Postpartum depression......shhhhhh. We don't talk about that here, that's for other people. Even the acronym PPD feels safer to say: contained, sweet, easy. The truth is, I knew I was at risk, I knew all too well, but knowing doesn't equate preventing. I mean, one can know they are about to be in a car accident and still be handicapped to stop it, trapped in that single terrorizing moment where everything stops with a sudden, sharp, intake of breath. Sometimes the lucky ones are granted a fleeting whiff of surrender, of perspective and quiet embracement......but inevitably, the crash. Wreckage, confusion, despair, anger. This is my story.
My life has often felt like a relentless tornado of complex emotions, every turn in the road a paradoxical opera of comedy and tragedy, elation and anger, tranquility and turbulence. Little has ever felt simple, everything at extremes. Depression in particular is a foe I have fought throughout the years, a master of disguise, the sneakiest of tricksters. Sometimes appearing as only a glimpse in the night, other times leaving me bloody and mangled begging for mercy. I'll spare the tumultuous details of my untimely birth, frustrated childhood, angst filled youth, and misspent early adulthood; just know that they're relevant in ways that make one susceptible to a variety of vulnerabilities.
Though there have been many joys and fluctuations throughout my life of therapeutic healing, it was only the years just prior to my first pregnancy that I truly began shifting away from the toxic demons of my past and grounding in holistic health. I labored devotedly to rid myself of a variety of self-destructive behaviors and addictions; chronic and situational, relational and solitary. Amongst those: drugs and alcoholism, lust and relationships, chaos and trauma. I thrust myself headfirst into a variety of educational pursuits, most notably a graduate education, but also a growing infatuation with such topics as nutrition, alternative medicine, spirituality, human development and environmentalism.
In time, I blissfully reconnected with the estranged love of my life, knowing passionately and instantaneously I was to pick up my life and join it with his. I yearned deeply for serenity in my life, for stability, for the years I'd lost with the man I loved. Mostly, I yearned for motherhood, and though moving to Florida felt like a fresh start, the first chapter of a new book, it certainly was not without strife.
Three thousand miles from every support system I'd ever known and with absolutely no childcare experience, I plunged headfirst into caring four days a week for a two year old and newborn babe; the cause and result of my husband's contemptuous, loveless, and incompatible marriage. Neck deep in divorce proceedings, we soon found ourselves defending false DCF claims (later dismissed) of neglect and abuse as his ex- attempted to gain custody of the children in hopes of fleeing the country. The court drama was ongoing and relentless, keeping me up all hours of the night: researching, writing, documenting; diligently playing the attorney we sorely could not afford.
My husband, who suffers from lingering PTSD and who has his own share of battles, struggled immensely with separation anxiety from his older son and agonized over bonding with his newborn. Bare bones starting fresh, financially and materially, his new job was barely keeping us afloat. Stuffed with two cats into a tiny two bedroom apartment in a congested area of town, I floundered with the loss of identity that came from finishing my higher education and leaving the workforce. I felt confused and embarrassed about my new role as a part-time stay-at-home step-mom, paranoid everyone was judging me as they most certainly were. Furthermore, we were soon gripped in a discrimination case against my husband's job (which we later won), and an excessive amount of unnecessary drama from an unforgiving and culturally foreign extended familia. It was all-consuming isolation within a permanent state of ever-compounding culture shock, too much, just way, way too much, all of the time. Not to mention the heat, the relentlessly thick Florida heat. Mercilessly, the weeks floundered on.
Of course none of that bears mention of the children. Ahhhh, the children. Both children had many developmental delays and regressions and stresses, and we did our best to give them what we could. However, conflict reigned between the households due to the radical lifestyle differences regarding parenting styles, nutrition, media consumption, and approach to medical care. My heart would just break open and bleed for those children, constantly worrying and crying, brows furrowed and head throbbing, never knowing what would happen next and feeling constantly out of control.
At five-months old, my youngest stepson developed a very rare form of infant epilepsy requiring a variety of intense treatments and therapies. The cause, unknown, idiopathic they say, though future knowledge would give me a pretty solid theory about vaccinations, environmental toxins, nutritional deficiencies, and other factors at play. There were so many unknowns, so many questions. What did this mean for our future, for his future? Would he be wheelchair bound, brain damaged, require spoon feedings for life?
I’d never even held a medical needle before, yet suddenly I was granted the task of thrusting daily steroid shots into his thick, unassuming thighs; his innocent face tightening in preparation for the unavoidable ritual. Little specks of blood would appear around itty-bitty wounds, eventually freckling his leg in a sad, frenzied, dot-to-dot puzzle. I would pour myself into books and learning, so desperately did I want to help him, and grew steadily angrier at his mother for not doing the same. Fueled by amateur knowledge of the ketogenic diet, I would spend hours making the most complex purees of salmon and vegetables and garlic, dosing out oils and supplements, praying the DHA and other fats would attack his brain and body with nutrition and love and healing. Quite earnestly, we thought he might die, we just did not know.
My older stepson was also troubled - always sick, emotionally confused. He had sleep apnea, snoring, allergies, fevers. He would cough and cough and cough and throw up because of the onslaught of mucous to his system. In the night he would wake from his bed, tormented by the whines of his epileptic brother and deprived of oxygen to his own sleep-deprived brain, and stumble across the living room in a delirious haze before crashing face down in a solitary heap just outside of our open bedroom door. We would often awaken to find his cold little body there, seeking comfort but never quite making it over the threshold. He also received a steady stream of medical interventions: antibiotic onslaughts, adenoid removal surgery, speech therapy, a botched circumcision, revision surgery, undescended testicles.
I wanted to save them from their miseries, yet at the same time would shake with uncontrollable anxiety just knowing they were soon to arrive on my doorstep. Their lives and problems had consumed mine, and I just wasn't prepared to take on so much so soon. I was angry; lashing out verbally, impatient and frustrated, shut in and anxiety ridden with frequent bouts of panic. I would enviously stare at content mothers casually pushing their happy babies in fancy strollers, chatting and laughing in their new clothes with salon perfect hair, longing for the idealistic image they depicted in my mind.
The weeks stormed by on a rocky rollercoaster of childcare, all of the invisible baggage surrounding the children inevitably landing on my shoulders, and despite our enormous love it was undeniable that I was nauseous from the ride. I didn't know people who hadn't given birth could experience postpartum depression, and maybe by definition they can't, but being a stepmother was my first taste and what a bitter one it was. I was thrilled to be together again with the man whose absence had haunted me for years, but tormented and disgusted by the anger and resentment spewing forth from my being. It was consuming; no time to come up for air, no room to adapt to the enormity of it all. I raged, I panicked, I cried, I lashed. I would count the minutes until my husband came home to relieve me of the monotony of the days with the children; the screech of their whines, the angst of their needs. There was no easing into motherhood for me, and I'd desperately long for the moment when the children were whisked away again and I could shut the door and pretend life was normal, at least for a few days. Silently I hunkered down in the corners of my apartment preparing for the next barrage; gleefully soaking up the freedom and denial of existing on the times in-between.
Of course the guilt would eat me alive, because I loved the children and never wanted them to experience any of the misfortune that inevitably battered their lives. Yet all in all I was powerless. I wanted to give every ounce of my being and abandon them at the same time; feelings so contradictory and confusing it left me doubting if there was any goodness left in my heart. Naturally my husband felt beyond overwhelmed and torn in his loyalties when discussing these things, feelings so raw only true love could stomach the pain. Overwhelmed and isolated, drowning in shock and fear and loneliness, hyperventilating in the bathroom while the children banged down the door and screamed through their tears, I coped. Obviously not well, but I coped.
Nonetheless, undeterred by the perpetual storm and conflicting as it may seem, my husband and I we were still madly in love. It wasn't all bad times either, we had glorious amounts of fun with the kids and we were ridiculously happy just to be together, so after things settled a bit we were officially married and immediately conceived our first child. We were over the moon; another boy, a son of our own! We knew it was a lot to handle, but it was important to us that the kids be close in age, and we couldn't have been more excited. Finally the life we'd always envisioned; the life we'd fantasized about for so many years!
I drowned myself in piles and piles of books, obsessively consumed, gleefully making guacamole, thrifting for maternity clothes, listening to affirmations. I braced myself for postpartum depression, recognizing my current state of fragility and overwhelming predisposition, but I also felt empowered.
Damn it I was informed! I was creating a life, a child of my own whom I could fully nurture from the very start! I wasn't going to let fear get in the way. I wanted so badly to be a mother, a “real” mother, not just a stepmother. It was thrilling, exhilarating and glorious, as pregnancy deserves to be, and I consciously did whatever I could to build a cocoon around myself and our family.
The freestanding birth center delivery I used with my son was very good, superior to most clinical births I would imagine, though not nearly as spiritually amazing as the homebirth I subsequently had with my daughter. The birth itself contained a little too much anxiety, a mild shoulder dystocia, a less than ideal midwife, and a husband who felt pushed aside and overwhelmed by it all, but despite these shortcomings the sweet baby who arrived into my bosom took me higher than I'd ever been before. The bond was instantaneously reassured. I had been waiting and he had risen. Though a tremendous void had overtaken my physical body, I felt a fullness resonate from deep inside. Within hours my husband and I were joyfully nestled between the sheets of our own soft bedding, gently caressing the angelic face of our newborn son. So there it was, there we were: motherhood had arrived. In that moment, life couldn't of been better, I didn't need anything in the world.
Unfortunately, the birth high faded, and I severely lacked support. My mother had chosen not to come across country for the birth and I had surrendered to that decision, fearful as well that her needs would be more of a burden than her intentions a help, though deep inside it left an undeniable ache. My Dad and Stepmom did not impose themselves and I did not request it, embarrassed to have nowhere for them to stay and staunch in my convictions that I wouldn't need them either. My husband's parents were selfishly fuming over unresolved conflict, now a year in passing of no contact, and though my husband himself had a week of vacation time off of work, that was filled with caring for the older children and maniacally racing to fix my car.
Bless his heart, my husband, I know he wanted to help me more, but our lives were just too unforgiving. His responsibilities too great; too much pressure on too limited time. Everybody else I knew and loved were thousands of miles away, and the one relative I had nearby made no effort to come by. In the end I was mostly alone, alone with my baby, just he and I.
Immediately I noticed extreme pain, redness, and anger in my nipples from nursing. I justified that we couldn't afford a lactation consultant, we were really struggling, and La Leche League meetings were weeks away. I was also gripped with severe anxiety that had me terrified to leave the house by myself with such a needy baby, it seemed he would rarely settle down, so instead I fiercely chalked up our issues to inexperience. Even the best books said it might take a week or two for nipples to adjust, so I waited......and cringed...and cracked...and bled...and cried. But I kept at it, because I'm not a quitter, and damn it I was going to succeed at breastfeeding! No way my son had a tongue tie, the books showed extreme cases, my son didn't have that! There was nary a mention of lip ties, I never once even thought to look. The pain of nursing would come and go, though mostly only in my ability to grit my teeth. I shoveled in Ibuprofen and layered on lanolin, living topless in my softest robe and cringing at anyone who came close. Even the slightest brushing across my chest would leave me flushed in agony, and over time this caused me to shun my husband completely and refuse embraces from the children, terrified of intimacy in even their most basic forms. I dealt with engorgement, clogged ducts, thrush. It was survival, and when I wasn't basking in the glory of my newborn's eyes, it was pure hell.
Regardless of the brutality of early breastfeeding, I obstinately waded through and proudly boasted as my son rapidly gained. He was a constant nurser with incessantly long feeds. I joked later as people marveled at his size that I spent the first months immobile nursing in a chair, only I really wasn't joking, that was my reality. He began spitting up a lot, crying, rarely sleeping, crunching his belly, developing rashes, blowing out diapers. He would gear up for screaming fits that would run late into the evenings, strangling me with frustration and denial. Hmmph, colic, a useless word explaining a whole lot of nothing; whose only accomplishment was to further push me into a frenzied state of confusion. It didn't take long for me to become beyond exhausted, I was distraught.
In the longest hours of the night, times when I desperately needed to be sleeping, I was scouring the internet for answers. I had to know, what was wrong with my baby? I did not believe colic was a causeless condition I was destined to endure. I had to know more. Why did he cry? How could I help him? What was the cause? Why was he spitting up? Did he have GERD? Did he have silent reflux? Was my diet hurting him? What was an elimination diet? What is MSPI? Am I supposed to do this? Where do I begin? What was I going to eat? How was I going to feed the rest of the family? What is wrong with my baby? Why wouldn't he sleep? Was he having seizures like his brother? What if he is? What if I let him sleep on his stomach? Is he going to get SIDS? Why won't he sleep on his back? Do I need to buy this contraption? How much is it going to cost? How am I going to pay for that? What if I don't? Ugh, my nipples are on fire! I am so exhausted. I shouldn't be doing this right now. I need to be sleeping! But what is happening? What is wrong with my baby? What should I give him? What is gripe water? What is Zyrtec? How could I give him that? I can't do this. I can't do this. I can't do this. What is wrong with my baby? What is wrong with my baby! WHAT IS WRONG WITH MY BABY!!! What do I do? What do I do! WHAT DO I DO!!! Somebody help me? Somebody help me! SOMEBODY HELP ME!!!
The anxiety was paralyzing. Heart racing, palms clammy, every second my son permitted distance was a race to face piles of responsibilities. Other times, there were no breaks, only other children with needs and wants and complaints and demands. I would pace around my apartment like a zombie, half naked to protect my nipples, hoping nobody would catch a glimpse of my distorted body through the partially opened blinds, yet too insane to care. Insomnia was like a racing train, never slowing, horn-blowing; thoughts zooming to and fro like a manic beehive inside my mind. I rarely left the apartment and when I did, I would shake and sweat like an addict off his last fix. What the hell had happened to me? I couldn't even handle the stress of going to the store!
I was clueless, overwhelmed, confused, and sad. Hadn't I done everything right? Hadn't I taken the right vitamins, eaten the healthy foods, exercised, read the books, delivered naturally, breastfed, baby-wore, co-slept? Anger crept in like the sourest poison. My husband would not, and could not, give me what I needed. As he slept I would shoot daggers with my eyes, taken aback by my own will for his sudden death. I mean, I didn't really want him to die, but in those moments in the wee hours of the morning, I loathed him. Deeply, frighteningly, because though he would sometimes wake to help and he definitely worked hard for us always, he was sleeping, and I, I was trapped alone with my exhaustion, my fear, and my questions. Terrified and consumed with what nobody else was asking, what nobody else was doing, what nobody else was feeling, it was a crushing weight continuously shattering my skull into oblivion. It just wasn't fair.
Weeks of crying on the phone to my mom left her openly nervous, but continuously unavailable, doubting the seriousness of my experience and certainly not rushing to help. Everyone else who mattered was distant or estranged. I had no local community, no tribe. When I boldly confessed to my midwife in tears how deeply I was struggling, her response was for me to hire someone to help. Taken aback, I told her I had no resources. She eyed me with pity but had other clients to see, so numbly I left, resentment building with each passing step. I regret having ever chosen that practice, mostly because the midwives I wanted ended up being unavailable to me, but also for the carelessness in which my aftercare has forever left me scarred.
Even my son's pediatrician blew me off, and he was one of “the crunchy good” ones! He told me there was no way my son could have food allergies with his heroic off the charts growth, raved about his great health and squishy chubs, and spewed irrelevant medical jargon and personal opinions. His nurse gave me strange looks as I rambled and shook, surely in her mind summing me up as the sum of my parts, and I soon left with a useless prescription requiring more questions than answers. Obviously I was not interested in a band aid solution, and it only served to generate more anger and resentment in an already fragile situation.
After weeks of buildup and numerous breakdowns, it was a peaceful moment when my husband came home to find me in my usual position of nursing our sweet baby boy in our bedroom in the hand-me-down glider chair. He greeted me warmly and asked how I was doing. Calmly, and without emotion, I told him I understood how it was that mothers came to throw their babies out of windows; how easy it would be in one of those moments to just stop everything, to just say no, no more, I've had enough. Frozen, then cautiously, he asked me if he should be worried that I'd just said that. I said he should not be worried I would do something like that to our baby, but that he should definitely be worried that I understood how somebody could. I admitted to him that I'd been flirting with postpartum depression for some time, but it would be years before he truly understood how deeply I'd been bedded.
No longer able to deny the desperation in my heart, when my son was five weeks old I surrendered to the universe and frantically boarded a plane for Seattle. That was the answer: we just needed to go home! The morning we left my son was spewing diarrhea uncontrollably from his bum, the acidity literally burning his poor, paper thin skin. Desperate and hysterical, my entire body knotted and contorted for hours as I held my sick, giant baby in a too tall seat for my too short body, I fled from the grief of my life in a blind leap of faith.
Upon arrival though, it sadly became apparent that I wasn't running from anything that wasn't along for the ride, and the motherly nurturing I so desperately needed instead was greeted with skeptical disregard. My Mom, quite frankly, did not think there was anything wrong with my baby, her judgment of the situation obvious and scathing. Nothing was alleviated for me by going to her, only aggravated, as I undertook the enormous task of attempting dietary eliminations, shopping and cooking for myself, caring for the baby, shielding advances from her big, rowdy, spoiled new puppy, and doing all of this without the comforts of home or someone who believed in my intuition or a second set of nurturing hands. I felt abandoned. I'd traveled three thousand miles for this? For cable television and jetlag?
After a week I left my Mom's and traveled a few hours away to my Dad and Stepmom's, shocked in the most pleasant way by the help I received there. A role reversal of the least expected sort. Finally, the reprieve I'd sought in the least likely of places! I dearly embraced it, taking long hot baths and warm, lazy naps. Thank goodness I'd also stumbled upon oversupply syndrome and was finally able to diagnose and correct the foremilk/hindmilk imbalance causing much of my son's immediate issues. I was determined to head home with a new attitude, even if nothing in my circumstances had changed. My son was feeling better after block feeds and food eliminations, and I was more than happy to call that a start.
Shortly after returning home we received amazing news: my husband was offered a significant promotion and relocation which he accepted immediately. Even if we hadn't wanted to we would have had to, as we were drowning financially. In addition, it meant distance from the ex, distance from the estranged in-laws, and in my mind, distance from the depression. It meant less time caring for the other children and more time bonding with my son. It meant time with my husband, and time for myself. It meant more money, more security, and more freedom. It meant a house in a neighborhood, far from the confines of the claustrophobic apartment I'd come to despise.
We had finally arrived at a tipping point for change, everything I needed to find stability and joy with my new family. It was hope from a place of darkness and I clung to it like the light it was, warm and inviting and beckoning my presence. After the chaos of moving settled down, our new life slowly unfolded in the most beautiful way. I made friends, I found groups, I went to La Leche League meetings, I learned my son had a lip and tongue tie which I later had revised. I took long, relaxing bike rides with my son at my back and soaked with him for hours in the deep garden tub. We wandered through libraries, fed the baby ducklings, played with the neighbors, enjoyed visits from the other children. I discovered my suspicions for food issues in my son weren't just warranted, they were severe, as over time he has proven to have many, many allergies to food. In addition to a leaky gut, bacterial imbalance, nutritional deficiencies, and toxic overload. I slowly eliminated more and more from my diet in order to continue breastfeeding and began a few healing protocols, subsequently losing weight and feeling more and more amazing. I learned to hone my instincts and trust my heart. I learned to ask for help, and with time, I passionately learned to help others do the same. Familial relationships healed or became works in progress, and forgiveness was rampant.
Eventually we conceived our second child and experienced the most magnificent homebirth, attended by the dearest midwife handpicked for her warmth and respect and sense of empowerment; a relationship continuously cherished to this day. I knew what to expect and this time, I was ready. Family gathered, food was prepared, neighbors celebrated, friends visited. I understood the power of placentas, herbs, support networks, rest. I continued to have struggles, especially with my Mom, but what is life without challenges? Mostly, I healed. Each day was a new day for the darkness of the past to dissipate, and even in a second postpartum haze the pain slowly melted away with the warmth of my happiness.
Today life has settled down in the most delightful way, more often filled with the moments of serenity I imagined motherhood and marriage to be than not. Naturally it isn't perfect and there is still conflict and struggle, but it sure is night and day from where we were. Another promotion and another move brought us physically closer to my stepsons, who are older and more self-sufficient now, with most immediate health issues resolved or managed. Our relationships have healed, or at least found common ground: with our families, the ex, the children, and one another. We purchased our first home, have goals to pay down financial obligations, and are enjoying a new space and new friendships in a town reminiscent of the Seattle vibe we so sorely miss. We are cherishing our most treasured surprise, the sweet little girl we thought to be a boy, and blazing forward and onward with whatever challenges life throws our way.
For good or for bad, my lifetime of experiences had given me an extremely high threshold for pain. The disturbance expressed in the eyes of others upon sharing my tales often tells me that this is not a phenomenon experienced by all. I took antidepressants throughout my early adulthood, shortly misdiagnosed at one point with bipolar disorder thanks to my yo-yo partying, for which I took antipsychotics as well. The withdrawal from my addictions and later, those medications, was excruciating for me. I was not eager to do that again. Chemical dependence of any kind was not a solution I was ready to choose, and luckily I never got desperate enough to need it, because for awhile there I was teetering dangerously close to the edge.
I am not against medication for postpartum depression, and had my situation continued to spiral, I most definitely would have been forced to seek it. Imagine now those painfully short naps taken by a new baby, often the only breaks in the day........during those fleeting moments I would be in my kitchen, manically juicing kale and apples and celery and ginger. Roasting salmon and chopping vegetables, cooking and cleaning so I could cook and clean some more. This was my defense. Granted it was not helping my overwhelming fatigue, but damn it I was adamant that if everything else in my life was going to fall apart nutrition was the lifeboat that would keep me from drowning! As much as I needed sleep, my child and I needed nourishment, and I was not going to let my baby or my body down. I'd worked too hard and come too far, and fortunately for me, my stubbornness prevailed.
Through it all the attachment I share with my son still pushes my jaw to the floor; it is powerful beyond words. From the moment his little embryonic tail wiggled in my uterus it has proceeded to grow, little vines continuously hugging themselves around my heart. I am incredibly fortunate to of never wavered in my devotion to my son, if anything, our troubles brought us closer and made our connection stronger. This does not make me superior to mothers who are detached from their babies, for situations so desperate are heartbreaking beyond comprehension, I only wish to share my deepest gratitude for the incredible love that has flourished within my own deep and loving bond. I do not, for one day, take it for granted.
Motherhood is such a fragile gift in this world. Even when pushed to the edge of my own capabilities, my darkest thoughts still held compassion for what it takes to be a mother. It was within this compassion that I was able to find forgiveness for myself, for the thoughts and feelings I held for so long, to comfort myself with the love and tenderness as I would a dear friend. Whether it be the mom who yells as the spoon is dropped from the highchair one too many times or the one who succumbs to the voices in her head and drowns her child in a blur of postpartum psychosis, we are in this together. We are united, as mothers, in motherhood, for always.
Postpartum depression is real. For me, it was a quiet force that bullied its way into my life. I know there are more women out there like me, many, many more. Women who see depression riding in on the horizon, who feel the numbness spreading down to their toes, who helplessly bow their heads into submission, who painstakingly pry the noose from their necks with the carnage of their own bloody fingernails. Women, like myself, who could just as easily walk away denying that it ever really existed. It's okay to call it what it is, it has a name, and together we can set it free. Sharing our stories releases the shame and lifts us from our cowering, so please, give me your hand, I might just know a way.