I’ve been hesitant about sharing this story.
Not because is particularly different. Not because it’s scary. Not because it’s sad. But because for months now, I’ve been working hard digesting it, working through it, healing from it. It’s a story that is so common, yet that doesn’t make it right. It’s a story of pain, of secrecy and finally of deep vulnerability… and I believe I’m finally ready to share my part of it.
Picture this scenario:
You have been fighting a silly cold for a few weeks now, working your way through your medicine cabinet, taking warm teas and avoiding dust, but the feeling lingers and you’re just tired of it. It’s one of those persistent colds. It also brings back the nasty migraines you used to get as a student, only now they feel stronger… perhaps is just an age thing.
After few weeks on different over-the-counter medicines, you move your achy butt off to the doctor. You were worried about getting antibiotics but after a month feeling like death, you’re willing to try anything. They run some tests, prescribe some drugs and send you home with a sick leave. So, you crawl home, switch on the TV and call it a night.
A few days pass and you’re feeling a bit better although the migraines are still coming. Anyway, you keep on drinking your pills and living life as normal as possible. You go to work, drive the kids to school, cook dinners (or decide for the takeout option); you see friends and even make it to one birthday dinner. It’s business as usual.
But another month goes by and you’re still not recovered, so you decide to go to the doctor again. This time, you demand a full checkup (you even bring a list of tests you found on Google that you want them doing on you). They run the list of tests through your insurance and after a few days, you go get yourself checked out to find what’s wrong.
Two days pass by, again living as normal, and suddenly you get the call. “Can you come back to see Dr. X?” asks the voice on the other end.
“Sure” you respond, not sure of what’s happening and so the next day, you make it to the doctor’s office, a bit nervous but mostly incredulous.
“It’s a cancer” says the doctor. Your mouth goes dry.
“WHAT?!?!” you ask checking its not April’s fools day or anything like it. “What do you mean cancer? It’s just a cold!” you respond as a wave of fear and panic rolls over you.
“I’m sorry, but it’s cancer. Very aggressive, in fact. You have a tumor on your brain and metastasis in your lungs. How didn’t you notice anything before? This must have hurt for months, years even!” says the doctor whilst flipping through your charts.
“It bothered me, but it was normal… I had checkups done a few weeks ago… wait, what?” you say this as your mind races about mortgages, wills, memories, your kids’ faces, your spouse’s smile. Nothing makes sense.
“Is there anyone we can call to support you now?” The doctor asks kindly, noticing that you’re completely freaking out.
“My husband” you say and then start crying.
Horrible, right? Scary and horrible and sudden and plain shocking. Isn’t it? But this is life, isn’t it? This is how life deals us cards sometimes. Perhaps, the couple talk with the doctor, discuss the chances, the treatments, the next steps. They cry together, they fight each other, they go back and forth about possible outcomes and big decisions, even those that they weren’t prepared to take so early in their lives.
After a few weeks have gone by, after they are certain about the coming actions, they start gathering their close family little by little and letting them know. They spare them the details, keep it short and sweet, and make sure not too much is said, especially considering that there are small kids involved.
The last weeks, her therapist has encouraged her to share a bit of her journey in public, to open herself up to others, to show herself vulnerable as a way to get stronger. At first she felt self-conscious and ashamed, but after a few little posts, she dares to open up more about her struggle. She posts motivational messages, starts blogging about her life and even shares some pictures showing her new “smoother” look.
Several months into her treatment, bold and weak, she runs into a friend at the grocery store. Her friend looks at her and approaches. She realizes they never had a chance to discuss her battle with cancer, until now. She suddenly feels ready to do so, if not now, soon. “Hi” she says, and immediately feels a pang of fear. Her friend doesn’t look amicable at all.
“I can’t believe you never called me to tell me you had cancer! I just can’t believe you did something so low” Her friend says. She’s paralyzed with shame and sadness.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know…” she tries to explain vaguely, her cheeks burning red.
“I saw you at John’s party and you said you were fine! I asked you and you said it was nothing. Who does that to a friend?” The friend reprimands coldly.
“I didn’t know at that time… No one did!” She continues. “I knew later on and couldn’t…” she get’s interrupted.
“Is this how you treat your friends? That is SO low. I want nothing to do with you or your family anymore” The friend turns around and walks away.
“I’m sorry… I really couldn’t…” she says until she realizes she’s talking to no one. So, with tears running down her cheeks and the taste of shame and mourning in her mouth, she walks away and runs home, to cry privately, to grieve for the friendship that has just died and for all the loneliness she has felt over the last months and that she will never be able to forget.
Can you imagine this happening? Can you picture this whole story happening in real life? Probably no, right? How about if we swap the word cancer for Post-Natal Depression. Can you imagine this happening? Or maybe, we change it simply for Depression? Can you imagine this happening now?
Guess what, this (with some aesthetic details changed) happened to me. I was bitterly and angrily confronted by a dear and closed friend about the fact that she learned about my (very personal and private) battle with Post-Natal Depression (PND) through a newspaper story mentioning the work I now do supporting women struggling with it… and a friendship was ended, one I still mourn today.
The reality is, I can now see how many friends I’ve lost along this path. How many supportive people has become less than acquaintances, how many invitations I have stopped receiving, how much loneliness fits in a diagnosis like mine.
The saddest part is that around 14% of mothers struggle with this condition, this number goes up to 60% for women who suffered from it with their previous children. You can imagine that being pregnant now, these numbers have a big freaking-out potential for me (and my family).
Because, you see, PND wasn’t just a battle that I fought on my own (even though most of the time it felt like it). PND was a war we, as a family, fought hardly, battle after battle. Sometimes we lost and it took me days or even weeks to recover, going back to sitting in my pajamas for days at a time, hiding from the world, making up excuses not to see anyone. Others we won, and I would make plans for the future, change to “outside clothes” and even wear makeup and leave my home.
Post-Natal Depression was this huge shadow around me. It was my reality, and for many months, I wasn’t even aware of it. For most of my son’s first year of life, I just though motherhood sucked, I was an awful mom and this was my (now shitty) life. When I saw my mom friends’ Facebook pictures and status, I felt like perhaps there was more to motherhood than what I lived, yet I didn’t realize that how I felt wasn’t how it should have been.
The first time the phrase Post-Natal Depression was mentioned in my home, Matthew was 8 months old. He was recovering from severe undernourishment (another issue which filled my days with shame and remorse) and I was having daily meltdowns over his food preferences, his slow weight gain, my slow weight loss, the lack of support around the house, and how lonely and isolated I felt.
I would cry pretty much every single day, sometimes in front of my husband, but mostly on my own. This was eating me alive, destroying my child’s life and permeating into my marriage, making all of us weaker, sadder and more lost.
From the day my husband asked me if perhaps I was experiencing PND until the first time I saw my son and felt pure love and joy inside, at least 4 months went by. That sums the fact that his first year of life, my first year as someone’s mom, feels like an eternal daze of tears and regrets and not much happiness, like a lot of nothing filled with hurt.
Guilt, shame, regret, fear and bitterness reigned my days, so I couldn’t even imagine how could I tell anyone how I was feeling. Let’s be honest, how can you call a friend and say: “Hey, come over my place for brunch this Friday, the theme is: Post-Natal Depression and other reasons why motherhood sucks. See you then!”
I mean, how can you work your most shameful reality, your biggest fear, into a conversation? How can you open up to everyone around you, whose lives look picture perfect ALL THE FREAKING TIME about the fact that you really don’t like your son much and you’re considering leaving your family behind to join a convent in South America? How?
Let’s be honest, that’s not good dinner talk… That’s not any-meal-talk really. Specially when for months on end, you’re not even sure of what the heck is going on with you and if you will ever survive it.
Yet, I was confronted with these questions. I was socially isolated for not following the protocols and conventions I should have when it came to the most private details of my life as a young woman, mother and wife. I was (and still am) pushed aside from a group of people I called my “expat family” for years for keeping this, something which still today confronts me with feelings of worthlessness and failure, from them, I’m an outcast for not sharing this.
But most importantly, I’m still left with a feeling of emptiness and lost at the fact that I’m not part of their tribe anymore. I still wonder if I should had planned that “Post-Natal Depression Brunch” or sent “I have depression” cards or something. I still go through the little memories I have from my first year as a mom trying to find what I could have done differently, what I should had changed. However, the past is done, and this exercise just serves to remind me of my fails and keep me down, something I worked hard to stop doing.
So, I’m ready to share my story. Not trying to shame anyone, not looking to get apologies or more confrontations, but because I want to start a dialogue. My aim is to open up the discussion about how society treats Mental Health, how people see it and what their ideas and expectations of it are and what are their expectations for those going through these issues. I want to spare anyone in my situation (being Post-Natal, Ante-Natal or just basic depression) to feel like I did (like I still do at times). I want to remind us how everyone around us is fighting a battle we have NO IDEA of; therefore kindness is always the best policy.
I know the angry and bitter reactions others had, come from their own fears. I can rationalize that, yet I also know that when you’re pushing your way through fear, shame and sorrow, a confrontation like this one puts you back on a darkness loop in which it gets easier to get lost in.
I have assumed my friend’s motivation was mainly concern. But, knowing what I know today, I still wonder if the words would be swapped again and instead of Post-Natal Depression, it was cancer, her harsh words would have been the same, if her accusations would have been similar. This I would never know… So I’m left wondering, working through the grief, committed to moving on.