I’ve always been a social butterfly. I was the kid whose kindergarten report card had the teacher’s note that I “talks too much to neighbors.” I like hanging out with friends. I don’t mind small talk with strangers. My idea of a fun evening with friends is to sit around talking. My day job is based around relationship-building.
Prior to my early-30s, though, I unintentionally avoided sharing some of my deepest thoughts with my inner circle. Whether it was a youthful need to fit in or just not knowing how to express those thoughts, I was keeping things to myself that needed to be shared with others.
For nearly two years after the birth of my daughter and her subsequent emergency heart surgery at three weeks old, I was in a deep depression. It’s nothing that I can describe in the course of a few short paragraphs, but it was a debilitating postpartum depression aggravated by external conditions. Only, I didn’t have the words for what was happening to me. My baseline personality is upbeat and happy. I always have had my moments of stress and anger, but I recuperated from bad feelings and returned to my joyful self quickly.
It was with this personality (one I especially can turn on in front of friends) that allowed me to hide the symptoms of depression. My lack of experience with depression hindered my ability to identify it. And I spoke nothing of the weird and frightening symptoms I was having. I certainly didn’t want anyone to think I was “crazy.”
After I was diagnosed, when my symptoms became so severe I feared for my life and just knew I was failing at motherhood, I sought help. First, I saw a primary care doctor who didn’t adequately explain that I had depression, just threw a script at me without much explanation. I didn’t take it. But a week or so later still with the nagging feeling that my life was in danger, I visited the nurse practitioner who ran my mom’s group and told her what I was feeling. She whipped out a diagnostic tool, ran me through a series of questions, then clearly and kindly explained what was happening. I was shook to my core. I had to take a month off work just to deal with the impact of the diagnosis, medication, and self-care.
I had to start talking about these problems – first with a special postpartum depression mom’s group, then with a therapist, and finally with friends. I shared with one or two people close to me, but it took another year before I was confident to bring family and friends into what I was experiencing.
The results were startling. As soon as I mentioned postpartum depression or depression to people, their first response was shock, because I never outwardly showed signs. Their second response was to share their experiences. Even my mother, who I considered the source of my non-information about depression, shared how she “wasn’t herself” for three years following the birth of my younger sister.
It was eye-opening to be surrounded by so many people who’d experienced many of the same things as me. No one’s story was identical, but much good advice and support came my way after I started sharing.
That experience opened me up to being very forthcoming when I was diagnosed a few years later – at age 34 – with breast cancer. I hid nothing about that diagnosis or my thoughts and fears. I openly shared with people and blogged the entire experience. It was instrumental to my recovery. The support I received was overwhelming.
Over time, I learned, too, that listening was even more important than sharing. Deeply listening to the stories of others – whether I had their experiences or not – strengthened my friendships and myself. Even 15 years later, I can recall multiple stories I’ve heard from friends of experiences I’ve never had, yet their tales of sorrow and recovery have helped me in some of my darker times.
Listening and sharing have been significant growth points on the path to changing my life. Through doing so, I have developed a strong and loving support network. I can be authentic in my actions, no longer hiding my struggles or successes. I am a much better friend to my friends and can support them in times of need. People open up to me and I can be a source of strength for them when they are not feeling strong.