“You? Depressed? I don’t believe it.”
That is the standard response I hear when I reconnect with long lost acquaintances, while catching up on our lives and inevitably sharing stories about our children.
I am by nature a very positive and grateful person. I am blessed to have been born in a time and place that has afforded me all of the opportunities that life could offer. I grew up in a lovingly dysfunctional family, with challenges no more difficult than what anyone might experience. My mother died when I was in my early 20s and, needless to say, the entire dynamic of my family changed with her passing. My father, a Holocaust survivor, almost became a child again, having been spoiled by a woman who was both wife and mother to him for over 20 years. He had a very hard time stepping up to the plate for my two siblings and me, one of who has Down’s Syndrome. The role of family caretaker was relegated to me and I was ok with that. I had a great role model in my mother and she taught me well how to care for others.
I knew that one day, I would be a good mother to my own children, but the road to parenthood was not a simple path for me. For much of my late 20 and 30s, career was my focus as were several serious, but failed relationships. After having been an advertising executive for several years, I went back to school to become a teacher, which eventually led to being the principal of an elementary school for three years. I definitely wanted my own family, but had not chosen, or met, the right person with whom to begin that life. And then I met Daniel. Being that we were both in our mid-30s when we married, we immediately focused on beginning our family as soon as we could. I got pregnant right away and I had a fantastic pregnancy. No morning sickness, gained lots of weight and didn’t care, and truly looked forward to being a mother.
Everything changed when I went into labour. I have what’s called a leaky dura, so even though I happily requested an epidural, it did not take hold at all. After hours of agonizing labour, the OB finally realized that I needed a C-Section, for which I was completely put out. When I awoke, I was so disoriented and exhausted that I did not realize that a nurse had put my newborn son on my breast, leaving me to figure out the nursing thing myself. And it wasn’t easy. Benjamin had reflux and did not feed well. He seemed uncomfortable and restless when he fed and didn’t seem to get much. But I was determined to at least give breastfeeding a fair shot, so I refused to give up even though it really wasn’t working for him or me. On top of that, I had a spinal headache from all of the unused medication that had pooled in my system and could not sit up at all for the first week of Ben’s life. But still, I was on a high. I felt euphoric! I had a healthy baby boy! When I went home from the hospital 5 days later, I remember feeling so happy and blessed with my life. All would be good.
But it was September 10, 2001, and soon enough, all would not be good in the world. My first morning at home with our newborn was filled with CNN reports, frantic calls to loved ones in New York and DC, and a sense of impending dread that never left. But I was still ok. Still able to function. Until…
About a week later, exhausted from late nights and with no extended family to care for my well-being, I awoke from a nap to the sound of Ben crying in his crib. All of a sudden a panic arose in me that I had never felt before. I was paralyzed with anxiety. I could not breathe, let alone get up to get Ben from his crib. I managed to call Daniel at work hysterically crying. He rushed home right away, but when he arrived I could not articulate what had brought these feelings on or even why I was feeling them. My girlfriend had “loaned” me her housekeeper that day so I was not alone and Daniel reassured me that all would be fine and with that he went back to work. As soon as he left, the housekeeper, with good intentions, said the one thing that people should never say to someone going through an episode of extreme anxiety: “What’s wrong with you? Do you know how lucky you are? Snap out of it!” “Yes!” I told myself, “snap out of it!”, but no matter how hard I tried and reasoned with myself, I could not snap out of it. I was now on a journey. One that I never anticipated taking. And it would be a long, hard road before I was back on the path that I had envisioned for myself.
Every day from then on was a struggle. I would wake up after Daniel left in the early morning with the deepest pit in my stomach. My first encounter was with the sink, throwing up… nothing, but hoping to purge the anxiety that now engulfed me from morning til night. Paralysis, fear, dread of the day ahead (which seemed so long) until Daniel came home. It did not help that my closest friends had already been through this stage and were back at work already. I wished that I was at work too. I was busy and capable and in control at work. At home alone now, I tried to keep it together, and did what I thought everyone expected of me. It was a passable job of fooling myself and those close to me that I was still in control. But it got worse. I couldn’t fool people anymore. I retreated into bed, tired or not, whenever I had the chance. I barely ate and could hardly look at my son, forget about caring for him. I was filled to the brim with panic every waking hour. Yes, every waking hour. It was torture to get through a day. If I managed to get out of the house to take Ben for a walk, I would count the strollers on my street, wondering how people did it. I would hear kids playing in their backyards, convinced that I would not live long enough to hear my grown child playing with his friends in our backyard. I had made a mistake. I was too old. I was not meant to be a mother. I never wanted to harm Ben, but I did not want to care for him either. Too bad. There was no choice. I was a parent now. Forever. I think that feeling of being trapped made the anxiety all the more acute. There was no escape. I felt hopeless. My light was out. I would never be Rochelle again.
Thankfully, my closest friends, my father and his wife, and my in-laws tried their best to help as much as they could. One of my best friends took charge. She took care of Ben and when she realized that I needed some help, she arranged for a caregiver to be with me a few hours a day. But still I was not improving. My OB was old-school and he simply told me to get my husband to help more and what did I expect? I was an older mother. He had seen this before in women my age. The message was to suck it up. Thank god I eventually got a mandatory call from the Public Health nurse, who was astute enough to recognize that I was not all right. She visited me at home and encouraged me to connect with my family doctor.
It wasn’t until about 6 weeks had passed that I finally went to see my family doctor. She immediately knew that something was wrong and arranged for me to see a therapist and convinced me to try medication (a solution which I resisted so fiercely having never been on anything before). Though it took a few months, I slowly improved. I remember the first time that I did not feel terrible anxiety. It was the greatest feeling ever. To be free from this weight that had pressed down on me for so long. It was fleeting, but feeling that gave me hope that I was not changed forever; that there was light at the end of the tunnel; that I might actually feel myself again one day. It was this glimmer of hope that enabled me to push forward. By the time Ben was 6 months old, I was convinced that I had beaten this thing. I was going to be ok. So I went off the meds and… crashed. Worse than the first time. To the point where I was sitting in the emergency department of North York General waiting to be assessed for the Psych ward. Fortunately, the intake doctors knew that admitting me might have made things worse, so they enrolled me in a three-week day program instead. I was grateful to be able to sleep at home but to have the necessary supports and a place to go during the day. Once more, it took some time, but slowly I began to feel like me again. The entire experience lasted outside of one year. When we celebrated Ben’s first birthday, I was secretly celebrating mine as well. We had both made it through his first year of life.
Five years later I was blessed with another beautiful boy. Though I was very nervous to go through what I went through with Ben, this time I made sure that certain things were put in place. I stayed on a low dose of my medication throughout my pregnancy and made sure that I had the necessary support system set up. Did I have post-partum again? Unfortunately, I did. But, it did not last as long and I KNEW this time that I would get better, whereas with Ben, I was pretty sure that I would not. Hope kept me going; Daniel, Ben, and the baby kept me going.
I think that the factors that cause anxiety and depression are multi-layered: Heredity plays a role, life circumstance plays a role, and hormones play a role. In my case, it was all three. Anxiety runs in my family, missing my mother’s love after having Ben, and my hormones being out of whack, were the ingredients that went into my perfect storm. But the clouds broke the storm moved on. I have absolutely no regrets or resentment for having gone through what I did. I am a better person for it. I am very open about my post-partum and have spoken many times publically about it. Unfortunately, I did not know it even existed before I had Ben. It was not part of my pre-natal class or my post-natal one for that matter. Now thankfully, people are much more open and less inhibited about dealing with mental illness. It is no longer the taboo subject that it was even 20 years ago. By allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable and share our stories, we are building a community of support. And we are connecting. Small talk doesn’t connect people deeply. Life experience, adversity and kindness are what truly bond us.
Lessons can be learned from any experience. Meaning can be found in suffering. Yes, I suffered, but I would do it all over again tenfold to get what I have today: two beautiful boys that have brought so much joy to our lives. I learned to forgive myself for not being super mom in my child’s first year of life. I learned to accept myself fully, flaws and all. And I learned to live with the possibility that I probably will go through another bout of severe anxiety again in my life. And if I do, I know now, that with the right supports in place, I will get through it. And continue to be even better for it.