When I think of depression, I think of sadness, tears, poor appetite, and withdrawing from friends and loved ones. But what I went through was profoundly different. So much so that my family and closest friends didn’t recognize it. And, as the one going through it, I didn’t want to admit it — to myself, to my husband or even to my doctors — because, despite the fact that I work in the “health field”, I didn’t want myself labeled and medicated.
It started shortly after I was introduced to my son, while I was on my own in China. My husband and had I agreed that one of us should stay behind in the U.S. to watch our older kids while the other one would go. I was the choice to go because I was more knowledgeable of the paperwork, adoption wordage, had been the main contact for the agencies and their representatives — and I was looking forward to it.
Finally! A chance to spend a few days by myself, to see some of my own new sights! (My husband had been traveling all over the world for work without me… was I jealous? Maybe.)
So I went and had three lovely days in Beijing experiencing some tourist attractions and walking through the streets observing everyday life and everyday citizens after a beautiful snowfall had blown away the smog. Then I flew to my newly-2-year-old’s city and suddenly I was overwhelmed by it all — we were about to walk a path from which there was no return. I was alone and literally unable to speak to anyone except my translator and my husband for a few minutes at a time on FaceTime through sketchy hotel wi-fi. And now, I was acutely aware that my son and I — the foreign woman who didn’t match ethnically or linguistically — would be traveling together. And I wouldn’t be able to explain our new and semi-complicated relationship to anyone.
The Beginning of Loneliness
We met on a Wednesday in a nameless government building. My son was in many ways typical for an international adoptee: he pulled away and sometimes would bolt; he didn’t want to be held, but craved connection at the same time; he ate heavily even though he thankfully wasn’t underweight.
Nights were the hardest, although not unreasonable — I don’t want to give the impression that going to China alone was the cause of my depression. Once he would fall asleep I had hours of quiet to myself. So by the time we were headed home to the U.S., I was ready to be near my husband and have someone to talk to. But I didn’t have the desperation to get home — I sensed that when we landed the real life of three kids, a hard-working husband, more laundry, and more cooking would commence on top of the draining behaviors my son exhibited that I just couldn’t put a finger on yet.
Days turned in to weeks, which turned in to months, and I turned into a person I had never met before.
It Came Disguised
As one parent speaking to other parents, we all know that at one time or another we’ve yelled at our families. Being unguarded and willing to expose our inner feelings tends to leave moments open for our true, less-than-perfect selves to break the surface of a calm exterior.
At first I related all my varying emotions to the significant changes our family was undergoing:
It’s normal to be overwhelmed during a massive change of life.
In a few months, things will settle down.
I just need to eat healthier and to exercise more often.
I need spend more one on one time with my husband.
I just need to vent some frustrations to my friends who should understand what’s going on.
Our bond as a family will strengthen this summer amidst fun outings and vacation; you know … “just give it time.”
But we found our routine – the older kids were back in school after spring break – and yet my anger continued to worsen. The friends with whom I used to take turns discussing the hard parts of mommyhood no longer had time to talk — or no longer wanted to. When I tried to explain my feelings or issues surrounding our new son to a few of our seemingly closest friends (who were admittedly unknowledgeable about trauma) expressed that my son seemed “well adjusted.” On the surface, they were verbally supportive, but beyond that we were left adrift. The behaviors that I previously couldn’t put my finger on had been named and worsened, and yet no one outside of our home seemed to perceive them.
I felt like I had no one to ask the hard questions without the possibility of judgment.
What if you no longer felt control of your behavior?
What if the mommy-voice was no longer only after your kids had pushed your buttons for the 2000th time?
What if things that you would normally respond to with a laugh or a stern eye became what felt like a life altering decision?
Every time my children spilled food on the table my hair stood on end; every time they ignored my just-spoken statement and disobeyed by walking across the house in their shoes my face felt flush. I found that my muscles were tense when I awoke in the morning. I started swearing in my head and sometimes under my breath. Each time my husband or children did something outside of my predetermine plan, I became enraged or physically sickened by “their” behavior.
I lost my normal ability to extend grace when my children would lie, hit, disobey — all childish things that occur with bios and adopted alike, but with my recent orphanage graduate they were seemingly a daily (or hourly or by the minute) occurrence. And, during or after each time I lashed out by yelling or with stricter-than-necessary discipline, I died a little on the inside.
Through all this I was filled with guilt about how I had just acted, and felt like I was losing myself to this… monster. God let my attitude reveal a hole in my character I didn’t even know existed and it pained me that the ones suffering the most for me to learn this heart-lesson were the ones I loved most. Thus after rage came plenty of tears and doubt and more tears.
In addition to the anger, I also suffered with difficulty sleeping, daytime fatigue, and inability to concentrate. I had a poor appetite, but the desire to fill my emptiness with food led to weight gain. My husband also realized that I was shorter-tempered and more distant. Months after, he could name some other red flags: fixating, holding on to grudges, emotionally spiraling, losing the part of myself that was able to identify my emotions and self-correct.
One more symptom that I would add is reservation: as it turns out, my husband was completely unaware of the depth of my depression until we co-wrote a letter to one of our pastors thanking him for speaking about his own depression… unfortunately for us both, this didn’t happen until a whole year and a half later.
What compounded things further was that we didn’t know this was post-adoption depression (PAD) at play. My emotional roller coaster went on for about 6-9 months before I finally figured it out. At one point I thought that we had pinpointed the problem. Analyzing all the changes in the last year, I had figured out that I was having known side effects (which were never mentioned) to a medication I was taking. But after calling my physician first — this is important, never stop prescription medication without talking with your provider — and stopping the medication, my symptoms improved a bit within a month, but did not magically disappear like I had been hoping. I actually went to multiple physicians to check for imbalances; but all the bloodwork resulted normal and I remained perplexed about why I was so angry.
Perhaps I could have come to a diagnosis quicker if I discussed everything with my physicians, but I didn’t divulge everything to them. It was a dark secret I wasn’t ready to explain, too afraid that I would be judged and advised to start medications that I didn’t want to take or admit that I may need… so stupid.
Eventually though, I started listening to the other parents on the Facebook groups writing about their ordeals. Although I couldn’t exactly relate, I hoped that I could glean tidbits here and there to improve my mood. Then one morning, I was prompted to just read some articles about post-adoption and post-partum depression… and there it was:
guilt and shame about one’s own life, not being able to take simple decisions…
always feeling tired…
lack of concentration and forgetfulness…
feeling of being overwhelmed by parenting and family responsibilities…
the thought that life is passing one by while one’s time and energy is occupied by the new child almost exclusively.
So now that I knew my attitude and anger were definitely linking to depression, I made extra effort to meet people outside of my house bubble, and for me that meant I went back to working more hours for a period of time. My husband and I found it to be a win-win; we all got a break, I was able to use my skills and talk with adults regularly, and I made more money for the family in the process so we could have some additional fun. In addition, I enrolled my son into morning preschool, began to exercise again, and tried to take adoptive mommy coffee dates. I also started a book study for people interested in covering the topic of rejection — a topic that hit home since my depression had been misinterpreted by some of my friends, leading to a few broken relationships.
Taking care of myself also meant that I called the pediatrician and told him that my son’s behavior was more than I expected this far along after coming home. It was life-giving and reassuring to hear a third-party confirm my thoughts and develop a plan of action. Then it was reaffirmed when we visited a developmental pediatrician. Although I did not like the idea of my son having to deal with his own mental health issues, there was a part of me that rejoiced in the fact that I wasn’t the only part of this family dynamic that needed work.
Over two years have passed and I’m now feeling like my new normal — I say, new normal, because my previous self has changed and I’m now a different woman. It’s partly because I went through new experiences during depression, partly because I’ve grown and learned new techniques for different facets of my life, and partly because my son has also changed and grown. He’s matured out of most of his heavier orphanage behaviors, has started to understand the concept of expectations, and can now follow most 2-step and 3-step directions. Thankfully, and despite my limitations, he trusts me enough to talk about physical hurts and emotional wounds.
Concurrently, I absorbed new mothering skills, having learned that some behaviors can remain for now without negatively affecting our other children and to be more of the type of mother my son needs to thrive. My version of mothering remains different than the average American woman, but now it’s because it’s what my son needs to thrive and not because of what I expect him to be.
Hindsight is 20/20
Looking back, it would have been great to prepare myself for the possibility of PAD by appraising my friends and making sure they were up to the task as well. It turns out that an adoptive parent is much more likely than the average adult to suffer from depression; depending on the source it occurs anywhere between 65-80%.
Depression is hard enough, but to be depressed when you are parenting a traumatized child and trying to meet their heavy emotional needs around the clock is more than hard. It simply takes “more”; and for many of us, that “more” needs to come from people God has placed around us and not just from deep within our selves. Just as moms of high-risk pregnancies seek help from medical professionals, adoptive parents need personal and professional veterans in their lives during this immensely isolating time.
Leaning on God through this raw time waxed and waned, not because of Him, but because of my pride and selfishness. It became harder for me to suppress those parts of me during depression. God set great things in motion during — and I’d even argue because of — my pain. In His Bible He didn’t promise that life it would be easy. Just like tree limbs are made strong with time and previous hardship, God promised that He would provide a way so we can bear our trials. Time and time again, He put people and verses like 1 Corinthians 10:13 in my way to help me through specific emotions.
Find the way back to your self by reading God’s truths and praying for Him to bring you closer.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls. – Matthew 11:28-29
If you’re suffering because of the many faces of post-adoption depression, know that as you keep relying on God through some of the worst parts of your life to-date, He will turn your dark times into the most intense and colorful magnum opus.
It may look rocky and formidable now, but keep taking steps, one by one. God sees the full picture – and eventually you will too.
– guest post by an anonymous mama