With clinical depression and other forms of mental illness in the news so much lately, I felt led to publish in writing a talk I prepared a few years ago, telling the story of my experience with post-partum depression and my recovery from it. This is my story and I make no assumptions that anyone else’s story will be just like it. I do hope with all my heart, however, that someone will be helped by reading it. – Jennifer
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things… and the God of peace shall be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
Where is your mind? I remember my mother asking me that repeatedly when I was a distractible small child. The answer to that rhetorical question was, of course, “on things other than what it’s supposed to be on right now.”
Where is your mind? Jokingly asked by a friend in middle school, or even by Sister Dianne, our incredibly wise and funny classroom teacher, that question assumes that your mind has wandered into the gutter, or is moving in that direction.
Where is your mind? Paul asks us that as Christians, both adults and youth. Where is your mind? We know what he wants us to answer, but can we honestly answer that way?
Growing up the last of six children, I competed with myself daily in every way, which ended up making me an excellent student and a motivated leader. That same motivation and focus propelled me through college and into a music career that many thought was impossible. Just when folks were beginning to quit asking when I was going to get a “real job” we proudly announced that we were expecting our first child. When we came home from a European tour with the announcement that the second was on the way, I guess that’s when most everybody started believing that we might actually pull this whole thing off.
So imagine my surprise when, after our second daughter was born, I started to fall apart. It happened, as most things do, by degrees. It snuck up on me while I was busy. But somehow I lost my grip, and by the time I noticed anything, my grip was gone so far away that I had no idea how to find it again.
I was unable to multi-task, even when multi-tasking only meant keeping track of two things at once. If the phone rang while I was changing a diaper, my world fell apart. I woke up tired, as if I hadn’t slept at all. My vision blurred at awkward times, such as while I was driving. I had frequent, debilitating headaches. I felt like everyone in my life had abandoned me and nobody wanted to help me with anything. I wanted to get in the car and drive and drive and drive until I could get to a place where nobody knew me and I could just start over without all the weird expectations my friends and family had of me. I hid in the closet rather than make difficult decisions. And all decisions were difficult. I was afraid to drive home in the dark because I had vivid fears about finding my family murdered all over the house. I said to my husband that I understood how people could get so desperate that they committed suicide. He said to me in his loving way that I needed to see a doctor. Now.
The doctor leveled his gaze at me and said words I thought I’d never hear about myself, “post-partem depression.” And he prescribed anti-depressants, another thing I had always thought happened to other people who were not me. I am upbeat. I am positive. I am determined and capable. I am talented. I am a Christian – this can’t happen to me! But even in my dark tunnel I knew enough to recognize that I had somehow become someone else. I could only hope that the real me was still in there somewhere.
Oh, that first week on medication was really lovely. I slept well for the first time in ages, I was able to think on several levels at once, and, best of all, I wasn’t stressed by anything because I… just… didn’t… care. It was like a life raft to a drowning man. But here’s what hit me somewhere around the second week. A drowning man with a life raft uses that raft and the rope attached to it to get the heck out of the water, and he doesn’t go around with the life raft attached to his waist for the rest of his life.
The articles I was reading about post-partem depression and the people I was comparing notes with gave a different sort of outlook.After the kick-start to get you out of the darkness, a “maintenance dose” was needed to keep you going. That was very unappealing to me, on more than one level – the most basic one being my bank account. This synthetic happiness is not cheap. And it feels like dependency, something I have never found attractive.
I began to ponder, to pray, and to study. I discovered, through research, that In general, clinical depression occurs in approximately 15 to 25 percent of the population, and nearly two-thirds do not get the help they need (1). Married women have higher rates of depression than unmarried women, but the reverse is true for men (6). Women are twice as likely as men to experience depression (4). Some have theorized that higher incidence of depression in women is not due to greater vulnerability, but to the particular stresses that many women face. These stresses include major responsibilities at home and work, single parenthood, and caring for children and aging parents (3). Approximately 70 percent of the prescriptions for antidepressants are given to women (6).
What’s going on? Women are strong. Not just in Lake Woebegone, but throughout centuries of history. Women have borne the children, managed the household and often the crops and livestock, passed on the wisdom and practical knowledge of their culture, and held many a society together with their natural abilities to nurture and teach.
So what’s different, or wrong if you’ll allow me, in our modern culture that makes women – staggeringly many of us –need medication just to cope? And what can we do about it? I think there are two things happening that have contributed largely to the current situation. One is the internal pressure we place on ourselves to measure up to the criteria we have been taught in our culture, and the other is the external forces of negativity in our modern world.
Let me dwell for a moment on our internal pressures. I believe that, starting in the late 1950’s, American women have been set up to feel like failures. In the 1950’s beauty contest winners tended to be about 5’6” or 5’7” and weigh 140 to 150 lbs. Look back at that … is anybody reading this feeling like a 1950’s beauty contest winner? Today’s beauty contest winners are several inches taller and generally 30 to 40 lbs lighter. Yet today in the US, the average woman is heavier than in the ‘50’s and no taller. We have been conditioned, by degrees, to desire an appearance that is not reasonably attainable. We have been set up to feel like failures in our appearance.
Women since the ‘50’s have also been taught that success is found in giving 100% at work and still managing to give 100% at home. The women who just gave 100% at home before that were simply not being challenged to use their full potential, we’re told. Women can now climb the corporate ladder as fast and faster than any man, and therefore we should climb it at top speed. Many women reach the top of their career ladder very early in life and are earning great salaries by the time they decide to start a family. They can, therefore, afford the best daycares and preschools so that people much more qualified than they are can raise their children while they continue to ride the crest of the career wave. And that’s the life we strive for – that’s the life we’ve been told to believe in since we were kids. It’s what we see in our TV and movie idols, it’s those people who live in the houses we gaze at longingly as we drive through the high-rent districts in our cities. So we internalize that ideal – that’s what I want to be when I grow up. But it’s not real.
It’s. not. real.
If someone gave you a check for $20 million, would you still run the rat race? If that empty promise called money were not an issue, what would you do with your life? Is it worth trading that image in for the bedraggled, exhausted person you are by the time you go to bed on Wednesday night, with two more days to go in the workweek?
If we look at how God created us, we get a different picture. God created woman from man, and children are created out of the one-ness of that relationship. So with such a great model, why is it such a struggle? Well, a lot of it boils down to the original question: Where is your mind? How important are the learned expectations of worldly perfection to you, compared with the Godly expectations for you to function perfectly the way you were made by Him? It’s a hard thing to give up, but oh when you do, what a relief! And, guess what? Just like He promises in Psalms, He will give you the desires of your heart… because when you give Him your heart, he’ll put the desires in it that He is ready and waiting to give to you! Are you reluctant to give up your own ideas and accept God’s abundant plan for you? Really? Where is your mind?
The other contributing factor that I have discovered to the difficult situation we modern women often find ourselves in these days is external negativity. It’s all around you – and I mean everywhere. Let’s look at two clear examples and give them what I call the Philippians Test, using Philippians 4:8-9: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things…”
First, turn on the TV. How many of you do that every day? Take a universal show like the news. Tonight’s top story – true? Mostly. Honorable? Well, it depends. Right? Depends again. Pure? Hardly ever. Lovely? Nope. Of good repute? Not usually. And yet, what does your mind dwell on? What do you talk about the next day, around the proverbial water cooler? The evening news may be sensational and even astounding, but it doesn’t pass the Philippians Test, and it is even proven to stress you out. Oh yes. A study conducted at the University of Pittsburg recently showed that 30 minutes of televised newscasts raised the stress of the participants to clinical levels… even when the TV was just on in the background. Or, take my favorite kind of television – the crime drama. By the time Isabel was born, I was a dedicated fan of Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, and Without a Trace, and watched the stories unfold in New York, Las Vegas, Miami and every city the shows moved to. The law, the science, the logic – all very exciting and informative. But they won’t pass the test either. True? Not hardly. Even when they’re “ripped from the headlines,” they’re only based in truth and the rest is Hollywood – the producers themselves admit that. Honorable? That word only comes up when a judge is introduced. Right? Most of the decisions made on those shows are between two wrongs, if we’re honest. Pure? Never. Lovely? Never. Of good repute? Seldom.
Do you know when my anxiety attacks stopped? When I turned off those shows. Is that because I’m weak? No. It’s because I’m human, and because I’m a mother and a wife who loves her family more than anything. Negative images = negative thinking, and eventually emotional trouble. How much more positive could you be without the TV? How much more healthy? How much does it contribute to what you think? Would you have to get as far down as I did before you tested what your life would be like without it? I hope not.
Another external force that drives negativity into our brain is other people. How many times during the day do you hear, or engage in, negative talk? That’s not just a modern problem. Women have dealt with that issue for a long, long time. It’s even mentioned in Proverbs! What would happen if, next time you had the opportunity to get a dig in, you chose to say something positive instead? My grandmother, in her old-fashioned wisdom, used to make us all say two positive things about someone if she heard us say one negative thing about them. Sometimes that was really hard to do, but it was effective! Not only did we learn to look for the positive in everyone, we also learned not to say anything negative within earshot of my Grandma! What might happen if we applied the Philippians Test to our conversations? And, then, eventually, to our thoughts?
Why is this so hard to accept? Why is it so much easier to take a pill? For one thing, mental health is hard to see, and easy to hide. When we’re out of shape physically, or overweight, everybody can see it and there are obvious, socially acceptable things to do about it. Diet. Exercise. We all know the drill. Everyone knows that what we put into our stomachs affects our physical health.
Let me tell you another truth. What we put into our minds directly affects our emotional health. Every image you see, every word you read, every sound you hear, is affecting your emotional well-being. Are you sure your diet is balanced?
What did I do to create balance in my emotional diet? First, I identified several things that made me feel bad, or seemed to cause negative reactions for me. Then, I systematically cut them out of my life, either by abstaining from them altogether, or when that was impossible, changing my attitude about them. I don’t watch the news. I do subscribe to a few news magazines online that report on national and international issues I am interested in. I don’t watch crime dramas at night. I do answer emails, sew, read or do something else that makes me feel happy and productive. I don’t engage in gossip or speculation. I do look for positive outcomes and encouraging words to say to others. I turned off the secular radio stations that play songs about how great sex is outside of marriage and how mean people are to each other. I turned on Christian radio and started soaking up the lyrics about how awesome God is and how important family is, to the same fancy beat I was used to in the other music. I quit turning over in my bed and snoozing that extra 15 minutes in the mornings. I started waking up to time with God, a Bible and a prayer journal. It wasn’t long before I found I was more informed, more productive, and more sure of God’s will for my life than I had been in a very long time.
Where is your mind? It’s a struggle every day to bend this human, sinful mind to the true, honorable, right, pure, lovely thoughts and actions of Philippians, but it’s a struggle worth fighting. For me, it means no more medication and an inner, God-related ability to deal with the natural stresses in my life. It means that I don’t feel either self-pity or self-righteousness anymore because I know the strength to overcome my trials comes from God, and I experience that every day. It means that my heart, and its desires, belong to God and He gives me the abundant gifts He has prepared for me – the desires of this new, rescued heart.
Some of you may be sitting there thinking, “This is me – I’m where she was!” Statistically, there should be several of you. Spiritually, I know there are. You’re the reason God called me to share this message today. How hard is it to get in control of this? Hard. How scary is it to start the process of healing your mind? Scary. But I promise – it’s not as hard or as scary as the alternative. And the best thing is, as soon as you admit that you need help, God is right there with everything you need. Believe it. He’ll give you a positive for every negative you lay at His feet – and you’ll find that the positives take up so much more space that your heart can’t help but overflow. That’s what He wants for you – a heart overflowing with the peace and joy only He can give you. He made you the perfect part of His perfect plan for your life, and all you have to do is accept it.
What’s a real woman? I think it’s one who understands that she has a place in God’s plan, and finds her peace and happiness there.
Finally, sisters, if there is any excellence, if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things… and the God of peace shall be with you. May the God of peace be with you in your heart and mind.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
(1) Blehar MC, Oren DA. Gender differences in depression. Medscape Women’s Health, 1997;2:3. Revised from: Women’s increased vulnerability to mood disorders: Integrating psychobiology and epidemiology. Depression, 1995;3:3-12. (Quoted in National Institute of Mental Health article, Depression: What Every Woman Should Know, 2000)
(2) Robins LN and Regier DA (Eds). Psychiatric Disorders in America, The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. New York: The Free Press, 1990. (Quoted in National Institute of Mental Health article, Depression: What Every Woman Should Know, 2000)
(3) National Institute of Mental Health article, Depression: What Every Woman Should Know, 2000
(4) National Mental Health Association website, about Post-Partum Depression
(5) Women and Depression article from the NAMI website (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
(6) McGrath, E., Keita, G. P., Stickland, B. R., & Russo, N. F. (1990). Women and depression: Risk factors and treatment issues. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, APA Online