There was a specific, glowing image in my mind of how the hours following my son’s birth would go.
He would be placed tenderly on my stomach and the midwife and nurses would leave the room while my husband and I bonded with our new baby. The baby would begin to nurse and we would look on in total awe and wonderment at the beautiful creature we created.
It did NOT go down like that.
The fourth degree tear I endured had me hemorrhaging blood everywhere. The medical team immediately knocked me out so they could stitch me up. I was out for over two hours and was not allowed to hold the baby when I “came to” because I was still groggy.
When I finally did get to hold my son we tried breastfeeding. It did not go well. My son wouldn’t latch on and would not stop crying. Even though it wasn’t part of the birth plan, they finally gave him some formula to calm him down.
I had instructed the nurses that the baby was to be in my room at all times so we could bond. The first night, in desperation because he wouldn’t stop crying, I sent him to the nursery so I could get some sleep.
My son hadn’t been gone forty-five minutes when a nurse wheeled him back in the room because there was a bad thunderstorm going on. Apparently hospital policy dictated that all infants had to be in the same room as their parents in case of an emergency of some kind. There was no more sleep that night.
Breastfeeding continued to be a nightmare, with nurses ramming my son’s head into my breast time after time. He continued to scream. I continued to cry.
Finally we went home. I had been thinking, Everything will be fine if we can just go home.
We hadn’t been home two days before I figured something was wrong with my baby. A trip to the pediatrician confirmed my fears and my son was admitted to Children’s Hospital with a serious heart condition. He was there for six weeks.
I rarely left my son’s side throughout his stay at the hospital. I slept there, ate there, and showered there. I watched my son nearly die there. I watched his doctors and nurses work over him for hours on end. I watched him have needles inserted all over his tiny body. I watched him be put on a respirator. Through it all, I was somewhat numb.
I could only hold my child “with assistance,” because of all the wires and monitors he was hooked up to. I didn’t get to change his diaper or give him a bath. All those little firsts that new mothers enjoy were nonexistent for me. After six weeks, Devon appeared to be well enough to go home.
Once again I suspected something was wrong. This time it wasn’t the heart problem.
Devon cried ALL THE TIME. He only slept in thirty- to forty-five-minute increments. I developed severe insomnia because I would lay there thinking, I only have half an hour to get some sleep before he wakes up again. I need to fall asleep RIGHT NOW. But my body just wouldn’t let me.
I mentioned my son’s troubles to the pediatrician, who told me, “Oh, he has a little colic. He’ll grow out of it.” It took him nearly six months to “grow out of it.” During that time my son and I rarely left the house. We barely left the bedroom. He kept screaming. I kept crying. I began to hate my own son. Nothing would quiet him down. Rocking, walking, swinging, singing—nothing worked.
Turns out, Devon had reflux.
I could only get him to sleep if I was holding him. But then I couldn’t sleep for fear of dropping him. I didn’t dare go anywhere because of all the stares I would get. When you’re walking through a mall and your child is screaming bloody murder, everyone looks at you like, Can’t you shut that kid up?
My days became dark, and not just because I was holed up in my bedroom. I began to fantasize every day about ending my life. I plotted the various ways I could pull it off. I pondered how to do it and make it look like an accident so my husband could collect the insurance money. I considered when to do it so that someone would quickly find Devon and he wouldn’t be left alone.
Through this period I thought about hurting my child, too. With the screaming going on for hours on end, sometimes I imagined throwing him against the wall just to silence him. Then I would become horrified and have to leave the room, worried that I might act on my terrible thoughts.
One day I went so far as to write a suicide note. Somehow God kept me from ever acting on my impulses. Still, I felt like everyone I knew and loved had abandoned me, including God. I pounded my fists against the wall, screaming to God, begging Him to help me.
I had no support system. I had no family close by and they didn’t really understand anyway. The few people I told about my feelings had expressed such horror that I quickly realized I was going to have to keep my shame and guilt to myself. I resented everyone in my life for not being there for me.
I went along this way for nine months. No treatment. No support. I felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I should’ve never had kids, I thought. But I can’t go back and undo it. I’m just NOT cut out to be a mother and if I have to live this way the rest of my life, then life is not worth living.
When Devon was nine months old, my husband found an advertisement for a support group for women with postpartum depression. This was the first time I had heard about this problem. In all my informational packets from the hospital, they never once mentioned it. Even my own OB had dismissed my fears, telling me, “You’ll get over it.”
I attended a meeting hosted by A Lighter Shade of Blue and it changed my life. In fact, the women of the group not only changed my life, they saved it.
First, they gave a name for what was going on with me—postpartum depression. This meant it wasn’t just me; it was an illness experienced by many.
Next, the group members helped me get in to see a fantastic psychiatrist who got me on medication that I desperately needed. I would’ve never dreamed of going to see a psychiatrist on my own, because of the way I was raised. Mental illness and therapists were for weak people.
By this point I was desperate and didn’t care what I’d been taught. The medication began to work right away, but it didn’t deal with everything. While it helped the physical symptoms of my depression and anxiety (insomnia, constant fatigue, panic attacks, racing and suicidal thoughts, inability to cope with even the smallest of stressors), it did not deal with the countless emotions I was feeling: resentment, anger, grief, shame, and guilt.
I began seeing a terrific therapist who helped me work through my feelings and find healing. The process allowed me to grieve the loss of my expectations of being a mom. After all, I had missed my baby’s entire first year because of this crippling problem.
In time, I was able to find relief from the crushing guilt that I had been feeling. I was sure that I had scarred my child for life and that he would hate me. But my therapist showed me that just because I had not bonded with him right away, he had still bonded with me. I was able to forgive my family and friends for not being there for me. I was able to stop hating other mothers for being so happy when I was so miserable.
Getting back to myself has not been some quick fix or trick. It has taken years to get to where I am today. Eight years ago I was in a really bad place. I could’ve very easily taken my own life. Now I am I changed person, for the better.
For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why God let me go through that. I focused only on the bad—everything I lost and how it changed me in negative ways. I felt like God had completely forsaken me. But now, when I look back, I can see how much He preserved me. I could have hurt myself or my son. I really wanted to, but I didn’t. My marriage could have disintegrated, but it didn’t. Instead of taking away my pain and frustration with PPD, He used it to transform me.
I’m thankful that God allowed me to go through severe postpartum depression and anxiety. Apparently, He had more confidence in me than I had in myself. Had I known what was coming, I would have looked at the situation and said, “There’s absolutely NO WAY I can handle that!” But God said, “You will.”
Instead of focusing on the bad, I want to concentrate on the ways that PPD has been a blessing in my life.
Of course the obvious one is that it has allowed me to help others, which has been a great help to my own recovery. The best way to pull yourself out of a puddle of self-pity is to help others who are going through a worse situation than you. My support group has been a source of great comfort for me, and I could not be more proud of the strong women that I have had the honor of associating with. It gives me a sense of purpose knowing that I can help other women through phone calls and emails every day. I take pride in being available to others in a way that no one was for me.
Being available and open to complete strangers is a departure for me. I used to be a fairly closed-off person. I liked to keep to myself, which was a serious hindrance in my own recovery. Over time, however, God has helped me to open up to others. It’s not always easy being transparent about things that might cause others to judge you. One of the benefits of going through PPD, for me, has been the ability to disregard criticism and be open, no matter what others think of me.
I also used to be a perfectionist. Everything had to be done a certain way—preferably my way. There was no room for flexibility in my life. There was no room for other people’s problems. My motto and advice to others was pretty much “Just put on your big girl panties and get over it!” When I was finally put in a place where I could not just “get over it,” I was forced to realize what an ignorant person I had been.
Postpartum depression has given me compassion, empathy, and the ability to roll with the punches in life. I can’t imagine what kind of mother I would have been had I not experienced it.
While I would most certainly NOT wish this experience on even my worst enemy, I can honestly say that God knew what He was doing after all.
A Note from Dr. Shosh
Learning how to adapt is one of the greatest silver linings to the PPD experience. Finally giving up that illusion of control and the false thinking that we can plan everything is of great help for the rest of our lives. Here are some more takeaways:
— Birth plans should be called wish lists—we simply never know in advance how things will unfold.
— It’s smart to get sleep after we deliver. Having the baby constantly room-in doesn’t give you a chance to recover.
— Medical complications and a high-needs baby (as is the case with reflux) make a new mom vulnerable to postpartum depression/anxiety.
— Feeling pressure to rest—I need to sleep RIGHT NOW—since the baby might wake up any second, can bring on insomnia.
— It’s a myth that a good mother can always make her baby stop crying.
— Suicide is a real risk with this illness. Please seek help if the thought is crossing your mind.
— Without a support system of friends and family (geographically and emotionally close), PPD can feel much tougher.
— Going through the experience increases compassion and ends the judgment we’ve previously had for others, since we now “get it.” I like to say, we grow another antenna!
Image credit: Anne Worner