Today is a good day. Today is my son Evan's fifth birthday. As I watch him laugh, smile and rip open his presents, tears form in my eyes and I turn toward the window so that he does not see. Just for a moment, thoughts flash through my mind; all the things that I would have missed out on if I had given up. I suppose with time it fades, but until then, every birthday my son celebrates brings on this sort of bittersweet reaction. You see, after Evan was born, I suffered from severe postpartum depression. Though I am not a religious woman, I truly believe that there is purpose in everything, even the most painful of situations. Perhaps in sharing my experience, a new mom will feel just a little less alone and frightened. It took me close to three years to find my way out of the darkness and now I realize how very important it is that we educate women and their families on postpartum disorders. People are afraid to talk about them, but they exist, they are real, and they can be truly devastating if left untreated.
February 19, 2001, 23 years old, sitting in a hospital room and holding my beautiful little baby boy, it was the moment I had been waiting for. I had spent nine months planning, reading every parenting magazine and book I could get my hands on, decorating the nursery, and shopping for baby clothes. Something was wrong though, after all that planning and waiting, I didn't feel anything, not love, not joy, not sadness, just, nothing. It bothered me slightly but I figured that it was probably due to fatigue and pain so I didn't say anything. After all, how was I supposed to tell someone that I felt like I didn't love my baby?! Two days after I'd given birth my husband drove me home with our new addition and it was from that day forth that things were never the same. I think about it now sometimes, how my whole world was safe and happy one day and completely out of control the next. It's amazing that the line can be crossed, just like that.
The first clear sign of postpartum depression besides feeling detached from the baby was anxiety. The first day that I was home, Jason had to run to the grocery store and I was home alone with Evan for the first time. A feeling of sheer panic welled up inside me, I started having heart palpitations and I felt like I couldn't breathe. I just felt so uneasy. Jason came home to find me sobbing uncontrollably in bed while the baby slept.
Over the next few weeks things went from bad to worse. The anxiety attacks came more and more frequently and each time they seemed a bit more intense. Jason would have to take me outside and walk me around, trying to make me laugh, anything to keep the panic at bay. Jason went back to work and the morning he left, I begged him not to go. I didn't know why I was begging him, I just felt like I couldn't cope. I felt so much anxiety around the baby. Whenever I held him, I would just tense up and start crying.
At night I didn't sleep, my anxiety wouldn't allow me to. I would lie there with my eyes wide open, exhausted, listening for Evan to cry, and then when I heard him cry, I would start to cry. My husband suggested that I call my OB and see what he thought about what I was feeling. The nurse practitioner called me back later that day and basically told me that I just needed more sleep and more help around the house. If there is one thing I would have done differently, it would be to have demanded more attention from my doctor. If I had been treated earlier, things wouldn't have gotten as bad as they did.
Little did we know that this was just the beginning and things were going to get a lot worse. When Evan was about six months old, Jason was transferred to Texas. We lived in a tiny town where I didn't know anyone. There really weren't a lot of young mothers and not very many things to do during the day. I slowly slid into a depression so deep and so strong that I could barely take care of myself or the baby.
To write the following lines is hard for me but I know that they must be written in order to help another woman. One of the main symptoms of PPD is having frequent, bizarre thoughts running through your head. I want to make it clear that I would never have acted on these thoughts, but nevertheless, they persisted to the point that I literally couldn't do anything without having one. For example, I would go to cross a street, see a car coming and have this image of pushing the stroller out in front of the car. I'd be walking through the kitchen and see the oven and think, "Boy, I wonder if the baby could fit in the oven?"
Everyday that went by I got worse and worse. I couldn't do anything without crying because everything overwhelmed me. Unloading the dishwasher became a monumental task, changing a diaper was too much for me, thinking about going to the supermarket would just about push me over the edge. It didn't matter where I was or who I was around. I would just start crying for no reason at all. Every morning I woke up and swore that this was the day that I would make it all better but half an hour I would be back to sobbing.
At my lowest point, my husband had to come home from work, change the baby, feed him, feed me, then go back to work, only to get six or seven hysterical phone calls from me begging him to come home. In the morning he would put me in the shower, help me get dressed, make me eat, and at night he would hold the baby in one arm and me in the other while I sobbed uncontrollably.
Finally, unable to miss any more work than he already had and realizing that I could no longer even come close to taking care of our son, Jason put Evan in an in-home daycare. He would take him on his way to work and pick him up on his way home. I would wander around the house just crying and feeling so guilty. I felt guilty because I wanted so badly to feel the love for my son that I knew was there, but I just couldn't. I felt guilty because I was at home just crying while my little baby was in daycare. I felt guilty because I felt like the worst mother and wife in the world and at times honestly thought everyone would be better off if I were gone. That's a lot of guilt!
You may be wondering why I hadn't gotten help for myself until then. Well, what I learned is that there is no shortcut; finding the right medication takes time and patience. It took me awhile to find a doctor who really understood what I was going through. It then it took more time to try different medications. Some would make me more depressed, some would make me more anxious, and some would just make me sleep. Finally we found a combination of three medications, an antidepressant, anti-anxiety drug and a mood stabilizer that seemed to not cause any adverse reactions. However, it was months and months before I started to actually feel better.
I think what really helped me was the therapy that I went to on a regular basis. It was in that therapy that I learned to let go of my guilt. I learned that I couldn't control what had happened to me. I was a victim of my hormones. I accepted that I had to leave Evan in daycare if I was going to be better and that it was alright. I was doing what was best for him. I learned that my marriage was tested and it survived, but that I couldn't blame myself for doing the things I had done to my husband. All the cancelled social engagements, all the bursting into tears in front of his family, the times he was late for work, and my golden moment, the day I walked into his work just out of the shower, hair dripping wet, no shoes on, holding the baby and crying. I handed him Evan and said, "I can't do this anymore" and walked out. I have a deep respect for Jason that could never be explained in words because I know that he could have left at any time but he chose to stay.
Getting better was such a gradual process. Things that may have seemed so little to another mom were so big to me. One day, Jason called me from work and I told him I had decided to pick up Evan early from the sitter just because I missed him. I could tell how surprised, how hopeful he sounded over the phone. Another morning, I woke up and I heard Evan crying in his crib, and for the first time, I didn't feel like crying. I had an overwhelming urge to go in and hug him and feed him, to hold him.
We'd have good days and then a bad week and that would be hard, but gradually the good days started to come more and more, closer and closer together. It did take until Evan was about three before I felt completely free of my PPD. One day as I watched Evan playing at the park, after I had gotten done cleaning the house and going to the supermarket, I thought, "Wow, I'm back!" Today I am a stay-at-home mom and I do home daycare (go figure). I am also going to school to become a psychologist. I would like to one day work with women who have suffered from postpartum depression.
If you take nothing else from my story, understand that this illness is serious. I can honestly say that if I hadn't gotten it under control, it may have cost me my life. How many stories are there that we don't hear about? How many new mothers sit shaking and crying while they hold their newborns, afraid to reach out, ashamed to reach out? Probably thousands!
To those of you who have never experienced this disorder, I pray that you never will. Just be open minded enough to understand that the symptoms of postpartum depression are not the signs of craziness. And to those of you who have suffered from these thoughts, understand that there are others out there and you are not alone. As women, we must not judge each other; instead we must do our best to educate and support one other. If we can do that, perhaps reaching out won't be so hard and maybe there will be one less woman who has to suffer what I did.