If you couldn’t tell, I’ve been trying to blog more. It’s been both easier and harder than I thought. Easier, because I love blogging and writing and it is easy to do things that your spirit requires to feel most like itself. Harder, because I’m so out of practice, and sometimes I don’t know what to say or how to say it.
Sometimes I don’t believe that I have anything to offer; sometimes I spend time crafting posts, but dither over publishing them. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve hit the zenith of any talent or ability I had, and it’s the downward spiral from here.
But I’m trying. Late at night, after the baby is bedded down and I’ve wrapped up my jobs for the day, I sit in bed with a podcast or an old episode of “Parks and Recreation” or “Sex and The City” playing the background, and I peck away on my iPhone. It’s strange to write on an iPhone. I worry that I only have thoughts the size of my iPhone screen now. My feelings still roil and churn, but I can only communicate these huge gales of emotion through these touchscreen-sized thoughts, rendering them trivial and diminished. But typing on an iPhone is the easiest thing during these long, sometimes weary days. It’s either this or nothing. I choose this.
A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast about a natural disaster during the 1880s, when a freak snowstorm during a Midwestern afternoon killed a crazy amount of people — including groups of children walking home from school. Many of the storm’s victims died not far from shelter, but they were so overwhelmed and disoriented by the storm’s force that they had no idea how close they were. Caught in the sharp, heavy blasts of snow and ice, the schoolchildren were barely able to see just ten inches ahead of them. The storm’s cold and winds were so severe that their eyes teared up — but their tears also froze, sealing their eyes shut.
I couldn’t get this detail out of my mind after I heard it. A blinding whiteness with thousands of sharp little teeth snapping at near-frozen flesh; rows of dark shapes trudging against a demon wind that devoured all sight and sound, desperate for a home only a couple of hundred feet away for some. It struck me because, somehow, I could relate to it. To me, this is what it feels like to fight your way out of a depression. Or out of any kind of dark stasis in your life. (What is depression if not a dark stasis of sorts?) You fight against the elements, head down, eyes closed, not able to see much of the distance in front of you, every step painful with effort and fear.
Depression is undeniably hard. But this feeling of “endless, pointless trudge” is not just depression for me, although I’ve been battling post-partum depression for nearly a year now. Sometimes I just don’t know where I am anymore in terms of my life. I’ve lost a sense of steady direction. And yet I’m plagued with the feeling that what I seek is just barely out of reach — close, but not quite near enough to be touched.
A few weeks ago I finished Molly Crabapple’s memoir. Molly is an artist known for her voluptuous Victoriana style, but her writing is poetic and sharp, and I loved reading her book. It’s full of a darkly glamorously burlesque NYC glamour. She writes of a life that I once imagined for myself when I was quite a bit younger — you know, that classic bohemian fantasy of whirlwind travel, lots of amorous adventures, sojourn in Europe, decadent nightlife and minor-league infamy.
I had shades of that life when I was deep in my own disco days in New York. I dreamed of adventure, creativity, romance — a kind of adventuress improvising glamour everyday. When I was young, this dream gave me wings and floated me from adventure to experiment to adventure and back again, and kept me aloft even when things seemed poor, bleak and yucky. It gave me a kind of map to a fantastical landscape — and it was a country I loved living in. But then those dreams changed, and now I’m a bit at sea.
Dreams and fantasies are my compass in life. (And what are goals and resolutions and intentions for, if not in some service of our ideal lives and selves, after all?) They always have been; dreams have always undergirded my everyday lived existence. I see it like a tapestry: underneath the ordinary humdrum cloth of my everyday childhood and adolescence lurked a more vivid, heightened fabric, almost like a parallel world. When a decision or choice pulled at me, the tug came from this other world, trying to pull me closer towards it — or perhaps pull itself into reality. Tug too hard and the cloth unravels, but just enough tension between the two sides can create something beautiful, a balance between everyday life and the fantasy that keeps it eccentric, poetic and beautiful.
But I don’t think I banked on my dreams changing. I didn’t account for a parent becoming ill and therefore frailer much earlier than we all thought in my family. I didn’t imagine my sister having her first child much younger than planned — but the birth of my first nephew was like the arrival of the sun of a new galaxy just coming into being, and the entire family wanted to be in his orbit as much as possible. The fantasies of my younger self — so close to being fully fashioned in some ways — slowly lost their potency for me. They were like a heady perfume I outgrew, or a party dress that sits in the back of a closet that you look at fondly but never wear anymore. I found myself coming home more and more — and returning back to the playground with a diminishing sense of excitement.
I always feel like you need a dream in life — a hope, a possibility, a sun to raise your face towards. And sometimes dreams grow slowly — they seep in, plant their little seeds, then wend their way through a heavy darkness into the open air. You don’t know what shape they take, but eventually they emerge in all their imperfect yet natural glory. Once I made the decision to leave NYC and stay close to family, I could feel some of these new possibilities rooting themselves.
Some were radically different for me — a garden, a horse, a little house. Others were frightening almost to even entertain for a few moments. I had never imagined myself as a parent, for example — I grew up with a mother who seemed to be made unhappy by parenthood much of the time, and I was too little to understand she was suffering from her own hellish depression. As a result, the idea of becoming a mother myself frightened me to death; it seemed a recipe for unhappiness. I also didn’t want to be a mother because I didn’t want to “ruin” another human being in the way I often felt damaged. I think subconsciously I found myself attracted to men who — as wonderful as they were in other ways — I could never imagine myself as the type of father I’d want to create and nurture a family with. It was a way to avoid the question of children.
But then I fell in love with a handsome, funny, smart fellow who also had qualities of a good father: generous and kind and patient, at ease with himself, honorable and sensitive to others, but also strong and confident. Someone who knew his impact on the world and others around him, and wanted to do good with it. And while he accepted that maybe children weren’t a possibility for me, emotionally and perhaps physically — and loved me and stood with me anyway — it seemed a shame that someone who would make such a good father wouldn’t be one.
And love also has a way of expanding your own self — almost like feeling real acceptance and love enables you to trust yourself enough to question your own assumptions. I began to ask myself questions that I didn’t before, questions I thought I’d answered decades before. Were there parts of me that would make a good mother? And were there aspects of myself that would only come to the fore by raising a child? And what would my experience of being human be if that happened? Those questions are maybe unanswerable — but asking them is perhaps more the point, because they open doors in the soul to rooms that you didn’t even know existed.
Very, very slowly, a family of my own seemed…a possibility. A tiny one, a fragile one, one that I might have to say goodbye to before it could fully be embraced, because of my age. I didn’t crave a baby — and I will never be a woman who thinks the apogee of female experience is marriage and motherhood — but that didn’t mean that for the first time, I would idly imagine taking a little girl or boy to see the ocean for the first time, or Saturday afternoon trips to the library and then going out for ice cream afterwards. What would I teach a child? What books would we read together? What songs would I sing? I would mull these questions over and then stop myself, feeling scared I was setting myself up for disappointment, or worse.
On one side of the cloth was my ordinary life, as busy and unruly and full as ever. On the other side, a whole new tapestry being woven, with new clothes, shapes and textures — and the needle being pulled back and forth in a slow, steady, careful way. Because a good dream needs care, and tending, and time.
But life is very funny and the great spirits that steward the universe have a sense of…humor? It must’ve seen a crack in the firmament, a fissure in the foundation, and sensed its opportunity: because suddenly I became a statistical anomaly and…a baby came!
It was scary but exciting, like so many great opportunities are. It was good to have nine months to be pregnant, because it took that time to really come around to the idea of being a mother. But I did. When I was pregnant I would write letters to my unborn child, telling him all about the world I wanted to show him. I woke up every morning and did yoga and meditation, and I would send him any peace and calm and love I got. I read out loud to him, and played him music, feeling him tumble about in my belly to the beats. (He liked Madonna and the White Stripes.) I would talk to him in the morning and at night, feeling him kick and press his little hand to mine as I rested it on my belly. I went into the hospital scared but excited to meet him for the first time.
And then I came out of the hospital with a beautiful little loaf of a baby and some serious trauma from scary post-operative complications. (Without getting into it, my anesthesia wore off near the end of my C-section, which was absolutely HORRIBLE.) And I think it was this trauma that partly set off my depression. The period after a first child is, I’m told, always a blur, but I began to worry when the so-called “baby blues” never went away. They seemed to get worse, in fact, and I constantly felt that whatever ground I gained as a parent was lost as I slid further and further behind into bouts of darkness and grief. I couldn’t shake the sense that I was doing everything wrong, though logically I knew I was doing a fine enough job. The baby was growing well; people always said he seemed remarkably content. And all things considered, he was a good little baby: curious, adaptable, even-tempered. But I was plagued constantly with sharp pangs of panic, grief and overwhelming hopelessness that I knew just wasn’t me. I felt worthless, awful. I felt, sometimes, like I wanted to die. I thank my lucky stars I grew up a Buddhist and knew enough to watch these horrible thoughts arise — and have the patience for them to dissipate. But that didn’t make it easier.
I really began to worry when I alternated between feeling empty and meaningless with bouts of out-of-control rage — an emotion that is mostly entirely foreign to me as an adult. Self-care — and my wonderful partner and family who moved mountains to make sure I had time for it, and also cared for me as well — would refill the well just a tiny, tiny bit. I’d think: Okay, if only I can get a full night’s sleep. But I would get some, be okay for a little bit and then something else would trigger me towards the dark rooms of depression: an offhand comment, a bad joke, a picture of a celebrity back to a size 0 two months after having a baby. Then I’d fall into a chasm, and that small bit of relief would get sucked into the vortex. And I was deeper in the darkness than ever before. Even worse, I’d be plagued with thoughts of “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get better?” And that only made me feel worse. I became convinced my baby was better off without me. Only then did I realize I couldn’t go it alone. I needed help.
If there is anything I’ve learned from all this, it’s the difference between being depressed and having depression. We all get depressed: we are sad and sometimes in despair over loss or change in life. It’s natural and I daresay healthy, because it’s not wise overall to deny your more unruly emotions.
Depression *can* overwhelm you with sadness or grief. The typical drug-ad version of it is a person curled up on a bed, crying. But there are more subtle versions. A perfectly functioning person with a hollowed-out emptiness. Someone who hasn’t really laughed in weeks. Feeling lethargic and then overwhelmed with lacerating rage. A kind of persistent extreme detachment, like feeling alienated from your own life, giving you that curious sensation of being there but not really there. Or seething with a loathing of self and others, like an extreme disgust at the business of being alive.
Depression isn’t just sadness: it is a profound loss of the ability to feel joy, to feel and know you are loved and worthy, to have belief in the goodness of your future. Depression takes away your ability to hope, to commune with the possibilities. Depression takes away your ability to revel in dreams.
I sometimes wish I had more time to dream about being a parent and helming a family before I actually had one. There’s a kind of mental preparation and emotional rehearsal in dreaming and visioning, and while it may not exactly align with reality, you might gain some kind of clarity or confidence by imagining something again and again, revising or embroidering something new and different with each replay.
I guess I’m writing more — here and elsewhere — because writing is a way of dreaming. Maybe it’s a way of joining two sides of the cloth — weaving a truthful, honest narrative of my reality with the unruliness of desires, aspirations and hopes. For such a long time, in the thick of newborn parenting, body out-of-whackness, chronic sleep deprivation and post-partum depression and anxiety, I stopped dreaming. I just couldn’t imagine anything beautiful, or even just better. In any area of life, not just my family. At my worst, I really did just want to just give up and let the storm take me — just stand there and cry and let my tears seal my eyes shut as the painfully sharp drifts of snow bury me alive. It’s very easy to just give up when you are depressed; it’s scary how easy it is.
But I am lucky — I have words, and loved ones, and a little tiny human who needs me. I have the means to get help, though I have to confess, I think I slowed myself down a little because I refused medication — I just didn’t feel comfortable taking anything at all while nursing and nursing was the one thing I did as a mother that made me feel competent. (However you feel about meds — and for many they are absolutely necessary — if you are suffering from post-partum anxiety or depression, please get help sooner than later. It is so much better for you, your baby and your partner and loved ones.) But with work and effort I transformed certain relationships and patterns in my life and it made things better. And it’s ongoing, this work and effort and vigilance. But the alternative is so much worse.
So I write. And as I do, I start to dream again. Writing about the pleasurable things in life — for me, it’s clothes, books, music or just the daily adventures and mementos of life and memory — is a way of cherishing and nourishing that part of my imagination devoted to joy, not catastrophe. With writing, I inch back into thinking I have enough agency in my life to make it my own again — that I have the ability to author my life and my future in some way or another. I sleep more, and do less, and do more of what is important. I take pleasure in things again. I hold my little one and feel love and do my best to make him feel secure, safe and cherished, and tell myself that this is the most important and pleasurable part of parenting — and it is often enough.
And so you move forward, one foot in front of the other, guided by whatever hope and strength and vision you can muster, making your way to home.