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Book Tour: The Ghost in the House

By Heather B. Armstrong

Two years ago this month I checked myself into the psyche ward at a local hospital due to a debilitating bout of postpartum depression. My daughter was six months old, and I had been fighting feelings of hopelessness and anxiety since her birth. I had battled depression in college, and in the years leading up to my marriage, but during my pregnancy I went off my medication. After the birth I stayed off my meds because I was afraid they would be passed to my daughter through my breastmilk. But I was also, as award-winning journalist Tracy Thompson describes in her new book, The Ghost in the House, “the victim of a delusion common to people with mental illness, the idea that some major life change will magically transform your body, make all things well and whole and new.”
I look back at what I wrote during that period of my life and am surprised that I was able to write a single coherent sentence. I don’t remember being lucid enough to type out a word, and when I ask my husband what he remembers most about those months he’s always quick to mention the daily phone calls I made to his office wherein I would scream three or four incomprehensible paragraphs of nonsense and then abruptly hang up, sometimes three times in one hour. I kept a somewhat detailed journal about my experiences during that depressive episode, and when I read it now I realize that I was trying to appear as the most reasonable insane person I could possibly be. If I was going to be insane, I would do it as perfectly and neatly as I could.
I have received a lot of email about the things I wrote during that time, email that thanks me for sharing a glimpse into that darkness because it has made some other mothers feel as if they are not alone. But just as important as those notes are the ones from people who have thanked me for giving them insight into an illness they know nothing about, into the mind of their wives, or their sisters, or their best friends. Because of some of the things I shared, they say, they are now less quick to judge someone in their lives. It is this reason that I recommend Thompson’s book, because it is a compelling look into and analysis of what causes maternal depression, into why someone might, without cause, pick up a phone and scream obscenities at the most important person in her life.
The Ghost in the House looks at how mothers today struggle to live up to unreasonable expectations, and suggests that “the bar has been raised in imperceptible increments, for such a long time, that much of the time we don’t even realize that we are holding ourselves to standards our mothers never had to meet.” Thompson surveyed nearly 400 mothers who have suffered depression, and combines those results with scientific studies to describe in exact terms what maternal depression is, how we can prevent it from harming the relationships we have with our children, and how we can cope with it through the “very specific stress” we face as mothers: “the ongoing demands of children.”
Thompson describes maternal depression as “a Bad Day that comes for a visit and refuses to leave,” as a mother’s tendency to withdraw both emotionally and physically from her child, as chronic irritability. As important as her definition, though, is the weight she gives it with quotes taken directly from mothers who are living with it day in and out:
“I just yell all day at them when I’m depressed.”
“I have absolutely no patience whatsoever. It’s like I have no coping skills as a parent. That just vanishes.”
“When I’m cranky I don’t address a lot of my son’s misbehavior until I get to the point where everything he does bothers me. Then…I overreact and yell at him for something as small as not getting his cup for me.”
“Just the relentless nature of parenting is a monumental effort when you are depressed. Putting up the Christmas tree might as well be climbing Mount Everest. ‘Play with me, Mommy’ become words you dread — and then the guilt!”
A large portion of the book is dedicated to the discussion of breaking the cycle of depression, to showing that even though the tendency toward depression is genetic, that a child who has inherited a parent’s gene is not doomed to suffer. A lot of how that gene manifests itself depends on how a parent learns to cope with her own depression: “this is poker, remember, not chess — and much depends on how we play the hand we are dealt.” My own depression revealed itself in standard ways, in exhaustion and irritability, but I also experienced what Thompson refers to as “anger attacks,” and I threw heavy objects at walls and tore the front door off its hinge. I don’t know yet what effect that behavior has had on my daughter, but it’s safe to assume that if she grows up and figures out world peace that she won’t cite that one time I threw a 32-ounce water bottle at her father as one of those moments when she saw the beauty in humankind.
I do hope that the fact that I chose to get help will have had some positive effect on my daughter, will at least show her that there is no shame in admitting to a problem and asking someone to give a hand. Thompson discusses the options available to depressed mothers — meditation, prayer, journaling, exercise, sleep, support groups, counseling, and medication — and stresses that it is important to get help not only for ourselves but for our children, for the sake of our children’s adulthood. I asked Thompson if pressure from other mothers, the way they choose to parent and how they judge others harshly for choosing something different, is making things worse, and how can we prevent what could be our biggest support system from becoming our worst enemy. She said:

I think of mothers as being kind of like a religious community–and, as in any religious community, you want to steer away from the wild-eyed fanatics, the Fundamentalists and the proselytizers. But, as in a genuine religious community, you can also find immense strength, comfort and healing. The problem too many moms have today–and I think it’s primarily a problem of a tiny core of extremely affluent moms–is this sense of “how do I make sure my darling child gets the best of everything.” I pity a child who gets the best of everything–but, aside from that, these moms are creating insane expectations for themselves and for their kids. And yet, this is a form of fear, and fear is the most highly contagious of emotions. I have a good friend–Sarah in the book–who lives in Chevy Chase and she occasionally gets w/ me for a reality check; in her neighborhood, it’s not unusual for the mother of a four-year-old to be hiring a reading tutor for her child, because the kid is obviously so “late” to read. Sarah has to e-mail me and say, “Is this sick?” and, because I live in a much less affluent neighborhood–bordering between middle-class and working class–I don’t get this crap loaded on me so much, so I can say, “Yes, it is sick.”

How do you get support? I think you have to choose your peer group carefully. and you just have to steer clear [of those who are] victims of our culture, and they are carriers of the virus–the virus of materialism and me-first and consumer lust and all that. You just have to be really clear about what your values are and stay grounded. There are plenty of other moms out there who want very similar things for their kids, and you just have to find them.

Ultimately, I found that the coping mechanism that works best for me is a continuing regimen of medication and occasional counseling. But, like almost all of the survey respondents in her book, I live in relatively privileged circumstances, and what frightens me is the thought that if I had not been able to afford medical care that I may not be sitting here today. Isn’t it insensitive to assume that poorer women would have access to the same coping mechanisms as their more affluent counterparts? Thompson says:

Depression and poverty and motherhood are practically synonymous, in my opinion, and I based this purely on anecdotal evidence from reporting on welfare reform for the Washington Post and seeing a lot of dire poverty up close. These women just deal, and many of them deserve the Nobel Prize just for getting through the day. It is no surprise to me that many of them self medicate (lots of affluent women self-medicate–the only difference tends to be the choice of drugs).

Some of the coping mechanisms will work, no matter what demographic you’re talking about. Meditations/prayer or whatever you want to call it is do-able no matter what your income level. Exercise is problematical if you live in a dicey area and don’t have money for a gym membership, and that is tragic (and let’s not even talk about the kids who never get outside because it’s just too dangerous). Decent medical care? Very, very hard to find for anybody; in some ways, if you qualify for a sliding fee counseling arrangement, you might end up better off than somebody with standard health insurance, but that’s by no means a given. IF they can get themselves to a shrink, they often can find that drug companies have programs (little publicized) that offer free or vastly reduced medications to people who can’t afford to buy them and/or who don’t have health insurance. Of course, you have to have enough savvy to ask and enough self-confidence to keep on asking for this stuff, but it can be done. On the plus side, people in poorer circumstances often have support networks equal to or superior to those of their middle-class sisters in spacious suburbia, if only because poverty forces you to depend on other people (and vice versa). And of course reading and educating yourself about depression–that’s available in public libraries.

So it’s possible for some things to work. But, this is a book that remains to be written.

One that if written by Thompson I will surely read cover to cover.

Heather B. Armstrong
About the Author

Heather B. Armstrong

Heather B. Armstrong was a regular contributor writing about pop culture for us at Dooce Plugs In. You can read her daily at her blog Dooce.


Heather B. Armstrong was a regular contributor writing about pop culture for us at Dooce Plugs In. You can read her daily at her blog Dooce.

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