I am a warrior. I am a fighter, walking through the flames of postpartum depression, anxiety and rage, still, six months after the birth of my daughter. I am a mom of two children—my son is just over two years old—and I suffered differently with each. My symptoms with my daughter were profound in comparison to what I experienced the first time, which, for me, meant that I needed to “turn myself in”. It’s important to know the signs of postpartum mood disorders, certainly, but it’s also critical to understand what happens when you speak up. I had no idea what was going to happen to me, and it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Though my experience is not going to apply to everyone, it will at least demystify the idea of what happens when you are diagnosed with a postpartum mood disorder.
I’ll start by explaining a little bit of the back story, which is important to understanding why the actions spurred by my diagnosis were particularly jarring.
When I had postpartum depression with my son, I never said anything to anyone. It was mild and I worked through it. I couldn’t face the stigma associated with it. But as I approached the my daughter’s due date, I felt obligated to warn my husband. I knew the facts: postpartum depression often intensifies with each subsequent birth. I also knew that I was trying for a VBAC, which could have ended in an emergency c-section, putting me at even higher risk. I made my husband agree to tell me if I was seeming a bit off. I made him aware of the signs. We were educated and prepared.
My daughter’s birth was nothing short of miraculous, and the following two weeks proved to be the same. My daughter slept like a dream and was constantly smiling through every waking moment. A pure embodiment of the joy and love that brought her into this world. I was fortunate to have my husband home for ten days following our return home from the hospital and our now family of four was functioning at an impeccable level. I would wake up in the night with my daughter, feed her, and then proceed to throw in some laundry and empty the dishwasher before having some iced gatorade (my middle of the night obsession at the time) and sauntering back to bed. At 6:30, when my toddler would call for me from his crib, I was ready to hit the ground running, full speed, navigating two nap schedules, two feeding schedules, and all the dirty diapers one could imagine with grace. Life. Was. Perfect.
Then my husband returned to work. For thirteen consecutive days. Thirteen consecutive twelve hour shifts—leaving the house at 5:30 am and returning at 6:30 pm. Four of these days, he didn’t come home until after 9:00 because things got crazy at work. I had a little help on two of these days, but this was our second baby, so people weren’t lining up a the door. But we did alright. In fact, I’d say we did impressively well.
Until the fifth week postpartum. Things started to look a bit different to me. I started to look at my daughter and wondering if I would ever be happy like her. I became addicted to sleep, living each day only to get to the next time I could feel the sweet relief of sleep, constantly paranoid that I it would never come. And the noise—everything was so loud. I would snap at my husband for sneezing while the kids were sleeping upstairs. I would turn the TV down to a volume level of 3…and even that hurt my ears. If the dog barked, my anger spiked to unknown heights. AND NONE OF THIS SEEMED ALARMING TO ME. My husband wasn’t there to see what was happening, so our plan failed a bit, but even when he did start to suspect something and asked me “are you feeling okay?” I’d answer honestly—as far as I was concerned, I was fine. One of the more horrifying characteristics of postpartum depression is that the mother, in many cases, isn’t aware of what’s happening to her.
My irritability, my anxiety, and my depression continued to boil until, seemingly all at once, I bubbled over, spilling anger, confusion, hopelessness, and guilt all around me. The sequence of events seems ghastly to write, but I promised honesty.
I don’t remember the timing of the events that transpired—it’s all a blur to me—but I’m going to set this discrepancy aside and write it as I feel it happened: one day after another.
It was a Thursday night. I woke to feed my fussing baby as I normally would, but I was too afraid of losing out on sleep to have my usual Gatorade, so I hurried back to bed. I reached the doorway and glanced at my destination, the ruffled corner of the bed that was soon to be mine. What I saw has taken months to shake from my mind. A reflection cast on the window by the moon, etched by delicate tree branches, appeared to me with certainty as the face of the devil. There was not a doubt in my mind and what horrified me most was that the eyes of this face were staring directly at my pillow. “He’s here for me,” I thought to myself. I forced myself into the bed and back to sleep. This occurrence, that I now understand to have been a hallucination, marks the start of my dangerous dance with profound postpartum depression and rage. I should note that I still, in this moment, didn’t realize that something was wrong with me. It all just seemed too bizarre, too scary.
On the following day in the afternoon, my sweet toddler threw a fit that was, for his almost two year old body, a whole new experience. We were at the top of the stairs and I responded to his shreiking my getting down on his level and placing my hands gently but firmly on his arms, guiding him to take deep breaths. I was stunned when the thought hit me: “You’re going to throw him down the stairs.” I jumped back in shock as I actually saw myself go through those motions in my head. I promised myself that I would never touch my children again. I was a monster. But I STILL didn’t realize that this was abnormal—I was outside myself.
That night, after my husband came home, I broke down. I was inconsolable—so much so that my husband could only think to usher me to a dark quiet room where I could lay with layers of blankets on top of me. I cried, I trembled, I convulsed. Until I slept. I woke up sometime later to find my kids already in bed. What had I done? I was so out of control that the fit I had been having resurrected itself, but this time there was no holding back. My depression was in full control.
I remember hearing myself crying, whaling, screaming to my husband: “I can’t live like this anymore! This hurts too much! I can’t do this to them!”
The next thing I remember is being in the driver seat of my car. I was numb, I felt lifeless. I felt completely empty. I have no idea how I got there, but I know I had one goal. If I could drive fast enough and hard enough into something, they would all be better off without me and this could be over. My children have an incredible father and amazing grandparents. They’ll be alright. And then I can’t hurt them.
I was convinced that I was, figuratively, possessed by some horrifying monster. That the woman I used to be, the mom I used to be, was never coming back. I couldn’t take another moment of the intensely loud noises in my head, the morbid nightmares, the terrifying thoughts, the chest pains, the everywhere pains. I sat in the car and thought nothing, felt nothing. I was nothing. Just a whisper in the warm August night air.
My husband found me sitting there and carried me inside. I fell asleep from pure and complete exhaustion that night. The dreams were twisted, horrifying, and something I’m not willing to relive in writing. I survived my darkest day because of my husband. Because he had the courage and strength to hold me that night; to hold me so strongly that even though I tried, I couldn’t get away. He had the courage to call my family and arrange for them to be in the house for the next couple of days until my 6-week follow up appointment.
I was too afraid to go near my children, and I didn’t know if I was going to live to my doctors appointment. I don’t remember anything that happened in between, but I do know that I walked the line between life and death, and I only survived because of my husband. I was so ungrateful at the time—I was embarrassed that anyone else knew—but I owe him my life.
I was the only one who could get the help I needed. And I knew that I would have the opportunity to talk to my doctor at my six week follow up appointment. I was handed the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale, an instrument that is flawed for so many reasons, and I failed miserably...on purpose. Just help me, I cried from inside. My doctor was alarmed, though I didn’t confess to nearly half of my symptoms. Out-patient care, he told me, would take 2 weeks to set up (SERIOUSLYYYYYYY?????), so I was sent straight to the psychiatric department of the ER to speak with the on-staff psychiatrist. I imagined this to be a sit down meeting of about 15 minutes in length that would take place in a nice office, perhaps with a mahogany desk and some diplomas on the wall. Instead, I was triaged at the emergency room desk, set up for blood work to make sure I wasn’t high on something, and then placed in a small empty room in the psychiatric department with people who were visibly dangerous. For 12 hours. I had to beg for them to let me keep my clothes and my phone with me—they wanted to confiscate all of it. The worst part was that no one told me what was happening. Hour after hour would pass and I would just sit, thinking about how much I have failed my children because I told them I would be right back after my appointment. I shut down—I needed my babies. My daughter was 6 weeks old and had never been away from me for a moment, and no one cared. Finally, I saw a psychiatrist who was supposed to talk to me about medication and then discharge me (I lied through my teeth just so I could go home to my kids) but he actually forced me to have an appointment with him before I could go home. We didn’t talk about the baby or birth or being a mom—he just asked about my childhood, told me I have every anxiety disorder known to man, which caused the depression, and prescribed me what he thought would numb the pain.
I didn’t take any of what he said as truth, because I still didn’t believe that this was happening to me and I didn’t trust anyone I had seen that day. I formed my own treatment plan, only after continuing to suffer and realizing that this was actually MY story. I was the one who was feeling the pain, feeling like an embarassment to my children, like a bad mom. I was the one who was enraged, depressed, and anxious. The voices in my head had taken residency because I didn’t think it was my jurisdiction. It got so incredibly bad before I got help.
What happened after I spoke up was scary, uncomfortable, and an experience I hope to forget one day. There are changes that need to be made, to say the least. As a woman, know your rights, know your health care coverage, and know what support you can access.
What is important to take away from my story is that BECAUSE I spoke up and endured the unknown, I am healing. I am living within myself again. I am in control. If I didn’t take this first step (of many), I would certainly not be here right now—I would not have a story to share. This is why I feel my story is so important to put out into the world. The worst stories, the ones that “make the news”—are the ones that the moms themselves cannot tell, because they lost the fight. And the most commonly shared stories rarely address the severe side of PPD. I came so dangerously close to losing the fight, but I stayed. And it’s now my responsibility to tell you that being on the edge of that cliff is not a place you want to be. It’s not a place I am proud to have been. And it’s not a place that I want to let you get even remotely close to.
I am hopeful that the next piece of my story will be one of recovery. Of fitting back into my own skin again. Right now, I’m still mourning the loss of the woman I used to be. And it’s so very difficult for me to shake this feeling of grief. But these things take time. I am a warrior. A warrior for me, but also for you mama. But also for you.
I hope that me sharing this information breaks down some of the mystery of “what happens next”. I can’t tell you that every experience will be like mine—it won’t—and I can’t tell you that what I experienced at the hospital is typical, but it’s possible. And in many cases, it’s best to expect the worst.