Tired all the time

To paraphrase the Dos Equis guy, I don’t always feel tired, but when I do — no, actually, I do always feel tired.  Or, if not always, often enough that it’s my normal.

For the longest time, I hoped that there was something specific (but fixable!) wrong with me, like iron-deficiency anemia or an underactive thyroid.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), blood tests through the years have ruled those things out.  We did eventually figure out that one of the medications I was taking in college was the reason I kept falling asleep in class, and changing that helped quite a bit.  But I still routinely find myself overwhelmed by the urge to lay my head on a pillow, close my eyes, and let my brain recharge with sleep.

Pregnancy and the early postpartum period made everything much worse, of course.  Now, however, I no longer wake unprompted at 5 a.m., expecting either a hungry baby or loud thuds from our ex-neighbors.  By the numbers, I’m getting enough sleep at night.  Yet I still often find myself unable to think or focus or process information by the end of the day.

And so I run through the list of possible reasons:

  • I’m hungry and have low blood sugar.
  • I just ate and am in a carbohydrate stupor.
  • I worked out today.
  • I haven’t worked out much lately.
  • I’m depressed.
  • My antidepressant makes me drowsy.
  • My antidepressant keeps me up at night.
  • I didn’t get the chance to take a nap.
  • I took a nap, but it wasn’t long enough.
  • I took a nap and it was too long.
  • I tried to do too many things today.
  • I didn’t do anything today.
  • I haven’t had any caffeine yet today.
  • I had too much caffeine today.
  • I’m bored.
  • I’m worried.
  • I’m being overdramatic… maybe this is normal and everyone feels this way.

Maybe I’ll figure it out someday.

It-Gets-Better Girl

The lovely Irene of Finkelstein and Sons challenged me to a free-writing exercise with the prompt, “Create your own personal super hero alter ego and describe his or her day.” 


Invisibility.

I’ve always said invisibility, when asked what superpower I would choose if I could have but one.  It’s a reflex response born out of a lifetime of wanting to be left alone, un-judged, un-bothered, un-teased.  But I don’t know what I would do with that, as a superheroine.  It’s a selfish response, as is my second choice: being able to instantaneously transport myself (and my family and stuff) wherever in the world we wanted to go.

So maybe not invisibility.

Throughout my life, I have returned repeatedly to the idea of sending support to myself through time.  Huh?  When I’m doing well, when I’m in a good place, I imagine myself sending strength to the person I was when I was going through a bad time.  It gets better, I think.  Fifth grade only lasts for one year.  It gets better – college really is better than high school.  It gets better – babies don’t stay that exhausting forever.

So if I were to be a superhero, perhaps that’s the power I’d hold.  The power to look into someone’s future and find the good parts.  To see beyond the darkness that envelops them today.  And to communicate that to them somehow.  Maybe with some details, or maybe just in a positive feeling, the strength to get up and keep going for one more day.  Maybe they wouldn’t even know I was there, or that I existed at all.  They’d just know that it would get better.

That’d be me: It-Gets-Better Girl.  It’d be a daily struggle to be a superheroine, I think, knowing that you couldn’t help everyone every single day.  What if I looked into someone’s future and it didn’t get better?  What then?  What kind of power would I have to change the future?  Would it be the kind of foresight where you can see multiple probable futures at once?

I could really start overthinking this.

But oh, what a difference I might make.  Of course, as a self-reflective superhero, I’d be worried about getting too full of myself, too proud of my accomplishments.

Maybe I wouldn’t be very happy that way.

Or maybe I would.  Maybe being It-Gets-Better Girl would bring my life new purpose and a satisfaction.  Would it be my job?  I don’t think being a silent superheroine pays very well, so I’d still need a day job.  But then when would I sleep?

Evidently I’d need a few extra superpowers to go along with it.


I’ll admit, I followed the spirit of the challenge more than the letter – I wasn’t trying to maximize my word count or anything, and I kept going after my initial 15 minutes were up.  But the exercise got some thoughts flowing, for sure.

And now I’m really curious what It-Get-Better Girl’s costume would look like.  Doodle time!

Mental health care access is a joke

We’ve been trying to find my husband a psychiatrist.  It hasn’t been going very well.

The first place we tried was a local community health center with several psychiatric nurse practitioners.  A referral and some phone calls later, he was told to come in at 8 a.m. on a specific day for a walk-in appointment.  It turns out “walk-in appointment” is an oxymoron, because, when he arrived, he was told that the earliest available time slot that day was 10 a.m., and that wasn’t with any of the people he’d been told he would see.  For one of them, he’d have to wait until at least 3 p.m.

Well, my husband is a man with a job and a tight schedule, so he left.  Further calls revealed that the center has no non-walk-in options for the initial evaluation appointment.  That wasn’t going to work.

So we tried a different place.  The friendly assistant on the phone informed us that yes, Dr. M. was taking new patients, but the earliest available appointment was in January 2016.  What?!

Health care in the U.S. always tends to be a maze of referrals and insurance verifications, but mental health care seems to be the worst of all.  You see, to see a psychiatrist (or a psychologist, or a therapist or counselor), you have to do go through the following steps:

1.  Find a practitioner who sounds like a good fit for you.

You would think that you could just get a recommendation from your regular doctor.  You would think.  That’s how other specialties seem to work.  When I was referred to a physical therapist for some long-term hip problems, the referring doctor sent me to a specific person.  Someone they thought might be appropriate.

Mental health?  Nope.  When I talked to my OB-GYN about postpartum depression, I got some vague hand-waving about how they couldn’t recommend anyone in particular because they didn’t know who took my insurance.  When I walked into my university’s student counseling center – the people who handle all student insurance referrals for mental health – and asked to be referred to a therapist for postpartum depression, they had no idea to whom they should send me.  After a long while of awkward searching, I asked if they could just give me a blank referral and let me find someone.  They did.

2.  Check that the practitioner in question accepts your health insurance and is taking new patients.

The health insurance question seems to be particularly problematic with therapists, who often practice alone and may only contract with a handful of insurance companies.  And the only way to get a solid answer is to call the practitioner’s office and ask.  I’ve yet to encounter a health-insurance-created online “provider search” that is user-friendly in any way.

3.  Get the official, insurance-approved referral from your primary care physician.  [May be optional depending on how your health insurance works.]

That’s right, you have to make a completely separate appointment with your primary care physician, just to get the piece of paper / electronic signature saying that your mental health care is medically necessary.  Or in my case, you have to go through triage at the student health center again and re-answer a bunch of irrelevant questions about your drinking habits.

4.  Call to make an appointment.

Theoretically straightforward.  Often frustratingly not.  Sometimes, like The Mort Mommy, you face a bureaucracy so unorganized that you never get through.

5.  Wait for the appointment.

Maybe the soonest they could get you in was a few weeks from now.  Maybe it was eight months away.  It’s not like mental health issues are ever urgent, right?

6.  Attend appointment.  Decide if you feel comfortable enough to make another.  If not, rinse and repeat the entire cycle.

Comfort level is important with any medical professional, but especially when it comes to mental health.  If you don’t mesh with your therapist, it’s not going to work very well.  My latest attempt at therapy ended after just five sessions because it became clear that he didn’t have a frame of reference for my issues and so we were going over and over and over the same things with no forward progress.

This whole process is hard enough when you’re sane and have your life together.  It gets exponentially harder when you’re depressed.  When it feels like every little task takes an overwhelming amount of energy and it all seems hopeless anyway.  Or when you’re so anxious that every phone call to a stranger leaves you panicking that you’ve said something wrong.

It’s ridiculous.  My husband and I have decent health insurance.  We can afford the $25-a-visit co-pays.  We live in a moderately-sized city, and we have the job flexibility to make appointments during the work day.  Even at our worst, we have each other for support and the presence of mind to say to a doctor, “I am depressed and need help.”  And we still struggle to access mental health care.  Imagine how much harder it must be for those who don’t have the same level of support and privilege.

Thanks to the mothers

This Mother’s Day, I’d like to say thank you to a group of moms who’ve meant a great deal to me this year: the mothers in my postpartum support group.  (For newer readers, you can read about my family’s struggle with postpartum depression here and here.)

Mothers who showed me that I wasn’t alone.

Mothers who promised me, when I first showed up, exhausted and miserable and feeling like I’d made a terrible mistake with my life, that it gets better.

Mothers whose words meant something because they’d lived through it and made it to the other side.

Mothers who encouraged me to make the phone calls I needed to make to see mental health professionals.

Mothers who breastfeed, and mothers who don’t.  Mothers who’ve also made the decision, after careful discussions with their doctors and pharmacists, to take antidepressants and continue nursing.

Mothers who gave me the last little push to start blogging after years of thinking about it, and who didn’t laugh as my enthusiasm grew.

Mothers who have been through so much more heartache than I can possibly imagine, and yet still listen to my tearful career angst with support and compassion.

Mothers with fantastic jobs and mothers who stay home; mothers of many children and mothers of just one.

Mothers who don’t judge.

Good mothers.

Strong mothers.

Thank you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Decision roadblock #2: what if I like it again?

This is the second in a series tackling my “decision roadblocks,” the obstacles standing in the way of resolving my paralyzing issues with graduate school and beyond.  I’m faced with three options: (1) quit grad school now, (2) finish my PhD but don’t apply for academic jobs, or (3) finish my PhD and do apply for academic jobs.  Roadblock #1 could be summed up as “life’s OK right now, so why rock the boat?”  Roadblock #2 is about the fear of closing doors.


I am supposed to be head-over-heels in love with my field of study.  This is not a case of me projecting something based on my own anxieties – it is an idea endlessly repeated by nearly everyone around me.  I have heard it spoken, seen it written, and observed it in action.  I have friends who post excitedly on Facebook about new discoveries and interesting research papers.  I am supposed to be able to think of nothing else, with the promise that it will make all the unpleasant aspects of the job completely worth it.

I don’t love it.

Most of the time, I don’t even like it.

I deliberately don’t think about my research outside of work hours.

I find 98% of research papers to be deadly dull, and I hide those posts on Facebook because they trigger nothing but anxiety and disappointment in myself.

Then why don’t you just quit?  Why subject yourself to more years of low pay, minimal feedback, and a subject you have to actively force your brain to think about?

That would make sense, right?  But even aside from the logistical and pride concerns dissuading me from quitting right now, I’m afraid to commit to quitting academia in the future, because what if I like it again?

You see, I constructed this mental block.  I have been to that place where I think about my research all the time, and down that road lies madness.  On the surface of it, this would seem to be another point in favor of quitting.  Perhaps my personality just can’t handle the weird world of academic research.

However, there were other factors that made life difficult back when I used to want to think about my work.  There were classes with snooze-worthy instructors and time-consuming yet poorly-conceived homework assignments.  There was an idiot of an ex-advisor, whose research incompetence really got me off on the wrong foot when it comes to research productivity.  There was improperly-treated depression, and a new world of adulthood to which I was trying to adapt.

And so I think, maybe if I could just fix all those things, I would like it again.  If I could just finally publish a paper, if I could overcome my perfectionism, if I could see that I could do it, if I could find someone with which to have interesting conversations about the subject… I don’t want to give up while there are still factors that I might fix.  What if I commit to quitting, but then finally figure it out, start to care about the subject again, and am sad to let it go?

It occurred to me as I was writing the above paragraphs (and hey, that’s why I write these posts) that that’s not how it’s supposed to work.  Love for the subject is supposed to carry me through the hard times, not be something I search for in vain.  If I can only enjoy research when everything is going well, then the stress of being a professor is probably not for me.

At what point can I give myself permission to say, well, you gave this a fair shot, but it didn’t work out?  I didn’t give up when things first got really tough – if anything, I hung on with Dr. Incompetent for at least a year too long.  But then I found a new advisor and a new project, which helped… but not enough.

As an aside, part of me really wants to blame Stupid Ex-Advisor for ruining my experience in the field.  We’ll never know if I would be in a very different situation today if I’d done my initial graduate work with someone who had a clue and who’d kept me excited and motivated about the research.  However, if I really reflect on it, there were signs before she came along.  Boring course after boring, poorly-taught course in college – that wasn’t the subject’s fault though, was it?  At that point, I still cared enough to teach myself the material outside of class, and I didn’t think it was so bad.  There was an increasingly-frustrating summer internship project that went nowhere – but that was just bad luck in mentors, wasn’t it?  The previous summer’s internship had been much more productive.  There was the secret daydreaming about becoming a park ranger during my senior year – but that was just stress about the GRE and grad school applications, right?  Right?

My curiosity is nearly insatiable.  My husband lovingly teases me about knowing random facts about a huge range of topics.  Before Google, my family answered those “huh, I wonder” questions with a decade-old encyclopedia.  With near-constant internet access today, I get caught up following links about strange little topics all the time.

But I’m not curious anymore about the subject to which I have supposedly devoted my life.

I can be sometimes – “ooh, I wonder what this paper has to say” – but the reference list grows with exponential speed, and I always run out of time and brainpower before I can get to the end of the list, and so I have to move on.  Occasionally I have ideas for new research I might do, but I rapidly lose all hope of ever finding the time and resources.  Every time that happens – every time I think I might be on the verge of happily re-immersing myself in the subject, but I fail – when that happens, another little piece of my hope gets chipped away.

All right then, how can I use this roadblock to inform my decision?  I have tried to like the field again.  I really have.  I have given it many years of my life and an enormous amount of angst and effort.  And I still like lots of other topics, but not this one.  It is not wrong to commit to being done with it, not wrong to say no, I don’t want to apply for those academic jobs when I know I will not take them.

And yet… I really do want to finish the PhD, in order to prove to myself that I can.  If I actually can do it but still don’t find myself joyfully obsessed in the topic, then I will truly know that I gave it my best shot.  Saying this, I’m still quite worried that the level of intensity required to complete my thesis will inevitably lead to joyful obsession, which will make me regret having publicly declared my lack of interest in an academic career… but no! I just spent 1000 words trying to convince myself otherwise, and I’m tired of thinking in circles.  All that gets me is more depression.  Also, part of me believes that the only way to actually finish the PhD is to remove the pressure of a future career and allow me to enjoy the parts I enjoy.  Even if they’re not the “right” parts.

Maybe it’s OK to stop looking for the missing piece and reach for a new puzzle instead.

Recovery mode

It’s been a rough week.  There was an important deadline at school, and then I had to present some results (results? what results? ha!) to my research advisor and some other folks.  I didn’t hit quite the same level of total freak-out that I have with deadlines in the past, but let’s be honest – that’s not a very high bar.  Instead, I just felt like I had a constant live wire of tension running through my body.  All I wanted was to snip the wire and relax, but I couldn’t.

Since school had to take priority, the house is a mess.  A real, there-is-so-much-cat-hair-on-this-rug-that-it’s-driving-me-nuts mess, not a “my house isn’t quite up to Martha Stewart levels” mess.  Worse, I feel as though I haven’t been able to give my son the attention he deserves.  His father has invented some adorable baby games this week, and I haven’t had the energy.

When a perpetual undercurrent of anxiety finally disappears, it leaves behind not elation but exhaustion.  So this morning, with all the deadlines past, all I really wanted to do was sleep.  When Little Boy went down for his nap, I gave myself permission to do the same.  I could’ve used the time to do some of those things I’d had to put off (like vacuuming), but I chose not to, knowing that I needed to go into “recovery mode” before I crashed.

If you’re not me, this might seem like a no-brainer, a completely obvious decision.  Why should you have to rationalize taking a break?  It’s tricky for me, however, because I can get stuck in recovery mode.  It’s all too easy for the lure of sleep or mindless web browsing to take over, and it becomes both a symptom and cause of depression.  I wind up lacking the energy to do anything, while deeply unhappy that I’m accomplishing nothing.

It’s a fine edge to balance – recharging time is necessary, but how much is too much?  I’ve noticed that having hobbies helps; if I actually do something I enjoy, rather than just lazing around, I am happier.

Of course, sometimes you just need a nap.  Or at the very least an extended period of pseudo-meditation, which is what happens when I lay down but don’t fall all the way to sleep. This morning’s decision was the right one: afterward, I felt refreshed and more prepared to tackle the rest of the day.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for what will hopefully be a good night’s rest.

A low-inspiration kind of day

It’s one of those days.  Everything is in place for a pleasant, enjoyable afternoon – the sun is shining, the weather is delightful, the baby is relatively happy, and there’s nothing so urgent to be done that it cannot wait a little longer.  I should be really, really grateful for that last part: the state of having nothing that must be done is so very rare as a parent.  And yet, I’m just not feeling it.

I just don’t have the energy to take advantage of this day.  I’d like to write, but my mind is blank on what to say.  It would be a good day for gardening, but that would require getting up and moving around and actually doing something.  I would rather lay here on the couch and deal with the guilt of wasting the day.

This condition is familiar.  I have been here before.  I have spent my whole adult life trying to give myself permission to be “lazy” and rest, but it still feels like I ought to be doing something more with this time.  Something actively fun rather than passively bored.

Ever have one of those days?

Dads get PPD, too: my husband’s story

As a society, we’ve slowly become more aware and understanding of postpartum depression (PPD) and other mood disorders in new mothers.  Gone are the days when unhappiness after the birth of a child was considered a character flaw and women were expected to “suck it up” in silence.  Today, many childcare books contain a section discussing the symptoms of PPD, and doctors routinely screen for it at postpartum check-ups.  Actually accessing good help remains problematic, but we have come a long way. 

Fathers, however, remain notably missing from the conversation – and when they do appear, it’s usually in the context of how to support a depressed partner.  But men get PPD, too.  Studies report that 10% of new dads experience postpartum depression (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that number turned out to be an underestimate). 

My husband is part of that 10%.  Very little of my postpartum depression story was news to him, but he was proud of me for sharing it.  He was motivated to write up his own story and has asked that I share it with you as well. 

I want to warn you that some of what he has to say may be upsetting, especially since his story is not fully resolved.  I’ll let him take it from here (with a few notes from me in italics):

Depression runs in my family, but until the last couple of years, it seemed that I successfully evaded it.  Instead of depression, I’ve suffered from “wonderfully” enormous anxiety issues, which have grown worse with age… but never depression on the order seen in my family, the kind that could lead to someone trying to take their life.  Looking back, I probably started showing small signs of depression with my anxiety a couple of years ago, but who knows if it would have otherwise grown into such a problem as it was to become when my wife was pregnant with our son.

When my wife became pregnant, I was excited.  We had been planning for nearly two years, and I’ve wanted strongly to be a parent for a very long time.  That excitement burned out, but it was eventually replaced with anticipation of some of the great beginning milestones in pregnancy:  telling our parents, seeing the first ultrasound, making our big announcements to the world, finding out the sex of the baby, etc.

I’m not sure when things started getting worse.  The last year is a foggy mess of blurred memories.  I’ll shamefully admit that I was disappointed when the ultrasound showed we were having a boy.  When I thought of myself as a parent, I often imagined having a daddy’s girl.  I didn’t have a close or even good relationship with my father growing up, and unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of close father-son relationships.  Such a relationship seems to be thought of as “unmanly” in our society.  (My brother and his two-year old son are an exception.)  I wanted that really close relationship, to be completely important in someone’s life, if only for a while.  Stupid TV, movies, and books for putting that romantic notion in my head.  BUT, we were having a son, and I got over it.

During the middle part of the pregnancy, my wife started to have down episodes.  I tried, but I couldn’t help like I could in the past.  When she wanted to be held, I could do that.  But sometimes she just wanted to be left alone and I just had to wait for things to pass.  As her episodes became more frequent, I became more and more frustrated.  My frustration would border inexplicably on anger, exacerbated by three additional things happening at this time.  One, we had new neighbors move in, who eventually made me want to break something (preferably of theirs) with every stomp/thump/bang they made.  Two, my restless leg syndrome, which I have had from childhood and which runs in the family, went from an hour-a-night, 1-to-3-nights-a-month problem to something that bothered me half the night, every night.  My sleep had already been problematic, as I had started waking up completely every 60-90 minutes all night every night in early grad school. (Note: My husband has already survived grad school and has a PhD.)  Restless legs meant I would either not fall asleep for hours, or I’d wake up after 90 minutes and then not be able to go back to sleep for several more hours.  I began sleeping on the couch because my constant movement in bed and my new loud snoring (from being so tired) made sleep even more unattainable for my depressed, anxious, and already-uncomfortable wife.  The cool living room and the ability to constantly move my legs back and forth made things better for a bit… until I started getting back problems from the couch.  An air mattress fixed the back problems, but this all still meant even less close time with my wife.  And finally, three, I was traveling across the country a lot for work during the later part of the pregnancy.  So not only was I missing doctor’s appointments, but I was also constantly changing my sleep schedule.

Put all of these things together with my anxiety issues, and I started to spiral headfirst (excuse the pun) into depression.  I felt further and further away from my wife, which I alternatingly felt guilty about or just numb.  I know I haven’t been truly happy for a long time, but now I only felt just okay down to downright miserable every minute of every day.  I felt like I was just barely treading water, and that it would be easy to just stop trying and let the world drown me.  As a coping mechanism, I withdrew further and turned to superficial things to release endorphins, like food, caffeine, and the internet.

The morning my son was to be born via C-section, I was sober and resentful.  I resented that we had to do a C-section that day because I was already beyond exhausted, and all I could think about was how any possibility of sleep before the next grueling set of months with a newborn was now gone.  Fortunately, when I stepped into the operating room, adrenaline kicked in and focused me.  My thoughts were on my wife and her well-being.  When my son was born, I was also ready to do everything that I could to be a perfect dad, including doing skin-to-skin while singing to him gently for 45 minutes while mommy was being sewn up, changing nearly every diaper in the hospital and the week after, waiting hand and foot on my immobile wife, and doing generally every little thing the nurses would let me do, all while sleeping on a tiny, cramped, two-person couch (which, by the way, sucked immensely for my restless legs).  (Note: He is not exaggerating here.  I would never have made it through the C-section, much less the first week, without his help.)

From here on, things are very blurry.  The lack of sleep meant I wasn’t forming long-term memories… and by the way, that’s a bitch of a thing when it comes to work.  It’s not fun when your boss has to explain things to you 3+ times.

From the time our son was born until he was about two weeks old, there were some hints of feeling, some occasions when I would look at this little boy and think, maybe I will eventually love you.  I felt that little bit of endorphins that are released when you hold such a tiny infant.  I was also driven with a singular purpose: to take care of my son and wife like no one else could.  I liked the feeling of being needed – because I felt like I was constantly being reminded wherever I looked that mom was the most important.  After all, the baby depends on her for food and comfort, and apparently daddy doesn’t know how to do anything.

After the first couple of weeks, things started taking a turn for the worse.  When the baby would cry, I wanted to pull my hair out.  I began being consumed by extremely dark thoughts, like how relieved I would be if he didn’t wake up, or if he accidentally drowned while taking a bath.  People would feel sorry for me, but it would be over.  My wife and I would probably separate because neither one of us would be able to handle the ensuing depression, and I would probably just walk away from everything I knew and become a hermit somewhere where no one could find me.  I recognized that these were unnatural thoughts and there was no way I was going to try to make them happen – I am incapable of that.  But I did occasionally push the swing a little harder than necessary, or pick him up a little faster than I should.

My work had instituted a paid parental leave policy two months prior to my son’s birth, and I was the first person to file for it.  The only problem was, no one knew how to pay for it, and many people weren’t happy about that.  So I became the center of the controversy.  Theoretically, I could have taken up to 6 weeks of full leave, or 12 weeks of half-time leave.  I had already arranged with my boss to take two weeks of vacation, so I chose to take two weeks of full leave and 2 weeks of half, for fear of angering her and others at work.  After my leave was over, and while my wife was still on her leave, working from home was only a matter of consuming enough caffeine and sugar, playing loud music on headphones, and trying to focus on small projects that didn’t require a lot of heavy thinking.  When she went back to work at 6 weeks, half of my work day was spent watching the baby while also trying to get work done.  If he didn’t want to sleep or was crying because he was bored (which was nearly every minute), I couldn’t work.  To partially make up for not working during these times, I would file for sick leave.  But I was perpetually self-conscious, afraid that my boss was not happy with me and would find out that I wasn’t getting anything done at home or at work.  She was hiring new postdocs, so what was to stop her from letting one go and hiring one more to replace me?  (In retrospect, she never really gave me any reason for this fear.  I’m apparently not horrible enough to put the work in for replacing.)

Still more time passed, and I started yelling at the top of my lungs, until I was hoarse, to no one in particular.  Sometimes at the baby from across the room, prompted by his crying, sometimes at the neighbors for being particularly awful.  (Note: The neighbors remained oblivious.)  I was angry A LOT.  When I wasn’t angry, I was serious and numb.  I couldn’t even feel love for anyone, not my wife, not my brother (who I used to feel the closest to outside of my wife), not my parents, no one.  All of this was not good for my wife, who was also suffering from PPD.  She was getting help through support groups and a psychiatrist, but I couldn’t bring myself to find anyone for help.

Anger was also interspersed with heavy thoughts of life and death.  As an agnostic, I don’t see evidence for an afterlife.  This pervades my thoughts and frightens the shit out of me, especially late at night.  During this time in my life, this morphed into me thinking, “What the hell does it matter if I die when I’m 100 or today?  Life doesn’t mean anything.  It has no purpose.  I don’t mean anything.”  I would have thoughts while driving about hammering the throttle and driving into a pole at full speed.  I know it probably scared my wife, but I did tell her about these thoughts.  (Note: It definitely did scare me.)

Still even more time passed, and my depression head-butted into my wife’s depression, resulting in loud arguments.  One night, I snapped completely, lost it, and just started crying uncontrollably.  This may not sound like a big thing, but for someone who hadn’t been able to shed a single tear for over a decade (not even when my grandfathers died), it was definitely a big thing… I did feel a bit better after, at least for a short while.  That same night, my wife and I decided to start sleep training the screaming child who was taking us two-and-half hours every night to put to bed.  THAT was the singularly best thing we could do for my condition.  He took to it right away, leaving us with a couple of hours to decompress every night.  I could start making more complicated meals again, sit and watch TV, etc.

Since sleep training at three months, I have started getting better.  With our son also sleeping through the night on his own, we were no longer spending half our night monitoring the baby for our shift.  (Note: Little Boy was now sleeping in a crib in his own room.)  My legs continued to be a problem, meaning I was still sleeping in another room, which weighed heavily on my wife.  I don’t blame her.  She missed me.  While my sleep was still very broken, just like it had been before the baby was born, at least I was getting some sleep now.  I was also able to start exercising again after three-and-a-half months off, something that’s a big big deal for someone who hasn’t ever stopped running for longer than a few weeks in over 20 years.

So, here I am.  My episodes of extreme depression have lessened and my time doing okay has lengthened.  I can act happy when needed (though not all the time) and I even have plenty of time when I’m not miserable.  I’ve even grown to miss my son when I’m away from him for a few hours.  His crying still cuts into me really easily and deeply, driving my blood pressure concerningly high, but he’s happy quite often now.  He’s constantly talking, and he has the biggest open-mouthed smile you can imagine when I walk into the room.  He shrieks with laughter when I nom his cheek or tickle him.  I love the little dude.  My anxieties about work have lessened to a smaller degree, mainly because they were a big problem before all of this.  However, I’m able to get some of the more-complicated projects done, even if it still requires my boss to explain very simple concepts to me several times.

BUT, I still have bad episodes, even if few and far in between.  I found myself thinking recently how easy it would be to down a bunch of pills, as one of my parents did when I was younger.  Fortunately, other family were present when it happened then, so we could rush that parent to the hospital, but I could do it when no one but the kid was present.  Fear of death and a conflicting worry about what would happen to my wife afterward (conflicting because the world ends when I cease to exist, so what does anything matter, yet how could I hurt her so much) have kept me from taking those final few steps, but it’s very disturbing that I could even get that far.  My wife is helping me find professional assistance.  I don’t see someone ever being able to help me with my thoughts on life and death, but I need someone to help me not contemplate going there sooner rather than later.  I want to be able to feel happy again.  I don’t even remember what the feeling is like.

We are still searching for a psychiatrist and/or therapist that can help my husband.  (The difficulty of finding good mental health care in this country deserves its own post, I think.)  He is also taking steps to see a sleep specialist, who will evaluate the physical issues that are preventing him from getting good rest.

If you are a new dad struggling with PPD, or a new mom worried about her partner, head to PostpartumMen for support and resources.

My postpartum depression story

It’s taken me a while to write this post, and a little while longer to be sure that I wanted to share it. 

Postpartum depression is a real and serious problem faced by many mothers and fathers.  It can begin up to a year or more after the arrival of a new baby.  If you or someone you know is struggling with postpartum depression, know that you are not alone and there is help available.  Postpartum Support International and Postpartum Progress have valuable resources, including a list of support groups in the U.S. and Canada.


This morning I spent about 15 minutes dancing with my Little Boy, holding him in my arms and twirling to the country music playing on the radio.  I wasn’t thinking about anything else I had to do or worrying about finding the time to do it.  We were simply happy.

Months ago, I was afraid that I would never be able to enjoy time with my child in this way.  I was suffering from postpartum depression, often referred to by the acronym PPD.

I attend a postpartum support group, and whenever a new mom begins attending, the moderator asks a few of those who are doing a little better to tell their story.  It was enormously helpful for me to hear someone else describe going through the same extra-crazy feelings, to know that I wasn’t alone.

This is my PPD story.

I knew I was at high risk for PPD, because I’ve struggled with depression my whole life.  Several months before trying to conceive, I tapered off the antidepressants I’d been taking for years; I wanted to stop them anyway, as I was doing reasonably well and had grown tired of the major side effects.  And it was a good decision.  Things went well for a while.

Then I started having depressive episodes.  I can’t pinpoint exactly when they began, but they were bad by the start of the third trimester and getting worse.  Something small would set me off and I’d spend an hour sobbing on the bed, my brain convinced that it would feel dark and terrible forever.  Legitimately upsetting news (like learning about a last-minute office switch) would ruin three or four days.  I was stressed about getting the nursery ready on time while simultaneously struggling to find the motivation to work on it.  And on top of it all, I felt guilty because I knew I was dragging my husband down with me.

I talked to my doctor – because that’s what the pamphlets always say to do, right?  “If you think you’re experiencing … talk to your doctor.”

“Well, we don’t like to prescribe meds in the third trimester.”  No problem, what about therapy?  “I don’t know which therapists take your insurance.  I’ll have my assistant look into it and call you back.”

The assistant never called me back.  All I got was a couple of super-generic pages of information, most of which weren’t even about perinatal mood disorders.

Little Boy arrived.  By the mysterious ways of hormones, I actually felt better.  Exhausted and weepy and anxious about the welfare of this tiny new creature, but not black with despair.  My OB-GYN asked about my mood at my two-week check-up, and I remember that I said very positive things.  I thought that maybe I was going to be OK.  Maybe I’d taken the worst mental hit during pregnancy.

Nope.

The initial weepiness seemed to slowly get darker.  I was getting anxious about going back to school at the end of my six-week maternity leave, because I knew I would be expected to get some work done despite being still too groggy to read even the abstract of a paper.  And Little Boy was starting to wake more frequently (which is normal baby behavior as you approach the period of “peak fussiness” at six weeks of age).

In Little Boy’s sixth week of life, he stopped sleeping for longer than 45 minutes at a time.  My husband and I traded off several-hour shifts in an attempt to ensure that both of us got at least a few hours of unbroken sleep, but it was exhausting.  The worst part, however, was the new neighbors.  We’d lived in that apartment for four years and had at least two, maybe three, sets of upstairs tenants, none of whom had disturbed us in any particular way.  One couple had played loud bass for a few nights and then apologized profusely when we’d asked them to turn it down.

The new neighbors were LOUD.  Constantly, incessantly loud.  They apparently stomped, slammed doors, dropped heavy things, and moved furniture every day and night.  We heard them moving around at 3 a.m. when we woke to feed Little Boy, and yet they all clomped around and woke us up at 6:30 every morning.  We heard them over white noise, over the TV, and even over earplugs.

Consequently, every time I lay down to sleep, I was bound to be awakened in short order by either the sound of a hungry Little Boy or a loud BANG! from upstairs.  It got to the point where I could no longer relax enough to actually fall asleep, so wound up was I with anticipation of the next sound.  The anxious thoughts simply wouldn’t turn off.

After a few days of this, I adopted the temporary solution of not trying to sleep at all during the day, so that I might fall asleep late at night from sheer exhaustion.  If we hadn’t been caring for a small baby who needed food at night, this might have been an OK idea.  But as it was, my sleep debt just kept accumulating and I found myself running out of energy to cope long before I ran out of hours to be awake.

This is the really hard part to say.

My Little Boy is a precious gift from the universe and I love him.  I always have and always will.  But during the blackest hours of his infancy, I regretted becoming a parent.  I was afraid that we had made a terrible mistake and ruined our lives forever; I was kicking myself for how much I had wanted this child.  There were moments when I wanted to walk out the door, leave my beautiful son and his wonderful father behind, and start a completely new life somewhere else.

It took a while to process this after I wrote it.  When my son smiled at me after his nap, I felt ashamed, as though he could somehow know that I had been ruminating about this dark time.  I debated deleting the whole post, thinking, ‘That time is past and hidden away.  Why bring it up again now?”  And, “Everything’s fine today.  Are you sure you aren’t being overdramatic about this whole PPD experience?”  And yet… things definitely weren’t fine in the early months.  To pretend they were – to say that it was just a minor thing – to bury it all deep inside – that would be to do a disservice to myself and every other mother and father who has suffered. 

I got help.  I drove across town to attend the only postpartum support group that didn’t meet during working hours.  They pointed me in the direction of a good psychiatrist, and the necessary phone calls were made so that I could avoid the typical multi-week wait to be seen.  Antidepressants take a while to kick in, but eventually you notice that the bad episodes are coming less frequently, and you are no longer dreading challenges but tackling them with calm acceptance.

The neighbors upstairs continued to be total jerks, but the medication made it possible for me to sleep.  Usually.  With a loud fan parked right next to my ear and a pillow over my head.   But the universe must have been looking out for us, because an opportunity arose to rent a single-family house from a friend.  Other amazing friends helped us move, and now we have a separate office, a master bedroom that isn’t under the stairs to someone else’s apartment, and windows that are more than a foot from the sidewalk.  Oh, and a garage.  And a yard.  And natural light in every room.  It’s also closer to school.  Seriously, I love this house.  We had to pay two month’s rent to break the lease on our apartment, which I can say unequivocally was the best money I have ever, ever spent.

As this all was happening, Little Boy got older.  He began to sleep for longer stretches of the night (more on that in future posts) and eventually his naps consolidated into a regular daily routine.   He became increasingly interactive, “talking” with us in an adorable baby voice.  At 3 months, he discovered the ability to entertain himself by kicking at the toys hanging from his play gym.  LIFE-CHANGING DISCOVERY.  Now I could do the dishes while he was awake.

Little Boy is still hard work, but our lives have found their new patterns.  He is a darling, happy, curious, excited little man, and I love watching him grow.  Wonderful moments like the one I described at the beginning happen on a daily basis.

There is hope.

If I knew I could not fail

“What is it that I really want out of life?  What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail?”

This is on the first page of my therapy “homework” for the week.  The rest of the pages go on to describe ways of overcoming the fear of failure and changing the beliefs that are holding you back.  But I’m stuck on the first page.  What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail?

I don’t know.

My teenage ambition was to become an astronaut.  Leaving aside the practical obstacles to that career, would I still want to do that now?  Space no longer captures my imagination the way it once did, as the joy of discovery has been beaten out of me by years of graduate studies.  That makes me a little sad.  I hope I’ll recover some that joy someday.

Would I write a book?  You could never finish a book; you are not good at character development; you couldn’t make a living doing that anyway.  I’m supposed to ignore those negative thoughts for the purpose of this exercise, darn it!  So maybe.  It doesn’t have to be fiction: there are lots of captivating non-fiction books about odd little topics.

Would I make things?  I like to knit and sew, and though I have not done it since high school shop class, there is an appeal to building wooden things as well.  You are not very good at these things.  I’d get better if I did them more often, and anyway, the question is still about whether I’d want to try.

Would I be an accountant?  Or maybe an actuary?  I enjoy managing our household budget (yeah, I’m weird – the weekly budgeting process actually calms me down).  I once took a free Introduction to Accounting course online and found it very logical and interesting; just the kind of thing I might be good at.  But you would have to go back to school and get another degree for that, and you don’t have the money for that, and do you really want to still be in college when you’re 30?  Fair points, brain, but ignore the difficulties right now.

Would I teach high school?  I am in fact reasonably qualified for this, although it would take a few years before I was any good at it.  I don’t know if that’s what I really want, though.  Being in front of students all day would exhaust me, and spending hours of my own time grading and prepping might be too much like the all-consuming nature of academia.

Would I be a stay-at-home mother?  Not full-time; even as super-introverted as I am, I learned during maternity leave that I need regular adult conversation.  Part-time might be nice, because I do believe that something I want out of life is the ability to watch my child grow up.

You might have noticed that none of the options I’ve considered thus far include the obvious one for someone who’s put this many years into graduate school: Would I be a professor in my field of study?  Years ago, I thought the answer was yes.  Now my first reaction to the question is a desire to curl up in a ball and hide.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?