The bell jar was lowering, the sweet cloying smell of the air contained within threatening to suffocate, so I danced faster than it could descend. Not in any manic way, but a deliberate, furious expression, meant to stave off a case of the mean reds so angry that even time with my ridiculously happy child could not abate it. I already had on my best dress for dancing, with a full skirt for making dramatic turns, and slippery shoes to help me make the most of the tiny kitchen parquet floor. Jokes are often made about how folks with depression listen to sad music to wallow in it, but that is not the real reason. We turn to The Smiths, Leonard Cohen and the like to inject some soul into our barren landscape — we need depth, not to candy coat our sadness with smiles. So, I turned on the soundtrack to Dancer in the Dark, which is arguably the most depressing movie on earth, with some seriously soulful Bjork songs throughout. Olive’s face filled with delight when I began to spin around the room, but I only saw it for a moment before I closed my eyes, needing to be fully in the movement, working through all the stuck places in my mind, heart, and back muscles. Some moms need to steal away for a nip from the bottle of Jameson mid-day to get through, but me, I dance.
A few of my friends on Facebook recently have been breaking the unspoken taboo against ever saying anything negative about their lives, and starting to really show up. Their status updates, instead of pictures of the mouth-watering food they are about to eat, baby updates galore, or a pithy celebration of how generally happy they are in life, have instead been indicating disappointment, fear, and even depression. Now, this is a dangerous thing to do on Facebook, a place uniquely designed for people to pull out their best Dear Abby impersonations at every turn. So, as I endeavor to write to you about my struggles with mood on this blog, please hear this: I do not want you pull a Coldplay and try to fix me. I like myself a little broken, just as I am. But if you want to know me more, especially in those places of brokenness, it’s totally cool to ask more questions about my experience.
So, here’s a little secret that those posts of brand-new babies rarely say: motherhood will not save you from depression. Sometimes, it will even create it. I was not shocked about this fact, I knew that going in. Right before I got pregnant, I was really going through it. I admitted to my therapist that I wished that having a baby would bring me happiness in my life, but that I knew that it wouldn’t fix any of my current problems. “I know that I will still be myself, prone to melancholy, thinking way too much about my relationships all the time, and taking care of everyone else while neglecting myself. However, now I’ll also have a baby to love. This will add to the difficulty of my life, yes. But it will also increase the love. I need to increase the love.”
I often come across mothers that have thrown themselves so fully into motherhood to stave off ever having to talk about their actual lives, what’s really going on for them. But motherhood does not save you from having to work through your shit. Sylvia Plath still sealed her children into the living room to protect them from the fumes, and stuck her head in the oven, ending her short and brilliant life, and abandoning her kids because she thought they’d be better off without her. In fact, the stress of motherhood often causes things to crack and come apart, revealing wounds you thought you had pasted over for good but were actually only festering under that dirty bandaid you slapped on when you were 14.
Over dinner recently, a friend admitted to me about her bouts of anger that make her fear that she is turning into her rageaholic father, lashing out at her kids and partner in ways that surprise and terrify her. In the course of discussing it further, I said something offhand about how struggling with mental health issues so early in life helped me find the things I need to do to stay sane, and if I stray from those, all hell, literally, breaks loose. She returned to this comment later, asking, “So… what are those things that you do to stay sane?” It was interesting, because I hadn’t really spent a whole lot of time articulating what it is I do to stay relatively balanced, even though it takes up pretty much all of my free time. So, over a healthy amount of wine, I found myself espousing a bit of a manifesto.
I call it my Threadbare Three:
First is Exercise. Getting my endorphins going and literally working through the feelings in my body, as I did dancing in the kitchen this week, is the best way I know to shake off and work through the accumulated stuff in my body. I am not always dying to go to dance class — sometimes I would much rather veg, especially after a particularly hard day of running around playing peek-a-boo tag with Olive. But once I get there, and let myself really go into the movement, I feel a melting in to my body, and, moving through all the stuck places, I start to feel free, and by the end I’m often feeling like I just might take flight. Not always, mind you, but enough to keep me coming back, several times a week.
Second is a Spiritual Practice. For me, this is being a part of a church, praying, and reading spiritual texts. I think this is important because depression/anxiety/mood disorders in general are about the specific problems of being YOU. You need experiences that get you outside the particulars of your own little life, and into the oneness of all life. We are both the wave and ocean, and if we spend all our time being the wave, we miss out on the vastness and depth of the sea. I don’t think it matters which spiritual practice you choose, as long as it is one that is based in love and leads you to a place of peace. Joel and I have really been getting into adding Buddhist practices to our Christianity lately, and it’s really deepening our understanding of the spiritual plane and helping us learn to love others more. I think Jesus is down with that.
Finally: Expression. This means creating art, and/or going to therapy. You need a way to tell your story. Often, we need someone to help us sort through our story, especially if it has really painful parts that we still don’t fully understand or know how to integrate within our lives. A therapist is someone who is trained to guide you through this process, bringing you to a place of freedom from your past, and a present that doesn’t involve denying any parts of you, but rather helps you be a whole person. I am not currently in therapy, but I just ended after 12 consecutive years of this deep work. I found it incredibly helpful, and I recommend it for basically anyone looking to grow personally and find some clarity in their lives. The other way to go with this step is creating art, preferably every single day. For me this means taking 20 minutes out of my morning to write, and hopefully squeezing in more writing and art-creation time later in the day. This final step in the Threadbare Three brings all the others together, as I often dance for both exercise and expression, and I find making art to be a sacred experience, as we become co-creators with God.
Enlighten me further, my friends: what makes up your Threadbare Three?