It was the very end of an ordinary appointment. My primary care doctor had checked off all the questions on her list, and everything was logged carefully in her online chart.
"Is there anything else we need to discuss?" she asked. The question is a throwaway most of the time, but she looked me right in the eyes when she asked it. She didn't start gathering anything up, and she didn't take one step toward the door. Her face was almost expectant, like she knew what I was holding onto. Maybe that's why I found the courage to voice the question that had waited two years to be asked.
"Actually, there is something. I think, I mean, what happens if you have postpartum depression that never gets diagnosed or treated?" I rushed through the last part of the question and felt my body slump a little against the chair as soon as the words were out. Relief.
My doctor's eyes darkened with concern as she studied me carefully.
"Why don't you start from the beginning?" she asked. She folded her hands, cocked her head and waited.
I learned one of my earliest lessons in good design at my first real job. I was an eager, fresh-faced 22 year old; the ink barely dry on my college diploma. On that particular day, I was working alongside Susan, our graphic designer. Susan had more than a decade of experience on me, but she had a wonderfully kind way of wielding all that knowledge so that she taught me without ever making me feel foolish. I was perched on the edge of her desk as she pieced together the monthly magazine. I'd written an article, and as she was laying it out, I noticed the blank spaces around it. Concerned that I hadn't written enough to adequately fill the page, I asked her if she needed me to add to the copy.
"No, that's the white space," she explained. "If we cram the page full of images and text, your eyes are constantly moving and it becomes overwhelming. The white space provides balance and a place for your eyes to rest."
As I moved forward in my career and became a manager of a diverse team of creatives, I never forgot Susan's lesson. I have always firmly belonged to the anti-clutter, less-is-more camp, so it was easy to take up the mantle of Champion of White Space. At times, I had to fight harder for white space than I did for whatever text or image was next to it. It wasn't always an easy sell to the higher-ups, who saw a spot to squeeze in another ad or promotion. The blankness looked like expensive, unused real estate to them. I saw it differently, though. Thanks to Susan, I understood that white space has value, too. Just because it's not filled doesn't mean it's empty.
Without white space, the page is nothing but noise.
For nearly forty minutes, I laid bare the struggles of the last two years of my life in that sterile exam room. Now that the dam had been breached, the words rushed out as fast as I could say them.
I told my doctor that the first year of my daughter's life nearly broke me. It shouldn't have been that way. She was my second child; I was supposed to know what I was doing. And, in a way, I did. I wasn't nervous about her first bath, and I already knew how to breastfeed. The problem wasn't that I didn't know how to mother.
It was that I didn't know how to keep it from consuming me.
I talked about the bouts of anger and frustration. How, even now – two years after her birth – my emotions don't seem to be proportional responses to whatever caused them. I mentioned my sleep troubles: how it takes forever for me to fall asleep, only to wake a few hours later and toss and turn throughout the night. I explained how the negative emotions seem amplified and the positive ones muted. Anger consumes me like a raging fire, but joy is fleeting. On the really good days I can feel it, I can find it. But I can't seem to make it stay. Most pervasive is a feeling of disengagement: the joy doesn’t stay and the darkness frightens me, so I compensate by trying to feel as little as possible.
“Did you ever mention anything to your OB/GYN?” my doctor asked at one point.
“Yes,” I told her, “but she said I wasn’t depressed because I still had moments of happiness. She blamed quitting my job and the adjustment to two kids and told me my struggles were normal.” At the time, I believed her. All mothers felt this way, I supposed. It would get better.
After battling with myself for my daughter’s entire life though, I no longer think it’s normal and I’m still waiting for it to get better. I am at the mercy of my emotions; controlling them lies somewhere beyond my grasp. I can feel the shift when the anger and the sadness begin to creep in. I try to fight them off; I scramble to wall off my joy, in a feeble effort to stay in the light. The darkness is faster, stronger: it's ivy, climbing, spreading and weakening every surface it covers until at last the facade succumbs and cracks.
"I'm just not me," I finally said with a shrug. "It's not awful, but it's not okay either. Can you help me be okay again?"
My doctor asked gentle questions: what was it like after I had my son five years ago (nothing like this), what does my husband say (I’m not well; he’ll support whatever it takes to help me get better). She didn't rush me, and there was no shame.
Yes, she said at last. We could fight this. First, she named it: dysthymia or "the blues," if you will. It's not the deep dark side of depression; it's more of the murky surface. It can last for years, and most people don't seek treatment for it because they think they can trace its cause to something else.
The truth is, though, my brain isn't working the way it's supposed to right now. Emotions are controlled by a delicate dance between hormones and the receptors that receive them. My brain is producing too much anxiety, sadness, fear and anger, and not enough joy. It’s Design 101 all over again: my brain is filling my days with a dark and heavy scrawl. There’s too little white space; the joy and peace that provide a balance to the darkness are missing. My days have become a blur of words on the page, so that my life is nothing but noise. Just like my eyes pass over a jumbled page, I disengage from my messy life to protect myself from a constant state of being overwhelmed and exhausted.
But we can fix it. For now, I take a little blue pill every morning that floods my brain with the happy, uplifting emotions that have been deadened for so long. A reset button, my doctor called it.
Coupled with the support of some really loving and understanding people in my life, the medicine is helping me find my footing again. It’s taken admitting my weakness before I can build the strength to defend my white space once more. The hope is, if we can spark my joy again for long enough, I’ll stop feeling so overwhelmed and instead of defaulting to numbness to protect myself, I’ll find a way to restore my own balance. Rather than letting chaos reign because I feel powerless to stop it, I’ll remember how to hold space for the light to counteract the darkness.
After all, if motherhood is an art and not a science, then surely it needs white space, too.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode on postpartum depression