Thursday, August 19, 2010
Post-Nuptial Depression - And How I Coined This Term
Who would have thought? I originally published this piece in Salon back in 1999, before the term "Post-Nuptial Depression" was commonplace. Turns out I was the one who coined the term! How's that for a claim to fame? :)
It's summer again, which means wedding season, which means thousands of clenched-teeth brides-to-be across the country are pacing their offices, living rooms or kitchens with a cordless in one hand and a bridal checklist in the other: Trial run wearing dress, shoes and lingerie? Check. Make sure extra bobby pins are in delicate seed-pearl evening bag? Check. Gifts for bridal party? Check, check, check. It's a niggardly, ruthless list and it's way too long, I know, but I have one more thing to add: Prepare for post-nuptial depression.
Maybe it was just me, but for about two weeks following my own wedding last June, I couldn't get out of bed. I felt overwhelmed, agitated and drugged. I could accomplish nothing but sleep. Granted my apartment is conducive to sleeping, what with its crib-like proportions, its lack of windows and the constant presence of a warm and cuddly dog, but this wasn't your regular sleep. This was an every-time-I-open-my-eyes-I-can't-face-reality-so-I-go-back-to-sleep sleep. And according to the Eli-Lily advertisements, this meant I was depressed.
But what on earth was I depressed about? I adored my new husband (still do), I was happy about our marriage and excited to embark on this new life. What was the deal?
Before I attempt to answer this question, I'd like to say I've always had a pretty casual (read: phobic) attitude toward marriage. I never pushed any of my boyfriends for proposals or diamond rings, never gave them ultimatums or moved out if I didn't "see marriage in the future." When I finally did get married, I was (still am) in my 30s, and had already turned down two previous proposals. I guess I've always looked at marriage as an event in my life, not the event.
But once you start to plan a wedding it slowly begins to assert itself as The Event and you have no choice but to bow down to it and pray.
After the engagement, not one day went by when I didn't imagine myself floating down the aisle in the Dress of my Dreams. But then I'd realize I didn't know what the Dress of my Dreams was, so I'd make notes to visit Wearkstatt and Vera Wang, Bloomie's and Bendels, all the thrift shops, Milan, and then I'd realize I didn't know what kind of aisle I wanted, or if I wanted an aisle, or even a church, with all its heady religious implications. So perhaps a Nantucket beachfront would do, if I only knew someone who had one ... but wouldn't all that sand ruin my satin shoes?
Knowing that I can be kind of a borderline obsessive-compulsive person, and because our budget was tight, my fianci and I decided to keep the wedding as simple as possible. There would be no band, no limo, none of that bouquet-and-garter stuff. There would be no video recording equipment and we wouldn't take our honeymoon until the fall. There would be no three-story cake because I knew if we had a cake I'd have to see and smell and taste every single wedding cake in the country before narrowing it down to maybe 10 and then I'd spend hours, days and weeks agonizing over which one to pick. Then, my fianci would say, "Just decide already," and we'd get into an argument and finally, just to settle the matter, I'd have to select any old $900 cake which, at the reception, would be gone, eaten by a pack of 4-year-olds, in about 60 seconds. No, there would definitely be no cake.
And you know what? The simplicity really paid off. We had a manageable number of guests (50 people), a manageable setting (a New England farmhouse) and unpretentious food. Because we had no fanfare, my husband and I could act more like guests at the reception, not vaudevillians. And, best of all, everyone seemed to have a good time, including me.
I was told by millions of girlfriends that I would not remember the day itself, but I remember every second of it. I remember waking up to sunlight and a beautiful blue sky (something blue!) and realizing I'd forgotten to even obsess about the weather. I remember spending the whole gorgeous morning getting ready with my sisters and nieces, applying eye shadows and lipsticks, pinning flowers into hair. I remember laughing as we tried to fit me and my dress into the back seat of my brother-in-law's old Taurus and checking my mascara in my compact mirror about 800 times as we drove to the church. I remember said mascara running down my face the minute I made eye contact with my father, who was waiting proudly at the entrance for me to take his arm. I remember the sharp, sweet scent of my bouquet as we "proceeded" up the aisle, and knowing that the bouquet in my hands was shaking, but not wanting to look down, and looking instead at the faces of aunts and the uncles, the grandmothers and girlfriends, and finally, him, all smiling at me, some with tears. I remember the profound beauty of the ceremony, most of which we had written, and the almost palpable vibe in the room as we repeated our vows. It was the energy of 50 happy people in sync with one another, all of us believing at that moment in the power of love.
So why, after all this perfection, did I spend so many days afterward feeling so depressed? Why did I feel like I had failed somehow? What was suddenly so alluring about my bed? I decided to poll some of my newlywed friends to see how they'd survived their weddings. "I remember waking up the next day and saying, 'That's it?'" my friend Anne said. She designs missiles for the government. "Twelve months of planning and now this, just your basic hangover?"
My younger friend Mary, a Harvard entomologist, had this to say: "It's like when, you know, you kill an ant while it's eating something and its jaws remain clamped on the food. That's how I felt after my wedding. Like my jaws were still clamped onto something." She rubbed her chin. "I had to go down to Chinatown and get herbs."
Melinda, an aspiring actress, said her reaction was identical to how she felt after the closing night's performance of a play, or at the end of a movie shoot. "After spending six months becoming a character, it's not like you can just abandon that person overnight. You need some time to adjust."
Hmmm. So, like, a bride is a character and putting together a wedding is like producing a film? I tested this analogy on my new husband, a producer himself.
"Um," he said, perplexed. "I think you were just tired. That was a lot of work."
My sister said, "Stop trying to analyze so much."
Would that I could. It's an extraordinary event, a wedding. And after it was over I got to thinking that my own life, in comparison, was, well, ordinary. The curtains had closed, the makeup artists and hair stylists had moved on to real clients and I was no longer a bride. I began to suspect that my wedding really was the most elaborate gala I'd ever attend. Never again would I be the center of attention like that. Never again would I be told how beautiful I look for six straight hours. Never again would I get to spend so much time conspiring with my stepmother, an extraordinarily busy woman I adore. Never again will I be allowed to throw away ungodly sums of money on a dress, a headpiece, a makeover. In other words, never again would I get to live a day in the life of Gwyneth Paltrow.
I've heard it said -- mostly by men -- that it's more stressful to be engaged than to be married. It's as though they are saying that it's more challenging to head toward an unknown than to be in the midst of it. And normally I would agree with this as I, too, stress out much more during the journey. But why the exception in this situation? Why did I not show any signs of stress until after I'd said my vows?
I'm thinking it was because of the planning. Planning, in some perverse way, must have helped to alleviate some of my stress. Granted, the planning produced small anxieties of its own, but nothing I couldn't handle. That bridal checklist, asinine as it was, provided a series of tasks I had to accomplish -- tasks that were logical and sequenced. As I moved through the list, it gave me a sense of accomplishment and forward motion that I guess my fianci didn't feel. Those not involved in concrete issues like what hors d'oeuvres to serve have more time to dwell on the abstracts. My soon-to-be husband, for example, walked around for months holding his head and saying, "My God! What have I done?" while I concentrated on Martha Stewart Living, which told me I must wrap fresh moss around my centerpieces to give them a rustic look.
It wasn't until after the dress had been put away, the moss donated to the compost and our bank accounts dredged that the searing reality of what I'd just done really hit me: I'd gotten ma-ma-married. I would remain married for the rest of my life. I think it was the enormity of this concept that kept me in bed.
"You could have avoided all of this post-nuptial depression stuff if you'd done one thing," my friend Judith, the med student, said over the telephone. I expected her to recommend a chemical cure like Zoloft or Xanax.
"You should have taken a honeymoon right away," she said.
Ah, yes, the honeymoon. I thought of all those advertisements in the backs of the bridal magazines showing vibrant, energetic, and incredibly evenly-tanned couples riding horseback or frolicking in the sea. The looks on their faces always suggest a smoldering passion, as if they'd just left the heart-shaped bedroom or are on their way back. Too bad there were always about 800 of these ads beckoning you to choose among 800 luscious destinations.
"I just figured having to plan a honeymoon on top of everything else would have added to the stress," I said.
"You could have used a travel agent," said Judith. "Don't you live in New York? Don't you people pay other people to stress out for you?"
"Well yes, but ... " I started to think of my friends' photo albums and realized their honeymoon pictures were nothing like the honeymoons of advertisements. No, they seemed to have spent most of their days passed out on beach towels. "Don't you just end up taking your post-nuptial depression with you to some place expensive?"
"Some place tropical," Judith said. "And of course you take it with you, but if you drink lots of piqa coladas, you won't notice it as much."
Let it be known: The doctor has spoken.