Trigger warning: suicide ideation
I was once in a yoga class, waiting for the sweaty asana work to begin, when the instructor started the class by having us move into savasana, reminding us to ground ourselves to the earth so we could feel supported. On the third day of my son’s life, that is where my husband found me — on the floor, crying and cradling my baby. It was 5:00 a.m. My son had been crying incessantly since we walked in the door from the hospital the previous afternoon.
He was not crying because he was cold, hot, tired, or sick. He was hungry. In a postpartum haze of exhaustion, sadness and frustration, I let my instincts take over and snuggled his tiny body close to my battered one as he finally fell asleep on my dry nipple. I had no food to offer, just the comfort of my skin. With nothing flowing from my breasts, I repeatedly heard his shrill cries through the haze of choppy sleep that did little to abate my exhaustion.
By the time my husband picked us up off the nursery floor, my sister, a veteran mom of three, had come over to shove a bottle in his mouth. She refused to heed my protests that “formula was the devil,” and sent me to rest for the first time in days. Unfortunately, it was too late. The seeds of postpartum depression and anxiety had been planted, and would blossom in the coming months to become invasive weeds. Their roots took residence in my brain, robbing my mind of clarity, stripping any desire to move forward and enjoy what was supposed to be one of the happiest times of my life.
I wish I could say that I sought help right away, that I stopped dismissing my bouts of hysterical crying over spilling pumped breastmilk and postnatal insomnia as the “baby blues,” but I refused to acknowledge the truth. To the outside world, everything was fine. I was the perfect new mom. Due to a suspected dairy allergy that was a trigger for my son’s colic, my postnatal diet consisted of oatmeal and bland cereal, allowing for the pregnancy pounds to melt away. At six weeks postpartum, I was thinner than I had been in my adult life and too sick to understand that I was also in the saddest and darkest place of my life. I looked good on the outside, so naturally I must have felt the same way on the inside. Flashing the smile of a charlatan, I projected the persona of a confident, happy new mom, terrified and embarrassed to reveal the dark inner turmoil that plagued my early days of motherhood.
The weight of maintaining this facade, coupled with managing my son’s reflux and colic, began to take a toll. Silly, irrational fears blossomed into terrifying phobias, fueled by persistent insomnia that refused to allow me to rest. Despite the cheery July sunshine, my personal forecast always showed more clouds than sun. I spent those warm summer days indoors, chained to the video monitor, watching my son as he napped. Obsessively, I logged all of his actions into an app that exported into multiple spreadsheets, trying to gain some control over my life as a mother.
Those early weeks passed with a frustrating consistency akin to Groundhog Day, where my days began with my son’s piercing, overtired sobs and ended in nights filled with uncertainty. While my husband enjoyed a restorative sleep, I feared the evening, terrified of what the night would bring. How many feedings would I have to endure? Would I manage to get at least three hours of sleep? Is it worth it to try to fall back asleep? So I waited, wide-awake, fearing the unknown.
Warrior moms, survivors of postpartum depression and anxiety, speak to the one thought or action that shocked and terrified them into seeking help. It was my 38th birthday, a day of milestones. My son was able to roll over and push himself up while I fell down into darkness. It was the saddest day of my life. After a week of nights filled with stolen swatches of sleep, I was high with hysterical delirium. Intrusive evil thoughts ruled my mind, reminding me in whispers that I knew the passcode to the safe where my husband kept his service revolver.
At that moment, I watched my son muster the strength to roll over to reach the prize on the other side, his mommy. Mimicking his courage, I used my shaking hands to call my sister and ask for help. Immediately, we were in touch with my doctor’s office and soon I was speaking with the resident social worker. Her soothing words pulled me temporarily from the tempest that had become my postpartum life.
In the following days, weeks and months, I pulled from the root the weeds postpartum depression had planted in my brain. In weekly therapy sessions, I learned to challenge negative thoughts and break obsessive patterns. After meeting with a psychiatric nurse practitioner, I worked through treatment using an integrative, holistic approach. As I reintroduced exercise into my life, my mood lifted and my diet began to change. Gradually, I unearthed the simple joy of taking a leisurely walk and rediscovered the tastes and textures of food. On the more difficult days, when I wanted to hide in bed and stalk the video monitor, I recalled the wisdom of my yoga instructor when she told us, “you are not going in circles, you are spiraling upward.”
Eighteen months from the day he was born, I was on the floor again with my son, his laughter echoing against the walls of the nursery. This time, the tears that flowed were tears of joy. The sun illuminated his face and I realized that I was happy; I had finally welcomed contentment back into my life. There is a belief among certain religions and spiritualities that babies choose their parents before conception. I hope that when my son chose me to be his mother, he saw that same moment of happiness, cuddling and laughing with his mommy on a warm summer day, overwhelmed by pure joy.
If you, or a loved one, are suffering from postpartum depression and/or postpartum anxiety, there is help. Visit https://postpartumprogress.com to find treatment programs and specialists.