Interview with Hillary Mast on Postpartum Depression
This interview is the first in our five-part Hope in Darkness: Journeying Through Mental Illness series for the months of July & August. Learn more about the series here.
Hillary Mast is wife to one handsome man and mother to three sweet kiddos. She loves living in Colorado where God's creative handiwork seems just a bit more evident than anywhere else in the world. She recently began managing the Cora Evans blog, part of a website dedicated to publishing the writings of Servant of God Cora Evans and promoting her cause for canonization.
Tell us a little about your story with postpartum depression. When did you start noticing symptoms? How did it affect your daily life?
I first experienced depression when I was a child, around 8 or 9 years old. I just felt sad or kind of apathetic a lot of the time. I didn't enjoy school very much and I always wanted to stay home even though I didn't have any real "reason" for being sad. There were even times when I felt so sad or hopeless that I just "didn't want to exist anymore."
Even though I was diagnosed with depression as a kid, I was really blindsided by postpartum depression after the birth of my second child, my sweet little Josephine. I would get so upset with her and my then two year-old, Maggie, over the most normal things: crying, having a dirty diaper, not taking a nap, etc. Some days were fine and even enjoyable, but on "bad" days, it felt like I was stuck in an endless loop of anger, shame, and despair. First, I'd lose my temper and get so angry at my kids, then I'd calm down and feel like such a horrible mother for even getting so angry in the first place and finally, I'd just have this overwhelming feeling that my children would never grow up and I would never feel any better. As if there were no possible future in which I wasn't drowning from sleep deprivation and fussy babies.
When did you know it was time to ask for help? What did that look like?
There were so many little incidents looking back, but a big one was when I loaded my kids up in the car and drove across town to meet a woman from a buy/sell/trade website to sell a household appliance. I lugged this clothing steamer out of my car and set it up in the parking lot for her to take a look. She politely decided she didn't actually want it and then drove off. I was so livid that I had loaded my kids up right before dinner time and picked through rush hour traffic only to have her tell me she didn't actually want to buy this stupid clothing steamer. Now normally this would have been, at worst, an annoying inconvenience. But on that day I felt so much anger and even hatred towards this woman. Driving home I kept switching from crying to cursing and everything in between. I called my husband and told him the story through shaky, angry sobs and later that night we decided I should go see a counselor.
Our parish has a marriage and family counselor on site a few hours a week, so I called her up and set up an appointment. Just making the call and looking at my calendar felt like such a heavy task. I'd already been to a few sessions with another therapist who specialized in postpartum issues, but I didn't find her [guidance] particularly helpful, even though she was very kind and perceptive. I felt like I had some sort of due date for when I should have been "done" with postpartum depression. After talking with my new counselor I came to realize that depression doesn't really have an expiration date and that I wasn't somehow backsliding each time I experienced a depressive episode.
Who or what has been most helpful throughout your journey?
My husband, Ted, has been like my little stepping stone leading me to Christ in all of this. He is the one who first asked me questions about how I was really feeling and if I thought this was "normal" for me. He has held me when I cried, helped me set up appointments, encouraged me to go to confession and Mass, taken off time at work so I can go to therapy, and loved our children so well through all of this. He has really showed me what it is to lay down one's life for another as Christ does for all of us.
I've found that counseling, medication, journaling, exercising, praying and receiving the sacraments are all very helpful and important in helping me feel like myself.
How has your faith been tested through your experience?
There have been so many times in my life when I just want to be "done" with depression and have resented God for not just taking this cross away from me. Like, "OK, Lord. I've suffered enough. I know better than you and I'm just not up for dealing with this anymore. Give it to someone else."
There was even a time when I believed that if I really loved God enough, he would "heal" me. As if one morning I would just wake up and feel like a "normal" person (whatever that means). It's utter nonsense, of course, because less suffering does not somehow equal more of God's love. One glance at a crucifix teaches us that. I have found that God has healed me and drawn me closer to him through depression. It's when I accept this cross and seek help with it that I feel the most peace. It's the times when I try to ignore it or wish it away that I usually feel the worst. I have come to realize that God has healed me, not in the way that I once envisioned, but in a way that makes a lot more sense and has resulted in a lot more dependence on his grace. One that required me to admit I have a problem and that I need the assistance of medication, counseling and ultimately God!
What's something you want Catholics to know about mental health?
Mental illness is not a symptom of a weak prayer life or lack of faith. In that same vein, it's not something you can "pray away" on your own. Prayer certainly can draw us closer to God, our ultimate healer, but it's not the only thing that's needed in addressing mental health issues.
Mental illness is a medical disorder that merits medical attention. God can use our earthly suffering to bring about heavenly graces, but that doesn't mean that seeking help is somehow going against His will. There are so many wonderful mental health professionals out there who can help you carry this burden. Case in point, I prayed for my dad when he was diagnosed with cancer, but I didn't think any less of him as a Christian for getting medical help. In fact, I thought him even wiser and more faithful to God when he prayerfully made decisions about what was the best course of action for confronting that disease. (Praise God, he has been cancer-free for over a year now!)
What advice would you give to women who think they might be struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental illness?
As women, it's in our very nature to care for others, but this doesn't mean we should put our mental health on the back burner. I spent so many agonizing months after my daughter was born telling myself that I just had to keep trying harder and be less selfish when what I really needed was sleep, medication and counseling. If you have even the smallest hunch that you might be struggling with mental health, you should go ahead and talk to a professional or even a trusted friend or family member. Just because you ask for help with your mental health doesn't mean your doctor is going to make you take medication. I have personally found antidepressants to be extremely helpful, but they're just one tool in the toolbox along with many other things that help make me feel whole.
Typically we're much more inclined to be proactive about seeking help for physical ailments, but there still seems to be this specter of shame that hovers over mental health issues. Hopefully, you wouldn't wait until you had a heart attack to start eating well and exercising. Many people want to take care of their bodies just for the sake of being healthy. It's the same with mental health. Ask for help even if you're not sure what's wrong. Sometimes it feels so much easier to just keep trudging along with the weight of mental illness rather than seeking help, but once you find the right kind of help it's incredibly freeing.