You’re trapped! You can’t imagine getting out of that dark place of despair and desperation. The walls are closing in. To make matters worse, people are telling you “Congratulations, you must be so happy!” Your guilt for feeling the exact opposite silences your screams and so you just nod and say thank you. What else are you supposed to do? How can you say what you really feel? This is what I experienced after the birth of my first child. When my son was about two weeks old, I started having intense feelings of depression and anxiety. I thought my life was over and couldn’t believe what I just done. I ruined my life. A lot of my feelings were unfairly directed at my husband. I took my anxiety and anger out on him. I couldn’t be with him. Feeling that I had to escape my “life”, I fled my house. I took my son and moved in with my mom. I would lie awake all night with my heart pounding, my body sweating. It felt like time was standing still. The clock seemed frozen, just like me. I was in utter despair. Each minute was torture. I didn’t want to do any of the things normal people do. Taking a shower was a big deal. I took care of my son because I had to not because I wanted to. I had no maternal connection to my son, for he was the one who had gotten me into this mess.
This wasn’t my first exposure to mental illness. My identical twin sister had severe postpartum depression and anxiety after her daughter was born. Years before that my mother went through a very debilitating mental illness after my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Even though I was witness to my mother’s and sister’s recoveries, I truly felt my situation was different and I would never get out this. When you are in it, it doesn’t matter how many times people tell you “things will get better”. You know, or so you think you do, the truth, “Life sucks and I am trapped.”
I remember my Mom going to her morning tennis match and thinking, “Mom, what the f*** are you doing? How can you go about your normal business? I am in crisis here. How can you just go on as if nothing is wrong when everything is wrong?” In hindsight, my mom was just following advice she received on caring for a loved one with PPD. She was taking care of herself. One day she made me go with her to Trader Joes. I had a huge panic attack and freaked out. I saw all these people in their daily routine and wanted to scream at the top of my lungs – STOP! Everyone stop what you are doing. Don’t you get it?
On my road to recovery, one of the first things I did, with my mother’s help, was contact a psychiatrist. Not only was professional help crucial but the support of my friends and family was invaluable. I had the benefit of two people, my mom and sister, who loved me dearly and who knew first-hand what I was going through. I also had the benefit of a very loving, supportive, and forgiving husband; otherwise I don’t know if my marriage would have survived. I had girlfriends that I could really talk to – to whom I could tell my deepest, darkest secrets. My message to you is this – Don’t be silent. Ask for and accept help. Don’t be shy about telling people your story – don’t let fear or guilt stand in the way. While you have to do work to get better, you can’t “do” your life alone. Surround yourself with people in your life who will push you to take that shower, go to the gym, and take a walk outside, even if you hate them for it in the moment.
My family pushed me to do the things I needed to do to get better. For example, exercise has always been important in keeping me grounded. During this time, my family insisted I go to the gym each day. I remember the feeling of resistance I had. Simple things were just too much for me. But there was a glimmer, deep inside myself, telling me I needed to go.
In addition to professional help and an invaluable support system, medication was part of my recovery. Yes, the “M” word. Not only is there the stigma, but also the concern, of taking medication. Does it mean I can’t breastfeed? If I don’t breastfeed, am I bad mother? With the support of my family and the advice of my doctor, I chose to breastfeed while on the medication. Not only that but I continued taking it through my second pregnancy. Deep down it was the necessary choice for me. I feel fortunate that my body responded well to the medication.
I would say it was a full year of recovery. The silver lining is that after the birth of my second child I remained healthy and was able to experience that first year of life in such a different way. I cherished each moment and lived in pure gratitude.
I will be ever grateful if, by telling my story, I have helped another Mother. I am inspired by the growth in available resources, and the increasing knowledge and acceptance of mental illness associated with postpartum.
And remember, speak out!