The Darkness Isn't Only in Your Head: Stigma & Shame
One of the hardest things about living with a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder is that, even in 2021, there is still a lot of stigma and shame associated with it. We’re getting a lot better as a society overall in talking about these disorders, but there are still a lot of parents that suffer in silence.
I am used to talking about my mental health, because I’ve lived with some form of mental illness or mental health complication for as long as I can remember. I’ve had with generalized anxiety for a long time and can’t remember any time I wasn’t worried about something, and I lived with PTSD for nearly a decade after a sexual assault in high school. I’ve done group therapy and had a therapist for several years, and have been open about what it’s like to live with anxiety. I was already seeing myself as a mental health advocate even before we had started trying to have a baby. Talking about my mental health is nothing new to me.
But when I was diagnosed with postpartum depression, I waited over a week before I said anything about it to anyone outside of my family and close friends. There was a very large part of me that was afraid to say that I had postpartum depression, especially as I had been sharing happy pictures of my baby and posting about her milestones. The fact that I was depressed and crying in the shower every evening and felt like I was barely surviving didn’t match with the image I was trying to portray: the happy new mom who was adjusting just fine and definitely was not feeling like she was trapped on the couch and barely eating because if she dared to move, the baby would start screaming.
Everyone says that having a baby is supposed to be one of the happiest times of your life. And while I was so excited to have my daughter and couldn’t believe she was really mine (and I still feel that way), I was ashamed to admit that I was struggling. Everyone talks about how newborns are so snuggly and chill and just sleep and eat and poop, and I was embarrassed to say that I found it so hard. How could it be hard, she doesn’t even move? But we don’t really hear about the babies that scream and cry inconsolably, or the reflux babies, or the babies with dairy allergies, or how you’re trying to take care of this brand new tiny human that needs round-the-clock care when you’ve just had a major medical event and feel like you’ve been hit by a truck.
There is a deep stigma about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, because there is a strong belief that motherhood is magical and beautiful and natural. And while I do find motherhood and my daughter magical, it’s also really, really hard sometimes. Admitting that you’re struggling, or that you’re crying all day, or that you’re not coping well, or that you’re anxious, or that you have scary intrusive thoughts is hard enough to do, but to admit it when you’ve just experienced what should be one of the happiest times ever is even harder. I felt so much guilt that I had a very wanted baby and had shed so many tears over negative pregnancy tests, only to feel so helpless and depressed after she was born.
If I was afraid to share that I had postpartum depression, then what about the moms who don’t already talk about their mental health? What about the moms whose first experience with a mental illness is a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder? If I’m a self-proclaimed mental health advocate and already know what it feels like to have a mental illness and talk about it and I’m scared of talking about it, how do those moms feel? It’s no surprise that for so long, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders have been whispered about, pretended that this must be normal, that it will go away if you just keep pushing through.
There is also the very real fear in moms with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders that if they have these scary thoughts, if they finally reach a breaking point and share with a doctor or an ER nurse that they need help, that a call to child services will be made and their baby will be taken from them. No wonder they don’t talk about it. Pushing through and hoping it gets better is endlessly preferable to having your baby taken from you.
When you have a mental illness, and it feels like especially when you have a perinatal mental illness, the darkness isn’t only inside your head. It’s coming from the rest of the world too, the world that tells you that you’re not normal, that there’s something wrong with you, that this time is supposed to be wonderful and blissful and you must be broken if it’s not.
The way we end stigma is by talking about our mental health, freely and without fear. We end stigma by listening without judgement and by supporting our loved ones who may be struggling. We let people know that seeking help is not being weak, that it’s actually one of the strongest and bravest things you can do.
We need to speak honestly about parenthood, and show the reality that it may be beautiful and rewarding, but it’s also messy and exhausting and stressful. We emphasize that you’re not broken if there are days where you feel like you just might snap if one more person says “Mama.”
It was so hard to feel so alone and so isolated, convinced that I must be the only person who was feeling the way I did before I got treatment for my postpartum depression. In reality, with 1 in 7 moms experiencing a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, I was pretty far from alone. There are lot of parents out there who know exactly how I felt. And if you’re feeling that way too, there are a lot of us who know what you’re living through. We know it feels hard to get out of bed, to be a parent when all you want to do hide from the world. You’re not alone.
And there’s nothing wrong with you, either.