January 6, 2017

My Scar

Illustration: Erin McPhee

Stigma. The Merriem Webster dictionary defines this word as "a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something; a scar left by a hot iron; a mark of shame or discredit."

Postpartum Depression. It's one of these scars, one that many women endure silently because they are embarrassed, ashamed, frightened or confused. There is only one real purpose a scar can serve once it has formed and that's to tell a story. So in an effort to be purposeful, here is the story behind my scar.

I was prepared to experience PPD when I gave birth to my first child, Brooks. Depression runs in my family, and I have been on medication for anxiety and depression for 14 years now. Thanks to an amazing psychiatrist, really good medicine and years of figuring out what action steps work for me, I only sometimes experience the lows that depression can bring. I expected that to change with childbirth. Thankfully, I was wrong. For the first year of Brooks' life I definitely felt the full gamut of postpartum emotions that all mothers know - extreme exhaustion, fear of failure, intense love and protectiveness, triumph at small victories and tears shared with an inconsolable babe. But I could fairly easily bounce back from anything unpleasant. Most often I was happy and content to be a mom. I worked part time, cared for my son, stayed engaged in my marriage and continued leading worship at my church. I felt like myself.

Fast forward 20 months to the birth of my girls. I had come through the postpartum months with Brooks relatively unscathed. I knew, though, that gestating two babies quite literally meant I had twice the amount of additional estrogen coursing through my body. Again I prepared myself for the worst. And again I was first. Keeping two newborns and a young toddler alive for those first two months was the most insanely difficult thing I've ever done. I was breastfeeding, pumping, supplementing, consoling one baby who cried day and night, and oh yeah, keeping my almost two year old entertained. But I was doing it (with a crazy amazing load of help from my incredible husband, mom, mother in law, etc). I was exhausted, slightly scared and often frustrated. But I felt like myself.

I reached 10 weeks postpartum and began to emerge from the newborn fog. I looked around at my day to day, in-the-trenches life and inwardly smiled. I've got this. I'm making it. Everything is going to be fine.

And then it began.
It crept up subtly at first.
I became easily annoyed.
Someone sitting beside me chewing a sandwich
A baby who supplied an encore poop when I'd just changed her diaper
Someone talking when I wanted silence
...All of these small things began to bother me.

Over the course of a few weeks, the emotions escalated. I was no longer annoyed several times each day. I had quickly progressed from annoyed to agitated to angry. I was ANGRY.

Initially I chalked it up to exhaustion. I was perpetually tired physically, emotionally and mentally. Of course I was irritable! Who wouldn't be?? I counted to ten and moved on.

After a while though, I realized that the anger I was feeling wasn't normal. I realized that I didn't feel like myself anymore. I was no longer simply feeling angry. Anger gripped me, roared up in me like a consuming flame. I wanted to spit, scream, cuss. I wanted to drive away from my house with no intention of returning. Then one afternoon, I mentally visualized squeezing one of my children until they stopped making noise. And that terrified me.

I knew something was wrong. My husband and my mom had both noticed this change in me and had gently asked me about it. I couldn't ignore their concern or my own. I wasn't tired. I was sick. I needed help.

I made an emergency visit to my trusted psychiatrist and explained what was happening. The diagnosis: Postpartum Depression. I couldn't believe it. PPD? But I wasn't sad or suicidal. I wasn't crying all of the time or craving sleep (more than the mom of a newborn should). I was just mad! However, my doctor was correct. He adjusted my medication and we discussed practical coping strategies. I went home and got better. Within a few weeks my emotions were coming under control and I felt like Tori again.

Today, my girls are giggly six month olds and my son is a well-adjusted big brother. My husband and I keep the love alive in between diaper changes, bottles, tickle fights and naps. I am healthy and whole. Life is one challenge after another, but I can honestly say that I am often happy and nearly always content, even if I am also frustrated or exhausted or annoyed.

So why am I yanking this skeleton out of my closet and putting it on display? I've decided to share my postpartum journey because someone needs to read this. Some woman out there is struggling through the postpartum months and doesn't feel like herself. She is too sad, too angry, too something. And she needs help.

Postpartum depression doesn't look the same for everyone. And it doesn't always hit in the first few weeks or even months after a baby is born. It can creep up slowly and then intensify rapidly. PPD doesn't mean you are inadequate or broken. But it does mean you are vulnerable. And it's okay, no, necessary, to get help. Please do. You will look back on this brief but dark time and be incredibly glad you did.

Here are a few resources to help you get started:

Postpartum Support International,  1-800-944-4773
Postpartum Progress
Mental Health America,  1-800-273-TALK