Dear Girl Like Me,
This has to be my third or fourth draft of this letter. I started it several times, but could never finish it, and now I think I know why:I was trying to write a comtemplative, serious letter full of wisdom and strength, but after two paragraphs or so, I'd scrap the whole thing and start over. I guess I should have known that serious and contemplative just wasn't a good fit for me. I can barely make it through a blog entry without making a reference to body hair, poop, butt crack or sex, so I figured this letter would be almost dishonest if I tried to keep all the delightfulness from you.
I live in Utah, the land of the moral conservative and the supposed Supermom. The place where you can find aprons (hideously expensive and incredibly elaborate aprons that could probably double as prom dresses, but aprons nonetheless) in the mall — in the mall! — and where women wake up with faces full of makeup, no application necessary.
Suffice it to say, unwashed women with subpar grooming habits don't go over so well here. I got pretty good at hiding my three-days-without-a-shower smell, but there's just a certain frame of mind that accompanies poor hygiene. You can't really camouflage those bad feelings. But depression is nothing if not a closeted disorder, so I did my damnedest to always smile and nod in public. I was a new mother — what kind of new mother never smiles? A bad one, that's what kind. Or at least that's what I always thought.
So I smiled. Andwhen eventhat became too exhausting, I stopped leaving the house.
When I finally had a breaking point (you can read about that at my blog, depressionsandconfessions) and was diagnosed with postpartum depression — which later became your run-of-the-mill clinical depression — my reaction could only be described as relief. Finally, someone was telling me that I wasn't a bad mother (well, for the most part — I'd rather go to McDonald's than cook pretty much every day of the week, and I'm pretty sure that i won't be winning any mothering awards), I was just sick. Nothing was wrong with me, something was wrong with my brain.
I've never had negative feelings about depression; to me, it's just another illness, similar to the flu or diarrhea (see, there's the poop I was telling you about earlier). Depression is serious and can be deadly, but to my mind never shameful. It's not as though it stems from poor life choices or irresponsibility. It just happens. So when I was diagnosed, went on antidepressants, and told my entire family and certain close friends about my diagnosis and subsequent treatment plan, I was surprised at the range of responses. I got a lot of sympathy, which was appropriate, but also a lot of people telling me I was brave for being so open.
This bewildered me. Why wouldn't I tell people about the life-threatening disorder that I was suffering from? I couldn't imagine how I'd be able to live with depression without being able to talk about it to my loved ones.
Now, after starting my blog, doing research, and talking to other women with PPD, I understand why some would choose to suffer in silence. Nothing is more defeating and humiliating than hearing a mentally healthy person tell you that your debilitating depression is "all in your head". And it's really no wonder that a woman with PPD would hesitate to tell someone that she let her baby scream for an hour because there was just no way for her to get out of bed — that person probably wouldn't understand.
But a greater understanding is necessary, crucial. PPD is too deadly and too widespread for the stigmatization to continue as it has for so long. But how do you educate people about a disorder with symptoms so indescribable, especially when those who are in the clutches of depression may find it difficult to be in the company of others?
The solution lies within: within me, within you. The only way to educate the world about depression is to start with our inner circles. Because I was so naive about the way others in my life would feel about my depression, I found it easy to talk about it. And now that my "secret" is out, I feel comfortable talking to anyone (and everyone — I'm sure people have starting avoiding me so they can avoid my speeches about the effects of depression).
I'm not saying that all women with PPD will have it so easy. But the process, as painful as it might be, is important; I really don't see another way to destigmatize a disorder that shouldn't be stigmatized in the first place. If we, those who suffer, don't take action for ourselves, I can't imagine that anyone else will either.
Depression has become a topic of frequent and open discussion in my life, and I can only hope that others around me have benefited from my openness. Even if they haven't, I have profited immensely from speaking out about the disorder. I've unearthed a greater sense of peace and achieved self-awareness that I didn't possess even before the depression, and heard from many, many other women who are just happy to know that they aren't the only ones with "issues".
So there: that's my two cents (or is that more like a dollar's worth?)about depression and the stigma that surrounds it. There will be those who judge regardless of how you handle your life. All you can do is make the right decisions for you and your family and hope everyone else will join you for the ride. And if they don't … well, more space in the car for you and all your baggage.
Alexis Lesa is a woman with needs: she needs to read, she needs to write, she needs to love, and she needs to be loved. She has nearly all of her needs filled by books, a trusty netbook, her husband and her two young sons. She gets everything else at Costco and/or Nordstrom and/or Sephora. She can be found kicking depression's butt at her blog depressionsandconfessions.