Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Motherhood and Depression: An Interview with Tracy Thompson

tracy thompson.jpgToday’s interview is with Tracy Thompson, the author of “The Beast: A Journey Through Depression” and “The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression.” She has won numerous mental health awards, including one from NAMI for her “lasting contributions to mental health issues.”



Question: The first two sentences of your book are brilliant: “Motherhood and depression are two countries with a long common border. The terrain is chilly and inhospitable, and when mothers speak of it at all, it is usually in guarded terms, or in euphemisms.”

You’re obviously on my team–of those moms fighting against the stigma of mental illness. But even I shy away at times–like when someone will joke about another mom being “so schizophrenic”–of telling people how strongly I feel against discrimination. If I’m in a good and confident place, I’ll blab about my psychiatric history. And then I retreat, thinking “oh no, now David won’t have anyone to play with,” and then I blab again, and so it goes. What about you? Do you openly talk about your depression to the moms you interact with on a daily basis?


Tracy Thompson: Do I blab about my psychiatric history? No. Do I talk freely? Yes. By which I mean that when the context is appropriate, I’ll speak up. Recently a friend told me she hadn’t heard from her brother in months. She assumed he was sulking about something. I said, “Make sure he’s not depressed.” Or there will be a story in the news about some psychiatric patient that people will be talking about, and I’ll have a chance to say, “No, psychotropic drugs like that are not addictive.” And then people will say, “What makes you an expert?” and I’ll say, “I’m not an expert on everything but I do know about this from experience.” This is especially true when the subject is PPD, because new moms (especially first-time mothers) can be made to feel so incredibly guilty about having it, and an amazing number of medical personnel are still ignorant about it.


Just yesterday the Washington Post had a front-page story about a female soldier who suffered a breakdown in Iraq. She’d had episodes of depression before joining the Army; when she went to Iraq, the stress level (she ran a medical trauma response team) was just too much. The Army is actually prosecuting her for attempting suicide. Yeah, I know. It’s medieval.

I don’t go on and on about my own experiences unless somebody specifically asks–but, you know, that’s just basic courtesy. Very few people want to hear the gruesome details of my gallbladder operation, either. But when it’s appropriate, I try to be straightforward and utterly unvarnished. “Yeah, I’ve been in a psychiatric hospital, I’ve overdosed on pills, I’ve self-medicated with alcohol, I’ve even had to have ECT.


Fortunately, I’m much better right now”–or some version of that. I see it as a chance to demonstrate that maybe some of their preconceptions about “the mentally ill” may be wrong. IN a way, it’s like being a combat veteran. You have to walk a line between talking too much and bottling it up inside. “Cautious honesty” is probably the best description of what I strive for.

I get three kinds of reactions. Often, it’s relief. “Oh, thank God, somebody besides me has been struggling with this.” Sometimes it’s amazement. “Really? I would never have guessed” etc.–which is fine; I let that play out according to how interested they are. And there are the people who shut down, or give me this glazed-eyed smile, or suddenly don’t want their kids to play with mine…and that’s fine, it really is. It’s valuable information, just the same as if they had said, “I don’t like immigrants” or “Aren’t these black people ruining the neighborhood.” I don’t want my kids around intolerant people.


When it comes to depression and motherhood specifically, I guess I just have a contrarian streak that gets activated whenever I hear anybody saying something like, “Oh, I just so looooove being a mom,” like everything was a 24-hour-a-day love fest. Usually I’ll say something like, “Yeah, but aren’t there days when you just want to drop-kick the little hellions off a cliff?” If they don’t at least laugh at that, I know their either in serious denial, or they just terminally phony. Or maybe they really ARE like that, in which case I am not up to dealing with them, and that’s my problem, not theirs. I would be cowed by Martha Stewart, too. –Now, having days like that doesn’t make you a depressed mom, but admitting that there are days like that lays the foundation for honesty, and if you can’t be honest about the bad days you can’t be honest about depression.


Finally, when it comes to talking about depression–I guess I’ve reached the point where I realize that there is such a thing as too much talking. Depressed people ruminate too much as it is; we really don’t need too many endless explorations of our misery. What we need is concrete, practical things to do. Somebody to exercise with. Somebody to call us once a day and make sure we’re out of bed. Somebody to take the kids away once in a while for a few hours. The encouragement to keep on trying to find a drug combination that will work. The name of a good shrink. That’s the kind of thing that’s helpful.

Question: You began collecting stories of depressed moms in 2003, when you placed a query in 170 newspapers across the country. In 2004, you placed a query in the May 2004 issue of “O: The Opera Magazine.” And at 500 responses you stopped counting. Wow. Then you narrowed down the responses from moms who had been diagnosed with major depression and submitted to them a 170-question survey produced by Dr. Sherryl Goodman, a psychology professor at Emory University. You conducted 32 in-depth, personal interviews. You spoke to researchers in the fields of genetics, epidemiology, psychiatry, endocrinology, obstetrics, and brain imaging. And you spent months reading the medical literature on the subject of women and depression. Tracy, I give you an A for effort and I believe whatever you say. Before I ask you some questions about the responses, let me ask you this: what was most surprising to you … after you put all of it together and let it gel awhile in your brain. Any “Aha!” moments or epiphanies?


Tracy: I think what struck me the most, looking back, was how long I tried to white-knuckle it after the birth of my first child. I’d gone off my meds during my pregnancy and then stayed off after she was born. Why? I do not know. I just wanted to see if I could, I guess. Wish fulfillment, sort of like a two year old: “If I cover my eyes, maybe it’ll go away.”

Looking back, I put three people (me, my daughter and my husband) through a year of hell for no good reason. I did learn, though; when my second daughter was born, and I felt the onset of the same PPD symptoms (raging anxiety, mostly), I was back on my meds in a flash. My shrink later read the book and said to me, “Where was I when all this was happening?”–meaning the first nine months of my oldest child’s life. And I couldn’t answer him.


I guess I just wasn’t in contact with him, or I was lying to him, or both. In retrospect, I was really, really sick. I probably should have been in a hospital for at least some of that time. It was a combination of denial and stoicism, I guess, and at some level it fooled even my husband. I realize I have to be continually on guard about that.

I’ve heard that when people freeze to death, they just kind of go to sleep; at the very end, it’s actually a rather painless way to die. I think depression can be like that. If you don’t pay attention, if you just keep slogging on trying to pretend nothing is wrong, one day you may just kind of lie down in the snow and that will be that. You have to constantly ask yourself, “Am I cold? Do I have enough clothes on?” –or, as the case may be, “Am I distancing myself from my family? Am I taking these little anxiety pills too much? Have I been grumpy way too much lately?”


Question: The three categories–the most common symptoms of maternal depression–evidenced in your responses, you say, were: withdrawing (emotionally, physically, or both) from the child; chronic hyperirritability; and the inability to impose limits on behavior. I actually started to cry when I read those because my sister, who recently visited, told me she thought that my depression of two years ago might have something to do with their extra pecking when they see me phase out (“Uh oh, are we losing her again?”). So in reading so many other mom’s experiences, I was somehow consoled. Is that really the purpose of your book and your blog: to name the illness, the symptoms, the treatments available, so we can start to feel less guilty about it and be more proactive against further damage in ourselves or others?


Tracy: Yes, exactly. I think I kind of touched on that in the paragraph above. And the inability to impose limits on behavior–that comes from fatigue. Being consistent is really mentally taxing, especially when you know that saying, “No, you may not watch TV right now” is going to elicit howls of protest and dramatic expressions of impending catastrophe if someone misses the next episode of “Hannah Montana.” It’s SO much easier to say, “Oh, all right” and go back upstairs to the bedroom and shut the door. I mean, moms who have never been depressed a day in their lives fall into this trap, so it’s no surprise that mothers who struggle with depression have a hard time doing it.

And there’s nothing, on a day-to-day basis, that’s going to make that job any easier. The only thing you can do is to be proactive, and make dealing with your own health a number one priority–because that falls apart, chances are many other things in the household will fall apart too. It’s not being selfish to look after your own health; it’s a way of looking after your family. But being vigilant about their own health is usually at the bottom of most mothers’ priority lists; we are conditioned to take care of everybody except ourselves.

  • Journeytofreedom

    Thank you for being so honest and sharing your story. I have been fighting depression for some time now, a widowed mom of two doesn’t really fit in anywhere,add depression to that and I might as well have the plague!

  • Myfanwy Dabner

    Great article. Tracy Thompson has down to earth insights.

  • maria

    I applaud you Tracy I wish i would have known you many years ago when as a young 18 year old with my first child and suffering depression .Everyday I had to survive to get through the day .
    My doctor called it Housewife Syndrome I called it madness.
    Thank God that we now can speak about this illness and be helped in ways where we can lead normal lives

  • Sheila

    I suffered from bipolar II all my life, but wa misdiagnosed as unipolar depression. When I had my 1st child, within a few weeks I suffered from debilitating depression and anxiety, exacerbated by hyperthyroid (onset from post pregnancy) Grave’s disease, which they overlooked and I was hospitalized for weeks before radioactive iodine treatment had started and within a year I recovered. I would like to share my story, which I have partly written, with others, i am just not sure what venue to use. I attempted suicide dirung the first few months my daughter was born because of my dual diagnosis, and sharing the sometimes over-looked thyroid complicatins as well as the mental health aspect may be of use to others. I also had a son born 3 years later, and I was doing well until I stopped breast-feeding, and then the post-partum came back again, and I felt myself slipping, and my family just watched as I slipped away to the hospital again. Maybe someone would want to know the whole story(stories)? let me know.

  • barb

    my mom had her first child in 1947; me in 1952, my other brother in 1953 and my sister in 1963. i remember as a young child, i’d guess 5-8 years old, or somewhere in there, my mom had a nervous breakdown (that’s what they called it back then) and went to a psychiatric hospital for about 6 months. she would be able to come home on weekends after awhile, and i believe she went through ECT. back in those days, everyone drank. it was just the thing that they did to get through. with my dad working all day and only having one car,mom was ‘stuck’ with us all day. and then i guess one day she just lost it. it was hard; hard on her, hard on all of us. i believe i inherited some mental illness from her, and since she’s passed on there is no one to ask questions of, so my curiousity will forever be unresolved.
    we are fortunate today that there are so many more options for moms. i never had kids, but my hat is off to ALL moms, and even more to those of you who handle kids, mental illness, working and taking care of a household. Praise God for you, and also for the drugs that help all of us depressives get through each day.
    good topic Therese, bravo.

  • mpbslp

    Oh, this was so heartening, but also sad. Last year, I had my first “major depressive episode” after having depression and anxiety my entire adult life. My children were 4 and 5. I am still dealing with, what I think, were the effects of my depressed parenting. I let them watch way too much t.v., I disengaged a lot, I was very irritable with them. This BREAKs my heart. I feel this has strained my relationship with my oldest, my daughter, a very perceptive, extroverted little girl.

  • Lulu

    Your editorials are always insightful, self-forgiving yet have that ability to hold individuals accountable for what needs to happen in their life, and gives blessed insight when things become off-balanced. These are just some thoughts from what I have seen in trauma services, being married to the military/law enforcement, bff to military lawyer, and a mental health professional.
    Let me respond to this last segment first – that under no circumstances especially in the military should someone be penalized for seeking mental health treatment or actions under full swings of new mental illness or one that has been doing incredibly well with or without treatment. There is a need for insight in the individual to not put others at-risk, themselves for the integrity of the mission and service, as well as a responsibility on the military to ensure that their units are internally safe. If I said that they are still prosecuting individuals in the military/child abuse/assault, it should tell you that all is not quite well in this world… We should not be inciting fear into those seeking treatment.
    Being acquainted with this system these are the things I would ask…
    1. Did this individual falsify their medical record re: depression, treatment for depression, or suicide attempts?
    2. Has this individual ever allowed depression to impact their decision-making? Those in the trauma field are especially prone to personality quirks and developing difficulty handling what they see on a regular basis (personally, the human condition can only handle so much unless you are prewired). Some might say personality quirks proceeded these views, experiences, etc. Chicken or the egg; egg or the chicken.
    3. Did this individual not seek treatment when being clearly informed of the protocol (rational thinking for those who are suicidal does not work)?
    4. Did this individual falsify themselves in one or more psychiatric screenings?
    5. Did this individual abandon treatment of others through their act of suicide?
    6. Did this individual go against a treatment regimen (miss an appointment etc) that would result in misconduct (on a scale) that may leave that person without the support to get the very help they need?
    7. Have they ruled out personality disorders or personality disorders in conjunction to mental illness? The question is the level of insight. Usually JAG officers do not seek prosecution unless prosecution is worth taxpayer money and they think they will, without a doubt, win for something that is completely egregious. Depending on who you have as a prosecutor or defender may give you the benefit of the doubt and perform their duties to the utmost caliber.
    This can be the perspective, but thankfully those in civilian life do not operate under the same rules of law (when orders are issued in the military – it really is law). The problem is that those in trauma services can use trauma as a means feel the adrenaline rush to fulfill some flagging internal feelings or fulfill the a higher calling that they do not feel on the inside. I myself was in that field and left because of dealing with addictions, suicides, low self-esteem behaviors, and poor coping skills IN COWORKERS.

  • Victoria

    This is to you with a tear ;-)….Thank you! To know someone has been through hell and back so to speak is very empowering. It’s great to know that someone else went through the pains of depression and made it out, to know that there’s help without judgement is very comforting!

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