that the night will not last. Daylight will come again. You will feel like yourself again. You may even find yourself surprised when you are laughing again, looking forward to things again, not feeling exhausted after doing the simplest activities, and breathing easier. Hang in there. There is hope!