BY: KRISTEN GARZONE
Postpartum depression. Something I never even knew existed until about a month into maternity leave. I remember a post popping up on Facebook where a new mom of a 6-month-old had taken her life and thinking, “how could that happen?” It didn’t even cross my mind that I as I read that article, I was going through PPD myself and would never imagine that I would lose one of my best friends from the very same thing months later.
I have always been afraid of becoming a mom. With a history of mental illness (anxiety and depression), how could I possibly raise a child? This was something I worried about constantly throughout my 41 weeks of pregnancy.
I found out I was pregnant in February of 2016; 2 days into training for my 5th marathon. Luckily, I had a super supportive doctor (AND husband) that said since my body was used to it, I would be able to keep training and run if I felt up to it. I proudly finished that marathon at 20 weeks pregnant along with 3 half marathons; one in each trimester. To me, running had helped me still feel like my old self as my body went through all these changes and also gave me something to share with my daughter. But really, a part of me felt like I kept running because I was afraid that my running days would be long gone once Ellie came into the world.
I ran up until the day I went into labor at one-day shy of 41 weeks. I logged a little under 1,000 miles and tried to enjoy each mile no matter how slow they were or how sore they left me because in the back of my mind, I constantly asked myself, “when will I have the time to do this when I’m a mom?” Looking back on that now, I feel like I was going into motherhood like it was a punishment in a way; that my life was being taken away from me and there was nothing I could do about it.
After 25.5 hours of labor, when Ellie Josephine Garzone came in to the world, I remember my husband Steve crying uncontrollably as they placed her in my arms and thinking to myself, “What is wrong with me? Why am I not crying?” I think that’s really where it all began; that constant confusion as to why I was not feeling all the overpowering happiness others had boasted about.
I read an interesting article on Scary Mommy recently that said throughout 40 weeks of pregnancy, women interact with their healthcare provider at least 16 times yet what’s shocking is that they are then allotted only one postpartum visit at 6 six weeks after giving birth. Unreal, right? When I was leaving the hospital, all they had me do was fill out a single “special form” because it was noted in my chart that I had a history of mental illness. Nothing more until 6 weeks later at my OB follow up. My doctor had told me to call if I had any problems within those first 6 weeks but how would I know I was struggling with PPD when I didn’t even know postpartum depression existed at the time?
The thing is, pregnancy and motherhood are portrayed as this wonderful, beautiful thing. Don’t get me wrong – it is indeed a blessing – I mean, it’s the gift of life! But it is certainly not all rainbows and butterflies. When Steve went back to work after spending the first 2 weeks of maternity leave at home, fear shook me. I remember celebrating the fact that I had made it through the first day alone with Ellie but it seemed to go downhill from there. It was basketball season which meant Steve coached after work and was not home from 7am to about 10pm every day. It was during the winter months so it was gloomy most days, dark early, too cold to get out a lot, and friends/family were busy with the upcoming holidays. And on top of it all, my 96-year-old grandmother, whom I was extremely close with, was dying in the hospital. I had never felt so alone.
My days were filled with feeding, pumping, cleaning bottles, putting EJ down to sleep, and then trying to feed myself. It always seemed that by the time the cycle was complete, it started all over again. I was miserable and frustrated always. The only way I could get a run/workout in (which has always been my main therapeutic way to deal with my anxiety and depression) was at 5am before Steve went to work. On top of it all, every day (weather permitted), I would bundle Ellie up and take a trip to the hospital to visit my grandmother and Mom who stayed by her bedside. (Thankfully, my grandmother was in the neuro wing so it was super clean which enabled me to bring Ellie or else I would never be able to get there to visit)
When I think back on maternity leave, it isn’t filled with constant smiles and cuddling this beautiful baby as many moms often describe. All I picture is me crying hysterically (while trying to pump or something along those lines), Ellie screaming at the top of her lungs and Troy (our golden retriever) howling at it all which led to me just screaming myself and crying even more. Crazy, right? I felt like I was losing my mind. It still makes me sick to my stomach and leaves me feeling embarrassed to picture that real-life scene in my head… and how awful is that?
I cried a lot. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot, a lot. I took 12 weeks of maternity leave thinking it would be the “greatest time of my life” when honestly, I was miserable and hated most of it due to my (not knowing at the time) postpartum depression. I couldn’t wait to go back to work. It seemed ridiculous and left some mom guilt, but sadly, I didn’t feel connected to Ellie AT ALL. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her but I didn’t get all the warm and fuzzies that so many other’s talk about. I found myself constantly questioning why we even decided to have a child. I had thoughts like, “I miss my old life. I miss my independence. Why does Steve get to go to work and I’m stuck being a mom? This isn’t what I signed up for. I wish we never had her.” Those negative thoughts were paired with constantly asking myself, “Why am I not happy? What’s wrong with me? Why am I an awful mother?”
I became angrier and angrier each day it seemed, which my husband did not and could not understand. It was an awful chain reaction where that growing anger led to more guilt and lingering depression which then of course led to an increased disconnect from my family. I felt useless, like I had no purpose; that I was not important and my family would be better off without me. Sadly enough, I felt that I was the only one to feel like this. I was ashamed and afraid that people would judge me for these feelings as a new mom. And to make things even worse, I hid it from everyone.
On June 2, 2017, Steve got a phone call that would forever change my life. I had just finished the Freihofer’s Run for Women 5k, I was hanging out with some running friends at the finish line when Steve called me over to tell me he had a missed call from our friend, Mike. We decided to leave and as we were walking back to the car, I saw the tears streaming down Steve’s face as he told me the earth-shattering news -- my dear friend, Kristin, (who felt more like a sister) had taken her own life. I could barely breathe. How? How did this happen? Kristin was a great mom; much better than me. She was a natural. She loved every minute spent with her daughter. She was better than me. She was one of the best people I have ever met. And then I started thinking, “why her and not me?”
Those first couple of days, I barely got out of bed, didn’t interact with Ellie at all, and could not stop crying. When a new week started and I had to drag myself out of the house, I figured I would just put a smile on my face and act like everything was Okay. Realistically, that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
After Kristin’s passing, my “episodes” got longer and more frequent. Nights of uncontrollable crying, mood changes like no other, constant fighting with Steve, lying flat on the ground and not being able to move for hours, and so many days feeling stuck and never believing that it would ever get better. “Why her and not me?” became more of an everyday thought, and when I felt like that, I would get even more upset over the fact that Kristin and I were more alike than I had ever realized. With that came the fear that I too would come face to face with suicide. I then couldn’t help but wonder if that is how Kristin must have felt before it got to be too much which still brings on so much grief and guilt. If I could’ve shared my own struggles much sooner or reach out a little bit more, maybe I could have saved her. I wish I could have saved her because in the end, she saved me. Sadly enough, losing Kristin ultimately saved my life.
I remember people commenting to me about how beautiful Kristin was after her passing and how she looked as if she had it all. That really opened my eyes to the current stigma surrounding mental health. Just because a person may seem “picture perfect” and you can’t physically see their pain does not mean they aren’t suffering on the inside. Case in point – I finally realized I was knee deep and struggling with PPD yet I was 100% guilty of playing into the “picture perfect” defense mechanism. If it wasn’t for one of my best friends, Erin, making a doctor’s appointment for me, I honestly don’t know where I would be today. When she texted me one morning at work, telling me my appointment with my doctor was on this day at this time, I felt an instant relief. For me, making an appointment with my primary doctor was the hardest part that I couldn’t quite do myself. When I went in for that appointment, my doctor was so kind, welcoming, and thankfully understanding, as she had just become a new mom herself. This was a major step in the right direction at 6 months postpartum; however, it was nowhere close to the end of my postpartum depression.
My marriage continued to struggle largely and I still felt a huge disconnect with Ellie. My husband Steve has always been so good with Ellie from day one and they have a bond like no other (which I am so thankful for) but I constantly felt like I was the odd man out; basically living a different life than the two of them. So, I did the one thing I knew I could do and that was to throw myself back into my running. I set a big, personal goal of breaking 4 hours for the marathon, hired a coach (Toni with Relentless Runners), and concentrated on training for the Chicago Marathon; my 6th marathon. I know I obsessed about it and pretty much made it my sole concern but at that time, it was the only way I knew how to survive; how to get through each day and keep myself going.
I really do believe running helped me survive my first year of motherhood. (I was first diagnosed with anxiety and depression at the age of 21) Running has been a vital form of therapy over the past 10 years. It has helped me through the best of times, the worst of time, and even through the anxiety stricken days. It has taught me to never give up and is a constant daily reminder to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, it takes everything to get out the door, especially when you feel broken down. Sometimes the stress piles up so badly that you feel like you can’t move; but once you do, it’s as if a weight is lifted off your shoulders. It’s as if once you start running, those anxiety-driven thoughts seem to diminish and reality sets in; it provides clarity and has a way of showing us all that we are much stronger than we think we are.
Eventually, I did come to realize I needed a little bit more help than just running. When the crying didn’t go away, the anxiety progressively got worse, and the sadness didn’t seem to lift, I was pushed to see my therapist again and put back on medication, both of which I hadn’t done since my early 20s. My therapist is a wonderful, older lady who always seems to put my crazy mind at ease and makes me truly believe I am this amazingly strong person that is enough. I had not seen her for over 8 years. At that initial PPD visit, after I caught her up on my life and becoming a new mom, she told me something that has stayed constantly in my mind – “You were prone to have postpartum depression based on your history. There is nothing you could have done about it but you will be stronger for it.” Talk about powerful. Lots of tears came after that and still many bad days but you know what? It helped me believe for the first time that I was going to make it through this.
Where can you find me now? Well, you can find me running, embracing motherhood and still struggling. I mean, it never really gets easier, right? I use my Instagram to not only share my running journey but to openly speak the truths of my every day struggles, including my current battles of glaucoma, anxiety, and depression with a little bit of postpartum depression still sprinkled in. After a little over 2 years, I feel as if the PPD has subsided quite a bit although I do still see hints of it every now and then. Most importantly – I finally have a connection with my beautiful girl! Ellie J is such a special kid and I totally believe I was meant to be her mom. She waited for me to grow into being a mom and loved me through it all. I will forever be in awe of how patient she was and continues to be with me.
My journey with postpartum depression has found a way to humble me, break me, and re-grow me. It also has brought personal blessings into my life. For example, the Instagram community. I found that as I started to open up and share my truth and struggles of everyday life, the more people chose to share their own insecurities and stories of their experience mental illness with me as well. Those messages continue to give me the courage to share more and more of my not-so-perfect life. It has also become another form of therapy and as I continue to share, it helps me honor Kristin by spreading awareness, hopefully helping someone else out there that may be struggling and is too afraid to ask for help; just like I was. Maybe if I would have read someone else’s story when I was on maternity leave, I might not have felt so alone and may have gotten myself help a lot sooner.
Instagram and the running community has also brought me to connect with more mothers worldwide. With the help of Kelly Vigil, we created the Run to Believe 5k/10k Virtual Run, which had its inaugural race held on May 12th, 2018. This race is in honor of my beautiful friend Kristin Nicole Thorsen, who I truly believe was one of the best mothers and people I have ever met. All proceeds were donated to Every Mother Counts. We look forward to holding the 2nd Annual run on May 11th – Mother’s Day Weekend, Kristin’s birthday weekend, which ironically will be my next attempt at a Sub 4 marathon. I miss Kristin so much, each and every day.
I wish more women felt safe enough to talk about the reality of what motherhood may bring. I know now that when people told me that having a baby is the happiest time of your life, it also is a HUGE transition as well. It is a process. Motherhood does not always look and feel the way we expect it to. I also wish that I knew with entering the new world of motherhood, would come struggle, and there would be many ongoing struggles, but that it would be okay. I wish I had known those tough days and thoughts would not make me a bad mom. I really do believe we need to start being more honest with new mothers and not shaming them into believing that they must keep all the bad in; that it is okay to let their emotions and raw feelings out. Mothers should not be afraid to embrace these emotions, despite how scary or crazy they may seem. Sadly, there is a lack of postpartum care (and screenings for PPD) when it comes to mental health. I believe so much more needs to be done to help new mothers, such as an increase in follow-up visits post baby, having an option for hired help, such as nurses or aids, as well as providing valuable resources, such as telephonic care. I truly believe that more post-partum medical options can help (new) moms in so many ways! I know every mother’s experience is different but we are all in this together.
After doing my first podcast with Kait Wheeler on Chasing Bravery last year and discussing my experience with PPD, I felt insanely anxious about what others would think. Fortunately, after the amount of love and supportive responses shared, it inspired me to speak up more through these different social media outlets. Thank you all so much for that. Thank you for welcoming my story with open arms and helping me feel brave enough to share because SO much more needs to be done to help spread awareness for PPD. Also, a special thank you Oiselle for giving me the opportunity to open up and write this blog. And most importantly – a BIG thank you to my friends and family for your endless love and amazing support. I most definitely wouldn’t have gotten through this all without each and every one of you.
So, with that, I will keep on running and taking that time for me, while sharing my story despite the stigma that sadly surrounds mental health. Even though I know running will never fully cure me, I have no doubt in my mind that my marathon training and quest to breaking 4 will help me continue to grow and mentally heal.
If you’re a new mom and my story resonates with you, hang in there. It sucks and it’s tough but you will get through this. If you’re someone that struggles with depression and anxiety, you are most definitely not alone. Remember - we are all in this together and it’s OK not be OK. (Some days I must repeat to myself that it’s just a bad day, not a bad life.) You are not defined by your mental illness and despite those suffocating inner battles and manic highs and lows, you are so much stronger than you think, and one hell of a role model for your child.
“When my daughter remembers her childhood, I want only for her to remember that her mother gave it her all. She worried too much, she failed at times and she did not always get it right… but she tried her hardest to teach her about kindness, love, compassion, and honesty. Even if she had to learn it from her own mistakes, she loved her enough to keep going—even when things seemed hopeless. Even when life knocked her down. I want her to remember me as the woman who always got back up.”