I was hospitalized in the “looney bin,” or at least that’s what I call it when I talk to my friends. I stayed three long days in the behavioral hospital for my postpartum depression. I always end up turning my experience into a laughing matter, when in fact what happened to me isn’t very funny. It’s just my way of coping with what I went through. It’s not something a lot of people feel comfortable discussing, but I try to be as open as possible with my friends about my experience, in hopes that they feel they can be vulnerable with me and come to me for help when they need it.
People always tell me my life looks so perfect. I have a beautiful son, my husband is a successful engineer, and I seem to have the whole world ahead of me. But I don’t want people to think I’m perfect, even though I’ll admit it feels good. If they begin to believe that, then they start to compare and create unreal expectations for themselves. That’s the last thing I want for my friends or anyone to do. I want people to know I’m human and I fall short many times. I failed exams in college, I weigh more now than I did when I was pregnant, and I have postpartum depression.
Being hospitalized in the behavioral unit was the most human thing that ever happened to me. It was real. It was raw. I was vulnerable, scared, and hanging on by my last thread. For the first time in my life, I was honest with myself… I was not okay.
My son spent over a week in the NICU because of his critical condition. He was born with fetal maternal hemorrhage, a condition where blood fails to recirculate back into the placenta. I didn’t get to see him for more than a few seconds until the day after he was born.
My hormones were all over the place. I remember bawling in my hospital room because I couldn’t feel my legs and nothing went right with my delivery. These things should have been the least of my worries. My son would need five more blood transfusions to survive.
Although a traumatic birth experience, my son’s condition began to improve, and I began to recover from my C-section. I remember taking a survey before being discharged that was supposed to screen for postpartum depression; I passed with flying colors. I was excited to go home and to have my son follow soon after. The labor and delivery nurse warned me about the dangers of postpartum depression and psychosis and informed me of their symptoms. I thought there was no way I’d develop either of those. I was happy and joking around like I always did. But things quickly changed when I got home.
It didn’t happen immediately, but when my son arrived home a few days after us, it all started to hit me so quickly. Days melted into nights, and nights melted into days. When do I sleep? When do I eat? They tell you to sleep when your baby sleeps, but when do you get things done if you’re constantly sleeping? The bottles won’t clean themselves, after all.
My life consisted solely of eating, bathing, sleeping, feeding, and changing diapers. But then slowly, it turned into only feeding and changing diapers. There was no eating, there was no sleeping, and there was no bathing. My stomach couldn’t hold anything down, not even water. I didn’t want to bathe, because I was crippled with anxiety. I couldn’t sleep, because I thought that when I finally did, my baby would die. My fiancé seemed to sleep so easily; it made me envious.
Feeding a baby for an hour and then trying to take advantage of that two-hour gap to sleep was hard. I’d lay my head on the pillow and start counting down from the two hours I had left. Was it even worth sleeping? Quickly, two hours would turn to one, and then to 30 minutes, and then the baby would begin to squirm and I knew it was time to do it all over again. I was delirious. I remember finally falling asleep one time with my baby in my arms, but when I woke up, he was gone. I frantically searched the bed and floor to find him sound asleep in his bassinet. To this day, I believe God must have intervened and saved my child, because I thought for sure I fell asleep with him in my arms right on the side of the bed.
Things became more real to me when my mom came to visit one day. She was holding my son so lovingly and asked me how much I loved him. I looked at him and faked a smile as I began to think really hard. Did I really love him, or did I just say I did? I felt no bond or attachment to him. When I held him, my only concern was keeping him alive, not loving him. It didn’t come naturally.
The day came when I finally reached my breaking point. I had been crying all day for no apparent reason and I just didn’t feel like myself. In an effort to cope, I would daydream about running away and never coming back. I would hop in my car and run an “errand” but just keep driving. When those thoughts went away, in came more dangerous thoughts. I’d look at the bottle of antidepressants I had just been prescribed days prior and think maybe I could end it all, if I just took enough. The pills weren’t working one per day, so maybe the whole bottle of 30 would offer me a better solution.
Luckily, I was able to recognize these thoughts as “bad thoughts,” something my doctor had warned me of. I immediately called my mom as I sat in the rocking chair in the nursery while my fiancé slept. She was someone who understood mental health and wasn’t going to judge me or tell me to get over it. She comforted me and told me to do what I had already planned on doing. She was hundreds of miles away, but she nearly saved my life. I went into my closet and changed out of my pajamas into jeans and a t-shirt. I brushed my teeth and combed my hair too, something I hadn’t done in a while. I gently woke my fiancé up and told him he needed to watch our son … alone. I was leaving to get help. He didn’t really understand, but I told him he needed to trust me.
I got in my sister’s passenger seat and had her drive me down the street to the emergency room. I was worried. Did they get cases like this often? Would they know what to do with me?
I ended up being met with so much sympathy and compassion, I was surprised. The nurses told me I had done the right thing coming in when I did. I got changed into blue paper scrubs and used hospital socks as shoes. They ran my blood to check my thyroid and offered me orange juice and a cold sandwich. Still, I couldn’t eat.
Eventually, my mother arrived after a two and half hour drive. She took over for my sister and sat beside me as we waited for an update on how the doctors wanted to proceed. They asked my mother if she was willing to watch me or if they needed to get someone else to sit beside me. My mother, of course, wasn’t going anywhere. I looked past the curtain next to me and could see another suicidal patient, except he didn’t have a family member by his side. It was a nurse watching him. I was at a very low place but thankful that I at least had the support of my family.
These were all just normal people facing different demons. It was nothing like the movies portrayed. They were all good people facing difficult circumstances.
A nurse finally came into my room and escorted me to a private room where I was going to be assessed over the phone. A woman with a soft voice answered the phone and began to ask me questions about my family history of mental illness and my current thoughts. She asked if I was having thoughts about hurting myself or my baby. She asked if I had a plan. I answered that I was thinking of self-harm, but had no plan arranged. After about 30 minutes of questioning, she told me she was going to pass over my information to the on-call doctor to determine whether I should be sent to their behavioral hospital.
For the next few hours, we heard nothing — until finally a nurse arrived saying my ambulance was there to take me to Bayview Behavioral Hospital. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t going to stay there to be treated. I thought that hospital had a cozy mental wing that was like the wing where I gave birth. I thought I’d have a television, a menu to choose breakfast, lunch, and dinner from, and visitation hours all day long. It ended up being so much different.
I was walked to an ambulance and placed on a stretcher. An EMT sat next to me and my mom followed behind us in her car. This was the second time I had ridden in an ambulance, but the first time as the patient. It was around midnight when I took the short ride to the behavioral hospital down the street. I looked outside and could only see the street lights. I tried to keep track of the turns we made, just to have an idea of where we were going, but I lost track by the time we arrived.
We were greeted by woman at the door who buzzed us in. She took us into a cold, bright-white waiting room where we spent the next hour. A security guard sat at his large, courthouse-looking desk just staring at us. There were plenty of chairs but no one to fill them. I was offered a cold tuna sandwich, but still didn’t have the will to eat. I remember the television was playing What Happens In Vegas and I just cried as I watched these fictional characters live out their stress-free lives. They didn’t have a baby draining them 24/7. I thought my life was over and would never be as care free as the characters in this fictional movie.
As we sat there, I couldn’t help but think about my fiancé and son. What was my life-long partner going to think of me now that I had been sent here? My unstable mind was sure he was going to leave me. I was not mentally healthy, after all. He deserved better and probably knew it.
After what seemed like hours, the admissions nurse called us to a back room to fill out paperwork. I signed forms indicating I was being admitted under my free will. I wasn’t forced to be there, I wanted to be there. I knew I wouldn’t last one more sleepless night riddled with anxiety, so I gladly signed the forms.
Then came the hard part. The nurse asked me to write down important phone numbers of loved ones on a small piece of paper. I wouldn’t be allowed to have my phone with me during my stay. I knew this was a possibility, but I was still shocked to hear it. It wasn’t that I wanted to keep up with my newsfeeds or surf the web on my downtime; I just wanted to be able to communicate with my fiancé and mother. Now, I would be on their schedule, following their rules and abiding by the times they had set for phone calls.
I began to cry immediately. It felt like I was going to be all alone in this. But my mother assured me it was going to be all right. I was moved into the lobby to bid farewell to my mom, and I just couldn’t help but sob. I didn’t know what the future would entail, and that terrified me. She kept whispering to me as I bawled in her arms, “Look for the light.” And that’s what I did the whole time I was there.
My mother left the facility with my personal belongings, and I went out into the atrium with the nurse. It was dark, but we followed a well-lit path to the adult behavioral wing. I was taken to a small room where I was questioned yet again. It seemed like the same thing over and over. Why couldn’t I just go to bed? Next, I was escorted to a private room behind the office where I was stripped and checked for lice. You lose all sense of modesty once you give birth, so I wasn’t fazed. Once I was finally cleared, I was shown to my room. There was someone already sleeping in the bed beside mine. “Who is she? What’s her story?” I thought. I was scared. If I was here for my dangerous thoughts, she probably was too. There was no telling what any of us were capable of.
As I tried to fall asleep, my thoughts ran rampant. Where was my fiancé? Was he at his mom’s house? Was Maxon okay? Did he have enough frozen milk? Just as I was beginning to fall asleep, a quick glimmer of light shined in. As it would turn out, the nurses had to check on us with flashlights every 15 minutes all night, just to be sure we were still alive. How anyone got rest, I don’t know. Maybe it was the sleeping pills they offered. But eventually, it happened. I fell into a deep sleep, something I hadn’t done for a while.
I am truly grateful for the time I spent hospitalized. It was my saving grace.
I woke up to the sound of chattering in the common area outside my room. They were playing a Family Feud-style game. A dim ray of sunlight shone through the frosted windows. I was cold and wet. I looked down to find a puddle on the bed where my breasts had laid. I hadn’t pumped all night. The doctor had provided me with a breast pump, but I didn’t have any bags for my milk yet. I got up and cleaned myself up in our private bathroom. It didn’t lock, but I figured it wouldn’t. Great thing about paper scrubs is that they dry pretty easily. I dried myself off and made my way into the common area once they were done with their group therapy activity.
Outside of our rooms were seats lined up in rows facing a television playing the morning news. Next to the common area was a private room where we could meditate or make personal calls during calling hours. At the end of the room were the nurses sitting at their station near the exit doorway. I walked out into the open space and didn’t know how to act. I wanted to cry, but everyone else seemed to have their shit together, so I sniffled back the tears. I sat down with a group of girls as they colored their intricate coloring sheets. They introduced themselves and welcomed me to the group. Everyone looked so normal, why would they be here? The girls in the group were around my age and the guys were a little older.
They quickly asked me what my story was. I told them I had postpartum depression, although I hadn’t been officially diagnosed. They were understanding and shared their stories little by little. Most were stuck in a funk they just couldn’t get out of. One man had been a regular of the facility, struggling with depression since his wife divorced him and took their child. Another younger man had just been dumped by his girlfriend of seven years, with whom he shared a child. I would find out later that my roommate was hit by a drunk driver a few days prior and was having post-traumatic stress since the incident. These were all just normal people facing different demons. It was nothing like the movies portrayed. They were all good people facing difficult circumstances.
I slowly began to feel comfortable with the group and began engaging in the activities. They won’t tell you this, but you’re being watched, to see if you actively participate in therapy and the activities presented to you. The nurses want to see that you’re trying to make an effort to get better, or you’ll never be discharged.
I spent most of my first day there sleeping, but that’s usual for most patients upon entrance into the program. Lucky for me, my first full day at the facility was a visitation day, so I had the chance to see my family. I was so embarrassed walking over to the cafeteria, unwashed, still in my paper scrubs. I was still waiting on my clothes to be washed by the staff so that I could wear them. All clothes had to be checked thoroughly and laundered, laces and underwire bras weren’t allowed, even my panties had to be inspected. My hair was a mess, but so was my whole life.
I walked in and saw my fiancé and mother sitting there waiting for me. I was the last one to make it in, because I had to pump before my breasts exploded. I remember pumping in a private room with a nurse monitoring me. Tears rolled down my face as I began to fill the bottles with milk. I felt like my milk was tainted. It was sad milk. The human body is so wild, I didn’t know if maybe somehow my sad hormones could be transmitted to my son via my breast milk. I felt miserable pumping, and guilty not pumping. The nurse just couldn’t understand my sadness. She said everything was going to be okay, but to a person suffering from depression, that means nothing.
As I sat down next to my fiancé, I looked around at everyone there. All the other patients had family visiting them too. It kind of felt like we were in prison, only allowed less than an hour to visit with our loved ones. I got to see the people everyone was talking about in their stories. The boyfriends, the mothers, and the fathers. Even though not many people feel comfortable talking about mental health, all the family members seemed to have an understanding of what their loved one was going through and all expressed a compassionate sentiment. As my gaze scanned the room, I noticed the Alcoholics Anonymous pledge hung up on the wall. This facility didn’t only treat patients dealing with anxiety and depression. The hospital also housed a rehabilitation program for alcoholics and drug addicts.
As we began talking, I kept bringing the conversation back to my fiancé’s mother. I was so worried about what his family thought about me. They had always liked me, and I was so scared that they would be disappointed in me for what seemed like abandoning my child. Of course, my fiancé said she was fine and just wanted me to get better. Seeing my family was helpful, but I felt like I didn’t want them to see me again until I was better. I was embarrassed for not having myself together yet. But that would take time.
I hugged my fiancé and mom in a warm embrace once our hour was up and we exchanged goodbyes. I walked back to our unit with the group of patients and noticed a different atmosphere. We all seemed lighter, happier. Maybe it was because we all had someone to fight for and were determined to get better.
The second day is when I really assimilated into the group. I woke up for group therapy, shared my story, and listened for advice. I went to the gymnasium and played volleyball, something I probably shouldn’t have done being only a few weeks post-C-section. I even made a little heart out of tiny beads that were melted together in our exercise class. I created this “masterpiece” when I was in a very dark place and hoped that one day, I could look back at it and realize how far I’ve come. At the time, I was just making it day by day, hour by hour.
That was the first day I got to meet with the psychiatrist. He had been the one who approved me to be admitted into the hospital in the middle of the night. He asked me to take a seat, and I immediately began bawling. This was the one person who could really help me, so I figured I needed to share everything with him.
He asked me some general questions, like how I was feeling, and I just spilled my guts out. He just kept assuring me I was going to get the treatment I needed. I remember asking him question after question, like “Will the thoughts of wanting to give my son up for adoption go away?” He assured me that these were all telltale signs of postpartum depression. With each question, his answer was always, “Postpartum depression.” He seemed so confident when he said that too, so I began to trust him. For the first time, I felt like maybe I wasn’t truly beyond help. Maybe there was hope for me.
He told me he would work on finding a drug to work with my Zoloft and help it kick in better. He would need some time to do research, because he really wanted to make sure he found something that could be used while breastfeeding. Deep down, I was hoping his search was unsuccessful so that I could at least have an excuse to stop breastfeeding. Otherwise, I knew I wouldn’t stop.
Before I left his office, the psychiatrist asked me if I wanted to see my son. I asked how that would be possible if today wasn’t a visitation day. He said he could make an exception and allow me to have private visiting hours so that I could hold my baby. I was hesitant and didn’t really know if I was ready to see my son, but I still wanted to try. I agreed and he set up a time later that afternoon for me to meet with my fiancé and son.
Sometime in the afternoon, I was walked over to the front lobby. There was a small room off to the side where my fiancé was waiting with my son. He looked like a single dad, equipped with the baby carrier and beige baby backpack in hand. The sight kind of left me heartbroken, thinking this would be his new normal had I run away or taken my own life. Seeing him inspired me to get better.
As we got situated in the small room, I couldn’t really get comfortable with the nurse sitting inches away from us listening to our entire conversation. Still, we talked about our days and my fiancé’s classes. We were both in our senior year of college, only weeks away from graduation. Final exams were creeping up slowly and Mike’s capstone project was due soon. I continued to feel guilty for putting this added stress on Mike’s shoulders, but he didn’t mind — at least that’s what he told me.
I asked the nurse if I could hold my son, and she allowed it. I held him swaddled in his blanket and wondered if he would remember the days that I vanished from his life. The doctors told me he wouldn’t, but I still felt like I was letting him down. Our time together quickly came to an end, as Mike had to hurry home and continue his coursework and tying up loose ends. How he was doing it all, I’ll never understand.
By the end of the day, the psychiatrist had finally come up with a cocktail that should work for me. I was administered Abilify with the Zoloft I had previously been taking. Everyone in the group was always super interested in what each other had been offered. Some of the patients had been longtime users of antidepressants and knew the side effects of most drugs. I told them I was given Abilify, and one of the patients told me that he hated that drug, and it sucked. This person was always the pessimistic one of the group, so I kept my head up. The psychiatrist who was treating us was a renowned physician in the psychiatric community. If anyone knew what they were doing, it was him.
After dinner, I went to my room to relax. As I was lying in bed, I felt this undeniable peace overcome me. I felt calm for once, and not scared of the future. I wondered if the drugs could really work that quickly, or if maybe I was just finally relaxing on my own. Whatever it was, it was the start of something great, and I liked it. I fell into a deep sleep, feeling like I could do whatever this motherhood thing entailed.
The next day was even better. I began to offer feedback and solutions during group therapy to other patients’ problems. One disabled woman said she often found herself bored spending her days at home, leading her down the spiral staircase of depression. I suggested maybe getting a hobby, like guitar, or going outside every now and then. One particular woman even opened up to me that day while we were sitting alone. I was always kind of apprehensive of this patient, because she was so quiet and seemed somewhat aggressive. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Underneath the confusing façade was a kind, gentle woman. She had been abused throughout her childhood and had suffered from depression since then. This wasn’t her first time in the behavioral hospital, and this time, she wasn’t even interested in going home, or at least in the beginning. With time, she began to finally look forward to leaving this place. She even told me all about her pets waiting for her at home. She was really making progress, and it was so inspiring to watch.
The day wound down with a group of us watching some superhero movie on the television. We would move the chairs together in the common area to lie down across them. The nurses even brought out the snack cart stocked with Rice Krispies, Goldfish, and a bunch of other treats. We were living the good life, away from all of life’s struggles and expectations. Away from the pressure to be perfect.
By the next day, my psychiatrist was certain I was ready to go home. I wasn’t healed, but I was equipped with the resources to get there. I agreed with him and started to get my things together. I took a shower and even did my hair. I put on my favorite Nirvana shirt with my maternity pants that fit way loose. I went to group therapy, but I was just too excited to concentrate. I knew the road ahead wouldn’t be easy, but for the first time, I was ready. I was given a discharge time and called my fiancé to let him know.
During group therapy, I kept finding myself staring at the clock. I felt like a child who knew they were getting picked up early from school waiting for the call over the intercom. A knock finally sounded at the door. “Everyone say goodbye to Katarina,” the nurse said. Even though we weren’t allowed to touch each other, I still got a hug from everyone there. We had spent the most vulnerable times of our lives together. A hug was definitely appropriate.
I walked down the same path I had walked through in the middle of the night when I was admitted, and found my fiancé waiting in the lobby. I was met with a warm embrace and immediately signed my discharge paperwork. I got in the car and tried to make out where we were. I still had no idea where I had spent the last three days. But it didn’t matter, because I was going home.
We stopped for some fast food and then cuddled in bed. My fiancé told me the hardest part wasn’t having to juggle school and a baby; it was not having me by his side. It finally felt right to be at home. I was excited to take on whatever life threw at me.
We spent the next week at my fiancé’s mother’s house, just to have the extra support. My pills kicked in wonderfully, and I stopped breastfeeding. As it would turn out, my pediatrician wasn’t comfortable with me breastfeeding while on Abilify, due to the lack of research surrounding this medication and its effects on breastfeeding. I happily obliged and finally had the excuse I was looking for to quit. Looking back, I feel like breastfeeding was a huge trigger for my postpartum depression. The amount of pressure society puts on a mother to breastfeed is immeasurable and completely overwhelming. At this point in my life, I no longer gave a shit as to what anyone thought. All that mattered was that I was alive.
I slowly adjusted to life back at home and made time to work on my last few assignments for graduation. My professors and classmates were wonderful in working with me to finish group projects and assignments. I felt like my normal self again. I was motivated to get things done and to be there for my son. My anxiety had finally subsided and I could sleep and eat like a normal person again. I actually looked at my son and felt love. I wanted to hold him and bond with him. Life was finally looking bright.
Four weeks after my son was born, I graduated cum laude with a degree in biomedical sciences and my fiancé graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Since then, my battle with postpartum depression has been full of ups and downs, but I have never found myself in such a dark place like before. I love my fiancé and son with all my heart and am truly grateful for the time I spent hospitalized. It was my saving grace and served as a time for reflection and planning for the future.
If you ever find yourself in a dark place you don’t think you can get out of alone, I highly recommend getting help — whether it’s seeing your primary care provider or admitting yourself to a behavioral hospital, do what feels right for you. I wish I’d had someone who knew exactly what I was going through, so now that I have this experience, I want to share it in any way that can be helpful.
There is no judgment and there is no shame in asking for help when you need it. I’m so glad I did.