I shared this post on Facebook a year ago today, and it resonated with many people. This story is about my experience after delivering our third child in the Spring of 2013. Thanks to modern medicine and support, I'm thankful to say that I've not repeated this experience with our most recent addition.
I come from a line of strong, determined women. The ladies I grew up around, and those who had passed that I heard stories of, were makers and do-ers. Crafters, mothers, nurses, midwives, volunteers. But one thing we are not is complainers. Morning sickness? Go on with your day and keep a bucket handy. Common Cold? Here’s a cough drop and some hot tea. Carpool is in one hour. We don’t do tired. I don’t mean to sound like my forerunners were cold. Anything but- very gracious about the plights of others, doting and concerned, but when it comes to handling your own ailments, you just suck it up and deal. You can ask for a pain pill after surgery, but do it bravely and with a smile on your face. So you can imagine, since I graduated from the life school of Big Girl Panties University, that post-partum depression came as a great shock to my system.
My first two pregnancies were flawless. When we welcomed our first, a bursting-ball of energy little boy, I remember crying a lot, but they were happy tears. I was overwhelmed by the sudden wash of emotions: unparalleled joy, fresh anxieties, happiness, anticipation, hope, exhaustion. But overall everything was bright. When our little firefly, a calm gentle little girl, arrived 18 months later, she added a touch of elegance and softness to our home. I remember being overjoyed by her arrival and over all felt such peace and warmth. Adding her was almost effortless. Was it any surprise that we would be eager to add another? When our 2nd was 18 months old, we decided to add another seat at the table. The first trimester was typical- mild morning sickness and tiredness, but came with a new experience: panic attacks. I remember having my first panic attack when I was 8 weeks pregnant. The chest pains sent me to the ER. After tests that showed nothing, they sent me home with no further explanation. I didn’t figure out until later that what had happened to me was a physical manifestation of anxiety.
As the pregnancy progressed, my mood declined. I chalked it up to fatigue from chasing two toddlers with a growing belly. The red lights didn’t really go off until after our Wildflower arrived. We welcomed our new little light, a girl, on a sunny April morning. She was pink and perfect, and despite all my best efforts, I couldn’t muster up much happiness. I swallowed the guilt and just hoped that the feelings would come. This was only beginning. I slowly started slipping into this mire of hateful and scary emotions. Every single instance of the day triggered in me a fight or flight response. The simple request of “Mommy, can I have some goldfish?” sent me either screaming, crying, or hiding under my sheets. I grieve over the way I treated our children in those months- their mommy was replaced by this snatching, screaming, wild-eyed ogre and every day I pray that they don’t remember.
The best way I have found to describe those moments is that I felt like I was no longer in the driver’s seat. I felt like I was sitting in the passenger seat, watching some alternative version of me driving the emotions. The real me sat in the passenger seat asking “What’s going on? It’s just goldfish! What’s the big deal?” but the driver always steered to panic. I experienced crippling panic attacks almost daily. I couldn’t breathe. I kept thinking “I can do this!” Everyone told us that adding the third baby was the hardest, and I quickly dusted off my Big Girl Panties diploma and soldiered on. Except I was marching into darker and darker territory. Pretty soon I started thinking that my children and my husband would be better off without me. I never got to the “planning stage” but I remember thinking that if I didn’t wake up in the morning, everyone would probably just be better off.
Before I continue, here are a few things you should know about me. I’m an optimist to the core, an extrovert, a great lover of people and especially children. There is not a melancholy bone in my body. I’m one of the most flexible people you’ll ever meet and I often thrive in chaos and unexpected situations. I’m also a deep lover of Jesus, firm believer in the power of prayer, and active member of a fantastic church. So you can imagine that my world felt like it had been flipped upside down. I remember praying and praying for help, asking to be relieved of the rage inside. I assumed it was unconfessed sin or worry or something else spiritual. I read my Bible and cried out often to be “fixed.” When nothing happened, I came to the darkest place of all. I felt like I had been abandoned and that God didn’t care. I remember lying on the bed during prayer and story time with the children, completely unengaged and just wishing it would be over. I remember nursing my baby and wishing the warm-fuzzies would come.
One day I opened up in Sunday school about the anxiety I was feeling. We have a great church and the response was positive and encouraging. They prayed for me and checked on me. I still thought my issues were rooted in spiritual or emotional disconnect and rested in the thought that my problems, with a little extra support, would soon be solved. The spiral continued. Finally, my dear sweet husband approached me. I will never forget that moment. After a tense dinner that ended in screaming and tears, he quietly tiptoed into our room and sat down on our bed where I was hiding under the sheets. He put his hand on my head and slowly stoked my hair. “I think you need to call the doctor. This isn’t your fault.” I was eight weeks postpartum at this point. He had started noticing the trend that I would call him about the same time every day begging him to come home. When I started saying things like “I’m afraid to be alone” he perked up. I would have these horrible daydream flashes in my mind and was terrified. He started reading and quickly figured out that I was textbook for PPD.
The night before my doctor's appointment, I sat at the computer, kicking myself at the thought of getting on anti-depressants. Despite all the science screaming in my face, despite the simple explanation of serotonin deficiency from pregnancy, I still couldn’t get over it. I logged into Facebook, and in God’s sweet mercy, I read the most encouraging post. A friend had posted something in our church group about her Zoloft prescription running out, and the responses were hilarious. Within 10 minutes I read from 4 women in my Sunday school class that they too were on the drug, and shockingly, ok with it. No stigma, no apologies. I went into my doctor's appointment with a little less dread. When I tearfully told my OB what was going on, she placed her hand on my knee, looked in my eyes and said, “It’s going to be ok.” and whipped out her prescription pad. Zoloft. 50mg once daily. I slunk to the pharmacy and filled it.
The first night, I felt like my brain had been hijacked. My thoughts raced and I couldn’t sleep. The second day, I had a headache all day and felt mildly dizzy (thankfully this was a weekend). The third day, I felt like someone who had been drowning getting that first life-saving gasp of air. For the first time in 3 months I was myself again. I remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror, staring into my eyes that had gone from the color of a stormy sky to a calm lake. I felt clear. I felt happy. I looked at my baby and couldn’t wait to hold her. “You’re back” my husband sweetly whispered later, joy and relief in his face. And I was. I tickled, I snuggled, I chased. I was calm and collected. Exhausted, but deep down content. The way it was before. Still, I couldn’t shake the stigma. I still tried to make it into something that was my fault that I could fix on my own. I was talking to a dear friend at church when she gave me the exact words I needed. She asked, “Well, did the medicine fix it?” “Yes. Immediately.” “Well there’s your answer,” she said. “If it had been a spiritual problem, no pill in the world could have fixed it.”
Now hear me on this. I believe God is sovereign and capable. But I also believe He designed our bodies to work a certain way. Certain chemicals, organs, and processes. And I truly believe medicine to be a merciful gift from His hand to help and heal. And indeed it did.
So why am I sharing this? This is not a commercial for prescription drugs. Although the medicine ultimately fixed the problem, it was the openness and attentiveness of those around me that saved me. It hurts to think of where I would have ended up or what could have happened to our precious children if I had been left to spiral further. The care of my husband, the attentiveness of my parents, and the openness of those in my circle were the catalysts to getting the help I needed. Our Wildflower is now approaching her second birthday, and I’m having the time of my life. There are hard days (how could there not be?), but the voices of deep shame and hopeless despair have long been quiet.
This was a huge, humbling, learning experience for me. It has taught me compassion in an area that I honestly turned a blind eye to. I never thought it would happen to me. But you can’t “Big Girl Panties” mental illness. There is no “suck it up and deal” when you feel like life as you know it is over. If you are one who has been down this dark road, know you are not alone, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. For those who haven’t, keep your ears sharp and your heart open. It’s often hard to tell where the darkness comes from- broken relationship, broken spirit, or broken body. As believers, we often attribute struggle to spiritual conflict, but we must remember that we were made body and soul, and both have been wrecked by the Fall. Thankfully, He gives us himself, He gives us each other, and He gives us the means to physical relief. Take heart, there is great hope all around.