Christmas and Depression
By Maura Preszler | Founder of Made in His Image
Yesterday afternoon I was getting a pedicure as a Christmas treat while holding my eight month old son, Pio. I was thinking about all I had to do that evening when the lady sitting next to me answered her phone. Her voice somber as she spoke, Yeah, I’ve had a really difficult week. My nephew took his life on Tuesday and my brother and his wife are struggling severely. He has struggled with depression for ten years and now it’s over.
I held my son close, kissed him and tried to fight back the tears that were forming in my eyes. My heart ached for the woman sitting next to me and her nephew’s parents. I can’t even fathom the immense pain of losing a child. I drove home, put my son down for his nap, and cried.
There is so much beauty in the world and Christmas is a special time, but it’s also coupled with tremendous suffering and pain. Yes, it’s Christmas, but that doesn’t mean you need to smile all day and put on an act. It’s okay to not be okay. I learned this in a tangible way last year while pregnant with Pio. I’ve debated sharing the following because it’s so brutally honest, but my hope is that it helps someone who is struggling with depression or a mental illness.
As a former collegiate athlete I am very driven to fix a problem or situation and over the past seven years have learned to let go of things that are out of my control. It’s been a challenging lesson to learn, but a good one.
My husband and I were married on July 4, 2015. It was a magical and exceedingly blessed day. Three weeks later I was pregnant with our son Pio. When I found out I was pregnant I was ecstatic. I’ve suffered from depression on and off for twenty years so the next day I called my psychiatrist to make an appointment because I knew the medication I was on wasn’t recommend for pregnant mothers. The following week, I saw her and we worked out a plan to taper off my medication within eight days. For months I suffered from withdrawal symptoms that at times left me unable to drive.
The days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, and I felt like life was being sucked out of me. Each day I sunk deeper into immense darkness and a total lack of feeling. I have tears in my eyes writing this because it was such a dark and lonely time. I was exceedingly nauseous and most days I would literally put a towel on the bathroom floor and just hang my head over the toilet. Other pregnant mothers told me they were nauseous during their pregnancies too and I felt like they handled it way better than I did. I seriously wondered what the heck was wrong with me. This can’t be regular nauseousness I thought.
When people found out I was pregnant or my belly started to show they would comment, Oh you’re pregnant, what a beautiful time, so full of life. Isn’t it just the best? I would fake a smile and nod and think to myself, no this is not the best and I feel miserable. I felt like a horrible mother, plagued with guilt and shame. Why wasn’t I happy? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I feel anything? I was terrified that my son would feel unwanted and unloved. I cried out to God to help me but nothing came. We were living in Palm Springs, CA at the time and I would go to the Padre Pio adoration chapel to pray. We were going to name our son Francis or William and we didn’t decide on Pio until after he was born. Looking back I see that Padre Pio was interceding for us both.
Last December, my low plummeted even lower and the thoughts of suicide I struggled with in college returned. I was petrified. We had plans to fly to Michael’s family for Christmas in North Dakota and I sincerely wondered how I was going to do it. When Michael came home from work the evening before we were scheduled to leave I was sobbing when he opened the door. I told him I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave at 3:00am to drive four hours to the airport, I couldn’t pack, I couldn’t be around a crowd of people, I couldn’t fake anymore smiles and pretend everything was okay when I could barely shower and brush my teeth. I felt like a horrible wife, daughter in law and mother and my son wasn’t even born yet. How could I take care of him once he got here? I didn’t know how I was going to do it. How was I going to take care of a newborn when I couldn’t even take care of myself. I loathed myself for keeping Michael from his siblings and parents. And to make matters worse we couldn’t get a refund for the tickets. Michael kept reassuring me not to worry about the money and he just wanted to help me and sit with me in my pain.
I just wanted to feel something, anything. Thoughts of suicide kept racing through my mind. I didn’t welcome the thoughts, I didn’t have a plan and I didn’t act on them but they were there nonetheless and I couldn’t get them out of my head. The pain was suffocating me and I could feel myself sinking into despair. Michael held me on the bathroom floor as I clutched my Rosary beads. There was no doubt in my mind, my depression was back and I didn’t know how I was going to make it the rest of the pregnancy.
I slept from 12-2am in Michael’s arms and we both woke up at the same time. We talked and I told him we should go to North Dakota. I could tell he was extremely hesitant, as he only desired what was best for me. We ended up going and it was one of the hardest Christmas’ I’ve experienced. I had to mentally get myself through each minute. I had no joy and really no feeling at all. I was numb. On Christmas day I snuck into an empty room and just wept alone. Michael found me and we cried together. I was convinced I was a bad mother already. I thought our son would be better off with another mother. Michael gently reminded me that God’s plan was the best plan for our son. I didn’t want to waste my suffering and tried my best to offer it for our son, for his sanctity, vocation, purity and faith.
In my deepest and darkest moments of depression I tried to remember the following which is one of my favorite quotes. I know I did it very imperfectly but I think God looks at our desire and not perfection. Every tear, disappointment and grieved heart is a blank check. If we write our name on it, it is worthless. If we sign it with Christ’s name, it is infinite in its value. In prosperity, Christ gives you His gifts; in suffering with faith, he gives you Himself. | Fulton Sheen
We returned from our trip and after seeing my doctor I was immediately placed back on my medication. Again, I felt guilty. What if it caused him to have a birth defect? Again Michael reminded me that we had to trust God and the doctor reminded me that I needed to be healthy to bring Pio into the world.
It wasn’t an immediate fix and I worried immensely that I would suffer from postpartum depression. Our son was born on April 17, 2016 at 2:43 a.m. after 22 hours of labor and 2 hours of pushing. During labor I was just so thankful that God had brought me to this day safely. The moment I saw Pio’s face I knew it had all been worth it. The doctor placed Pio on my chest and he curled up and fell asleep as I held him. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. I haven’t suffered from depression since his birth. Pio was born completely healthy and is such a joyful and happy baby. My husband and I are so thankful for the gift that he is to us.
Depression is serious and should not be taken lightly. I wanted to be raw and real with you to hopefully inspire you through God’s grace to keep fighting. Don’t give up, He has a plan for you. I can’t even describe how much freedom, joy and peace I feel this Christmas and that is a gift from our Heavenly Father. There is hope, He is here. And even if you don’t feel Him, keep crying out to Him, keep giving him your pain. Keep offering it to Him as a sacrifice. Msgr. Esseff, who use to be my spiritual director once told me, we are closest to Christ when we feel rejected, isolated and alone.
Padre Pio biolocated to Msgr. Esseff so I know he is a very holy priest. Padre Pio has always been my favorite saint and once when I was with Msgr. Esseff for spiritual direction he paused and said, I can see it, Mary and Jesus are right next to you in your suffering. When it was time for me to leave he said, hold on I have something for you. He went to his room and I waited for him downstairs near the chapel. He returned with a small picture I had never seen of Padre Pio. Wow, I love it! Where did you get that? I’ve never seen it before. Padre Pio gave it to me to give to you, he said. I got the chills. I can see in my darkest moments God the Father has never left me, He was closest to me.
Also something important to keep in mind is that so often in the Christian world people can tend to think, Oh if I pray more than my problems will go away. Or if someone suffers from depression or anxiety perhaps it’s a result of not trusting God enough. That mentality is dangerous, as you can’t Hail Mary your way out of a mental illness. Yes, Jesus could cure you at anytime and we need to have faith but we also need to utilize modern medicine. We need to normalize therapy in our society and know that it’s okay to go and talk to someone. It’s okay to be on medication. We need Jesus AND psychology and it’s NOT wrong to think that.
I’m praying for all of you this Christmas, especially those who are deeply suffering. Merry Christmas!
This just seems to be God’s way, and that’s why the Messiah would be born in that tiny town, in an out of the way cave under the earth, because there was no room for him in the inn. Yet, through God’s amazing grace, great things can happen, including the birth of the Messiah.
Looking at the small, insignificant town of Bethlehem teaches us three great messages: greatness comes from smallness, never give up hope, and trust always. With those three convictions in our hearts, we’re almost ready for Christmas. | Bishop Barron
P.S. You are enough.