Today’s interview is with Tracy Thompson, the author of “The Beast: A Journey Through Depression” and “The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression.” She has won numerous mental health awards, including one from NAMI for her “lasting contributions to mental health issues.”
Question: The first two sentences of your book are brilliant: “Motherhood and depression are two countries with a long common border. The terrain is chilly and inhospitable, and when mothers speak of it at all, it is usually in guarded terms, or in euphemisms.”
You’re obviously on my team of those moms fighting against the stigma of mental illness. But even I shy away at times — like when someone will joke about another mom being “so schizophrenic” — of telling people how strongly I feel against discrimination. If I’m in a good and confident place, I’ll blab about my psychiatric history. And then I retreat, thinking “oh no, now David won’t have anyone to play with,” and then I blab again, and so it goes. What about you? Do you openly talk about your depression to the moms you interact with on a daily basis?
Tracy Thompson: Do I blab about my psychiatric history? No. Do I talk freely? Yes. By which I mean that when the context is appropriate, I’ll speak up. Recently a friend told me she hadn’t heard from her brother in months. She assumed he was sulking about something. I said, “Make sure he’s not depressed.”
Or there will be a story in the news about some psychiatric patient that people will be talking about, and I’ll have a chance to say, “No, psychotropic drugs like that are not addictive.” And then people will say, “What makes you an expert?” and I’ll say, “I’m not an expert on everything but I do know about this from experience.” This is especially true when the subject is PPD, because new moms (especially first-time mothers) can be made to feel so incredibly guilty about having it, and an amazing number of medical personnel are still ignorant about it.
Just the other day, the Washington Post had a front-page story about a female soldier who suffered a breakdown in Iraq. She’d had episodes of depression before joining the Army; when she went to Iraq, the stress level (she ran a medical trauma response team) was just too much. The Army is actually prosecuting her for attempting suicide. Yeah, I know. It’s medieval.
I don’t go on and on about my own experiences unless somebody specifically asks–but, you know, that’s just basic courtesy. Very few people want to hear the gruesome details of my gallbladder operation, either. But when it’s appropriate, I try to be straightforward and utterly unvarnished. “Yeah, I’ve been in a psychiatric hospital, I’ve overdosed on pills, I’ve self-medicated with alcohol, I’ve even had to have ECT. Fortunately, I’m much better right now”–or some version of that.
I see it as a chance to demonstrate that maybe some of their preconceptions about “the mentally ill” may be wrong. IN a way, it’s like being a combat veteran. You have to walk a line between talking too much and bottling it up inside. “Cautious honesty” is probably the best description of what I strive for.
I get three kinds of reactions. Often, it’s relief. “Oh, thank God, somebody besides me has been struggling with this.” Sometimes it’s amazement. “Really? I would never have guessed” etc.–which is fine; I let that play out according to how interested they are. And there are the people who shut down, or give me this glazed-eyed smile, or suddenly don’t want their kids to play with mine…and that’s fine, it really is. It’s valuable information, just the same as if they had said, “I don’t like immigrants” or “Aren’t these black people ruining the neighborhood.” I don’t want my kids around intolerant people.
When it comes to depression and motherhood specifically, I guess I just have a contrarian streak that gets activated whenever I hear anybody saying something like, “Oh, I just so looooove being a mom,” like everything was a 24-hour-a-day love fest. Usually I’ll say something like, “Yeah, but aren’t there days when you just want to drop-kick the little hellions off a cliff?” If they don’t at least laugh at that, I know their either in serious denial, or they just terminally phony. Or maybe they really ARE like that, in which case I am not up to dealing with them, and that’s my problem, not theirs. I would be cowed by Martha Stewart, too. –Now, having days like that doesn’t make you a depressed mom, but admitting that there are days like that lays the foundation for honesty, and if you can’t be honest about the bad days you can’t be honest about depression.
Finally, when it comes to talking about depression–I guess I’ve reached the point where I realize that there is such a thing as too much talking. Depressed people ruminate too much as it is; we really don’t need too many endless explorations of our misery. What we need is concrete, practical things to do. Somebody to exercise with. Somebody to call us once a day and make sure we’re out of bed. Somebody to take the kids away once in a while for a few hours. The encouragement to keep on trying to find a drug combination that will work. The name of a good shrink. That’s the kind of thing that’s helpful.
Question: You began collecting stories of depressed moms in 2003, when you placed a query in 170 newspapers across the country. In 2004, you placed a query in the May 2004 issue of “O: The Opera Magazine.” And at 500 responses you stopped counting. Wow.
Then you narrowed down the responses from moms who had been diagnosed with major depression and submitted to them a 170-question survey produced by Dr. Sherryl Goodman, a psychology professor at Emory University. You conducted 32 in-depth, personal interviews. You spoke to researchers in the fields of genetics, epidemiology, psychiatry, endocrinology, obstetrics, and brain imaging. And you spent months reading the medical literature on the subject of women and depression. Tracy, I give you an A for effort and I believe whatever you say.
Before I ask you some questions about the responses, let me ask you this: what was most surprising to you … after you put all of it together and let it gel awhile in your brain. Any “Aha!” moments or epiphanies?
Tracy: I think what struck me the most, looking back, was how long I tried to white-knuckle it after the birth of my first child. I’d gone off my meds during my pregnancy and then stayed off after she was born. Why? I do not know. I just wanted to see if I could, I guess. Wish fulfillment, sort of like a two year old: “If I cover my eyes, maybe it’ll go away.”
Looking back, I put three people (me, my daughter and my husband) through a year of hell for no good reason. I did learn, though; when my second daughter was born, and I felt the onset of the same PPD symptoms (raging anxiety, mostly), I was back on my meds in a flash. My shrink later read the book and said to me, “Where was I when all this was happening?”–meaning the first nine months of my oldest child’s life. And I couldn’t answer him.
I guess I just wasn’t in contact with him, or I was lying to him, or both. In retrospect, I was really, really sick. I probably should have been in a hospital for at least some of that time. It was a combination of denial and stoicism, I guess, and at some level it fooled even my husband. I realize I have to be continually on guard about that.
I’ve heard that when people freeze to death, they just kind of go to sleep; at the very end, it’s actually a rather painless way to die. I think depression can be like that. If you don’t pay attention, if you just keep slogging on trying to pretend nothing is wrong, one day you may just kind of lie down in the snow and that will be that. You have to constantly ask yourself, “Am I cold? Do I have enough clothes on?” –or, as the case may be, “Am I distancing myself from my family? Am I taking these little anxiety pills too much? Have I been grumpy way too much lately?”
Question: The three categories–the most common symptoms of maternal depression–evidenced in your responses, you say, were: withdrawing (emotionally, physically, or both) from the child; chronic hyperirritability; and the inability to impose limits on behavior. I actually started to cry when I read those because my sister, who recently visited, told me she thought that my depression of two years ago might have something to do with their extra pecking when they see me phase out (“Uh oh, are we losing her again?”).
So in reading so many other mom’s experiences, I was somehow consoled. Is that really the purpose of your book and your blog: to name the illness, the symptoms, the treatments available, so we can start to feel less guilty about it and be more proactive against further damage in ourselves or others?
Tracy: Yes, exactly. I think I kind of touched on that in the paragraph above. And the inability to impose limits on behavior–that comes from fatigue. Being consistent is really mentally taxing, especially when you know that saying, “No, you may not watch TV right now” is going to elicit howls of protest and dramatic expressions of impending catastrophe if someone misses the next episode of “Hannah Montana.” It’s SO much easier to say, “Oh, all right” and go back upstairs to the bedroom and shut the door. I mean, moms who have never been depressed a day in their lives fall into this trap, so it’s no surprise that mothers who struggle with depression have a hard time doing it.
And there’s nothing, on a day-to-day basis, that’s going to make that job any easier. The only thing you can do is to be proactive, and make dealing with your own health a number one priority — because that falls apart, chances are many other things in the household will fall apart too. It’s not being selfish to look after your own health; it’s a way of looking after your family. But being vigilant about their own health is usually at the bottom of most mothers’ priority lists; we are conditioned to take care of everybody except ourselves.