What No One's Saying About Postpartum Depression
This guest post is written by Joy Peskin, the author of a wonderful essay about postpartum depression we ran last fall. We asked Joy to write about recent legislation aimed to help women experiencing maternal depression. She is pictured at right, with her son, Nathaniel; at the end you'll also see a powerful slideshow of photos documenting her bout with PPD.
An essay I wrote about my experience with postpartum depression, entitled Just Show Up: A Love Story, was published in the September 2013 issue of Parents magazine. I wrote the piece in the hopes that it would reach a new mother who felt like I did when my son was born three and a half years ago: broken. I wanted that mother to know that she was not alone, that help was available, and--most of all--that she would be okay. The response I received after my story ran was both gratifying and thought-provoking. It was gratifying to hear from women who had dealt with PPD in the past and from those who were currently struggling with it. Some women wrote to say that they saw themselves in my story, and that it brought them comfort. The response was thought-provoking because several of the people who wrote, both to me personally and to Parents magazine, called me "brave" for sharing my experience.
Brave. The word stopped me. I've been puzzling over it for months. I know people meant this positively, and I'm grateful for the compliment. But I'm also troubled. I suppose the term "brave" implies that I had something to fear in writing about what I went through, and that suggests that there is a stigma associated with PPD. I didn't ask for PPD. No woman does. I'm not happy that I had it, but I'm not embarrassed any more than I would be if I had overcome a physical, as opposed to a mental, illness.
One goal of Bill number S3137C, which was sponsored by New York State Senator Liz Krueger and New York Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, was to "provide public education to promote awareness of and destigmatize maternal depression." To me, that was the most important part of this bill, which was passed by both branches of the New York legislature unanimously in June 2013, and which was supported by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the New York State American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Postpartum Resource Center of New York created a change.org petition to urge New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign the bill into law. More than 6,000 people signed the petition, myself included. But in late December, Governor Cuomo vetoed the maternal depression legislation. Sonia Murdock, executive director of the Postpartum Resource Center of New York, said, "Governor Cuomo did not step up and do the right thing for New Yorkers. But Governor Cuomo is not just the answer. We are all the answer. To be part of the solution in de-stigmatizing PPD (or the broader term, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders), a good way to start would be by telling your own story. If you have experienced this illness, of supported a loved one, you have a story to tell. By sharing, we help others to become aware and educated, not feel so along, and to have hope."
As long as one is considered brave for writing about her PPD, there is a stigma associated with the disease. If women are too ashamed to admit they have a problem, they will not get the help they need. We don't have to wait for lawmakers. We can start right now by telling our own stories. By saying, "This happened to me, and I got through it, and you will, too. You deserve help, and help is available."
When I was going through PPD, I didn't think I deserved anything. I would brush my hair straight back into an unflattering bun because I recall thinking, You don't deserve a pretty hairstyle. I would sit in my sweltering apartment because I thought, You don't deserve air-conditioning. Part of ultimately asking for help, and accepting it, was realizing that I didn't need to punish myself for the bad thoughts I was having. The PPD wasn't my fault, but it was my responsibility to advocate for myself. I wanted to be rescued. But no one could save me if no one knew I was suffering. To get help, I was going to have to ask for it.
Sonia Murdock played a key role in my recovery. A good friend gave me the phone number for the PDRC and I carried it in my wallet for weeks before I worked up the nerve to leave a message. When I did, Sonia personally returned my call. She talked to me at length. She told me I would be okay, and I believed her. She referred me to a therapist who had herself overcome PPD, and who gave me—on my first visit—her own copy of Brooke Shields' Down Came the Rain.
I'm disappointed that Bill number S3137C didn't ultimately become a law, but I believe that, in the end, legislation can only do so much. It's up to us, the people whose lives have been impacted by PPD, to speak up about our experiences and to destigmatize the diagnosis so those who think they might be suffering from it will ask for help. It's unfortunate to have PPD but it should not be a source of shame.
After my article appeared in Parents, a coworker told me it had helped her friend--a new mother--realize she had a problem. Like me, this woman just thought she was a horrible person, in capable of loving her newborn, as opposed to someone dealing with a treatable mental illness. Another friend told me she had experienced PPD after adopting, but she didn't know what it was because she had never heard the diagnosis applied to adoptive parents. PPD exists in various forms. It's not the same for everyone. The more we share about our experiences, the more we open up about them in private and in public, the more we can help educate other women and families. No one deserves to suffer.
While you are in the midst of it, misery can feel both endless and pointless. But when you come out the other end, you will see that if someone else can be helped by what you went through, your experience had meaning.
Joy Peskin is the editorial director of Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers. She has run writing workshops for aspiring authors, homeless youth, and incarcerated women and teens.