Hormones are a funny thing. Funny in like a self-esteem shattering, soul-crushing kind of way. Hormones after having a baby? Next level stuff. Hormones after having a baby and suffering from postpartum depression? Devastating.
Postpartum depression takes complete control of your thoughts and is somehow able to locate your deepest, darkest insecurities and turn them into truths. I picture it as the ultimate “dementor” from Harry Potter. You know, those “soulless creatures… among the foulest beings on Earth”. The phantom species who, as their name suggests, gradually deprive human minds of happiness and intelligence. Sounds about right! The worst part was that it didn’t stop taking. It twisted my thoughts and stole my joy for close to two months. Two months may not sound like a long time, but for anyone who struggles with depression or has had a newborn, you know that every hour feels like a week.
When I found out I was pregnant with my son at the ripe old age of 24 I was scared but excited. I knew I wasn’t financially ready for a baby but hey, people make it work all the time right? My pregnancy was normal. No health issues. I completed all of the postpartum pre-screenings like a champ. Sure I had struggled with anxiety and depression since I was in middle school but I wouldn’t be depressed once I had a baby! I was about to be overjoyed! Isn’t that what everyone talks about? The joy and pure bliss of meeting your perfect little miracle and marveling at the power of the female body as you dreamily breastfeed your little one and birds braid your hair and squirrels sing to you from the window? Cut to me three weeks after giving birth pacing around my living room at 4 am shaking and hysterically crying in a milk-drenched shirt and a nasty case of mastitis. It was day 3 of no sleep for me. My son slept just like any “normal” newborn but I couldn’t. My brain wouldn’t let me. It kept me up and provided constant feedback about what a horrible job I was doing, how I probably wasn’t producing enough milk and that it was only a matter of time before the baby died from starvation or SIDS. Birds and squirrels and pure joy my ass!
I called my OB and the on-call doctor told me I could take a Benadryl if I needed to(Spoiler alert: Benadryl does NOT do the trick for these kinds of situations) or go to the emergency room. I promptly hung up and kicked the bedroom door open to let my husband know he was going to drive me to the hospital. I literally kicked it open…again we’re talking about something that takes away all rational thinking and just makes your brain shout YOU’RE NOT OKAY YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE OKAY! When I got to the hospital I remember what felt like 100 different nurses asking me if I wanted to hurt myself or the baby. I kept telling them no while begging for help. I could hear two of them talking outside of my room about not knowing what to do with me because I didn’t want to kill myself. Let me make something very clear: you don’t have to be suicidal or want to drown your baby in a bathtub to officially have postpartum depression. You aren’t any less in need of professional help. Also, if you do have those thoughts it’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person it just means you need help so don’t waste time beating yourself up about it, just head on over to your nearest emergency room.
Did I mention that I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker? That’s right, I was trained in this stuff! I preached to countless clients about the importance of self-care and not having shame when it comes to taking medication. None of that mattered when it happened to me, though. That’s really the key to all of this: NOT ENOUGH WOMEN SHARE WHAT POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION IS REALLY LIKE! All we see are the horrific cases that make it to the news. It creates a situation where you feel like you are the only woman on the planet who is feeling the way you are and that it surely means you are a failure as a mom. Obviously none of this is true but it doesn’t change the fact that those feelings are very real and the longer a woman waits to get help the longer that awful dementor has to keep sucking away all that happiness.
My now ex-husband didn’t understand it at all. He didn’t believe in anxiety and kept telling me to “just stop worrying”. (Another spoiler alert: when you’re suffering from postpartum depression you can’t just stop worrying. It doesn’t work like that) My mom came with a small bag that had three or four outfits in it assuming she would stay a few days until I was able to get back on my feet. She ended up staying for five weeks. FIVE. WEEKS. That’s how long it took for me to turn back into something that resembled a functioning human being. I don’t know what I would have done without her. She forced me to eat because I had no appetite. She called my insurance company to find the therapist and psychiatrist who put me on the Zoloft, Klonopin and Wellbutrin that would eventually turn my thoughts back in the right direction. She gave my son the attention that I couldn’t and told me it was ok to take lots of naps. By some miracle she was also able to find a local social worker who specialized in working with women who suffer from postpartum depression and just happened to facilitate a weekly support group five minutes from my apartment. I don’t remember much from those five weeks but I distinctly remember her coming to my apartment and sitting on my couch next to me while I wept into the sleeves of the sweatshirt that I had been wearing for four straight days. She looked right into my eyes and said “I want you to remember this if nothing else: The mother you feel like you are now is not the mother you are going to be”. She told me to repeat it to myself all the time. At first I didn’t understand what that saying meant but I did it anyway and it started to make more and more sense.
Looking back, that woman saved my life. I mean the elephant-sized doses of medication probably had something to do with it too but if she hadn’t shared her story with me I never would have felt brave enough to tell my own. I went to the support group as often as I could and met women that were exactly like me. I could finally say out loud that I knew I loved my son but I didn’t feel in love with him. I felt like I could take my first full breath in when most of the other women in the group nodded in agreement after I said it.
My son is five years old now and he is the love of my life. He makes me laugh (yes you will laugh again) and I do have that overwhelming sense of joy when I see him do things like kick a soccer ball or make it through an entire night without peeing in his sheets. I also have a 13 month old daughter (yes I had postpartum after her but that circus will be another post entirely) I make it my mission to talk to new mamas and share my experience even if they don’t ask for it. At this point I feel like I want to get a tattoo on my forehead that says POSTPARTUM SURVIVOR so people will ask me about it and what it means. I’ll end this by sharing what I think are some crucial things to know:
You are not insane. A human just exited your body and your hormones took a nose dive. All it means is that you need a little help from some medication to get those hormones back to normal. Yes, the thoughts you are experiencing are insane but they’re just a result of a chemical imbalance that will get better with time and help. It’s completely normal not to feel in love with your baby for awhile. Some women feel that bond immediately. To those women: I’m so happy for you! Now please shut up! You have no idea what going on and on about how amazing you felt in those first few weeks after you had your baby feels like to a woman suffering from postpartum depression. Identify your “safe person” . For me it was my mom. I didn’t feel like I needed to pretend in front of her. A lot of women are lucky enough to have a supportive, understanding spouse. That’s wonderful! Use them! If your spouse is like mine, though, it’s essential to surround yourself with someone who does understand and helps you to feel normal. Don’t hesitate to kick that damn door open and go to the hospital! Get help! If you broke your ankle you wouldn’t sit in your living room crying about what an awful human you are for having a broken ankle. You would get help for it! This isn’t any different! Finally, if you take nothing else away from my story remember this: The mother you feel like you are now is not the mother you are going to be. I know you feel like you aren’t meant for this. You think you’re failing and you feel like you won’t ever enjoy being a mom. I promise you this isn’t true. It’s horrible and dark and lonely right now but it will get better. One day you will find yourself staring in complete amazement at your baby and trying to understand how you ever lived without him or her, but that day may not be today and that’s okay. It will come.