Mental illness and the God with skin on

I remember the night I realized something was wrong.

The house was quiet, both my husband and my son sleeping deeply. It was about 4:30 am, and I was shaking in bed, crying hysterically into my pillow. I’d been tossing and turning for almost six hours and hadn’t been able to sleep because I couldn’t turn my brain off, even though I was thoroughly, way-down-in-my-bones exhausted. I woke my husband up, and he simply held me as I sobbed. After about an hour, I finally passed out, slept fitfully, and woke up feeling raw and on edge.

I’d been concerned up until that point that I might be suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety, but it was after that night that I made a doctor’s appointment to get help. I learned that it is estimated about 10% of new (as in, just had a baby, not had a baby for the first time; PPD and PPA can effect moms of multiples too!) mothers experience perinatal mood disorders; some studies place that statistic closer to 15%. I have found great comfort in communities like Postpartum Progress, my tribe of mama friends affectionately known as my Henchies, and my husband, who has been incredibly patient, loving and supportive through it all.

I’ve taken many steps to treat my PPD/PPA and alleviate my symptoms. I’m on Zoloft. I go to therapy. I take zinc supplements and Vitamin D supplements and magnesium supplements. I’ve been trying to live a healthy lifestyle. I journal as a way to process my emotions.

And honestly, some days are good. Really good. And it feels like I’m doing better.

And there are other days when I cry in a bathtub.
When I feel so disconnected from other people that it physically hurts.
When I forget to eat, or when I eat too much.
When my muscles and joints start aching out of nowhere.
When I can’t bring myself to get dressed–and not in that cute, I’m-a-new-mom-so-I’m-just-going-to-wear-yoga-pants-all-day kind of way.
When I wake up from a deep sleep at 1:30 am, panicked because I haven’t heard my son over the monitor in a few hours and I want to be sure he’s still breathing.
When I can’t sleep at all.

My postpartum depression and anxiety have taught me a lot–that I’m not invincible, for starters. That it’s okay to allow yourself to feel weak sometimes. That I don’t have to carry the world on my shoulders. That sometimes, we all just need a little help.

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A few years ago, I wrote a post about the ones in life who stay. I find myself returning to those words during this season, grateful for the people who stick with me and stick through it during the hard parts of life::

So this one is to celebrate all those who stay. You know the people I’m talking about. The ones by your side when the going gets tough. They cook you meals, bring you coffee, offer to run errands on days when you just can’t. They sit in waiting rooms, and they remind you to breathe. They stay up late because they know you need to talk. They let you sleep in because they know you need to rest. They don’t give you easy answers because they know that’s neither helpful nor healing. They point you to the light. They pass you the tissues when you can’t stop the tears. They love you instead of trying to fix you. They let you fall apart instead of putting you back together before you’re ready. They hold hands, hold hearts, hold secrets, hold their tongues, even. They’re simply present.

They put aside their own schedules, their own agendas, their own to-do-lists. They make space. They start conversations. They ask the hard questions, like “how is your heart?” and not just “how are you doing?”, and they don’t pressure you if you don’t know how to respond. They remind you to take your medicine. They nourish your body, your heart, your soul. They see all your messy parts, and it doesn’t scare them away. They get right down there with you instead; they make your hard places their home. “I’m with you,” they whisper. “I’m for you.” And until the storm passes, they hold your face in their hands, and they remind you that it really is going to be alright.

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I know that my PPD/PPA sometimes gets in the way of me being my best self. Brokenness will do that to us, I suppose. But I think there are also certain soul-lessons one can only learn in the hard places of life, lessons about God and self and relationships. I am now profoundly more aware of the necessity to practice looking deeper at others, for example. Human beings are a swirling constellation of a great many things; they are heart and soul and sweat and flesh and veins and thoughts and feelings and fears, and surface-level community just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I’ve learned to lean into the winter seasons, because unless you see it for what it is, you’ll never light a candle against the darkness. Most importantly, I’ve come to see God in a new way, as a God with skin on, a God who is friend, who gives his presence in tangible, tactile ways. Fr. James Martin, SJ, reminds us that the gospels show us a Jesus who uses spit and mud to heal the deaf and mute man, revealing that “the things of the body, and the earth, are not foreign to him.” He is familiar with all of my fractures, every single one. And each time a person practices being someone who stays, I am introduced to the Gospel all over again.

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If you think you may be suffering from a perinatal mood disorder or other mental illness, I urge you to seek help. Things like medication and therapy are not signs of weakness; choosing to fight for your health and wholeness is one of the bravest things you could ever do.

If you know someone with mental illness, I hope you know what a deep comfort it is to that person when you choose to be someone who stays. It’s what love looks like. It’s what Emmanuel, God with us, looks like. It’s showing somebody else what the God with skin on looks like–and for some, that might be the only God they know.

Photo: Creative Commons

2 Comments
  • Robin Lostetter
    March 13, 2017

    Thank you, once again, for your openness about a very personal issue. My older daughter had PPD. At some point I’ll share the funny/scary story of learning about it. Just thank heaven I’d been thru a couple of good pastoral care courses at CRDS … I needed that framework for intervention.

  • Elena Delhagen
    March 16, 2017

    Thank you for reading, Robin! PPD/PPA is so much more common than many women realize, and it’s my prayer that sharing my story may help them know they’re not alone, and that it’s ok to ask for help! I’m so glad you were able to be there for your daughter. When you’re in the thick of PPD/PPA, another person’s presence can be so healing.

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