When I first heard about this project I knew I desperately needed to be a part of it. I desperately need people to know that PPD is real and birth trauma is real. I desperately need people to talk about PPD and PTSD so that other women don’t have to experience what I experienced.
I am a survivor of PPD and PTSD. It all started five years ago when I was pregnant with my son, Devin. I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. This is a fairly common complication of pregnancy, and can be easily managed with diet and insulin. Unfortunately I had a horrible perinatologist overseeing my care. This doctor treated my entire pregnancy like a disease and treated me as though I were at fault for my high-risk status. He used scare tactics to get me to agree to his treatment plan, which, as I suspected at the time, was not the standard of care for gestational diabetes. He berated me for questioning his supremacy and rattled off worst-case scenarios as though they were a certainty. That is when my anxiety and depression began. I went from reveling in a much-desired pregnancy to questioning my baby’s health and my own worth as a mother. I spent many hours in tears, and, because I was afraid to take any medication while pregnant, I relied on therapy to get through the pregnancy. I was convinced that all would be well once my baby was born.
My labor was long. I was stuck on a hospital bed with continuous monitoring and IV fluids. Despite the less than ideal birthing circumstances, my 8 lb. 12 oz. son was born vaginally after just 10 minutes of pushing. I felt elated. I had proved that evil perinatologist wrong. I had birthed my baby and he was just fine. That elation only lasted a short while. When I delivered the placenta, I hemorrhaged. My blood pressure dropped. I was scared. My husband was terrified. The nurse took Devin from my arms and to the nursery for his bath and newborn exam while the OB resident tried so stop the bleeding and get my blood pressure under control. When the bleeding was controlled my blood pressure was so low I couldn’t get up without getting dizzy. I was in and out of consciousness and in a daze. I asked for my baby. For hours off and on, I asked for my baby. Nobody would bring me my baby. Nobody would tell me what was wrong with my baby. During the times I was aware, I was in a panic. I would try to get up to find my baby only to pass out again. Finally, four hours later, I was lucid enough to send my husband to the nursery to look for our baby. They wouldn’t let him in. This terrified me.
On sheer adrenaline, I dragged myself along the hallway, on my knees, clinging to the railing for support, all the way to the nursery. My son was under a heat lamp. He was screaming.
They wouldn’t let me touch him or hold him. They had given him formula because, after 4 hours away form me, his blood glucose levels had dropped. They had no legitimate reason to keep him from me, but they had made excuses to keep him leading to interventions on top of interventions.
For months after, we dealt with the impact of the hospital’s decision to keep my baby from me. Devin had great difficulty breastfeeding. He was tongue-tied, I had flat nipples, and we were battling nipple confusion. Devin also had horrible colic. The early exposure to dairy protein in formula had left him dairy sensitive. I couldn’t eat dairy or he would projectile vomit and scream uncontrollably. Even when I was very careful with my diet, Devin screamed when we wasn’t sleeping. He would not or could not nurse to sleep. This meant that every time he woke to eat in the night, my husband or I had to spend at least half an hour bouncing him back to sleep. He would not or could not sleep flat on his back. For the first four months of his life he slept in a swing or in someone’s arms. When he outgrew the swing for sleeping he didn’t sleep at all unless held or worn. My husband was exhausted. I was exhausted. When I did manage to sleep, as soon as I reached REM sleep I would have nightmares that I had dragged myself to the nursery to be told that Devin was dead. I would wake up screaming and in a cold sweat. My husband didn’t understand. Our baby was healthy, if not happy. That was all that mattered to him.
During the day I was irritable and angry. My PPD did not look like typical depression. I wasn’t sad all the time. I wasn’t housebound and lethargic. I was ANGRY and I was MEAN. I can distinctly remember screaming at my 6 week old newborn to sleep while sitting on my hands so that I didn’t pick him up and shake him or throw him at the wall. I hated my baby. I didn’t want my baby. I had wanted him so badly before he was born and felt so little for him afterward. But I became a great actress. I wore him. I nursed him. I rocked him. I smiled at people and pretended that all was well. I pretended that everything was fine even though I was raging inside, dying inside, drowning inside.
The PPD and PTSD almost destroyed my marriage and my life, and nobody seemed to notice that anything was wrong. All they could see was my healthy little baby. Nobody seemed to see me or my pain or my anger.
When my son was five months old, I chased my cat in an uncontrollable rage because he meowed and awoke the baby. My husband confronted me, insisting that something was horribly wrong and that I needed help or he would take the baby and leave me. He was convinced that had the cat not escaped through the cat door I would have actually killed him. My husband was scared of me. Looking back on it, he was probably right to be afraid.
Luckily I got help. I went back to the therapist I had seen when I was pregnant. She referred me to a psychiatrist. I got diagnoses of both PPD and PTSD and started taking Zoloft. I did both traditional psychotherapy and, after a cross-country move, non-traditional Emotional Freedom Technique to help overcome the PTSD. I began to enjoy life and my baby. My baby began to seem happy. I don’t know if he actually was happier after his six-month birthday or if the PPD and PTSD just clouded my memories of his temperament for those first six months. Looking back at pictures, I suspect the latter. The nightmares finally faded away when Devin was around 2.5 years old. I continued therapy, but after that I was able to wean off the Zoloft and then get pregnant again.
Pregnancy was very triggering for me. The PTSD was still there and the pregnancy brought it to the surface. I started to have panic attacks and nightmares again while pregnant with my daughter, Charlotte. After the first trimester, I went back on Zoloft and increased the frequency of my therapy. I also searched out amazing care providers for my second pregnancy. I trust them completely and consider them to be friends. I had an all-natural, intervention-free birth with my daughter. I caught her when she was born and brought her to my chest. She latched on immediately. I hemorrhaged again after delivering the placenta, but my nurse midwife let me continue holding Charlotte while he managed the bleeding. Charlotte never left my sight and hardly left my arms while we were in the hospital. Her blood sugar remained stable despite my gestational diabetes being more severe than it was during my first pregnancy. Charlotte is a happy and healthy baby. She nurses to sleep, bed-shares easily, and rarely cries. Despite being 2,500 miles away from the huge support system of friends and family I had with Devin, I have had no signs of PPD in the 6 months since Charlotte’s birth. I also feel as though her birth healed the wounds that PTSD left. If we decide to have another baby, I highly doubt that pregnancy will be a trigger for me. However, the effects of PPD and PTSD still linger.
Charlotte is the light of my life. Her smile can brighten my mood and lift my spirits. When she wakes up early after a rough night of teething I look at her perfect little face and feel tired, but happy. When she wants to play at 3 in the morning I indulge her baby whims, and, though I’d rather be asleep, I revel in her sweet giggles. I hold her and inhale her perfect baby smell. I truly adore her and her baby ways and baby needs. I hold her or wear her all the time, not because she demands it, but because I enjoy it. When she does cry, I am calm and loving and empathetic. I am not angered by her cries.
Devin’s babyhood was so different. I blamed him for my horrible mood. I resented his difficulty sleeping and was enraged by his desire to play early in the morning or in the middle of the night. His smiles and giggles had no power over me. In fact, they’re hard for me to even remember. I know from pictures that he smiled and laughed, but all I remember is sleeplessness and crying. I remember thinking that I would have more babies if only I could skip over the first six months of infancy. I couldn’t understand why anybody would ever want a newborn or enjoy the newborn phase. I thought they must be crazy. I thought that it was a wonder our species hadn’t died out due to infanticide with newborns so needy. His crying had the power to enrage me rather than to provoke my nurturing instincts. Even now, over 4 years later, I still have a hard time showing Devin empathy when he cries. When he falls I hug him and kiss him while suppressing the urge to tell him to shut up and stop crying. Devin is a happy, healthy, well-adjusted child, with a healthy attachment to me. This is because I got help for my PPD and PTSD. This is because I am dedicated to and passionate about attachment parenting, and manage to do the right things even if my feelings don’t match my behavior. Devin is my son. I love him. I am protective of him. I am an excellent mother to him. But he is not, and never has been, the light of my life.
I have incredible guilt about my relationship with my son. I constantly find myself comparing his infancy to that of my daughter and realizing how devoid of joy his babyhood was. Charlotte’s birth allowed my husband to understand what I missed out on with Devin, and why his pregnancy and birth wounded me so severely. Her birth also healed me. She pulled me out of the depths of PPD and PTSD, but in doing so showed me just how dark those depths were. That is a hard reality to face.
Amanda’s images capture that reality. It is a reality that few people want to see. The birth of a new baby is a beautiful and joyous thing. It is no wonder that people want to focus on the light of new life and not see the darkness that can overtake the mother. But they need to see it. People need to stop avoiding PPD and birth trauma, pretending it doesn’t exist, and treating is as taboo. No woman should have to suffer in the darkness alone. No woman should be expected to pull herself out of the depths when it is taking every fiber of her being to exist for her baby’s sake. Women deserve to be seen and heard, even in their trauma, even in their sadness, even in their darkest depths.