I recently published my memoir. I am sharing several chapters right here on the blog. If you’d like to read more, the ebook and paperback are both available on Amazon. In this chapter, I described a few things that helped me push my recovery from postpartum depression to a higher level.
Less than a month after I was discharged from the hospital, my sister Katherine handed me a paperback with a yellow cover.
“The How of Happiness. What is this?”
“The author is a psychologist who studies happiness. In the first part of the book, she explains the science behind happiness. Then there’s a multiple-choice test that determines your happiness style.”
“My ‘happiness style’?”
“There are different things that make people happy, but for each of us, there are certain strategies that maximize our happiness. You can use any of the strategies in the book, but the test helps you figure out the ones that will be the most effective for you.”
“I don’t have time for this crap.”
“It’s not crap. I know a lot of people—”
“Is this book about postpartum depression?”
“Katherine, I have postpartum depression. Some book with a quiz is not going to make me better. I have to take sertraline. I’m doing cognitive behavioral therapy. I have a serious mental illness. Maybe this book is useful for a person who is healthy, but there’s nothing that I can do to change the fact that I have postpartum depression. It’s all in my hormones.”
“Will you just keep the book in case you decide you want to read it?”
This was not the first time my sister had recommended I read a book. When I was a freshman in college, and Katherine a scrappy third grader with an impressive Beanie Baby collection, she insisted I had to read a new book. To humor her, I agreed to try a few chapters. By the next morning, I was a Harry Potter convert. Maybe I should humor her again and read just a few chapters of The How of Happiness. If I didn’t like it, I could just tell her that I was too busy with Pippa for this sort of self-help book.
Within a few pages, I was forced to admit that my sister was really good at recommending books that I needed at certain junctures in my life. In college, I needed Harry Potter as a break from history classes that focused on war and pestilence. And now, as a new mama, I needed this book to push my mental health to the next level. By the time I reached the test about my happiness style, I was ready with a freshly sharpened pencil and blank notebook.
According to my test results, the three activities that would boost my happiness the most were exercise, learning new things, and projects. These strategies resonated with me. They were the activities that in the past had made me feel like my best self. I dove into the relevant chapters for ideas to implement the strategies.
And then, I did nothing.
Or rather, I continued living the way I had been living: taking my medications, doing my CBT homework, attending the Parent Education class, and going to the mall for a thrill. Instead of being inspired to try new things, I used The How of Happiness to validate the way I was already living my life.
Exercise? I took walks every day. That counted.
Learning new things? At Parent Education class, we discussed all sorts of child-rearing matters. That was enough.
And projects? I was knitting a blanket for my new niece. As a stay-at-home mom, that was about all I could handle in the way of projects.
When I first read The How of Happiness, I was not ready to make changes. I was like a newborn filly, tripping around on shaky legs. I had to learn how to walk before I could run the Kentucky Derby. But three months had passed since I read The How of Happiness. I was ready to pick up the pace. It was time to be proactive in creating some happiness. I needed a bigger project than a baby blanket.
Now I sat at my desk with Pippa napping in the carrier. I opened a new document and typed, in a dramatic font, The Fifty-Two Museums Project. Over the next year, I would visit a different museum, botanical garden, or other cultural site every week. Libraries counted. Children’s museums did not. The boredom had started because I had gotten into a rut of only leaving the house for Parent Education class and the mall, so it made sense to choose a project that would help me get into the habit of going new places.
I started typing a list of places I could go with Pippa. Art museums, historic homes, gardens . . . As I wrote, my excitement grew.
Pippa sighed and stirred. She would be awake soon.
I kissed the top of her head and whispered, “Baby girl, where should we go first?”
* * *
“That’s so cool,” said Fiona, a mom at the Monday Parent Education class, when I told her about my goal to visit fifty-two places by the end of 2014. “Where have you been?”
“The Huntington, LACMA, Descanso, and the Norton Simon.”
“I want to do this, too. We just go to the usual baby classes. I never thought about taking Quinn to an art museum. And what was the other project you mentioned?”
It was early January and the first Parent Education class of 2014. The teacher had asked us to pair up with a mom we did not know very well and share three things about ourselves that the rest of the class probably did not know. Telling Fiona about my projects had felt like a gamble but the gamble had paid off. I had discovered a kindred mom spirit.
“So my other project is the One Hundred Podcasts Project. I started listening to podcasts after Christmas one night when I was bored doing the dishes and wanted some brain candy. I’ve always thought podcasts were something I’d enjoy but never took the effort to find ones that I liked.”
“Which one did you try?”
“NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. They talked about some new movies and television shows, and it made me feel like a grownup again. I let my brain go stagnant during the first months of motherhood and I’m trying to hit the reboot button, so to speak.”
“I should check out some podcasts.”
When I first realized I was getting bored, I worried that I would have to quit the Parent Education class to find something new. The Fifty-Two Museums Project, however, had given me a new zest for life. Now that I was visiting new places, I could appreciate the parenting class again. The enthusiasm for one enterprise had spilled over into all areas of my life.
* * *
Churn, churn, back and forth, back and forth. I glanced down at the screen. I had been churning for one minute and eighteen seconds.
I changed the intensity and angle, hoping to make the workout feel a little more exciting. This was important. Ever since she had discovered the art of crawling, Pippa could not be bothered to sit in her stroller while mama took her morning walk. There was too much exploring for her to do. Following a baby around my neighborhood, however, did not exactly count as exercise.
I had joined a new gym and registered Pippa for their little day care center so I could get some cardio on the elliptical machines and stair climbers. That was how I had exercised since college. Today I was on a machine near the gym’s exercise studio. Yoga had just ended, and people were filtering into the room for the next class: Zumba.
I had wanted to try Zumba for years and had actually taken a few classes at my old gym right before I got pregnant. I stood in the back of the room so no one would see how ridiculous I looked but then I had trouble seeing what the teacher was doing. No matter. It was still as fun as I had expected.
What I had not expected was how much Zumba would kick my ass. After years of logging miles on the elliptical machine, I assumed I was in good enough shape to dance the grapevine. However, thirty minutes into the hour-long class, I thought my right thigh was going to start convulsing. I needed to leave before I hurt myself.
But what would my classmates think?
I had forced myself to stay until the bitter end, even though my knees started to twitch and my lower back was in agony. There was a woman who looked at least eight months pregnant, effortlessly doing the cha-cha. Surely I could keep my feet shuffling until the end of class.
I went back to Zumba once more before returning to the elliptical machines, where the potential for humiliation was much lower. At the time, I would never have admitted it, but Zumba made me anxious.
A lot had happened since my first attempts at Zumba.
I checked the screen on the elliptical I was currently churning. Less than thirty seconds had elapsed. This was torture. I had to give Zumba a second chance.
I sulked into the half-full studio. The teacher was fiddling with the sound system. As I walked toward the back, I noticed an empty spot in the middle of the room. Before I had time to think, I pivoted and claimed the prime spot. If I was going to try Zumba, I might as well give it my best shot.
“Welcome, everyone.” The teacher waited for our attention. “Is this anyone’s first Zumba class?”
I self-consciously kept my arms at my side. It had been a couple of years, but still, I was telling the truth.
“We have a new song today. Since we have a couple of minutes before class starts, I thought I’d show you some of the more complicated steps. First, we do a little merengue.”
As I shifted my weight from side to side, I forgot where I was or that I was surrounded by strangers. I just lost myself in the movement.
“Then we do a twirl, right to left.”
I had forgotten the joy of a simple twirl.
“And then some hip bumps . . .”
I spent a lot of time with Pippa balanced on my hip. It felt so good to move and stretch those muscles in a new way.
The studio was full now.
“All right, let’s start with a warm-up. Remember, listen to your body and have fun!”
The dancing started.
To my astonishment, I could actually follow the moves. Dance was something I had wanted to try for most of my adult life, but it had not been my thing when I was a kid. I had preferred soccer cleats and basketball hoops over tutus and jazz hands. I assumed I was too old to start dancing.
Another assumption quickly turned to dust.
I could not execute every move perfectly, but so what? A glowing feeling spread across my chest as my body produced endorphins, glorious, magical endorphins. No wonder The How of Happiness had pointed me toward exercise. I just had to find the sort of exercise that made me, literally, want to dance.
As I mastered a new move, I realized I was not just exercising. I was learning. Zumba checked the box for not one but two of my optimal happiness strategies. I had recently signed up for an online Spanish class to incorporate more learning into the stay-at-home mom life, but hey, my brain was not going to object to a little more learning. Especially in a way that was so much fun.
Fun. There was that word again. I had protested when my psychiatrist insisted I bring more fun into my life, convinced it was impossible, but now my body was glowing as if I were racing down a water slide or playing video games with Nathan.
I waved my hands around in the air and cheered with my fellow students at the end of a song. And then, I left.
I had danced for only twenty minutes of an hour-long class, but I could tell my body had reached its limit. If I kept dancing, I would pull a muscle and not be able to come back to this class for who knew how long. That was unacceptable. I needed as much Zumba in my life as possible.
I smiled at the other students as I exited the studio, not caring what they thought about my early departure. All that mattered was that I had been dancing, and that I was going to do it again soon.
* * *
I was back at my desk with Pippa asleep against my chest in the carrier. I had been staring at the same paragraph of my novel for at least five minutes. The story that had been so exciting before I had Pippa now seemed so blah.
I opened a new document and started writing a short story about a woman who had postpartum depression, spent four nights in the hospital, dismantled all her rituals, but definitely was not me because she had red hair and lived in Alaska.
Ugh. I leaned back on the chair and started tapping my foot on the floor. This was not right. I did not want to write a fictionalized version of my postpartum adventures. I wanted—no, needed—to write a memoir.
A memoir? Was I crazy? Only a handful of people knew about my illness. A memoir would completely blow my cover.
That did not matter. I had to do it. The longing to write a memoir about my adventures was in every fiber of every cell of my being. It did not matter that my adventures were still in progress. As I opened yet another document and named it Memoir, something inside of me—my heart, my soul, my purpose—sighed with relief.
I did not know quite where I was going, but I knew the momentum was taking me where I needed to be.
But first, I had to deal with a little something called shame.