Depression and I have been dancing partners for more than a decade now. Sometimes it’s a slow waltz, sometimes a spinning reel, and sometimes I get to sit off to one side and take a nice relaxing break from my dark friend.
Over the years I’ve learned to observe my own triggers and put safety valves in place. For example, I go to therapy once a year, even if I’m not depressed, just to keep tabs on the way I’m feeling. As soon as I discovered I was pregnant in 2008, I knew I had to keep a watchful eye on myself. I was prepared – absolutely certain – that I would end up with postpartum depression, and I was terrified of feeling as low as I could go with a baby to look after. When I hit rock bottom, I can hardly care for myself. How was I supposed to look after this tiny new person as well?
So, I lined up a therapy session at 34 weeks of pregnancy, aiming to build myself a nice set of mental defenses against the coming storm.
I went to my first session, wanting to talk about my anxiety over going on maternity leave. I loved my job, and I didn’t know how I could stand to be at home all day every day with a baby. We talked about it. I cried a little.
No, I didn’t. I cried a lot. I cried so much that I couldn’t even talk. I just sat there on the couch, sobbing so hard that my unborn baby started squirming, and the psychologist had to go get a second box of tissues. I did that for a whole hour, all the while trying to gasp out explanations for my behaviour. Hormones, obviously. Stress. Fear of change, of the unknown. I knew all my triggers.
Later that night, I was at home when there was a knock at my front door. There was a lady standing there who I recognised, although she didn’t know me. She was the niece of a work colleague – and she was a drug addict who was mixed up in all kinds of bad things that I’d been hearing about for weeks at work. She asked me if I could give her a lift into town. Odd request from someone you don’t know and I blurted out the question, “What for?”
She informed me that she was out of her anti-psychotic medication, and if she didn’t get to the pharmacy as soon as possible she was going to end up really sick.
Yikes. I threw out the first excuse I could think of – I told her I was pregnant and tired, and I couldn’t do it.
Mistake. Her eyes shot to my belly, and she spent the next couple of minutes telling me how lucky I was, and how she wanted her own baby, and… And by that point, my other mental dance partner was knocking loudly on the door of my brain – anxiety. I got her to leave, to go ask a different random stranger for that lift, and then I stayed awake. All. Night.
Convinced, utterly convinced, that she was coming back with a knife, and she was going to try to take my child from me.
By the time my next therapy session came around a week later, I wasn’t just a bawling mess- I was a shaking, hysterical, terrified mess, convinced that some kind of evil was heading my way. No ifs or buts about it, something bad was going to happen – from this girl, random strangers, an accident – I was sure that either my baby or I was in trouble, and no amount of logic or reasoning could sway my reptilian brain centre from this fear response.
And at that point I realised that this time, my depression and my anxiety had snuck around that safety valve, and I was in the extremely intense grip of something they hadn’t talked about in any of my childbirth classes:
Before the baby arrives, you’re supposed to be the glowing mother-to-be, fondly looking forward to the arrival of your new little one, taking it easy, enjoying your last days of freedom. Sure, you might get depressed once you’re sleep deprived, struggling to breastfeed and awash with postpartum hormones, but before the birth – no, that’s all supposed to be sunshine and moonbeams.
I was ever so glad I’d gone to that first therapy session, because otherwise I would have been running up against all these feelings with a baby in my arms. Or not, as the case so happened – it turns out I wasn’t wrong about my dire predictions, and everything did in fact go horribly wrong. But by that stage, despite a crash c-section, my baby being airlifted away from me, a month in the NICU, I found myself able to handle some of the greatest stress I’ve ever experienced without breaking down. By that stage, I was seven weeks into my therapy course, taking antidepressants, and acknowledging my fears.
From the simplest (fear of being bored) to the most complex (fearing that I’d end up being too much like my own mother and would turn my daughter into just this kind of wreck), I had faced down those issues, broken them into pieces, examined them, and found that they weren’t as scary as I thought. I’d come to understand some of the most important rules of becoming a mother; first, you can’t control what happens, so you just have to roll with it; second, your best is absolutely good enough; third, you can’t predict the future, so there’s no point guessing.
So, I guess this leads me to a few points about my experience of antenatal depression:
It exists, and it’s not always the hormones. If you feel down, anxious or sad to a degree where it starts affecting your life or your enjoyment of life, go see someone about it. Your doctor, your therapist – it never hurts to talk, whether you conclude in the end that you’re depressed or not. You might end up with post-partum depression and be glad you put those defenses in place nice and early.
I was terrified of taking antidepressant drugs during pregnancy for fear they might cause problems for my child. There are safe antidepressants you can take, and my personal experience was that the pregnancy hormones meant I had greater need for the medication than on previous occasions. My daughter’s problems, FWIW, were most certainly unrelated to the drugs, although when I weaned her from breastfeeding at 18 months, I was still taking the medication and as a result she went through a withdrawal process over about a week. She was a most unpleasant character during that week, but both before and after that, she was/is the same happy, delightful little person she’s always been.
There’s no law saying you have to be delighted about everything baby-related. Birth? Bonding? Nappies? Cracked nipples? Pah! But in addition to those, of course, you get that milky new baby smell, smiles and cuddles, first words and steps and everything else that’s wonderful about kids. Taking a realistic view of the potential downers is important. Don’t expect it all to be utopia, but don’t expect it all to be terrible, either. Parenthood is, of course, a buffet that serves up a little awesome, a little awful, and you never know which you’re going to get.
So when, after meeting a good guy, marrying him and buying a house in the suburbs with a yard (like I was Suzie-freaking-Homemaker), I found myself knocked up once again just like I’d wanted, I couldn’t begin to understand why I was so miserable. After living through my first pregnancy — something that can only be described through a particularly bad country song — raising an autistic child, escaping my alcoholic parents and finally having another baby, this time the way I thought it was “supposed to be,” my feelings were beyond bizarre to me.
Certainly, my life was stressful. But my life has always been stressful. I’d had to quit my job and money was tight, something my new husband worried about often and loudly. When we’d moved to the ‘burbs, we’d left behind our friends so my support system of single friends was gone. We’d occasionally talk on the phone but it became more and more obvious that we were no longer on the same page. It stung more than I’d thought it would.
Day after day during this pregnancy I sat alone on the couch, or praying to the porcelain gods, while my husband worked 14-hour days. My distant son, never a source of emotional comfort anyway, was in school all day. These were the days before I’d adopted the internet as Your Aunt Becky, so I was Becky, As Herself. I had no one to confide in, no Band of Merry Pranksters to confess my feelings to, and now neatly severed from all of my support systems, I floundered.
I’d been depressed before, but the feelings I was experiencing were new. I felt like I was mired in quicksand, rooted in one spot, unable to move forward. Always a social beast, I could barely leave my house. A simple phone call became too much to handle. The isolation bred isolation and now a trip to the store exhausted me for days beforehand and afterward.
It was all I could do to get out of bed in the morning.
Sleep was an elusive mistress. Night after night, as my son churned in my belly, I tossed and turned, unable to ever fall into that deep REM sleep that the doctors insist we need to survive. I remembered that sleep deprivation was a technique that soldiers used on POW’s to drive them slowly insane, which was precisely what was happening to me. Each morning, I dragged myself out of bed, unrefreshed and sad, filled with a sense of impending doom.
Finally, untrusting of my OB, I turned to Dr. Google for advice. While I wasn’t yet Your Aunt Becky, I was a blogger and I knew that the beauty (and horror) of the internet is that there’s always one soul that no matter how depraved you’re feeling, can sympathize with you. Setting my search to “antepartum depression,” I was confident that I would find something.
Nothing came up. Well, okay, there were a couple of things, but mostly with “antepartum” and “depression” mentioned in the same article.
Not exactly helpful, Dr. Google.
Fine, I thought. I’m a freak.
Ben, my first, had been born after Andrea Yates had her bout with postpartum psychosis, so I’d had no end of pamphlets shoved at me to help me combat any urges to hurt myself or someone else after he was born. We’d studied the spectrum of postpartum mood disorders in nursing school as well. But antepartum depression was a big question mark.
So what did I do? NOTHING. I wore a groove on the couch where I sat miserable and sad until my second son, Alex, was born squalling and healthy. Almost instantly, my mood improved.
When I got pregnant with my daughter, I expected the antepartum depression to return and it did. By this time, I had become Your Aunt Becky and shared my troubles with my Pranksters. Many stepped up and said that they, too, had experienced the same types of feelings. It was wonderful to feel less alone; less like a circus freak. I went onto an SSRI in my second trimester to try to combat the antepartum depression, but even with that on board I didn’t feel much better. Pregnancy, it seems, doesn’t agree with me.
What shattered me was after I shared my experiences about antepartum depression, the usual search terms that brought people to my blog (boring things, aunt becky sucks, mommy wants a vodka) were replaced by these: “antepartum depression,” “depression during pregnancy,” and “sadness in pregnancy.” Knowing that there were other women sitting on their own couches struggling the way I had broke my tiny black heart into a billion pieces.
The isolation I experienced was devastating and while I ended up walking away from the experience with only a little darkness on my back, I hate to imagine others out there suffering the way that I did. I’m thrilled that postpartum depression has gotten so much support. It should get all that it does and more. Women supporting other women is beautiful. I want antepartum depression, which they now call antenatal depression apparently, to get some of that support, too.
I hope that for the next pregnant woman who sits on her couch, crying and feeling as desperately alone as I did, I hope that she can find the light.
Maybe it’s not common, maybe it’s commonly forgotten, maybe I’ll feel too ashamed to even post this, but pregnancy isn’t what I expected.
Now don’t get me wrong, I KNEW what to expect, the nausea and fatigue, the moodiness and what not, but I wasn’t prepared.
I wasn’t prepared to shy away from my friends and family, to want nothing but my bed and books. I guess I’m still kinda me, but I am a me I haven’t been for a long time, a me I thought I grew out of. It’s not that I’m not happy, because I couldn’t feel more love for this child or for my husband that I do now, it’s just that I am also sad. I am tired and sick and rather than get better as I get closer to my second trimester it’s gotten worse.
Am I going to be like my mom? 40 weeks of throwing up just because the wind blew in my face? Dear God, I hope not.
The worst part is that I can’t see the end of this. I’m not miserable mentally, but physically I am and it’s draining the reserves I have in my brain to separate my logic and my emotions.
Part of it is that I am, frankly, a little tired of worrying about everyone’s opinions, preparing myself for arguments before they have the chance to arise. It’s to the point I don’t even want to talk to anyone about babies, birth, shots, slings, ANYTHING.
Unfortunately, I care what people think, and caring what they think but knowing that I am going to do what I think is best in the end, causes me to take things personally and feel a lot of unnecessary anger. Anger makes me tired.
It’ll pass and in a few weeks I’ll be laughing at this post, calling myself dramatic and eating 14 cinnamon rolls because that’s my new favorite pastime. At least, I fucking hope so.
Until then, this is me being honest, and begging you not to say “I told you so.”