Of course I’d been sad before, probably even depressed. But nothing came close to the desperation and hopelessness I felt following my son’s birth. I didn’t know it at the time, but postpartum depression had me in its grip and would take me down, nearly to my death, before I was able to get help.
It started slowly. I was a first-time mom recovering from a C-section. I was exhausted, hormonal, and scared. My family and friends initially chalked it up to nothing more than that. As the weeks progressed I watched my incision heal while my son began to fall into a schedule, yet I still felt the same. And continued to slowly slide.
I had no personal frame of reference and didn’t know what was normal. No one I knew ever had PPD — or if they did they never spoke of it. I was convinced I was the only woman to ever struggle with motherhood and that I was simply a bad mom. I thought my son deserved better, that my family would be better off without me, and the only thing I could do was breastfeed. Eventually I became so depressed that I planned to take my own life once my son weaned, though I never told anyone this at the time.
I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t realize what was happening to me. I’d been given a brochure and a few words of “this is what PPD looks like” before we left the hospital, but that was one of what felt like 7,268 warnings and pieces of paperwork that I filed away with everything else. At that time my mind was only focused on the impending drive home with a newborn.
When it was time for my six week check-up, I was down, but things hadn’t quite manifested to the point of concern, so I carried on. That’s the thing with PPD: it creeps slowly. You have bad moments and good, a bad week and a good day. Back and forth until you’re entirely submerged within the black cloud of your brain and it feels too late to go back.
One night, in the midst of an insomnia-fueled rage cleaning, I remembered the brochure and looked at it, hoping for answers. Unfortunately I didn’t see enough of myself in the warning signs; what I didn’t know then was that PPD manifests differently in each person. There is no one-size-fits-all list of symptoms. Again, I chalked it up to my failures and promised myself to never mention it. My fear was that my doctor would confirm what I believed: that it wasn’t PPD, I just shouldn’t have become a mom.
That’s the thing with PPD: it creeps slowly.
My husband tried to help me, but he had no idea what was happening. His once-vibrant wife was now a shell of her former self, not sleeping or eating and barely functioning. He tried to talk to me about it, but every conversation ended with me blaming myself, damming myself for sticking this beautiful soul with me as a mother.
He was lost, of course. I see that now. Without a guidebook or any clue as to what was happening, he began reaching out for help. To friends, family and co-workers … hell, he was so desperate he probably asked for advice when he picked up the dry cleaning. And while I can’t blame him for trying, this “help” he received from well-meaning individuals contributed greatly to my downfall.
It slowly trickled in at first, mostly observations. “You’re tired.” “It’s scary to have a newborn.” “It will get better with time.” All of this I easily filed into the “duh” category; while I may have been falling into a hole of depression, even I knew all that to be true.
Yet when things didn’t improve he started coming home with advice. “You need to exercise.” “Other people have it worse, you need to realize you’re not really struggling.” “Sunshine will help, just spend more time outside.” “Everyone has to adjust, you simply need to get over this.” “Just try to be happy.” All these felt impossible to me. Just getting dressed took the bulk of my physical strength — how was I going to go to the gym and further exert myself? I’d take my son outside and turn my head upward toward the sun, hoping that somehow its rays would magically cure me and my will to live would be restored. But it never happened, and I just felt more sure that everyone was better at motherhood than me.
After that, people tried to rationalize my misery to my husband as he struggled to make sense of things, fearing it would become our new normal. He came home one day hopeful, thinking he and whomever he’d spoken with this time had found the root cause of my problem. “I think I know what’s happening,” he began. “You expected motherhood to be easy. And it’s not. So you’re just unprepared and in shock. Once you adjust to how hard motherhood truly is you’ll be better at dealing with it.”
Was he serious? I scanned his eyes, waiting for the joke. But all I saw was hope. Hope that he’d finally, somehow, stumbled upon what was happening to me, to our new family — and the cure was as simple as making me realize that I was expecting this to be a walk in the park?
I’d had enough. I’d been secretly experiencing moments of rage, though I hid them from everyone. I was so scared to share and ask for help because I felt nuts. Truly. And I thought people would judge me — or worse, separate me from my son.
Though never, in any moment of that near-blinding rage, did I forget my child and his safety. I say near-blinding, because I still had just enough clear vision remaining to know that I needed to protect him. It was never him. It was me I wanted to hurt.
I’d make sure my baby was safely sleeping, far away. And then I’d punch the wall.
The pain inside me would usually send me to the floor, where I’d curl up in a ball and sob. But sometimes it was different, it became a ball inside me. And the ball would roll through my body, picking up more pain as it went until I needed to get it out. Any way I could.
The ball would find its way to my arms and slide down to my fists. I’d scratch my skin, pull my hair. No relief.
I’d make sure my baby was safely sleeping, far away. And then I’d punch the wall.
Which I did again, only this time my husband was there.
It felt no better, it never did. My fist immediately throbbed, but upon inspection nothing was swelling. I’d hoped I would have at least fractured a finger, anything to cause a physical pain great enough to overshadow what I was feeling inside. I looked around for something to grab, to throw, to hit. To use a vessel for what was inside of me, this thing that I suddenly needed to release at any cost.
I saw a plastic cup. San Francisco Giants, World Series Champions. I loved that cup. I hurled it against the wall and heard it crack.
I cracked along with it, and my pain found an opening to leave my body.
We got into the car and drove straight to my doctor’s office. Nobody judged me. I wasn’t separated from my son. I was validated, and we made an immediate action plan. I went to sleep that night with a prescription for an antidepressant, an appointment with a therapist for the next day, and the first glimmer of hope I’d felt for the future since the day my son was born.
All in all, the only thing this so-called “help” from well-meaning family and friends managed to do was delay me doing what I should have done from the beginning: see my doctor. It convinced my husband that my situation wasn’t serious and could be remedied on its own. And fed the lies my brain was telling me, that it was nothing more than me not being able to handle motherhood.
Could my husband have used some discretion and maybe filtered this information before he brought it home to me? Absolutely. He was desperate, I see that now, willing to try anything. But I also believe these people had no business telling him what I should have been doing, or what they perceived was happening to me.
It makes little sense to me. My mother went through treatment for breast cancer not long after my PPD diagnosis, yet no one told her she needed more exercise or sunshine when she first got sick. And no one gave my dad their opinion of her radiation schedule. All anyone said was to see her doctor and pursue treatment immediately — whereas I had more people tell me to try essential oils than see a doctor.
In our society, or perhaps in human nature, we have an overwhelming urge to give our opinions, advice and flat out tell people what to do. Even when we have no business doing so.
Sure, sunshine, exercise, hugs and puppies can help sometimes, but other situations call for more help. It’s okay to just listen to someone talk about their problems without giving advice. If they ask directly you can always say, “Gee, that doesn’t sound like anything I’m familiar with. Perhaps you should see a doctor or expert.” It’s not like you’ll be punished for deflecting the question, or receive a present if you do answer.
If you didn’t have PPD, if your partner didn’t have it, or if you are not a doctor/nurse/mental health expert, you shouldn’t be diagnosing or prescribing treatment a new mother. Just as no one dared tell my mom that she was only in need of more sunshine, I never should have heard that either.
There are a million “should haves” attached to my story. I should have gone to my doctor right away. But I didn’t recognize my situation as PPD, I just thought I was a bad mom. My husband should have ignored what people were telling him, or at least not repeated it to me. Yet he was desperate to help his wife. There’s no guidebook on how to help a partner with postpartum depression (though there really should be).
Most importantly, we should recognize when we need to excuse ourselves from giving advice. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” There’s nothing wrong with suggesting someone see a doctor, the worse case scenario is they’ll be sent home with a clean bill of health.
I’m often asked what I wish had happened. Aside from me never having PPD, I wish that my husband didn’t listen to what people were saying, or at least that he didn’t tell me every single word of it. That he recognized this wasn’t right and took me to get help — though now I see he was being told this wasn’t a “real problem,” I might have just “been acting dramatic because the baby was getting all the attention” (actual quote from someone he spoke with).
I wish people could have stayed in their lane. Yes, I know you wanted to help. But don’t you see that this was above your pay grade and you weren’t qualified to vote here? If one person had refrained from trying to fix our situation, to justify it as “only” exhaustion, and instead pushed us to see my doctor I could have started my healing so much sooner. Maybe I would have gotten help before I started planning how I’d take my own life. And I’d never have to live with those memories, or carry this guilt over all the time with my son lost to the fog of my illness. The guilt will be with me for a long time, if not always.
I can’t carry resentment, I’m focused on the fact that I did speak out and got help. Therapy and medication helped me reclaim my life and allowed me to enjoy motherhood, as I always dreamed I would.
If you ever find yourself being asked what to do in a situation that seems foreign to you, just remember that’s it’s okay not to know. You can, you should, be honest and help direct that person to an expert. Whether it’s postpartum depression, cancer, or a faulty car transmission, there are qualified individuals available to help. And maybe all you need to do is be the one to point that out.