Tag Archives: tragedy

The Truth About Postpartum Depression

16 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

I am also part of a Mental Health Month blog party that’s happening today.

When I landed in Canada almost twelve years ago, the news waves were buzzing with an unfolding tragedy. A young woman, caught in the grip of postpartum depression, had launched herself into the path of an oncoming subway train while holding her weeks-old baby daughter. The baby had died instantly, while the mother hung on in hospital, never regaining consciousness, before she died several weeks later.

The public, including, I confess, myself, practically fell over themselves in their haste to judge this woman for killing an innocent child. Like many people, I was operating under the smug self-righteousness of someone who’s “never been there”. I didn’t have children at that time, therefore I had never experienced postpartum depression. Although I was very familiar with regular depression, and had frequently thought self-destructive thoughts, it had never stretched to me being at risk of hurting another person.

As much as people wanted to be judgmental, there was one particular element of this story that bothered me a great deal. The woman had sought help for postpartum depression and not received it. She had reached out, hoping someone would grab her hand and save her from drowning. In the aftermath of the tragedy, no-one was saying, “If only I had known,” but a number of people were saying, “If only I had helped.”

Back then, postpartum depression was not really taken seriously. People associated it with mothers who killed their children, mothers who were dubbed as “monsters”.

I got hit with a hefty dose of reality when postpartum depression settled over me like a heavy, oppressive blanket after the birth of my second child. I realized that I had been so wrong about this condition, and that its manifestations are as unique and varied as the individuals who suffer from it.

The media, being the media, tends to sensationalize tragedy, and tragedy resulting from postpartum depression is no exception. In the absence of other information, other sources of awareness, is it any wonder that the unknowing public would associate postpartum depression with the killing of babies? That’s what the media has taught society, and it’s not exactly a subject that the average person is going to go and Google.

Media treatment of postpartum depression, along with the resulting generalizations that people make about it, are largely responsible for the fact that many women are too ashamed and scared to seek the help they need. I myself did not seek help, and in fact I would never have been treated had my doctor not noticed that something was way off during a visit for a foot complaint.

There is a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness in general, and postpartum depression in particular takes a big hit of it. The women who fall victim to it are dealing with so much more than depression. They are also feeling intense guilt and the sense of being “abnormal”. I mean, you have this gorgeous new baby who is supposed be a source of great joy and immeasurable love, and the whole thing has turned into a pear-shaped nightmare. The moms also feel fear that is beyond words. They are terrified that during some moment of insanity, they will hurt their children. They want to die just to save their babies from being raised by terrible mothers.

I could quote numbers at you. I could tell you how many women suffer from postpartum depression in Canada, the United States, and internationally. But whatever numbers I gave you would be completely meaningless. They would not include the scores of women who do not seek help, receive a diagnosis, or get treated.

If I was in charge, postpartum depression information would be included in the education packages that are given to new mothers, whether they are having their first, second or tenth child. When the hospitals handed out their leaflets about breastfeeding and developmental milestones, they would also be handing out information sheets about postpartum depression, along with fridge magnets printed with the telephone number of a crisis line.

The new mother’s partner, or some other designated support person, would be educated on the signs of postpartum depression. They would be taught what warning signs to look for, and what to do if they saw them.

If I was in charge, mothers would be regularly screened for postpartum depression for up to two years following the births of their babies – because it can take that long to strike.

There would be public awareness campaigns. The media would devote more attention to postpartum depression as a genuine medical issue to be handled with caring and compassion. They would stop the practice of only giving this condition the time of day in the wake of tragedies.

In my perfect world, women are not blamed for having this debilitating and often life-threatening condition.

They are helped through their times of terrible darkness, and they emerge bright and beautiful, like butterflies from a cocoon, and they enjoy rich, fulfilling lives filled with the laughter of their children.

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Life And Death: No Laughing Matter

23 Jul

People are already making jokes about it.

The first news stories about the untimely death of 27-year-old musician Amy Winehouse started circulating less than an hour before I started writing this post. Within about ten minutes of me first hearing the news, fan pages started to pop up on Facebook.

Amy Winehouse is dead, at least theres enough drugs about for everyone now (with a smiley face emoticon at the end)

Police say that winehouse’s death was unexplained LOL, at that point they were probably stoned on the drugs in her <profanity>

Screw Amy Winehouse, she was a druggy and had death lined up for her

Amy Winehouse is dead…..HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH

Now, I don’t know much about Amy Winehouse. I don’t exactly fall into the demographic that stays up-to-date on popular music. However, I do know that she was insanely talented, even though her music wasn’t really to my taste. I know that she was plagued by substance abuse problems. I know that she was young and had a lot of life ahead of her, and that she had tons of potential within her.

I know that her death is unspeakably sad.

These jokes that are circulating, these fan pages that are being set up, and the derision with which some people are treating this story, is a sad statement about how people have become so desensitized to tragedy that they can have a good laugh about it before the deceased has even started to cool down.

Or maybe it’s nothing new. This is not the first time I’ve heard jokes about a tragedy soon after its occurrence: the space shuttle Challenger disaster, and the death of Mozambican president Samora Machel in a plane crash, both of which happened in 1986, are cases in point.

I wonder why this is, why there are people can make light of events like this. One theory is that they just don’t know how else to deal with news of tragedy. There is some credence to this idea, and I saw it in action on the day my father-in-law died. There was a mix-up that resulted in the wrong funeral home attempting to collect his body from the hospital, and when my mother-in-law heard about this, she made a joke about the funeral homes fighting over her husband’s dead body, and she laughed heartily. I believe that allowing a chink of humour into the day was a way for her to cope with the initial shock of being widowed after almost fifty years of marriage.

In the case of more widespread disasters, I believe that sometimes people make jokes simply because they don’t know how else to process the information.9/11. Hurricane Katrina. The tsunamis in Thailand and Japan. The Haiti earthquake.

Sometimes, though, people are just plain insensitive. They don’t feel any empathy either for the deceased or for the newly bereaved loved ones. Or  – and Amy Winehouse’s death is an example of this – they somehow rationalize that because the person lived in a certain way that they do not agree with, it is OK that he or she died.

Here’s my thought on all of this: Yes, Amy Winehouse was a celebrity – a colourful one with a controversial life, at that – and therefore her life was, to an extent, public property. And yes, she seems to have died in an Elvis-like manner that is bound to attract a lot of attention and speculation.

But above all, she was a human being with hopes and dreams and feelings and loved ones. The fact that she had substance abuse problems does not mean she deserved to die. It does not mean it is OK that she died. Her life – and her death – deserve the same respect as anyone else’s. Her family and friends should be able to grieve for their lost loved one without the world making public fun of it all.

I hope against hope that we as a society can somehow regain some of the humanity and compassion that seems to have eroded.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ups/2066092204/)

Reflecting on 9/11

11 Sep

Nine years ago, I was working as a consultant for a small company that developed software applications and websites for businesses.  A lot of my time was spent either at client sites around the Greater Toronto Area or traveling to various locations within North America.  My home base was the office serving the eastern half of North America, located in the west end of Toronto.  My workspace was near the windows facing east towards the city centre.  We had a nice view of the Toronto skyline with its distinctive CN Tower, then the tallest free-standing structure in the world.

I happened to be in the office on September 11, 2001.  I was walking from the kitchen to my desk, armed with a cup of fresh coffee, when one of my coworkers handed me a printout from the CNN website.  It showed a picture of the World Trade Centre’s North Tower, with smoke billowing from the top half.  My immediate reaction was that this must be one of those elaborate Internet hoaxes involving Photoshop.  When I realized that this was actually a legitimate photograph, I thought the same thing everyone else did: that a freakish and tragic accident had occurred.

As I scrutinized the printout, I heard a shout coming from the direction of the conference room: someone had been able to get the temperamental TV to work, and we all spilled into the room just in time to see live footage of the plane hitting the South Tower.  An hour later, we were still sitting in the conference room.  We were incapable of speech; someone muted the sound on the TV because the frantic commentary of chaos was violating the silence that we all needed.  I don’t think anyone moved for about ten minutes.  Eventually, someone at the back of the room whispered, “Oh, my God.”  That utterance was a catalyst for everyone to rush to their phones to call family members, pausing on the way past the window to see if the CN Tower was still there.

There was no question of any work getting done that day.  We all spent the day on the phone, contacting loved ones South of the border to find out who was alive and who wasn’t.  My parents called from South Africa, unashamedly relieved to hear my voice.  Toronto is not that far from New York, especially to people watching the chaos unfold from the other side of the world.  After talking to my parents, I went crazy contacting people on Instant Messenger and by phone.  By late afternoon, there were two people in New York who I had not been able to reach.  I went to bed that night not knowing whether they were alive or dead.  I didn’t sleep.  I suspect that most people didn’t that night.

The husband of one of my missing friends emailed me early the following morning.  As soon as the South Tower had been hit, she and all of her coworkers had been evacuated from their office a block away to some hall somewhere.  Phone signals were jammed: for several hours, my friend’s husband did not know whether or not she had been buried in the rubble of collapsing towers.

I never connected with my other missing friend, Jason, who had an office in the North Tower.  At lunchtime on September 12th, I spoke to a mutual friend, Mark, who had commuted to work with Jason the previous morning.  Jason had dropped his dog off at the vet on his way to work, so he was late.  The two friends had gotten off the subway at the same stop, and then they had gone into a Starbucks for their morning coffee.  With coffee in hand, Jason had gone into the North Tower, waving goodbye to Mark, who had to go a few blocks further.  The time was about 8:35 a.m.  Eleven minutes later, the North Tower was hit.  Jason could have left the building in those ten minutes, I said to Mark.  Not likely, was Mark’s reply.  Jason had said something about a 9:00 meeting for which he had not prepared.  He would have been sipping his coffee and working on reports at his desk, which was right in the flight path of American Airlines Flight 11.  I said to Mark, “I hope Jason got to finish his coffee.” People say the oddest things in times of stress.

Now, nine years later, I reflect on that day along with the rest of the world.  I think of Jason and hope he died instantly, with no pain or stress.  I look at my two children, neither of whom was alive on 9/11, and I pray that the world will be a habitable place for them when they are adults.  I watch coverage of bigotry and extremism on TV and wonder what’s wrong with people.  I look at the world around me and wonder if we have really learned anything.

Something that’s a bit odd is that right at this moment, for the first time since learning of Jason’s fate, I am wondering what became of his dog, the one he dropped off at the vet on that terrible morning.