Writing this is hard for me. Like most people, I am protectively private when it comes to my mental health. But, I am sharing my story because it is common—too common—and because I want you to watch carefully for mental illness in yourselves and your loved ones.
For the past few years, I have been a big advocate for mental health awareness, always keen to read and share articles about removing the stigmas associated with mental health issues. However, as much as I have wanted to be a crusader for the issue, I never thought that I would become mentally ill.
I thought I was immune.
Positivity, resilience, and loving relationships were my shield—they couldn’t be penetrated, right?
Last week, 98 days after my second daughter was born, and after 4 weeks of disturbing physical symptoms, and seemingly endless medical consultations and tests, I finally realized that I have postpartum depression. Yep. Happy, life-loving and extroverted me has depression.
Oh, and anxiety. Awesome.
To be honest, this realization was a big relief for me. As I said to my husband, “I would be stoked if I just had PPD!” He looked dumbfounded. “Why would anyone be excited to be depressed?”
Because up to my recent epiphany I literally thought I might be dying.
Depression creeps in slowly. Very slowly. All those Zoloft and Prozac commercials showing people curled up in the fetal position sobbing under a rain cloud are bullshit. Do me a favour and erase that image from your mental definition of “depression” or “mental illness.” While you are at it, wipe away the image of the crazed person holding their frazzled hair head from your definition of “anxiety.”
Now that your mental illness dictionary has been erased we can begin to rebuild it. I will tell you what mental illness has looked like for me but bear in mind that I am only one individual. One example. One entry of the millions out there that should be considered in our dictionary.
My depression made its (not so) grand appearance as irritability. My lucky husband often gets to be the receiver of this one. I get SO annoyed at the smallest things. Like, really, really small, stupid things. Afterwards I know I am wrong but I don’t have the energy or desire to make things right. My actions towards my husband, combined with the addition of a baby to our family, have put a huge strain on our marriage (which has contributed to even more mental angst).
The second symptom to rear its head was worry. I worried my girls would get sick if we went out somewhere germy. I worried if we didn’t go out people wouldn’t understand. I worried I was being a bad mom to my oldest because my youngest took so much of my time. I worried my youngest wouldn’t be emotionally secure if I left her pouting for 2 minutes to take my oldest potty. I worried something would happen to me and my girls would be alone. What if I died? Seriously. I worried about e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.
After allowing irritability and worry free reign over my mind for a couple of months, symptoms began to show up physically. I woke one morning and just didn’t feel myself. This sparked a huge influx of anxiety and panic.
This wasn’t the first time.
When I was 41 weeks pregnant with my youngest I had an “episode,” as my neurologist calls it. Basically I woke up feeling totally normal and thinking totally clearly but I was unable to put together a sentence. I tried to ask my daughter what she wanted for breakfast and it came out, “zebra purple right…” Apparently this is known as “word salad” in the medical field.
I’m sure you can imagine how the emergency dispatch / hospital / maternity ward reacted to an overdue mama with possible stroke symptoms. It was intense. And in the end my unborn daughter (born completely healthy four days later) and I were fine.
Which brings me back to the day I woke up five weeks ago feeling funny. My mind raced back to the morning of my word salad. While the doctors had ruled out stroke and TIA (mini stroke), they still hadn’t found an answer to what had happened to me. I felt intense anxiety: maybe I was having another episode. I immediately called my husband and made him come home from work. I couldn’t bear the thought of my two girls fending for themselves. Since that morning, for the past five weeks, someone has been staying with me. Anxiety, worry, and fear take over my body if I am alone with my kids.
I don’t want to go into a lot of detail on the physical symptoms and when they appeared but they have included: extreme fatigue, light-headedness, stomach cramps, chest pains, irregular bowel movements, hunger, loss of appetite, weight loss, tingly hands, feeling extremely cold, headaches, and heightened chronic neck and back pain.
I legitimately thought I might be dying.
I have been sent for numerous rounds of blood work, including hypoglycemia, diabetes, celiac disease, thyroid function, nutrient deficiencies, etc. I have also undergone a cardiac stress test and worn a Holter monitor for 24 hours. Later this week I go for a detailed echocardiogram. Imagine the stress that all these tests cause on someone with undiagnosed anxiety / depression. At one point my doctor told me that I may have mitral valve prolapse, which does not heal itself and could require surgery. Open heart surgery.
My doctor is a good guy and I totally trust him, which goes to show just how poorly our medical system handles mental illness. If my doctor, the highest rated MD in my city, overlooks postpartum depression in an individual who gave birth three months prior, even after she stated she was experiencing anxiety…..we have a problem. A BIG problem.
I suffered with severe PPD for over a month without recognizing it. Finally, last week, a loved one brought it up. She was gentle and brave in doing so and I will be forever grateful. It takes guts to tell someone you think that they may have a mental illness. But goddam. If you think someone you love might be suffering, please speak up so that they can get help. While everyone might not be stoked to be depressed like I was, we ALL have a duty of protecting one another from mental illness. It can be sneaky and relentless, but together we can help each other avoid and overcome it.
Doctors might argue with me on this, but I truly believe mental illnesses shouldn’t be defined. Sure, we should teach the signs of mental illness, the same as we do for strokes and heart attacks, but we always have to trust our own judgment. You know yourself best. And I bet you know your loved ones pretty darn well too. If something doesn’t seem right, talk about it. Seek help. Don’t let it get out of control, like I did.
I was raised to push forward and carry on, to be tough, and to do what was necessary to weather the storm. I am grateful to my parents for instilling these values in me. They have been useful, and even necessary, at times in my life. But that’s just it. They have a time and a place.
What many of us haven’t been taught, or aren’t teaching to our children, is how to recognize when we cannot push through on our own. We should drill into their little heads (and our own!) that it is absolutely okay to ask for help when life gets tough. In fact, as backwards as it may seem, asking for help is the brave thing to do.
I finally realize that I need help. I have asked for it and have been overwhelmed with love and support. I understand that the journey back to “normal” will be tough but I am determined and with the help of my family, friends, doctor, naturopath, psychiatrist, and whoever else joins my team along the way, I know I can do it.
There will be brighter, easier days ahead.