When I found out I was pregnant with my only child, I was twenty-four and single. I lived in a cute beach cottage in San Diego and worked hard every day at a job where I felt important. In fact, I scheduled everything around my job. My job was my life.
I had been dating a guy for about four months when my period was late. My period was never late! Concerned, I took a home pregnancy test, and then two more. All positive.
The next morning at work I found an obstetrician in the phone book and made an appointment. When the receptionist asked what the appointment was for I felt ashamed: “I might be pregnant,” I said.
I had kept things to myself until my appointment. Once there, the nurse asked me why I thought I might be pregnant and I explained about the three positive pregnancy tests. She looked at me and said ”Honey, you’re pregnant then.” I felt ashamed all over again.
Ultimately I decided to keep my baby. Surely if I could do all that I have accomplished thus far I can handle a little baby. Still, I was unsure how I would handle being pregnant and a professional at the same time.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that it would not be possible to raise a child in my 550 square-foot beach cottage. So I moved to a two-bedroom boring apartment inland. When I was six-months pregnant, my boyfriend moved in with me. I bought a sensible four-door sedan and started accumulating things a baby would need and stacked them in the second bedroom.
It was getting tough for me at work. Everyone was catching on that I was pregnant and I was shy about conducting my business in person. I kept myself shut away in my office and handled almost everything via telephone. My boss was very put out because of my regular prenatal checkups, as was I.
It was at this point that total strangers in grocery stores and in shopping malls started touching my belly and hammering me with all sorts of personal questions and comments: “How far along?” “Boy or a girl?” “You must be so excited!”
My due date was Labor Day, September 7, 1998. In the first week of July it was discovered that I suffered from preeclampsia and was put on bed rest. This was terrifying to the people in my office because nobody was prepared for me to leave so soon, including me. For the next three weeks I sat in my apartment, feeling miserable, wondering how soon I could get back to work. Three weeks later, after I had passed out twice, my doctor sent me to the hospital to be induced, setting in motion a long, drawn-out, forty-five-hour process.
Labor was hard and painful, and I was bad at it. I didn’t have time to take Lamaze or any other classes and I was a miserable wreck. There was nobody to call me and ask how labor was going or if there was a baby yet because my family and I were not on speaking terms. My boyfriend’s family called often, but that only upset me because there was nobody from my family in the picture to offer the same treatment.
As soon as my son was born, the nurse tried to give him to me and I told her to wash him first. Then I began shaking violently and when the nurse brought him to me a second time I pointed to my boyfriend. Another nurse came in and told me I should try to breast-feed my son and I asked for a bottle. “Just give it a try,” she coaxed. I wouldn’t have any of it. I waited with a screaming baby until someone brought me a bottle of formula and moved me to my semiprivate room.
My son was taken to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) because he couldn’t swallow and was becoming jaundiced. He was submitted to so many tests and so much time in the NICU, which turned my world upside down. I wasn’t feeling terribly maternal, but I was sure feeling upset that my son appeared to be broken and I could do nothing about it.
All of my time in the hospital was spent visiting the NICU or being called back to my room so my OB/GYN could examine me and social workers could question me and offer me empty hope and compassion. I had gone from being in complete control of my life to being totally helpless.
My son spent a total of eight days in the NICU, which left three days for me to be at home getting ready while my baby was in the hospital. I was always a bit of a neatnik, and I had a white-on-white sofa and love seat, glass tables, and a camel-colored carpet. I had a white goose-down comforter and white rugs and towels. I kept things clean and drove to the hospital routinely throughout all of my sleepless nights and days.
Every morning I went to the NICU with my infant car seat in one hand and a diaper bag in the other and each day I was sent home empty handed. At 7:00 a.m. sharp every morning I called to check my son’s bilirubin count. I waited for what seemed like years but was really only a few days. Finally my son received clearance to go home. He was sent home with Reglan to loosen the muscle at the bottom of his esophagus and top of his stomach so food would be able to get to his stomach. Of course, if he were to tip over, the food would come right back out again due to this muscle loosening, a fact that paired nicely with my spotless home furnishings and my obsessive intent to keep them that way.
My son came home and while I felt responsible for him, I did not feel like I loved him. He was an obligation that I needed to take care of. I tended to all of his needs and he was always clean and fed, but I was a disaster. I didn’t sleep, because I had “mommy ears.” Any little sound sent me running to the baby’s room to make sure he wasn’t suffocating or starving. Almost any time he cried his food came up all over the place, which had me caring for my son and scrubbing up messes. I tried to do it all. I cried a lot. I was sleep deprived and I was stressed about childcare for my son. I worried about returning to work as the emotional wreck that I had become.
I folded my towels over and over again to make sure they were “just so” and then took them out of the cupboard to fold them all over again. I became highly agitated. I yelled and ranted almost constantly when in the company of other people. I cowered in my apartment, afraid that leaving would only aggravate my condition. I screamed at neighborhood children for playing ball too close to my car until they cried and ran for their parents. I stopped eating for the most part because eating meant that I would have to go grocery shopping, and grocery shopping meant being out in public. If I showered, it was frantically so that if my son cried I’d be right at his side. Many times my son vomited all over the inside of my car while I was driving and I’d spend hours cleaning the interior. I scrubbed and washed and never seemed happy with the results. The same thing went for the apartment—it was never clean enough.
One day, there was an incident that made me realize something was wrong with me. I was pushing my son in his stroller on the sidewalk and a big truck was going by. In my mind I had an intrusive thought that showed me pushing the stroller in front of the truck as it passed. I ran back to my apartment and sobbed for hours. Finally, I called my OB/GYN and told her what was happening. She told me that, although my thoughts were rare, there was a support group I could contact—the Postpartum Health Alliance. She also referred me to a psychiatrist familiar with PPD (postpartum depression), Dr. Christine Saroian.
As time went on I had more intrusive thoughts—generally about harming my son—and it disturbed me. I continued my towel-folding ritual until I stayed up for three days and nights either caring for my son or folding and refolding towels. I felt quite crazy until I finally had my appointment with Dr. Saroian. She assured me that PPD was not as rare as I kept hearing and that in fact, it was fairly common. She explained the chemical and biological factors associated with the illness and prescribed Paxil and gave me Xanax, for the times when I really wanted to fold towels but needed to sleep.
Dr. Kelly Boyd told me about her support group and when I attended I was astounded to see so many women there. Just about everyone was crying and I cried too just listening to other women with a lot of the same symptoms I had. I was assured that “You are not alone and this will end.” It was a statement I clung to for dear life.
I went to that support group every Tuesday for four months. I was on disability from work because of my PPD diagnosis, while my boss and coworkers giggled behind my back about my fake illness. It was distressing to have to educate everyone I met about PPD. I felt like I had to defend my illness.
Meanwhile, it took eight weeks for the Paxil to kick in. I woke up every day and before I’d open my eyes I’d feel out my body and mind and try to feel if anything had changed. Finally, one morning, I felt a little lighter. My spirits weren’t quite as down. The Paxil was working!
From that morning on I would have ups and downs, good days and bad days, until the good days started outnumbering the bad. When my son was six months old I finally felt well enough to go back to work, however, I went to work for a different company. I was functional again. I wasn’t tip-top, but I could do my job. I could get up each morning, get ready for work, and get my son fed and off to daycare. That was huge for me. That was huge for everyone in the PPD support group. I was getting better.
Now, mind you, I wasn’t all better. I still had brief episodes of panic and anxiety and had intrusive thoughts. There were days where I’d get to work, sit through a meeting, and then just go home and cry. The support group was my rock. If I did nothing else, I went to the group.
People often ask me, “How long did it take before you were better?” I really don’t like answering that question. It’s different for all of us. Some people are over it in a couple months; some people struggle a lot longer. For me, it was over in a year. My son Dakota reached his first birthday and I was A-Okay, with the exception of having a one-year-old on my hands.
Every now and then I show up at a PPD support group meeting. I remember all too well the feelings behind those sad and frightened faces. I see these mothers with their babies, fighting back tears, and it hurts inside because I can relate. I know how that feels. But you know what I tell them? “You are not alone and this will end.”
A Note from Dr. Shosh
There were a number of high risk factors that set up Holly for a tough postpartum road. Here are some points to remember as you navigate yours:
— Women who identify strongly with feeling productive, successful, and active often have an especially difficult time if put on bed rest.
— A sudden need to induce labor can induce anxiety.
— Support is critical for a healthy launch into motherhood. Holly was not on speaking terms with her family and felt its effects.
— Holly, like many of the contributors to this book, likely suffered from postpartum OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Typically OCD is already present; childbearing makes it worse for a while.
— Often when we’re in a strong bout of OCD, we develop behaviors like compulsively cleaning and trying to do everything ourselves. The more chaotic our thoughts on the inside, the more order we try to cast on the outside.
— Anger and irritation are common when anxiety is high. When we feel out of control and we’re used to feeling in control, it can spill out onto others, so we snap at them.
— Don’t let anyone shame you into defending your illness. It’s real. Those who are in the know, the ones that matter, are clear about that.
Photo by Anne Worner CC BY 2.0