I read an article in a blog, the name of which is unfortunately escaping me at the moment. It was by a man who works with depressed women and also lived with one when his wife had postpartum depression. He was offering advice to people living with those suffering from depression, trying to educate them about how best to help and support their loved ones.
In his opening paragraph, he said that he knew living with a depressed person could be nigh unto “unbearable.” My first reaction was, “Ouch, that was harsh.” But as I thought about it over the next few days, I realized that this man was probably understating the matter a great deal. After all, even I can barely stand to live with myself when I am depressed, so I can only imagine how difficult things must be for my husband, Sei. He doesn’t have the advantage of knowing what’s going on in my head, so he probably feels even more clueless and helpless than I do.
Last week, Sei and I had a small disagreement about some household-related thing. Looking back, I can see the comment he made was completely innocuous. But in my depression-addled brain, I took it to be a criticism of my wifely/motherly abilities, and my first reaction was to go on the offensive.
Thankfully, he didn’t allow the argument to escalate; he left for work, and emailed me from there, apologizing for whatever he’d said that upset me. He said something else that really struck me though. He said it’s been very difficult for him over the past few months (probably much longer, if he were being completely truthful), because he feels he can’t speak to me about anything openly.
If there’s anything he sees as an issue that needs to be resolved in our marriage, it never gets talked about because I always feel like he’s attacking me, and then I turn it around on him. Our disagreements usually end up becoming a discussion about all his faults and how he’s never going to be able to understand what I’m going through. These are all my words, not his, by the way.
It’s true; Sei will never be able to understand what I’m going through, and I don’t want him to be able to. But I can understand what he’s going through. I’ve lived with a depressed person before, so I know how it is to want so desperately to help someone who is unwilling to or incapable of receiving that help. To ask everyday, “What’s wrong?” only to be told once and again, “I have no idea.”
Living with postpartum depression and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders is difficult, to say the least. It is lonely, sometimes sad, and exhausting. Sometimes it feels like life will never be good again (which is categorically untrue). But there is an element to living with the disorder that I feel is under-discussed, and that is how much we should allow our own suffering to become the suffering of others.
First, let me say that I am not suggesting anyone with a PMAD be silent. Not at all. I speak about my symptoms all the time, and I think it helps my husband to have a clear picture of where I am coming from. However, one of the hallmarks of my depression (and that of many other women, from what I read) is self-centeredness. During my unmedicated episodes, all I can think about is my own suffering. I can barely pull my head out of the sand long enough to consider the fact that Sei is probably hurting, too.
So my question for myself over the past couple days has been, “Where do I draw the line? When do I have to put my own pain aside and make time to care for the needs of my family?”
The answer to this is complicated: Paying attention to others when the very nature of your illness causes you to withdraw is easier said than done. But when I explain the need for antidepressants to others, I often draw a parallel to medication for diabetes, and I suppose that the analogy should apply here as well. Meaning, living with diabetes is also difficult, just like with my PPD. However, I wouldn’t give a person with diabetes a free pass to forget the commitments she has made to other people in her life just because she happens to have diabetes.
I’ve made a commitment to be there for my family, and living with PPD makes that extraordinarily difficult. But I’m tired of letting myself off the hook by saying something along the lines of, “Well, the PPD made me do it.” Even if that is the case, it doesn’t change the end result: I often hurt the ones I love because of my PPD-influenced words and actions (or lack of action, as the case may be).
I don’t think I can truly leave PPD behind until I acknowledge the fact that even though I may not totally be myself, I’m still responsible for my actions. This responsibility to self and family is a kind of freedom I didn’t know I could miss, but I took it for granted in the past. I’m ready to take that freedom back now.