My story is not unusual. My message is not complicated.
You have to take care of yourself so you can be there for your children.
What’s not simple is how someone who’s in the depths of postpartum depression, and enduring sleepless nights for months on end, can lift herself up far enough and for long enough to understand what must be done to get out of this place. I share my story because I waited far too long to get help.
I come from at least three generations of depression, and I grew up with all the messy, painful self-medication that people do to avoid dealing with it. When depression hit me hard in my teens and twenties, I didn’t want to use psychiatric medication. After all, I felt I could usually work around it—and I did…that is, until I gave birth to each of my sons. Because I’d heard about the “baby blues” I took it to mean that every new mother gets depressed. Therefore, awful as I felt, I believed that terrible state of postpartum depression to be normal and so I didn’t get postpartum depression treatment. The worst bout of depression I ever experienced came after an abortion I had at age 41, perhaps because that time there was no baby to distract me. I now understand that the same hormones pushed me into severe postpartum depression after each pregnancy. And yet I still avoided treatment. After my divorce at age 39, I made things worse by starting to drink alcohol, mostly wine, but increasingly too much of it, and eventually, on a daily basis.
And as often is the case, I didn’t deal with my depression or my drinking until my children needed mental health care—and, not surprisingly, given our family history and the fact that my postpartum depression remained untreated—they both did.
Fortunately our story didn’t end there. In fact our recovery as a family started there.
I am a poster child for the benefits of postpartum depression treatment and antidepressants. Within a year, my income tripled. I moved from Los Angeles to my present home in San Francisco, leaving behind the last of my unavailable boyfriends and years of underemployment in the chaotic TV business. Doing a brief run of therapy while on medication helped me finally let go of many self-defeating parts of my old identity. It also made room for me to acquire some new ways of thinking and behaving: having an expectation that I would be liked or conducting a healthy romantic relationship, hell, just doing my taxes or the dinner dishes on time. When you’ve rarely if ever done these things easily, doing them can be jarring at first, and then incredibly joyful.
But the thing that neither medication nor therapy could stop was the guilt I still felt over my prior poor performance as a mother. Painful memories of postpartum depression misery, when my infant son would wake up crying and I’d wish myself — or him — dead, would come regularly to send chills (and self-hate) up my spine. Knowing that I’d stayed in that depressed state until my sons reached adolescence — and in the process raised their risks for the mental disorders that did develop — filled me with even more regret.
Only after I had made it past the halfway mark of my 50s and had been on antidepressants for about five years did I realize that this pile of guilt had become my final and most tenacious addiction. The only cure for it I have found has been to let go of my façade of “normalcy” (or what passes for it in northern California) and tell my story publicly.
That led to a professional U-turn wherein I quit trying to write the next great American novel to become a mental health care advocate. At least, I felt, by speaking out other women might act sooner to help themselves, knowing that by doing so they were helping themselves and their children. This common sense is now supported by elegant research (from Columbia), showing that when depressed mothers were treated, one-third of their children with symptoms of depression and anxiety went into remission — without direct treatment. Those children of depressed mothers who didn’t have symptoms at the start of the study didn’t develop them.
I no longer drink alcohol, and I plan to stay on antidepressant medication for the rest of my life. The data on getting off them after lifelong major depression is not very encouraging. Most people relapse within a year. I don’t plan to be one of them. People have different definitions for “recovery.” Mine is doing what it takes to reduce one’s worst symptoms and learn to manage the stubbornly-irritating ones that remain.
As for my sons, the good news is that recovery for them happened in a much shorter time — after less medication and more targeted psychotherapy to help them manage their specific symptoms. That’s because the longer you wait to seek treatment, the more time it can take for the brain to come back from a diseased state caused by mental illness. But by intervening early, mental health practitioners can usually begin with less onerous treatment, such as parent education and family therapy, and keep childhood mental disorders from becoming adult disorders.
As my sons and I learned, the next best thing to “fixing the mother first” is getting help together.
I wish you a truly happy and healthy Mother’s Day.
Victoria Costello is a mental health advocate, science writer and blogger. Her memoir, A Lethal Inheritance, A Mother Uncovers the Science Behind Three Generations of Mental Illness is out now. Visit her Mental Health Mom Blog for daily updates on strategies for mental wellness for moms and kids: http://www.mentalhealthmomblog.com.
The 4th Annual Mother’s Day Rally for Moms’ Mental Health is presented by Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit 501c3 that raises awareness & advocates for more and better services for women who have postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth. Please consider making a donation today, on Mother’s Day, to help us continue to spread the word and support the mental health of new mothers.