The day my daughter was born was not the best day of my life.
Pregnancy was long and hard – so hard – for me. I did not enjoy being pregnant. And, the day my daughter was born, I was glad for the pregnancy to be over. But, when they lay my wiggly little girl on my chest, I was not overcome with emotion. In fact, I felt nothing at all. Later that day, in tears, I would write a message to my therapist saying “she feels like a stranger.” Which, in truth, she was.
I had dark thoughts during those two days in the hospital. As honest as I strive to be on this blog, I am not brave enough right now to tell the entire world what those thoughts were. But, I will say that I was ashamed of them. I did begin to feel one thing, though: anxiety. Lots and lots of anxiety. When it was time for us to go home, I found myself in the throws of a panic attack. I told myself that it was normal. I was a new, first-time mom. Anxiety was expected.
When we finally got home, I needed my mom. Not to do anything for me; I just needed her presence. I had said repeatedly while pregnant that I didn’t want anyone staying over at our house when my baby was born. But, I now found myself crying like a small child when my mom went to go home. (And, so, she stayed.) “How funny,” I thought, “that in becoming a mother, I find myself feeling more like a child than I have in many years.”
I cried a lot. Constantly, really. Deep waves of pain would strike, welling in my stomach like grief and crashing over me. I never cry in front of anyone; now, I could not help myself.
I regretted becoming a mom.
I did not regret my daughter’s existence, but I regretted thinking that I could be a mother. I told my husband and my therapist this daily. Hourly, sometimes. And, I Googled… I searched all over the internet for other women who regretted becoming a mom… desperate to see if any of them had found their way out of this pit. But, nobody’s story, nobody’s thoughts sounded as dark as mine. Nobody seemed as far gone as I felt.
And then there was the insomnia. In the first two weeks after giving birth, I found I was able to nap and sleep whenever I had even 30 minutes of downtime. But, I soon found myself unable to sleep even when the baby was sleeping. I was exhausted, I took Benadryl, and still, I couldn’t sleep. Increasingly, it got worse, until I was sleeping maybe an hour in total every night; two if I was lucky. Always broken up in to 15-20 minute increments. Not because of the baby, but because my body physically refused to sleep. I spent countless nights writing panicked messages to my therapist in the dark, alone, on the stairs… nobody else was awake. But, I could not rest. In truth, I felt relief when the baby would wake up, because then I could nurse her – I could do something – I could be productive rather than sit there, tortured.
And it was torture.
I began to struggle with caring for my daughter. I was exhausted. My body was exhausted. My brain was flooding me with nothing but anxious fear and intrusive images of terrible things happening to my baby, my family. I was miserable. I was in constant pain. But, I didn’t really think much of it; I have struggled with anxiety, depression, and mild OCD for so long that I just figured that this was normal for me and had nothing to do with having had my baby.
I went to my 6-week appointment with my midwife expecting nothing more than a quick check and sign off to return to work at 8 weeks postpartum. I filled out the questionnaire honestly and then sat in the exam room holding my screaming, over-tired baby who refused to latch and nurse. My midwife walked in.
In the first minute of that appointment, she could tell that I was not OK. And she called me out on it. In fact, she said she would not clear me to return to work. I was caught off guard. I was scared. I was ashamed. I felt like a failure. But, also, I was so…so relieved. She SAW me. She SAW that I wasn’t OK. Nobody else, nobody, not even my therapist who I had unloaded everything on had recognized how much I was struggling, how I was drowning. I was relieved to hear that I would not have to go back to work yet. I had been so afraid of how I was going to manage working at my fast-paced, mentally demanding job when I couldn’t even sleep for longer than 15 minutes at a time.
I left that appointment with so many emotions. I thought it would be my turning point. But, it wasn’t. Not quite yet. Then came one of the hardest decisions for me: whether or not to go back on my antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication and stop nursing. The anxiety exploded. The intrusive thoughts exploded.
I knew that I needed to go back on my medication. I still remember my last nursing session with my daughter. It was in the morning, and I ate poptarts while she nursed. I, who had never ever thought that I even would nurse at all, found myself flooded with grief and fear. When she was done, I stared at that stupid antidepressant pill and second guessed myself over and over and over.
There were the logical arguments: What was I going to do if I couldn’t nurse her for comfort? She wouldn’t take a pacifier.
The emotional arguments: She wouldn’t need me anymore; anyone could feed her. She wouldn’t need ME.
And the completely illogical: Would formula cause her to developmentally regress? This became a very real fear.
After I took that pill, I instantly felt like I had become poisonous. Tainted. My daughter could no longer nurse. I was poisonous. Poisonous. Poisonous. It echoed and echoed in my mind.
Unfortunately, it seems I had waited too long to start medication. I rapidly deteriorated. I could no longer sleep at all. In desperation, I took some Ambien that my psychiatrist had prescribed during a previous bad fight with insomnia. Despite having not slept for 2 days, the Ambien only got me 1 hour of sleep. My mom took me to the ER where they gave me Valium, which made everything worse, causing huge waves of cold anxiety that made it hard for me to breathe.
Finally, finally, I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t take care of my daughter. It took 6 and a half weeks for me to break, but in the end, I did break. I asked my mom to take me back to the ER, where they admitted me to a psychiatric unit.
Have you ever hit rock bottom? Have you ever fallen so low that it doesn’t even feel like real life anymore? Have you ever questioned your own sanity? Whether you might actually be asleep and dreaming rather than going through something in reality? As they wheeled me away to transport me via ambulance to the psychiatric unit at a neighboring hospital, I truly thought that what was happening could not possibly be real. And, I could not stop the tears. Though I had not felt much love-based attachment (mostly anxiety-based attachment) to my baby, I now found myself crying for her. I kept telling my mom, the doctors, the nurses “I want my baby…” I begged for her like a small child.
The bottom of the postpartum anxiety, depression, and OCD pit is a very dark place for those who find themselves there. It seems endless, inescapable, hopeless. But, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself with people who care about you – with people who want to help you – you will see that, if they can shine just a little light into your darkness, the pit is actually lined with ledges that make climbing out – while not at all easy – definitely possible. Going into the psychiatric unit was my lowest low, but it was also a huge turning point in my journey – both as a mother and as an individual.
I want to pause here to say – if you are someone coming to the edge of this or any other deep, dark pit of despair but are too terrified to ask for help – to go into a hospital, even – please know this: it is not at all like they show in movies or books. The psychiatric unit of a hospital can be a very helpful and uplifting place. The people there – we were all just people. Just people. Some sad, some afraid, some lost – but all of us people. They don’t strap you down and pump you full of medication; I had complete control over the medicines that I took, and they never once pressured me into taking something that I didn’t want to take. Not all hospitals are alike, but in this one, I had my own room, my own bathroom. I had privacy, but I was also not alone. In the deep dark of the night, there was always someone right there – someone to help me when I couldn’t sleep. It’s a safe place. With good people. Good, caring staff. And people who are just in dark pits of their own needing some help finding those ledges on the sides of their pits. I would go back now, if I needed to, without the fear that I once held.
It took them 5 days to get me to sleep. But, when that sleep came, when my body finally remembered how to function, everything changed. My husband visited me every single day. He brought me pictures of my baby, reassured me that she was not developmentally regressing, and we worked together to craft a plan for when I got out so that we could all be ok. I was also so lucky – so lucky to have my family. My inlaws stayed with my husband and helped him get our daughter on a new feeding schedule now that she would need to be on formula. When I got out, they had it all sorted out – all of the things I had been so anxious about (pacifiers, feeding schedules, figuring out when she was hungry when I’d always nursed on demand) – my mother in law had sorted it all out with my husband. And they helped me so much.
The best day in my life is the day after I came home. When I successfully slept in our house. When our daughter ate and was fed, and I had slept and was finally OK. The day that I realized that having her had been the best thing that I had ever chosen to do. Ever.
Postpartum mental health issues do not go away overnight – not even after a 5-day stay in the psychiatric unit. I still struggle sometimes – even now, months later. But, that is ok. Because everything is going to be ok; I believe that. Even though every day is not a good day, I still know – beyond any shadow of a doubt – that having my daughter was the right thing to do, no regrets, and that these days are so much better because I have her.
If there are any new mothers reading this out there – whether struggling with postpartum mental health issues or not – here is what I want to say to you…
Mama, those early days, they are so dark. They are so hard. They are heavy and long, endless and slow. You go ahead and cry; it’s ok to grieve. It’s ok that this is too hard. It’s ok that you are overwhelmed. You are in the thick of it right now; even though people keep telling you that this time is going to fly by, the truth is that it will be so slow right now while you’re doing these days. And you have to do every single one of these hard days, mama. Each one. And it sucks. And it is too hard. Too much. And, mama, if you are drowning, scramble hard to get help. Even if it feels like failing. Even if it feels all wrong. Take the hand. It feels like failure, but it’s not. It’s the right thing.
Remember this: you are important. You. Apart from your baby. Apart from your significant other. Apart from anyone else. You are important. You.
This is not your new forever. I promise.