When Henry was a few months old, I was on the phone with my husband when I casually remarked in front of an acquaintance that I needed to run by the pharmacy to pick up my antidepressant medication. I will never forget the woman’s quick retort: “What could you possibly need antidepressants for? You have the cutest little boy!” I suppressed a cringe and evacuated the area as quickly as possible, unwilling to explain myself to this woman.
I was quick to leave the conversation behind, but the memory is vivid and lingers at the back of my mind most days. She hadn’t even hesitated to ask a question I’ve been trying to find the answer to my entire adult life.
I’ve struggled with manic depression since my middle school years, often at its worst during times of change. That first year of marriage? Lemme tell ya — they’re not kidding when they say it’s the toughest. You don’t know self-loathing until you’re living in the honeymoon phase and barely holding your head above water, all the while berating yourself for not being over the moon with the joy that is so trademark newlywed. And I never wanted to admit it, either — the vast depths to which my soul would plummet, the dark places I went in my mind; not while I was a teenager, and certainly not when I was newly married to the man of my dreams.
I was embarrassed. And I think, sometimes, so was my husband. As a naturally quite happy individual with limited — if any — exposure to people struggling with depression, he didn’t understand how I could wake up anything other than content. I don’t blame him; often, I’ve wondered the same thing.
But I digress . . . When I discovered I was pregnant, I experienced a pretty typical gamut of emotions: anxiety, anticipation, excitement, fear, joy, etc. As the months trudged by, though, that anxiety sharpened into something much more dangerous for me: I began to feel the darkness creeping up once again. It only got worse the more I thought about the dozens of ways my life was about to change. Try as I might, I couldn’t see past the negative changes barreling down the pipe — sleeplessness; lack of personal time; bills, bills, and more bills — so as our little one’s due date approached, I began to shrink into myself a bit more each day. Since I am manic, my highs are extreme, often bordering on absurd, and my lows are woefully deep. I could spend an evening at boot camp with my girlfriends, rubbing my watermelon-sized gut and laughing enthusiastically alongside them as we pushed through the paces; only to fall into a despairing pit of loneliness and melancholy two hours later, rendering me effectively incapable of moving from the bed or speaking.
So at 8 months pregnant, before we left the doctor’s office, my husband brought up The Subject to our doctor. We’d talked about broaching the topic several times prior to the appointment, and I’d even felt like it was a good idea as we walked through the clinic doors; but as soon as he asked my doctor about medication, I shut down. The doctor assured us it would be safe to take a low dose of something for anxiety/depression, talked about the very minimal risks associated with taking these drugs while pregnant, and then turned to me. Both my husband and the doctor waited, staring at me expectantly — as if I were supposed to just know the right answer, just like that.
What I said: “I’m not sure. Can we wait a few weeks to see if it gets better?”
What I was thinking: What if these drugs screw up my baby? What if they don’t help? What if I end up with debilitating postpartum depression after the baby arrives? What if the meds make it worse? What if . . .
and here’s the thing I’d been dreading for years, the question I could barely ask of myself:
What if the baby inherits my proclivity for depression?
You guys, I was terrified. Terrified to admit I needed help, terrified to ask for it, terrified to screw up another life . . . I was frozen in time and space, incapable of giving the answer I so desperately needed to deliver: “Yes. Please help me, now.”
Thankfully, that husband of mine — the one who hadn’t understood my inexplicable sadness years prior — put his Converse-bedecked foot down and got bossy with me. (And before any feminists jump on me here and tell me it’s not my place to listen to my husband, you’re missin’ the damn point.) We left the doctor’s office that day with a prescription in hand, and though I was still apprehensive, my husband and doctor were clearly in my corner. Over and over again, they reminded me that given my history, my baby and I would face far greater risks if I didn’t medicate.
So I did the taboo: I took antidepressants while I was pregnant. And I continued to take them afterward. And seven months later, I’m still taking them, because being a mom is really, really freaking hard, as is adjusting to life alone at home. I never experienced postpartum depression (which was, honestly, one of my greatest fears about pregnancy); but I largely attribute that to my consistent use of antidepressants before and after delivery. In fact, I’ve had more happy days than not these past seven months, watching Henry grow. His smile is a salve to soothe even the most glum days.
I wish I could go back in time to that conversation — the one where the woman asked (not intending to be hurtful) how I could possibly be depressed with a beautiful new baby. I’d tell her I wasn’t depressed, not anymore, but I was taking preventative measures. I’d tell her how hard it is to be alone sometimes, at least for me. I’d tell her that for some people, it is possible to experience depression despite having a seemingly perfect or extraordinary life. I’d tell her it is possible to feel inexplicably alone and down in the dumps for no good reason. And I’d tell her that sometimes, people like me struggle because of a chemical imbalance in our brains — not because we aren’t grateful for the great things in our life, or because we cannot find joy in the little things.
And there’s nothing at all wrong with acknowledging you need a little help — because you can’t be everything to everyone if you aren’t whole to begin with.