Note: I use the terms, Alcoholic and Alcoholism, as they applied to my thinking and fear of the label. I no longer use these terms in the same regard.
The other day I was thinking about the connections between the labels Post-Partum Depression and being an Alcoholic. I am now seven months sober and my twins are two years old. Notwithstanding the twists and turns of life, I am better than I have ever been. But it wasn’t always this way. It is only now through a clear lens that I can see how my own thinking kept me in a personal Catch-22 and how similar these two intersections of my life have been. Even when I started to question how I felt, I never hit rock-bottom in regards to depression and addiction. I lived a life of moderation. I was so certain something was wrong with me but so uncertain I had a problem. I don’t look like what society assumes those to be. For the record, I was never formally diagnosed with either. Yet, I stayed in pain and shame. I stayed in the shadows of these labels.
I know better now but this was not always the case. I want to convey what that limbo felt like for me.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always equated such dismay, sorrow, and shame around post-partum depression and what we mean when we call someone an alcoholic. I knew these conditions take no pity. I rationally knew I was not exempt. I’ve seen friends endure. However, I was not someone who was going to “let” that happen. You could experience them, sure, no judgement. But me? No, not me.
I stayed in the shadows because acknowledging my own struggle felt too risky. And to be quite honest, for the longest time I didn’t even think I was struggling. I kept on with what I was doing because the majority of the time my life felt fine. Even when I had doubts I looked at the positives, I looked to what I was doing right so I wouldn’t be considered wrong. It’s only now through sobriety that I can see how I applied this same thinking to both depression and addiction.
My old thinking trapped me. If I was a label or had a label then it would mean I had failed myself or others. If I was an alcoholic or I had post-partum depression I was scared it would mean I was a harm to myself or others. I didn’t think I could recover. The unknown of living with what I perceived that to mean felt too scary. My ego, arrogance, and perfectionism keep me in fear, and also in ignorance.
As scared as I was to be an alcoholic or have post-partum, I also wanted the clarity the labels would bring, particularly PPD. I wanted something to point the finger at to give me an OK for how I felt. I wanted to know that I would be OK. I also wanted to be morally responsible to my children. So, the part of me that just had to know if I qualified mustered up the courage to ask at my initial post-partum appointment. Dismissed. “Oh, no…what you’re experiencing sounds normal. Just the baby blues. Plus, you have twins. Give yourself a break,” said the doctor. Once the initial relief wore off it left me confused and still sad and empty, because if not that, then what? I tried to shed light on my feelings but I felt left in the dark. Am I just over-reacting? Should I tell her more? I felt cowardly.
At the time, I desperately wanted to hear that I was OK, but even when I heard that message the words didn’t penetrate. The words didn’t ease my pain and guilt that made me feel like I had ruined precious moments; it didn’t quell the anxiety that I would continue to do so. Even though my feelings were “normal,” it didn’t lessen the heaviness of them all. I wanted someone else to acknowledge the stressful situations that my husband and I experienced at the hospital and upon bringing the girls home.
This is what I wish I had heard when I first reached out: “Tell me more.” Tell me more would have given me a door to enter, a hallway to walk through, perhaps it would have given me a key to a new house. At the very least it would have made me a window for another to see that struggle doesn’t always neatly fit into our perception of a label.
I recently remarked to myself how jealous I am of all of my friends who have therapists. I am not ashamed to see one. I have before and it was life impactful. Before motherhood and throughout the girls’ first year, I kept it on my to-do list but the everyday demands of life kept putting it further and further down in priority. When things felt normal it didn’t feel necessary. And because I was told my experiences were normal it gave me an easy exit from working on the hard stuff.
Well, a few months before the girls turned one, I could feel myself bubbling over. I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. Finally, I made the proper calls. I tried to lay it all out this time. Truthfully, I couldn’t keep it in. The tears, the feelings, the questioning, the history, the this and the that. She listened.
After that consultation appointment, I really started to think maybe it was quite possible I just never had PPD. I started to care less about the label and looked at what my specific circumstances were that made me feel the way I did. I started to accept that maybe I really was having difficulty transitioning to motherhood, being away from family, working full time, questioning my identity, and all the while being in the “twin fog.” I had been kidding myself by not admitting it was hard, not just the beginning, but all of it. I was already making moves in my life that would change my circumstances. I was working on my self-compassion, I was starting to exercise again, I was switching jobs. I was doing the things that make your mood and life better.
I realized just a few days ago that I’ve spent my lifetime not validating my feelings. I always felt like I had to experience “real” trauma—death, assault, natural disaster, etc—in order for me to feel a certain way. I now know that this is what was happening here. Because I didn’t fit the description of PPD I didn’t think my struggle was real. Because I didn’t fit the description of alcoholism, I didn’t think my drinking was a real problem. I didn’t think my feelings fit the circumstances of my life. “Someone else has it worse,” I thought. More than that, because I didn’t validate my feelings I didn’t know how to seek help for them. I didn’t know how to acknowledge my pain and put aside my ego to ask for help in a period of time where I felt I should be able to handle it all and still feel great.
I’m recognizing now that I still have some unhealed trauma to work through. I stayed angry that those early, painful situations continued to plague my parenting experiences. For the longest time I also stayed mad at my initial OB doctor for dismissing me when really I was mad at myself for not being fully transparent. Sadly, during my postpartum period and my lifetime of drinking, I underreported how I felt, what I did, or how much I drank because I was afraid of the judgement. This is one of those parallels I find so interesting between these two intersections of my life. I wanted the help but feared it at the same time. Because I didn’t know how to be honest with myself I stayed stuck.
I am working on accepting the part of me that was too afraid to be real when I needed it the most. It’s only now I realize that more than a label I wanted a way to go into the past and make it all better. I wanted to do whatever I could to fix what I felt I or others broke. I still mourn the lost time, the hurt I felt during such a life changing season of new motherhood. I also mourned the years I lost relying on booze even when I wasn’t conscious of the reliance at the time. I am still sitting with those feelings and working on that. Thankfully these last seven months of sobriety of have brought me great solace in both of these areas. I could say that a hundred times over. I made a change that keeps on giving. I know that I am working towards a better me. I have been doing the work to uncover my deeply held beliefs and to be kinder, gentler to myself. I can’t wait for what’s to come.
Maybe I did have PPD or maybe I truly didn’t. It’s no longer important for me to know that because I am working on the real issues. Maybe I did drink too excessively, maybe I didn’t. It’s no longer important to me how much I drank because I’ve uncovered why I was drinking. I tried to put the labels of these conditions so far away from me and it stopped me from getting help. Once I stopped caring about the labels, once I confronted the fear I had about them, once I asked myself the hard questions, once I put in the work, I started to see real change.
We need to be honest with ourselves. Until now I wanted so badly to say it was the doctors’ fault—that they misdiagnosed me. But I wasn’t completely truthful. I take responsibility for that. What I wanted more than the label was the proper acknowledgement that I would be OK. I wanted my time back. The time to feel I was in control. I have that now. Sobriety has given that to me. I now also recognize I was not asking myself the best questions and I wasn’t answering them properly.
Am I an alcoholic?
Do I have Post-Partum depression?
Why is one label something I have and one label signify who I am? Are they not two labels of the same coin: You are experiencing a mental and physical divide and it is affecting your health. What do you need? Maybe that conversation is for another time…To be clear, I am not arguing for or against labels. I know they can serve a purpose. Importantly, I do not wish to take-away from anyone’s chance at getting the help they need. I do not wish to belittle your experiences or imply there are not distinctions between these conditions.
I am saying that we need more. We need a spectrum. We need to acknowledge the connotation a label holds and be better prepared to address the struggle. We need to remember to not dismiss someone’s call for help because it doesn’t fit our own perception (or medical definition) of what struggle looks like. We need to listen to each other’s timid inquiries and listen deeply. We need to encourage safe spaces where we can be courageous and accepting of vulnerability. And, again, we need to be honest with ourselves.
We also need to take the personal responsibility to change our lives.
Perhaps the next time you find yourself asking if you are something or if you have something, drop the labels, and just say:
I am Christina.
I have questions about my health.
I want to feel better.
What can I do?
And, please, please be honest with yourself. It’s the only way you’ll break free.
Authors - Various