You’re washing dishes in the evening, the sunlight through the window is slowly fading, paling, and gone. Your eyes adjust, they strain a bit more to see the task at hand. You pull the dishes up a little closer to examine them. And then, suddenly, someone switches on the overhead light. “Oh! I can see again!”
As a child, I switched the light on for my mother and shook my head, wondering why she hadn’t noticed she was working in the dark. As an adult, I’ve done it enough times to know why. Darkness approaches slowly, you compensate, you work a little harder, and then the light turns on and you realize, it didn’t have to be that hard.
Mental health is often the same. Depression and anxiety come slowly, weaving into your mind, making you forget what you felt like before. They dim the lights, bit by bit, until the light is hard to find and you even wonder if it was ever there at all.
When my first daughter was born, the lights went out. I was angry, I was desperate. One minute I was tempted to leave her stroller in the park, thinking surely somebody, anybody, could do a better job than me. The next minute I was panicking. What kind of mother would think that? I could tell no one.
After four months of this, I asked my doctor about postpartum depression. I didn’t check enough boxes on the screening form to qualify. (There was no screening form for anxiety.) My doctor shrugged and suggested good sleep, a break, and time with friends. Things that sounded lovely… to a young mother whose baby didn’t sleep, who had no babysitter or nearby family, and who didn’t have any close friends in her area. I was too ashamed to admit my apparent incompetency, so I nodded and said I would try. I took my impossible to-do list to the car and cried.
My daughter was over a year old when the light began to dawn again. We were both sleeping more, my hormones were leveling out, we had moved and had a more supportive community and some help. As the lights turned on, I realized I wasn’t a horrible mother, and I did love my child. It was only in the light that I could see how dark the past year had been.
In the light, I found out about other postpartum mood disorders like postpartum rage and postpartum anxiety. And that anxiety doesn’t look sweet—it’s not checking the baby’s breathing or fretting over their first rash. It’s horrifying intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and anger. Regardless of the diagnosis, I swore I would never go back there.
My newfound love for motherhood soon led me to my second child. And halfway through that pregnancy, the lights began to dim. There were nightmares, panic attacks at the sound of a baby crying, and toe-curling pain at the very thought of breastfeeding; the PTSD that came from operating in survival mode for an entire year. Counseling helped for a bit, but eventually it wasn’t enough. My new doctor prescribed a low dose of Zoloft, which was my flashlight through the postpartum stage, even if I was embarrassed to carry it.
A little over a year after my second daughter’s birth, I was sleeping again, and had the time and energy to properly take care of myself. I started running, improved my diet, took a break from social media, added supplements, and finally felt healthy.
That’s when I started writing fiction. With the lights back on, I wrote about things like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I finished two novels, one of which was Outside of Grace.
Now, pregnant with my third and last, the light is dimming. I can recognize it a bit more this time, though it’s still subtle and confusing. Full thoughts won’t form, everyday tasks seem impossible, my mind is spewing lies that I’m battling at every turn. And as my eyes strain and fight to adjust to the darkness, my writing has stalled. It’s exhausting and infuriating, and I hate admitting it, because I just want to be normal. But normal will have to wait.
(Note: There’s a difference between common and normal. Just because prenatal and postpartum mood disorders are common doesn’t mean they are normal or should be accepted. Suffering through it does not make anyone better or stronger—rather, it often leads to long-term trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms. We would never tell someone to “just deal with” a broken leg. Neither should a mom have to “just deal with” massive serotonin drops.)
I have another novel I’m passionate about, more than two-thirds complete, but I’ve set it aside. While there is certainly value in creative writing and journaling through difficult seasons, I want my published books to be stories of hope; stories that show both the darkness and the light that overcomes it. And I cannot help others turn the lights on if I’m writing in the dark.
I know there’s a light ahead, and one day, it won’t be this hard. So until then, I’m waiting—waiting for the lights to come back on.