My son was born on a Friday morning.
On Saturday morning, my husband went home to feed our dogs and shower, and I decided to take my first postpartum shower. As I got in the shower, I began to sob. It came out of nowhere, like someone had turned on a switch. I have no idea why. I sobbed as hard as I have ever sobbed in my life, and I couldn’t stop. My sob session lasted at least fifteen minutes.
I knew something was going on and suspected it was something beyond the Baby Blues, especially since I have a history of depression. I’ve had it from the time I was twelve. Although I had sort of assumed I was at risk for postpartum depression, I was still confused and scared.
Later that Saturday morning, I got up some courage, and although it made me begin to sob again, I asked the nurse if she could arrange for me to see someone from “psych.” She said they preferred to let my OB handle that. And she left.
Well, I hated my OB. He was paternalistic, dismissive, and arrogant. I’d hated him for nine months but because this was my first pregnancy, I suppose I felt unable to assert myself and switch doctors. If I had one regret about my pregnancy and giving birth, it’s not changing doctors in my first trimester, like my gut told me to.
The OB came by later. He asked me whether I had family coming for me. I told him “Yes, my husband.” The obstetrician didn’t say another word about how I was feeling. From his perspective, that was that. He didn’t ask any questions about it at my six-week post-birth checkup either.
Like many parents, my husband and I had a new baby that didn’t sleep. I was exhausted, but I lost the ability to sleep. Most nights, I didn’t even get forty-five minutes of sleep. Many, many nights, I didn‘t fall asleep at all. Even Ambien wouldn’t help. It was bizarre. And it wasn’t that the baby was keeping me up; my wonderful husband was taking night baby duty in order to let me sleep. I was just physically unable to get any rest.
I had lost something many take for granted: the physical ability to relax and sink into your mattress. I’d be in bed feeling like my bones were sharp and made of lead. When the baby was three weeks old, our friends’ son asked me what my baby’s name was, and I could not for the life of me remember. My cognitive skills were shot.
I didn’t bond with my son at all that first year. It seemed like he was an alien. I took care of his physical needs and snuggled with him, but I didn’t have that maternal, completely-in-love thing moms are supposed to have. I turned thirty-eight nine days after he was born, so I’d had freedom as an adult for decades. Suddenly, being tied to a baby felt oppressive and like I was trapped. My freedom to do whatever, whenever, was gone.
I had understood, intellectually, that this would be the case as my son’s primary caregiver, but it’s something you can’t really understand until you experience it. Our house felt tiny and suffocating, and all the steps required for getting out of the house were—most of the time—beyond my abilities.
Your life gets small when you’re in the house all the time. At the same time, money was tight. I was on maternity leave, and my husband was working his butt off but not getting paid nearly enough. I resented my husband for not making enough money. I resented my son for being so needy and not even letting me take a minute to pee. I felt trapped. It was all too much to take.
When I felt like we were really short on money, I stopped eating until I dreamed at night about pancakes and hamburgers. Since I was stuck taking care of my son and couldn’t earn money, not eating felt like the only way I had control over whether we were about to plunge over the cliff of poverty into homelessness. The reality was that we were scraping by, but we were never must-stop-eating poor.
I had horrible thoughts. I fantasized about committing horrible crimes so I’d get put in jail. In jail, your rent and food are paid for. You’re not responsible for anyone else. And no one expects you to leave. No one expects anything of you at all. All of this is so ridiculous because I’m a good girl, always the little rule-follower. I’ve never even had a traffic ticket, much less done anything that might land me in jail.
I also had horrible thoughts about hurting my son, and myself, in order to end the nightmare. Now, I want to emphatically state that thoughts are not actions. At no time did I ever hurt my son. He was very well cared for. I could no more have hurt him than turned into a blue bunny rabbit. Nonetheless, I had horrible thoughts, and felt guilty about it.
To his credit, my husband was amazing. He immediately and deeply bonded with our son. He took up the slack and stayed up nights with the baby—all while working very long days. I thank God for that. My husband is still amazing with our son, who thinks Daddy’s a rock star.
As for myself, I felt unable to reach out for help in person, so I found an online postpartum depression support group, which provided no support at all. Most of the women weren’t suffering from anything that sounded near as bad as what I was going through. One woman told me that if I started to eat more salad I’d feel much better. And that was the good online PPD support group, with lots of members and traffic. I felt angry at that, and hopeless, like I was in such bad shape and no one would ever be able to help. I wanted so badly to hear that what I was going through was something that others had gone through and survived.
I ordered cheap, used books about PPD from Amazon. The one that helped me the most was a compilation of anecdotes from other moms who had suffered from PPD. I learned that horrible thoughts were actually really common. In fact, they were the dirty little secret about PPD that no one liked to admit. Books by Brooke Shields, Marie Osmond, and Adrienne Martini’s also helped a lot. I decided I had to get help.
The nurse practitioner at the community mental health agency asked me questions and took my history. I told her I had no symptoms of mania, only of slow, sluggish, inactive depression. I told her I had some anger, and that I had snapped at my husband occasionally, but I’d never had any tantrums, broken anything, hit anyone, or exhibited any other behavior that would indicate manic, out of control behavior. I told her that my dad had been bipolar. She said I was bipolar, too. She put me on Geodon and Seroquel.
I told her I felt like the worst mother in the world, which earned us a visit from children’s services. They found absolutely nothing that indicated my son was in danger, and then left us alone. But my husband and in-laws were appalled. Now, in addition to all my other issues, I felt horribly guilty for being honest while trying to get help. I felt cursed and doomed.
With Geodon and Seroquel, bad got much worse—and I gained a bunch of weight on top of it. I still had all the other problems, but now I was a zombie. I had no emotion. I felt like I was at the bottom of a deep well with no way out. I took care of my son’s physical needs and stared out the window a lot.
Still, I took the medications religiously, convinced that they would make me better. My husband begged me to stop taking them, but I told him I didn’t know what else to do. I stayed on them for four months, before I finally walked into the mental health center with my son and told the counselor that I would kill myself that morning if she did not immediately help me. My in-laws came and took the baby, and I was taken to the hospital, where I stayed for a week.
The hospital was more or less a holding tank that gave me a brief, blessed reprieve—very much needed and appreciated—but it didn’t change anything at all.
It wasn’t until my husband forced me to stop taking the drugs that I did.
Then, almost a year to the day after I had the baby, I could suddenly sleep again. Sleep brought with it a little bit of hope and lucidity—at least enough for me to get to another doctor. My vitamin D level was 6 (she said it should be 50). She put me on Wellbutrin and massive doses of vitamin D.
I don’t want to portray my situation as if I woke up one day and everything was better. Everything was not perfect right away; it’s still not perfect. But eventually, things did normalize somewhat. I still suffer from a low level of depression even with the Wellbutrin, but it’s minimal in comparison, and something I know how to deal with. I’m functional and I have a job that I love, making decent money. My husband stays home with my son, and does a fantastic job.
Today, my son is three and a half. He’s gorgeous, smart, funny, sweet, and wonderful, although he does have tantrums and challenges us at times. We have that in-love mommy-son bond. Most important, he’s a happy kid—a really happy kid. That makes me relieved. I was terrified that I’d broken something in him because we didn’t connect for nearly a year. I adore him and can’t get enough of the smell of his hair. We sing songs and read tons of books. He’s starting to read short words. I love him so much. The thought of losing him scares me to death. I’m not a perfect mother, but I’m engaged with him. He loves me and he’s thriving.
A Note from Dr. Shosh
There are many important lessons from this story that can help you on your personal road to recovery. Let’s take a look at them one by one:
— If you don’t like your doctor, find another one. Trust and validate your gut feeling. You want someone who isn’t just a good technician – you want someone who will “hear” you.
— A history of depression makes a person high risk for PPD. Having a plan ready to implement is a wise course. If it turns out that you don’t need the plan, no big deal; but it’s good to have it just in case.
— If you cannot sleep at night when your baby is sleeping, you are experiencing insomnia and you need help right away. As I stated earlier with respect to Katie’s story, the solution may not be medication, but some form of treatment is essential.
— Like Jennifer, I felt as if I had lost 50 IQ points after delivery. I couldn’t follow the plot of any movie, couldn’t make sense of written sentences, and would forget the simplest things. Some of this is normal, but if it continues or truly gets in the way of your functioning, don’t settle for living with it. Talk with a practitioner who will help you.
— You always have time to pee and take a shower. Your baby is not the king or queen and you are not the servant. Your baby is not in charge and you are not the victim. If your baby is fussing, and you need to take care of a basic need, let the baby fuss for those few minutes. It’s not healthy for anyone if you don’t.
— Severe financial stress can feed into PPD and anxiety.
— If you want group support, keep looking for the group that’s right for you. Groups are not all created equal. Even with a “good” group, it might not be the best for your individual needs.
— Even today there is still ignorance among medical and mental health practitioners regarding these illnesses. Sometimes children’s services/child protective services are called when it’s not necessary, inadvertently causing more harm.
— Please get your vitamin D level checked. Although we don’t yet understand the cause and effect, Low D levels are strongly associated with depression.
— Don’t worry about your child being irreparably damaged by your PPD. Healing is always possible, so just concentrate on getting well.
Photo by Anne Worner CC BY 2.0