After my daughter was born, I had what you might call post-partum depression. Despite my joy about the baby, I was often sad and overwhelmed. I would dissolve in tears at the slightest provocation. The reading I did wasn't much help: the parenting literature said that some women would experience the "baby blues," but this would dissipate after a few days. Mine didn't. It went on, like a literal weight on my shoulders, until my daughter was several months old. And while I was adept at hiding it from the world, the pain remained with me constantly.
Not coincidentally, it magically lifted about a week after I stopped breastfeeding. I had more energy. I could return to writing my dissertation, and be excited about a new job I'd taken. I had joy in my friendships and especially in the infant life entrusted to me. I felt confident and happy again. I walked out of that black fog of depression with a new compassion for people who feel that hopeless all the time, whose brain chemistry or hormones or neurological structure make it difficult for them to experience joy. I was lucky that the nursing-mother version of me, with hormones all out of whack, was a temporary aberration.
And that's all it is, really -- just luck. As Therese Borchard points out in the excellent and bracingly funny memoir Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, some people are predisposed to forms of mental illness, just as others are predisposed to breast cancer or cystic fibrosis or thinking Gilligan's Island was a really good show. We don't judge people for contracting cancer (well, unless we're Rhonda Byrne in The Secret; see here for my snarky review), but we sure as hell feel comfortable telling depressives to snap out of it or people suffering from acute anxiety to just chill out. This adds to the culture of shame about mental health problems, a shame so pervasive that this blog post is the first time I've ever publicly admitted to having had PPD. Take that, Tom Cruise.
Therese is someone I'm lucky to call a friend, one of many people who started out as a work colleague but became special to me. (In fact, I make an unnamed cameo in the book as the magazine editor on p. 168.) She is hugely smart and talented and funny in a way that reminds me of Anne Lamott. And like Lamott, she's had her demons, including alcohol, depression, and anxiety. Add to that obsessive-compulsive tendencies and struggles with an eating disorder and you have a recipe for the psych ward, which is where Therese wound up a few years ago -- twice. And while the book does not flinch from all the pain in Therese's past, it is ultimately a hopeful and healing memoir. Redemptive, even, as Therese has dedicated her life since fighting back from the brink to helping other people talk about mental illness and spirituality. Her Beliefnet blog, also called Beyond Blue, has taken off in readership and was named one of the top ten blogs on depression by PsychCentral.com. She has dedicated her life to "making mental illness less scary to those of us who live it and to educating as many people as possible as [she] can about mood disorders so that we can permanently remove the unfair stigma associated with depression and bipolar disorder." And she does this with the hilarity of the edgiest chick lit novel. You go, girl.