May is Mental Health Awareness Month
May happens to be Mental Health Awareness month and April marked the ninth anniversary of Frugalwoods! Given that confluence, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on my 2018 post, “How A Diagnosis Of Postpartum Depression Changed My Life.” This one struck a serious chord, as evidence by the 433 comments and abundance of emails and messages I’ve received since. Many of you told me that reading that post prompted you to seek help, to finally go to the doctor, see a therapist, start taking the medication you’d been prescribed and stop blaming yourself. I’m glad it helped. I hope it still does.
You can check out my first two Frugalwoods nine-year retrospectives here:
I Still Have Depression and Anxiety!
Woohoo! Not going to bury the lede on this one. This is not a mega reveal as I’ve never concealed it (and also it’s today’s title… ), but hey, in case you were wondering: I’ve still got it, baby!!!
I still take my BFF Sertraline (generic Zoloft) every morning. Can’t live without her! I will very likely take Zoloft every morning for the rest of my life. And I will do so with gratitude. Fear not, I’ve discussed this with my doctor and she has assured me this is a safe–and wise–course to follow. She noted that when I enter menopause, my hormones will shift and we may need to change my dosage/medication and monitor my symptoms. But other than that, Zoloft and I are committed life partners.
I know that many folks celebrate titrating off anti-depressants and I commend them for doing what works for them. For me, however, I’m going to continue taking this SSRI until the day I die–or the day I need to change medications/dosages in response to changing hormones.
When the pandemic hit, one of the first things my husband did was order me a stockpile of Zoloft. When Mr. FW retired and we changed our health insurance to the Affordable Care Act, one of the first things we did was ensure we chose a plan that covered my Zoloft. Thanks to my online pharmacy (best invention ever), my Zoloft is on auto-renew and shows up in my mailbox every month. I take it very seriously because I well know the dangers of not. The biggest danger is that my brain will lie to me.
It’s really hard to explain depression and anxiety to someone who hasn’t experienced it because for me, my depression felt like reality.
- I did not perceive that I was “crazy.” Neither did anyone else!
- I was still walking around, doing all my normal stuff.
- I did not “look” depressed.
- But all along, my brain was constantly, persistently lying to me. And not the good kind of lies either.
It’s pretty freaky. If you have a broken arm, you can look at it and say, “whoa, my arm is broken! I’d better go to the hospital!” When you’re depressed or anxious, it’s impossible to have this level of remove or perception because the call is coming FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE. The only reason I stand before you, typing happily away today is because of my husband. HE was my external observer. HE was the one who registered the drastic change in my mood and outlook. HE was the one who said, “whoa, your brain is broken! Better go to the doctor!” He was a lot more tender and politic than that, but that was the gist.
It’s easy for me to joke about it now, five years since my diagnosis, but it was NOT FUNNY at the outset. It was terrifying. It’s actually difficult for me to re-read that 2018 post because I’d honestly forgotten (repressed?) how horrific the experience was for me. At the time, I sincerely felt like my life was over–after all, my brain told me it was.
Trying To Fix It On My Own
In my 2018 write-up, I included an exhausting litany of all the stuff I did to try and cure myself prior to just going to a therapist and getting a diagnosis.
I could NOT see the black spiral I was sliding down. I did NOT recognize it as depression and anxiety. I saw it as a weakness on my part. A failure to live up to my own expectations. After all, I WANTED this second baby. Wanted her DESPERATELY and with every fiber of my being. I wanted this life. In fact, I’d worked doggedly to achieve it, to orchestrate it. Nothing I do is on accident. What right did I have to hate this bespoke existence? I didn’t think I was allowed to be depressed amid such bounty.
I remember telling all of this to my therapist in my first appointment and she was like, “yeah that’s cool, but depression doesn’t care.” In other words, depression can show up–like drunk uncle–in anyone’s life, at any juncture. Depression does not care how good your life is. Having depression is not a moral failing or a weakness of character or a lack of education or a lack of… anything. It just is. It’s also not embarrassing or uncommon. It just is.
Stop Moving the Goal Posts
Likely the first and only sport metaphor to ever appear in Frugalwoods. But it’s an apt one.
In 2018 I wrote:
I repeatedly told myself that this heaviness would evaporate once the baby was older. Once she started sleeping in her own room. When that didn’t change how I felt, I moved the goal post. I decided I’d feel better once she only got up once or twice a night to nurse. When that didn’t deliver relief, I moved the goal post again. It would all magically transform once she slept through the night. I settled in with grim determination. I just had to keep making it through each day. Everything was a slog and I lost the ability to enjoy my children. They grated on my nerves. Every scream, every cry was amplified in this echo chamber of depression.
I now see that this cycle of “moving the goal post” plagued me throughout my teens, twenties and early thirties. Happiness was always one major accomplishment away. Peace and low stress would appear once my next big project was completed.
I told myself this lie repeatedly and at each of these junctures (and more!):
- Every final exam season in high school and college
- When applying for college
- While doing college
- Graduating from college
- Getting my first job
- Getting married
- Being accepted into graduate school
- Going to graduate school
- Graduating from graduate school
- Getting pregnant for the first time
In all of these instances, I said, “I will be less anxious once I get accepted to college.” Once I was accepted into college, my brain said, “Ok well actually, I will be less anxious once I’ve started my freshman year.” And on it went. Each time I accomplished, achieved or finished one of these seismic events, my anxiety latched onto the next thing. I was forever living in the future, waiting for that moment of low stress, happiness and fulfillment to descend. Well, I have it now and it didn’t arrive magically.
Depression and Anxiety are Not Personality Traits
But I sure thought they were! While I initially had “postpartum” depression, I now have regular old depression and anxiety, which I posit I suffered from since my mid-teens. The birth of my second kid ratcheted my symptoms into high gear, but it’s something I can identify as part of my life for a long time. To be honest, I just thought it was, like, part of my personality. I am not kidding you.
I thought it was my “personality” to be:
And yes, I am still some of these things, but the edges are softened and I can see the irrationality embedded within some of these traits.
In general, being treated for my depression and anxiety has made me:
Some of these changes can probably be attributed to age (just turned 39!) and parenthood. Being a parent REALLY knocks the perfectionism out of you. But those are by no means the most salient factors. The most salient factors are medication, therapy and AWARENESS.
How It Feels For Me to be on an SSRI
I said it best back in 2018:
I started taking the medication. And as soon as it took effect, it was like being pulled out of a river of panic I hadn’t even realized I was drowning in. I could stop thrashing, stop fearing, stop clawing at solutions. I could breath without struggle. I was me and I was going to be all right. It was like flipping a switch. I went from gnawing fear and sadness to feeling, well, completely fine. I wondered if I’d feel weirdly elated or drunk on medication and I can tell you that I don’t… I feel normal. I feel calm.
Yep, not much to add. I just feel fine, normal, not super stressed and generally happy.
Knowing It and Naming It
Being able to identify and NAME my depression and anxiety was transformational for me. When I experience dips–which can happen periodically even while successfully medicated–I can NAME them. I even have a little process for it. I say to my husband, “I am feeling the depression and anxiety today and I notice I felt it yesterday too. Can you help me keep an eye on it this week to see if it resolves?”
By inviting him in at the outset, I’m not allowing my depression brain to lie to me. My husband is there to serve as an external observer. Initially, these dips were quite frequent and it meant I needed to increase/change my medication. Now, the dips are pretty rare because I have the correct type and dosage of medication. The dips still happen and I still tell my husband–or more accurately, he just knows–but they tend to resolve within about 48 hours.
I also have a set of resources and practices that help me counteract and prevent the dips:
- Daily exercise:
- I try to hike through our woods, do yoga, or do my PT exercises every day. In April, I exercised 25 out of 30 days.
- I have a very advanced system for tracking this: I print out a free calendar each month on which I record my workouts.
- I’m a 9 to 10 hour per night type of gal, which is why 8:30pm finds me tucked in bed. Follow me for more tips on how to party.
- To be honest, this is one of the main reasons why we decided two kids were the perfect number of kids for us. I don’t think either of us would survive the sleeplessness that surrounds the first few years of a baby’s life.
- There are other reasons too, of course, but I have to say that lack of sleep is probably reason #1.
- Fulfilling work:
- I love writing Frugalwoods and working one-on-one with my financial consultation clients. Spreadsheets are my love language.
- I enjoy my volunteer work in our community, which connects me to my neighbors and makes me feel useful.
- Deep friendships:
- I have extremely close friends here in Vermont who I spend time with every single week.
- Not drinking too much alcohol:
- My husband and I don’t drink on weekdays, which I find helps with my sleep and depressive symptoms. I still drink on the weekends, which doesn’t seem to impact my mood. But nightly drinking–a habit we developed during the pandemic–does seem to negatively impact my mood.
- I did an experiment last year where I stopped drinking entirely for a few weeks so that I could track my sleep and mood, which is how I landed on the choice to not drink during the week. Plus, healthier and cheaper!
- Time alone:
- I did not know I was an introvert until we had kids. I must have time alone every day.
- Dedicated time with my husband:
- Our 15-year marriage is the backbone of our life and we have intentional time set aside every week to talk and laugh with each other–without the kids.
- A spiritual practice and faith community:
- I am so thankful for my progressive church, my church community, and the deep sense of peace this brings to my life.
- I also love singing with the church choir–I can feel my soul hum when we harmonize together.
But here’s the thing: all this stuff is great, but it’s the dressing on the salad. In order for it to be a real salad, I must have the greens, the cheese, the onions and the avocado of Zoloft. I’m under no illusion that I can handle it on my own. All of the above are good things to do but they are NOT A REPLACEMENT FOR MEDICATION. I know this because before starting medication and therapy, I tried all of these things in a futile effort to fix myself.
Resources, Encouragement and Hope
Did you know that postpartum depression can affect any type of parent? Fathers can experience Paternal Postnatal Depression. Adoptive parents can suffer from a form of postpartum depression. Kids with two moms, kids with two dads, kids with one mom, kids with one dad–any of these caregivers can experience postpartum depression and all deserve compassionate, immediate care. Additionally, the onset of postpartum depression can occur after your first baby, or your second, or your fifth (source: Postpartum Depression Can Happen to Any Parent, The Atlantic Magazine).
Here’s a list of resources on postpartum depression and mental health in general that can get you started:
Where I’m At Today
I’m at peace with my depression and anxiety. I’m no longer embarrassed by it (obviously) and I hope that sharing my experience might help others. I hate to think of people suffering alone, blaming themselves, feeling guilty and scared of seeking treatment. Even if you just think you might be depressed or anxious, go talk to a professional. There’s nothing to lose, there’s nothing to be ashamed of and here’s the thing: you don’t even have to tell anyone. If it’s something you need or want to keep secret? You can do that.
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