I have struggled with depression before. The tendrils of pain and apathy have wormed into my head on more than one occasion. I have been on medication, I have been to therapy, I have owned my struggle as a generally anxious woman who has had bouts of depression both mild and moderate.
Having admitted that to hospital staff, when I gave birth I was immediately flagged as someone at-risk for postpartum depression. A counselor spoke to me two days after I gave birth. I was still wearing a hospital gown, my son slept peacefully in the bassinet beside me. I listened attentively to all her warnings, listened to the careful distinction between “baby blues” and true-blue postpartum depression (PPD), took her card, and assumed all would be fine. I knew the warning signs of depression.
What I didn’t anticipate was that PPD would be nothing like the depression I had battled before.
Yes, my PPD was more severe than my previous depression. But more than that, PPD was entirely different. It manifested in completely new and opposite ways, and despite my knowledge on the disease and awareness of myself, I didn’t realize I was drowning until I started to seriously consider taking my life.
It took serious suicidal ideation for me to realize that something was terribly wrong.
In retrospect, of course it manifested different. When you have a baby, everything about your life is turned upside down. Of course the “normal” triggers are completely different. Of course the “normal” feelings can ‘t be identified or routed.
I was blindsided because I thought I knew what I was looking for. In my mind, PPD was something that you directed outward. I thought it meant having thoughts about hurting your baby. I thought it was like “normal” depression, like my previous sentiments of apathy or “blank-ness.”
Here’s what it looked like for me:
An overwhelming, consuming sense of inadequacy.
Conviction that I could “fix it” if I just tried hard enough.
I lived like that for the first four months of my child’s life. Convinced that I could be perfect if I just worked hard enough, I slowly wound myself into a tighter and tighter ball of fear. It started slowly.
First, relieved of the physical burden of pregnancy, I spent the first two weeks rearranging furniture and baby supplies, like there was a “right” way to do it. I would often forget to eat because I was on the floor sorting baby socks.
Second, I ceased sleeping. Now, this is normal for many mothers because the demands of a newborn are no joke. The difference for me was that it became borderline impossible for me to rest. Even if the baby was asleep, even if my husband begged me to go lie down, I would vibrate with anxiety that kept me awake. I thought of all the possible things that could hurt my child. I obsessed over all the little ways he could get hurt. And if I fell asleep, I experienced vivid nightmares of these fears. I often dreamt that he was suffocating in the covers, even though I never brought him to bed with me. Occasionally, I would dream that he had spontaneously stopped breathing. It was not uncommon for me to jump out of bed and rush to see my child, leaning over him to make sure he was still breathing. It became so common that my husband’s first words upon my waking became, “He’s okay. I promise, he’s okay.”
Third, my obsession grew and grew. I consumed every bit of baby literature I could get my hands on. I counted ounces of pumped breastmilk like it was liquid gold. I started questioning my every move. If I left him to play in his Rock n Play, I worried that I wasn’t holding him enough. If I held him, I worried that he would be coddled and wouldn’t sleep on his own. Round and round this went, toying with my sleep-deprived brain. I began to think that my son was absolutely perfect and that everything I did to him was slowly draining away his perfection, little by little, because I couldn’t get it “right.”
I started to have daily (sometimes hourly) panic attacks. I could feel them coming on: my breathing would get labored, my calf muscles would tense, my vision blurry, and suddenly I would find myself locked inside a closet, trying desperately to find my breath while tears ran down my cheeks.
At my six week postpartum appointment, I expressed some of this to my midwife. Specifically, I told her about the panic attacks. I don’t know if I downplayed it. I don’t know if she didn’t hear me correctly. What she said, though, extended my battle longer than it should have gone. She said, “That sounds like new motherhood to me.”
So… this was normal, I assumed. I felt ashamed for asking, and I buried my fears and my anxieties further.
The panic only intensified. The obsession only twisted into something more grotesque. But this is what motherhood looked like, didn’t it? This didn’t resemble the depression and anxiety of my past, so I assumed it was something else, something I would eventually get used to.
I realized I needed help when I put words to my obsession. I was watching my child sleep when I said to him, “If just try hard enough, I can be the perfect mother for you.”
Two things happened in that instant: 1) I knew that was totally unrealistic, 2) I knew I believed it with my whole heart. I called my midwives and begged them to help. This time, they listened.
Unfortunately, the gears of the mental health system grind incredibly slow. I didn’t realize how dangerous I was, and every therapist I called had a six week waiting period. A single week is an eternity when you have an infant, and it only is worse with PPD. Days stretched so long, I often lost track and assumed weeks had passed, when only days, sometimes hours had occurred. My perception was so warped.
I did get to a counselor, but if you’ve ever done counseling, you know that the first several appointments are very surface-level while they do background questionnaires.
It was too little, too late.
In April, around my son’s four month birthday, I lost touch with reality.
I’m not emotionally prepared to fully explore that particular time, so I will not divulge details. Can you imagine? It has been almost a full year since the worst of my PPD, and I am still haunted by it, enough that it has taken weeks to pen this particular post. Even now, writing it down, it seems so very obvious how terribly I was suffering. That is the disease that is PPD.
For me, PPD did not direct its attention towards my son. I adored him, he was my world, and that lined up well with my perceptions of motherhood. The problem wasn’t him or my perception of him, the problem was my perception of myself. I could not be gentle with myself. Which seemed normal.
Yes, there were other events occurring in my life at that time, events which certainly contributed to my spiral. I can admit that, especially considering that some people in my life “blame” my PPD on those external events. But it’s important to emphasize that depression and anxiety live inside a person and they cannot be cured by external stimuli. They can be soothed, yes; but the healing must take place from within.
A little anxiety in motherhood is normal. A little anxiety in everyday life is normal. Consuming fear: not normal. Obsession (even with your own child): not normal. Physical manifestations of anxiety (AKA panic attacks): not normal.
New Mamas: If you are unsure, get professional help. Just do it. It’s better to get the help and feel even a little bit better than to wallow in even a moderate amount of pain or fear or depression. My Achilles heel was that I thought I knew what to look for. But PPD wasn’t like what I thought it would be. Had I known better, perhaps I would have gotten help sooner.
And a word of positivity: I’m better. After lots of therapy and medication and support groups, I’ve fumbled my way to something comfortable. Soon I’ll write a blog post about that whole process. My days are not always easy (parenthood in general isn’t easy), but it’s doable. I enjoy it so much more. I am better for my son, I am better for my family, for my students, I am better for me.
Featured image from this AMAZING photographer, Christian Sampson, who has a powerful photoset on mental disorders.