I was at high risk for PPD and didn’t even know it. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder at age 13. I had some rough years of mischief and experimentation between 16 and 18. I got in trouble. I got hurt. I was spiraling out of control. I was 18 and unmarried when I got pregnant with my first child. I was partly relieved, as suddenly I had a concrete reason to calm down and get my life together. But I was also ashamed – yet another unwed teen mother. My family was disappointed. This was just one more thing to add to the list of my “failures”. So I hid from society. My only friends were coworkers of myself or my boyfriend, all much older than me and not much more than acquaintances. I had lost touch with my few friends from high school; they were off at university becoming doctors, lawyers, and engineers. I was just a pregnant teen working a menial job for menial pay. A loser.
So nine months later, I gave birth to my son at a birth center. His birth was scary, complicated, and nothing like I had envisioned – a peaceful, natural birth in a quiet, private place with very few people present. It did NOT turn out like that, at least the peaceful part. My son subsequently spent two days in the hospital because he had fluid in his lungs. He was taken from me at the tender age of four hours and hooked up to monitors and IVs and oxygen and a feeding tube. I wasn't allowed to hold him or nurse him for most of the first 24 hours of his life.
I pumped my colostrum every three hours and watched the nurses squirt it into his feeding tube with a syringe while he sucked on a pacifier, alone in his sterile little bed. I didn’t get to bond with my newborn the way nature intended.
Fast-forward to home life. The first few weeks were easy. All my baby did was sleep and nurse! I thought: I got this -- piece of cake. But then he “woke up” to the world. He started requiring more of my time and energy. And I was alone. All the time. My boyfriend was either sleeping or at work. He did very little in the way of helping with childcare or housekeeping or cooking, and called me lazy for not being able to keep up with it on my own. He wouldn’t even allow me to use his precious truck to go anywhere except doctor’s appointments and occasionally the grocery store (and later, work). The friends I had were, for the most part, busy with their own very different lives; those few who also had babies were married, financially stable, and had lots of family support.
I didn’t know about nursing on demand and was frustrated when my baby cried for milk more often than every 2-3 hours, as the books say. I spent most of my day trying to calm or distract a baby who, in hindsight, just wanted Mama. Milk, closeness, the 4th trimester womb-like environment that every baby needs. But I was resentful. Why did my baby need so much attention? Why wasn't he content to sit in the bouncy seat and suck on a pacifier while I carried on with my day? I just didn't understand. Out of isolation, lack of knowledge, and exhaustion, I sank into a deep depression. I went back to work when my son was six weeks old. It was a huge relief for me. For two days a week I got to escape the hell that was motherhood. I had order, routine, and adult interaction. Then I would come home to snuggle and nurse my baby, whom I was happy to see, and I appreciated him more. But the other five days of the week, it was the same old thing. I was lonely and resentful of my son’s existence.
Gradually, very negative thoughts began to creep into my head. I wondered why I had not chosen to have an abortion, as I was pressured to do by those closest to me (I was even offered money to pay for it). But I realized that having my son had saved me from self-destruction. So I felt stuck.
I chose to bring this person into the world for selfish reasons. And then I regretted it. What had I done? I blamed myself. I made my own bed. I had put myself in the position I was in: trapped and miserable. It was my own doing, my own fault, and I was doomed to live in purgatory indefinitely.
My relationships were less than helpful. I didn't have people over because my house was a low-rent, run-down piece of crap that I was embarrassed for anyone to see. My mother did not understand the depth of my depression and did not “have time” to come over and just BE with me when I would call her and beg her to in my darkest hours. She too ascribed to the “lie in the bed that you made” philosophy. She also didn’t like being in my house because it was tiny and messy and falling apart. I felt abandoned. By my own mother. My boyfriend was emotionally neglectful in general, and unsupportive of me seeking treatment for my depression. He believed medication was a “cop-out” and that I should just “snap out of it”. I finally did ask a doctor about it (without my boyfriend’s knowledge) and was told that I could not take medication while breastfeeding. I was so determined to breastfeed that I blindly accepted that falsehood and went back to my personal hell, defeated. My boyfriend was also unsupportive of me breastfeeding. His stance was that the baby was hogging me (read: my body – nursing hormones affecting my libido) and the old line: “I was formula-fed and I’m fine” (he's not fine, but I digress). The demands of exclusive breastfeeding on my time and body were certainly overwhelming, considering my lack of support and the fact that my only breaks were the two days a week that I went to work. My chubby baby was growing so quickly that my body had a hard time keeping up. I did not seek help. I didn't know to. I particularly avoided La Leche League because I had heard (from my mother) that they were a militant group who looked down on working moms. I didn't need that. (Years later, I discovered that La Leche League is actually a wonderful source of information, support, and camaraderie.)
I remember sitting on the back porch in the evenings, as the baby cried it out in his crib (in accordance with the “walk away instead of bashing the baby’s head against the wall like a baseball bat” rule), and think: one of us has to die. It was the only way the torture would end. Either my boyfriend had to die so my family would take pity on me and finally step in and help me, or the baby had to die so I could leave and start over, or I had to die, to be put out of my own misery. I was not homicidal, but definitely suicidal. I wished to die. But I could not be someone to take these matters into my own hands; I refused to purposely hurt or abandon my child. I just half-hoped that one of us would die in some freak accident: car crash, SIDS, random shooting, terrorist attack, a horrible deadly disease. Something. Anything. I would wistfully imagine those things happening, and long for the peace they would bring.
I finally recognized these escalating feelings as incredibly unhealthy and dangerous. I decided I had to wean my baby so I could go on meds. So that’s what I did. I transitioned him slowly from breast to bottle over the course of a few months, and picked up more shifts at work so I got more breaks from him and that prison of a house. I felt like a terrible mom for failing to meet my breastfeeding goals (and that I had thus, once again, let my own mother – a staunch lactivist -- down), but I realized that the time had come that I had to sacrifice that one thing in order to save myself. It was a very, very difficult decision, and to this day I regret it. I was misinformed by a doctor about medicating while breastfeeding. I am still angry about that. But I am at peace with my choice, because it was necessary at the time. So when my son was six months old, I started taking Paxil behind my boyfriend’s back. After a few weeks, the fog miraculously began to lift. I began to see things more clearly. I decided that something had to give, and that something was my poor excuse for a relationship with my boyfriend, and the debilitating lifestyle that it provided me. So I went to my parents. They were thrilled to hear that I wanted to leave my boyfriend – they had never liked him; he was too old for me, not good enough for me. So I secretly found a tiny, cheap apartment a few miles from my job. My parents paid first/last/deposit on it, and the deposit to have my utilities turned on. They sold me their tiny 10-year-old second car for $1.00. Two days before the lease on our run-down house was up, I told my boyfriend that I had been taking medication, and that I would not be moving with him to the new (rental) house. He was blindsided and angry, but did not try to stop me.
I moved myself and my eight month old son to our new little home, and we started our lives afresh. I did seek counseling at that point; I had many feelings to work through. I went to the local Crisis Center for their free counseling, and received weekly services there for about six months. They were video-taped sessions provided by university students, but it was helpful enough, and free is free. I was also able to stop taking my antidepressant after a while. Then I quit my low-paying job and went to college. The future was brighter than ever. Recognizing the danger of my condition and being brave enough to take action in the face of criticism is what ultimately saved me. I escaped a terrible situation that was dragging me down in just about every way possible, and I KNOW that the only reason I was able to do that was because I sought out medication. Therapy alone would have done me no good in the position I was in. I could not see clearly or think rationally. The medication was the bridge between danger and hope. Hope was always there, I just wasn't able to see it.
Postpartum depression is very real. Know the risks. Know the signs. Get help. You are not alone.