It’s not easy to write this.
But my name is Erika, and I have post-partum depression.
I expected some kind of hormonal complications after I gave birth, but I couldn’t put a pin on it in terms of what to expect. I just knew that something made it difficult to get pregnant, surely that same thing would make it difficult to return to my pre-pregnancy normal.
And difficult, it was.
I became a recluse, a hermit. I began to resent everything that required me to leave my house. I floated between my old life and my new life with Baby Sprout, only to deeply miss the other when I was involved with one. I’d be nursing Sprout and crying that I couldn’t write; I’d be writing and resent not being able to be fully present with Sprout. I became incredibly ashamed of my inability to model a healthy handle of both for my daughter. I couldn’t pull myself from an emotional downward spiral. Everything piled upon itself. With each passing day, I could only sink further.
I have no idea how my husband survived this. None. I can’t imagine that I was particularly pleasant during this time. He would take me places, and tears would randomly stream down my face. He’d just rub my hand and play some trap music. Or give me the baby, the one thing that brought me unending joy before I started to realize that the time I spent holding him was time spent not working, and cry again.
I remember one day, he asked me to go for a walk through Brooklyn bridge park, a gorgeous promenade above a highway, overlooking the east river and into battery park. Off we went, baby Sprout in tow, my oldest spending the day with grandma. (We figured the less time she spent with me, the better.) When we arrived to the edge of the park, I envisioned myself jumping over the rail into the highway below. I audibly gasped and clutched my husband’s arm. I don’t think he knew, but I inadvertently said out loud, “Keep him away from me.” He rubbed my arm. “Okay.” I think he figured it out then.
Doctors have a system for trying to ferret out post-partum depression in newly-delivered parents, but too much of it is voluntary. At worst, it’s easily manipulated and woefully insufficient. At best, it just leaves too many gaping holes. We don’t know it’s depression until it’s so overwhelming that we can’t explain it anymore. By then, we’re fighting the very worst of ourselves in a battle where the enemy already knows where you stockpile your weapons, and has already blown up your supply shed. It’s embarrassing, it’s shameful, and it’s isolating. Very few women want to admit this to anyone, let alone a doctor. I for damn sure didn’t.
In fact, I remember the day my kids’ doctor asked me the standard questions. “Everything ok on your end, mommy?” “Yes.” “Do you think you need to see a specialist?” I remember looking down at the floor, then looking out the window, then up at her face. “No. It’s hard, but I’m hanging in there.” That was the last of that.
Depression is constantly mis-characterized—in casual conversation, in literature, in media. We repeatedly misidentify “feeling depressed,” something the majority of us have experienced, as being the same as “being depressed,” another phenomenon entirely. I didn’t understand it until I started researching neurochemical—”neuro” meaning “brain” and “chemical” meaning “hormone”—behavior for my book.
The way we develop attachments to certain things over others has to do with our brain chemistry. Things that bring us immediate joy, pleasure and satisfaction become recurring habits because our brains release “feel good chemicals” in response, which teaches our brains a lesson: these actions bring us joy, so engage in them when you get the chance. Things that bring us sadness, discomfort, or pain teach our brains a lesson, too—avoid—and that’s a lesson you learn deep down in your nervous system. It physically prevents you from acting.
These are reactions your body learns, and these lessons are solidified on a hormonal level.
Depression is an interruption of the hormonal systems that control your desire to gravitate towards things that feel good; it interrupts your natural inclination to avoid things that you know are bad. (This link goes into more explicit detail.)
Think about what that means—it means that activities you know to bring you joy no longer appear to have an incentive. There’s no longer any immediate compulsion to commit to them. In fact, unless it’s something that brings you immediate and overwhelming relief or joy—like drugs or, you know, sugar—the likelihood that you will resort to your most reliable sources of stress relief or happiness is very low. I remember sitting in my living room, four feet away from my yoga mat, with nothing but time on my hands… and feeling nothing. Nothing to compel me to get up, unravel it, and practice. I felt no inclination to get up and go run. I felt no desire to do, well, anything. I didn’t want to watch TV, I didn’t want to read, and I didn’t want to be around my children—not just because I kept envisioning bad things happening to them, but because being around them only led me to fixate on all the things that I thought were wrong or bad.
This is one of the most frustrating parts of depression—you have very little to help you avoid the negative thoughts. Whereas the normal every day person knows how to pull themselves out of a minor emotional slump—relief from a break-up might come in the form of a pint of ice cream, relief from grief might come in the form of good memories with your lost loved one—depression, on a hormonal level, has severed the tie that would compel you to seek relief. Instead, no, you continue on a downward spiral, or just stay stagnant in a somber place. You no longer feel the same connection to things that once brought you a respite from somberness.
You might even try to engage in those behaviors anyway, because you know you should, but it doesn’t feel the same way and doesn’t provide the same sort of gratification you’re used to feeling.
This is precisely why people balk at the notion that depression, for everyone, is merely something that can be “prayed away.” Not because that’s false, because it isn’t. Many people can emerge from a prayer session with a renewed sense of purpose and passion, and it can help them escape the depressive state. Alas, the severity of depression is different for everyone, and if your spiritual leadership isn’t capable of guiding you in the way your particular level of depression might demand, you may find yourself stuck. One’s faith may be able to help them create a pathway out of depression, but it’s okay to also admit you need a therapist who can help bridge the gap between the impact of depression and the willingness to actually do things that can bring relief.
This is also why telling people exercise can help combat depression can become so frustrating. Lots of people run to clear their heads, kick box to fight their daily stresses and envision their boss’ face on that punching bag, or practice yoga and meditation because it helps them realign their behavior with their purpose. But, if you’ve lost the desire to do anything, you can’t be counted on to reliably continue the activity on a consistent basis, especially if you’d never grown to appreciate exercise as a positive before.
Exercise can and does release hormones that help replenish what might be lost, but that’s not helpful if your brain’s not managing the hormones properly.
Depression after pregnancy is complicated, but common—so much so, that the “baby blues” are something doctors preemptively tell parents to expect. Your body is getting used to no longer carrying another living being in it, and your brain has to take the time to learn to adjust the hormone levels in a way that properly accommodates your new size. For some of us, however, it lasts longer. For many, a fear of the side effects of anti-depressant medications on both parents and babies tend to keep many from taking advantage.
My depression changed the way I connected to the world around me. I didn’t hug my husband because it felt good. I hugged my husband because I knew he needed to be hugged. On the rare occasion that I opted to leave the house, I didn’t do so because I needed the fresh air and warm sun on my skin. I did it because my daughter wasn’t getting to school without it. My life no longer belonged to me. The only thing I had was a cycle of day-and-nightmares.
I didn’t realize that post-partum depression was what I was experiencing until I was in the middle of researching the book, and reached the point of learning about how people can develop their addiction as an escape from depression. Because the “feel good” sense that you get from addictive substances like heroin, prescription opiates, or—yep, you guessed it—sugar is so immediate, they become not only a consistent source of joy, but also your only source of joy.
What has helped me?
Though I’ve not reached a point where medication is on the table, talking to a professional has been an invaluable source. I’ve learned that the negative thoughts are not me, they are a symptom of the depression, and I tell myself that when the spiral starts. I literally say to myself, sometimes out loud, “This is not me. This is the depression at work. I know better than this.” It not only stops the spiral, but it disconnects me from owning that spiral. And disowning that spiral gets easier every time I do it.
I also tap into my “moments of lucidity.” I experienced moments where I took part in things I used to love, and would randomly have moments where I’d feel the way i used to feel. Because of the post-baby weight gain, I couldn’t run as fast as I used to, so instead I took a spin class in hopes that it’d help me lose the weight gain and maybe start to tap into my old post-exercise positivity. Doing that, combined with having an incredible and uplifting instructor, helped me experience moments where I tapped into my old positive feelings, to the point where I’d burst into tears in the end of class. Once class was over, I took it upon myself to write or scribble my thoughts down in one of the 30 notebooks I tucked away in all my purses, backpacks, diaper bags, pouches, sports bras, bathrooms, pillows, and elsewhere. When I finally sat down to compile all of my notes and organize them, I cried. I finally had not only an outline for the book, but I had outlines for three other books, including a special pet project about making baby food, something I’d enjoyed doing for Baby Sprout.
I take any opportunity I can to get out of the house and avoid the consequences of my idle hands and idle mind. If I can take the dog for a walk, I strap Sprout on and head out the door. If I can run to the store, I do exactly that—I run to the store. On feet. No headphones, no ambient noise in my ears. Just me, and outside, so that I can feel what it feels like to be apart of an ecosystem instead of in isolation.
I also do my best to stay aware of when my mood is slipping. A quick five-ten minute walk outside has been invaluable to me in sorting my brain out in peace. Because I’d been wearing Baby Sprout since he was born, if I slip him in his carrier, he goes silent and almost always falls asleep. Walking doesn’t always make me feel overwhelmed with joy, but physically leaving the space where I was spiraling helped mentally escape the spiral itself.
You know what else I do? I work really hard to find little things to appreciate. It might leave me walking around the busy streets of New York grinning like an idiot, but when I look up in the sky and see these giant skyscrapers, see hoards of people moving from point A to point B, see the trees and the pigeons—what? yes, girl, I said pigeons—and the children playing and the dogs trotting along and, when I sit on the train, seeing one train race the one next to it, I feel alive. And I’m thankful to be alive.
Why am I writing this? Honestly, I don’t know. Part of me believes that not enough black women discuss challenges of mental health, but I know that’s not true. My e-friend Bassey has been pumping up The Siwe Project and No Shame Day for years, almost as long as I’ve known her. More and more black women are stepping up and trying to create spaces where we can acknowledge our challenges without shame or admonishment, where our admissions can be met with empathy instead of judgment.
Maybe I’m acknowledging my battle with postpartum depression because I want to redress the idea of being “strong black women,” impervious to the multitude of aches and pains—be they physical or emotional—that come my way, still able to stand strong and tall and proud. We deny our struggles because we need to—so many of us have had our partners stolen from us by violence or by the state, so many have had our partners’ earning ability negatively impacted by their past, had our hearts broken by the same people who’d then turn around and beg for forgiveness, that our love often includes a need to be, as we know it, “strong.”
I think there’s more to that, though.
One of the things my research taught me, and ultimately helped to save my life, is that it is not so much “strength” we are priding ourselves on; calling us “strong” is a mischaracterization, and might even be a dangerous one. To call ourselves “strong” implies that anything that is perceived to impact that “strength” is a “weakness.” If the idea of being a “strong black woman” is to be followed to its logical conclusion, then my postpartum depression “weakens” me. Women who resist the idea of having to be “strong” run around calling themselves “weak black women.”
It is not that we are “strong,” nor is it that “weakness” should be praised instead. It is that we are resilient. It is “resilience” that we’ve watched our foremothers pass down generation after generation, the ability to bounce back when things get rough, the ability to weather the storm. Calling it “strength” implies a sort of “above it all”ness; calling it “resilience” actually acknowledges the struggles and allows you to admit that they cause you to, well, struggle… but you come out on top in the end. You come out alive, something that becomes incredibly difficult if shame keeps you isolated from the very people you need to connect with to survive.
Alive, man… that word means something very new to me, now. It’s a word I’ll never take for granted. A couple of weeks ago, in spin class, my instructor cut the lights out and asked us to think of one word to describe how we felt, and told us all to say the word we chose at the same time. She then told us to say “I feel” and then finish the sentence with the word we chose. My word was “alive.” “I feel alive.”
Minutes later, she cut the lights on and instructed us to repeat our word, but this time to use our word to finish the phrase, “I am.” Out of my mouth and shouted at the top of my lungs flew the phrase, “I am alive.”
The realization actually brought me to tears. I am alive, and I am eternally thankful for it.
For more information on postpartum depression:
- Postpartum Depression: Beyond the “baby blues”
- “Black Women Don’t Get Depressed”
- 13 Black Women Share Their Postpartum Depression Experience
- The Siwe Project, working to expand the public dialogue regarding the lived experiences of people of African Descent with mental illness
- Postpartum Depression: It Doesn’t Just “Happen” to White Women
- There’s No Shame In Getting Help For Postpartum Depression
- Postpartum Progress: Changing the Game for Black Moms
- Can you pray away depression?
- 5 Things You Learn When You Tell the Internet About Your Post-Partum Depression
Don’t be afraid to get the help you need. You aren’t alone, and feeling this way doesn’t make you weak; if anything, getting help not only makes you more resilient, but makes you stronger than you ever were.