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Lessons from a Medieval English Christian mystic about postpartum depression

MARY OF KLOPAS

Rogier van der Weyden | Public Domain

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 06/13/21

The fascinating life of Margery Kempe can inspire modern women to cope with and heal from mental illness.

I’ve known mothers who, shortly after giving birth, have become so depressed they’ve been physically unable to care for their child. It creates a certain and crushing feeling of failure in them. In addition to suffering from intense postpartum depression, which is bad enough, they suffer from an acute sense that they cannot even care for their infant. I imagine the psychological burden is enormous. They’re desperate to take on their motherly role, to care for their baby, and yet they physically cannot.

Those who have never been depressed might marvel at the idea that it could make someone so ill they wouldn’t be able to take joy in the birth of a child. I’m not a mother, but I’ve been depressed before – I’ve written about it a few times — and there have been days I could barely care for myself. I couldn’t even imagine having to also care for someone else during those dark moments. It’s hard to explain what it feels like, but it’s truly debilitating. Even though depression isn’t an injury that can be seen from the exterior, it is very real. At the same time, a person suffering from depression cannot help but feel they’re letting themselves and others down, which compounds the angst.

Postpartum depression is a serious illness – about 15% of women are affected by it — and it’s been around since the dawn of time.

A friend recently told me about Margery Kempe, an English woman who lived at the turn of the 15th century, and how she seems to have suffered from depression after the birth of her first child. A diagnosis of depression wouldn’t have existed then, but we have clues from her description of her life. Margery later became famous as a spiritual visionary who dictated her visions of Christ into what is known as The Book of Margery Kempe. In it, she describes how, as a young woman, she lived a fairly normal life. She was middle class, interested in fashion, and married John Kempe, a man who treated her kindly.

That all changed with the birth of her first child. She recalls that during the pregnancy she experienced, “Great bodily sickness, through which she lost her reason for a long time …” She continues, “After she had conceived, she was troubled with severe attacks of sickness until the child was born.” The delivery left her so weak she thought she might not survive. She ended up recovering quite well and seemed to be physically fine. But that’s when her story spirals out of control.

Margery had always had a depressive definition of herself, thinking that she deserved to die and go to hell because of secret, unconfessed sins. After the birth of her child, her mental state rapidly deteriorated. She says about herself, “this creature went out of her mind and was amazingly disturbed and tormented with spirits for half a year, eight weeks and odd days.” She had vision of the devil, who told her to abandon her faith, family, friends, hope for heaven, and self-esteem. Margery writes, “She would have killed herself many a time …” While she never attempted suicide, or at least she never says so, she did begin to mutilate her body, tearing the skin near her heart with her fingernails.

Looking back at her description of her experience, it’s difficult to tell if she suffered from clinical postpartum depression or, perhaps, the even more rare and far worse postpartum psychosis. It is clear, though, that the pregnancy triggered something in her.

Depression, in my experience, is best treated in two simultaneous ways. The first is with the help medical professionals who can dispense appropriate medications and provide advice about nutrition and professional therapy. Margery didn’t have any of these resources, so she was left with only the second path, which is more personal.

This path is all about how the sufferer responds to living with depression. For some, there are periods when life inevitably slows down to a halt, but for the most part it is possible to live functionally with depression, and there are ways to manage it, and even slowly move toward recovery.

After the onset of her depression, Margery never recovered her previous mental health. She had a strange physical relationship with her husband, cried so frequently that people thought she could weep on command, and continued to have mystical visions. But, she did have many more children and a happy family life. Here’s how she did it.

Self-knowledge

Margery made an examination of her entire life and went to her parish priest for confession. She had previously avoided confession, thinking that, “while she was in good health that she didn’t need to confess.” It’s helpful to develop accurate self knowledge. Especially because depression tells lies. Honesty is the first step in healing.

Emotional honesty

Honesty extends to acknowledging and accepting the way you feel. Margery was more than willing to express her emotions. Not everyone was supportive, but she made no apologies. When she was struggling, she didn’t hide it.

The love of God

Margery’s neighbors were inclined to gossip about her. Often, people do not understand depression and consider people like her to be lazy or unreasonable. At times like these, she always reminded herself of the love of God, which never wavers.

Friendship

Instead of absorbing negativity from those who gossiped about her, she sought comfort and advice from wise and patient friends. She, “spoke with many anchorites.” Anchorites, like her friend Julian of Norwich, were women who dedicated their lives to spiritual wisdom and prayer. These are exactly the kind of friends a depressed person needs. It’s an illness that’s isolating, but being constantly alone makes it even worse.

Helping others

Margery dictated a book to share her experience. Over the centuries this book has been quite helpful for others who found themselves in similar situations. Mutual support and empathy go a long way.

If you suffer from postpartum depression, it’s important to be clear: You aren’t a failure. You are and will be a wonderful mother. Margery is a beautiful example of a mother who, even though her life wasn’t easy, brought tremendous joy, wisdom, and love to her family and the world.

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