My husband, Michael, and I were aware that I was at risk for postpartum depression before I was even pregnant. I had been depressed most of my life but managed to live pretty fully so, if I did end up with postpartum depression, I’d just be depressed with a baby. I would continue to see my therapist, use my other tools, and wait for it to pass. I talked openly with my doctors, birthing class teacher, and doula about my risks. I even shared it with family and friends without hesitation so I assumed I was as prepared as I could be and so was everyone around me.
I believe there are many reasons why I didn’t see it in myself and why those around me didn’t either. After 37 hours of labor, we ended up in the operating room for a c-section. It was all okay until it wasn’t and I came incredibly close to dying. We spent five days in the hospital and were sent home as if the trauma never happened. Within days of being home, we traveled over an hour to have my son’s tongue tie released in hopes of easing the excruciating pain I was having while nursing. This super stressful endeavor was followed up by Christmas. I think we wanted so desperately to forget what had happened and feel normal that we just went about the holidays as if everything and everyone was 100% okay.
After his two weeks of being off, Michael was put on nightshift for the first three months of our son’s life. We barely saw each other and were both so exhausted and drained that we couldn’t have a meaningful interaction when we were in the same space. I had his family and mine around as well as our doula, who asked me on several occasions how I was doing. I said what I wanted so desperately to feel was the truth – “I’m okay.” I remember one day she asked about the photos she sent of my son’s delivery and I very quickly thanked her for the beautiful moments she captured for us. I was lying because I hadn’t looked at them. Every time I went to open the file to look at them I felt like I was going to throw up. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look. Eventually my time with her came to a close and we did a beautiful ceremony to signify the end of it. Part of me was so terrified she wouldn’t be coming back and the other part of me was relieved to not have to hide what was going on with me.
It is deeply painful but feels important for me to share that I don’t remember the first 4-5 months of my son’s life except for clips here and there. What I am writing here is what I remember and not much else. I did a lot of lying to those around me because I couldn’t handle how I was feeling and couldn’t fathom that anyone else could handle the truth. About a month postpartum, my birthing class teacher read a post of mine on Facebook and contacted me. She said she was going to have a woman from the hospital call me because she felt I was suffering from postpartum depression. I said I was okay and she was reading too much into it but agreed I’d speak to this woman, Lisa. Lisa called and I talked to her about what I was feeling and she told me it was postpartum depression on top of the trauma of his birth and suggested I come to group. She said what I was going through was treatable and temporary. I agreed to go but had no clue how I was going to get there.
The terror I felt at the thought of going out alone with the baby was all consuming. I was so afraid of telling anyone what was happening and asking them to watch my son for me while I went to the center so I had to take him with me. I eventually told my doula, even though we were no longer working together, I was going to go to this support group and she helped me make a list of what to pack, map out the route I would take, and plan the timing. She checked in on me the day of the group; I didn’t tell her that I had spent all morning pushing myself through the paralyzing fear. I packed the car at 7am and rechecked everything probably 20 times after that. I started bundling him up to go in the car hours before I had to leave. Group started at 1pm and it was about a 30 minute drive from my house; I was in the car at 11am with white knuckles on the wheel crying my eyes out. My son cried, too, but for very different reasons.
We got there and all I could think was “I don’t belong here”. Although this was my thought about group, I set up an appointment with a therapist at the program and saw her a few times before deciding I didn’t need the therapist there either. For months I stayed cocooned in my house. I was too terrified to leave and too ashamed to tell anyone. I felt so confused by what was happening because this did not feel at all like the depression I had my whole life. It didn’t feel like the anxiety I had been wrangling for years.
The days and nights blended together, especially with Michael being at work all night and asleep most of the day. I just kept thinking was “what the fuck did we do?” In the little time we had together, I would tell him this was the biggest mistake we ever made. I screamed at him that I hated this baby and this life we now had. He was doing his absolute best in every way. He was in his own state of shock after my son’s birth, working nightshift, and trying to manage other aspects of his life. He said and did everything he had available to him but it wasn’t his fault nor could he fix it.
I started having really scary thoughts about hurting my son and myself. I felt rage like I never had in my life. It would wash over me and who I had known myself to be was lost in a sea of red. I know that sounds all movie-like but that is exactly what happened. It felt uncontrollable and I came to fear my own mind and body. I worried incessantly about someone finding out what I was thinking and how I was behaving. I was petrified they would think I was not only an absolute failure but a danger to my son and husband. I would smile as I lied saying I felt bonded with my son when all I felt was resentment and hatred. I acted the part but didn’t feel it at all.
As the time went by, I found myself washing my nipple shields till there were no water marks on them. Everything had to be put away in a certain order and in a specific configuration. I ate my breakfast in the same order every morning. My son’s diaper couldn’t be wet for more than one or two pees. I changed his clothes the second he got a little spit up on them. I held him the second he cried in hopes of making the crying stop. If I thought he was going to cry, I’d rush to him in hopes of preventing it. I kept stuffing it all down and hiding it all away.
Somewhere along the line, I don’t really know when, it felt like I had been sleeping and someone pulled back the curtains. You know, when you’re blinded awake by the sun coming in and you think what the fuck is happening as you try to roll over and cover your eyes. In this case, I was blinded by the light of how not okay I really was. In a moment I realized I was drowning and needed a life raft fast. Although I had continued to see the therapist I had before having my son, I hadn’t told her what was going on with me entirely. I didn’t feel like I could which I could acknowledge in that moment as a huge red flag. The only life raft I could see was the center. I didn’t want to go back to the group because I was embarrassed I went once, thought I was fine but obviously wasn’t, and didn’t go back. I realize now how unnecessary those thoughts and feelings were but back then I opted to try art therapy instead. I pulled myself together, called the center, and asked when the next art therapy session would be. The receptionist told me it was the next day. I started preparing for it right after I got off the phone and did my whole terrified packing up of the baby thing the next morning and cried my whole way there. I cried out of fear but also out of desperation. I needed help so badly. I had tried so hard for this baby and now I hated him, myself, and my life.
I remember walking in the room not knowing what to expect. I sat next to a mom whose words made it feel so safe and okay for me to share exactly what I was feeling. I cried the second I started sharing, through the making of my art, and all the way home. I cried harder than I had allowed myself to in a really long time because it was in that room with that art therapist and those moms that I felt safe and supported in the ways I really needed for the first time since my son was born. I could say how I felt without fear of judgment because others were saying so many things I had thought and felt. No one was telling me all that mattered was a healthy mama and a healthy baby. I had permission to be devastated by what had happened, to not be happy about how life with a baby was going, and I wasn’t alone in any of it.
I dedicated myself to going to art therapy every week. I went twice a week and attended other groups and events at the center. I started hanging out with other moms after group, making play dates, and chatting via text. I felt myself coming out of the darkness slowly and felt a big shift around month 8 or 9. I saw myself surrounded by friends who had seen me at my worst and only wanted to help me feel my best. I could look at my son in a new way and understand how I was feeling toward him before and in the present. I will never forget when my husband said, “I feel like you are coming back to me”. Going to the center saved my life, my marriage, and my relationship with my son.
The end of March/beginning of April marked one year of my going to the center. I have just about phased out of the program and am moving into doing advocacy work for maternal mental health and will be a facilitator for peer support groups. If you told me last March when I sat in the waiting area of the center with my son’s puke in my bra, tears streaming down my face, and my body trembling that I would be here typing this story to help others understand Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders, I would’ve smiled in your face but said “Fuck off” in my head. I never would have believed then that I could get better lead alone be doing everything I am right now.
To every mom who is in deep pain, struggling, wondering if this is normal – say something to someone. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to need help. Help is available to you and you deserve it. You are not a failure. You’re a warrior mom and you are not alone.