What Postpartum Depression Feels Like When the World Believes You Can Think Yourself Well
“If you feel sad for more than two weeks, tell someone,” the 20-something year old nurse told me as she removed the staples from my C-section.
She announced it the same way she announced I would need to continue taking iron pills for a few weeks after losing a lot of blood from my surgery.
“Yeah, okay.” I said, and winced at the staples. I just wanted to get discharged and go home with my new baby. Sadness was something I had dealt with. Sadness was a fleeting emotion. Sadness was manageable.
The first few days with a new baby were magical and raw, and the stuff parental bonding moments are made of. We cuddled our baby girl and showed her off to friends and family. We managed diapers and first baths and I stole shots of my husband looking at her with utter adoration.
It was the picture perfect moments we were expecting that get immortalized on Facebook with people coming out of the woodwork to wax poetic about your amazing, new life. It was our rite of passage and the beginning of something exhilarating.
Sleep Deprivation Is Used to Torture People, Yet We Do Little To Help New Parents
There’s only so long your body can function on sporadic sleep. New parents are dangerously exhausted and the rest of the world laughs it off as a rite of passage. We’re expected to function and continue working on the kind of sleep punctuated by gurgling baby groans and demands for food in the darkness. Their needs are as immediate as they are never-ending.
As the days turned into a week, my sleep worsened and my body ached. I felt like I was moving mountains underwater as my insomnia took hold. I felt like I couldn’t quite hear or see what people around me were saying and doing. I didn’t steal moments in the day to catch a snooze. Instead, I stopped sleeping and my mind filled with a toxic, sticky fog.
My body was fueled not with rest and nutrition, but with a slowly unraveling dread that rendered me silent. The silence was so palpable that I craved the sound of my old life reverberating back at me off a scattered memory. Meanwhile, the people around me expressed how overjoyed I must feel. They recommended sleeping more and counting my blessings to move forward.
No one told me about the scientific and medical reality of what happens to a woman’s body as her hormones drop and flood out of her body. It felt like my axis had shifted and my world tumbled through a choppy ocean and into a cold darkness where monsters loomed.
Tumbling through the darkness, I grabbed onto the hot, sickly nausea of my anxiety and dread that at least reminded me I was still here. That I was a person. In reality, I felt like a generic copy of myself who was too weak to be the kind of wife and mother anyone would want.
I felt ashamed. My Mom friends who had recently had colicky babies, babies with hip harnesses and babies in incubators were doing fine. Meanwhile, I felt incapable of caring for a relatively easy baby who slept in long stretches.
I was terrified when people asked me if it was so wonderful and how lucky I was. I didn’t understand how I was expected to love a new life with no sleep, pain radiating through my body and a brain fog I couldn’t climb out of.
No one told me that the joys of parenthood compound itself over time, and that it takes more than a few weeks to adjust. They just told me to focus on being happier.
Soon I started wondering how to move to Alaska and fall of the grid completely so no one would have to remember the toxic footprint I left behind. I figured my husband and daughter would be better off without my dead weight. I saw a future where a yellow-skin, sallow-eyed Mom watched dance recitals and soccer games as husband and daughter wrapped their arms around each other in glee.
Our family pictures would feature this dynamic Daddy-daughter duo beaming proudly while I watched on in the distance surrounded in a hazy grey fog.
The whispers in my mind told me I was the only one who felt this way. That I was a horrible excuse for a mother and my baby deserved better.
Anything would be better than me.
Insatiable Longing for Moment’s Past
I wondered what my husband and I had done to our lives and how we ended up here. Just a few months ago we were in our sunny carriage house in Brooklyn, NY where we took long walks to Redhook, drank beer at Governor’s Island and met friends at Henry Public for turkey sandwiches and old-fashioned cocktails.
And now we were in Atlanta where both the weather and our lives were hot and sticky and life ground to a halt and felt stagnant. I tried to catch my breath without falling over. I had longed to be back in my hometown for the decade I lived away, and now that the opportunity fell into our laps, I wondered what we had done.
Where were we? I longed for someone to help me.
Suddenly my husband and daughter were the family we were always meant to be, and I was the outsider. He managed to get up effortlessly on his shift to feed her, and still make breakfast and get to work in his home office. He was the good parent. I was the bad one.
I longed to close an office door, too, and get back to a world that didn’t involve being so hyper aware of what was going on inside my own body. Everything in my day was suddenly raw and visceral from walking across the room in pain from my C-section to mixing up formula in the middle of the night.
That incredible woman with a flood of unfurling dreams I once knew had vanished completely. I missed her so much it hurt.
The burning anxiety in my arms was now a new constant. So was my uncontrollable, unintentional nonstop crying that signaled a deep rift in the family dynamic.
This was not the way motherhood was supposed to feel. I wasn’t suppose to be the darkest version to ever climb out of my inner-self. What was wrong with me?
I looked at my husband with intense longing. We were best friends and did everything together. Strangers at a bar would comment on how in love we were, and our friends held us up as an example of what a relationship should look like. I could walk for hours and hold his hand without ever wanting to be apart and fall asleep in each other’s arms. We found adventures in every corner.
I found my home in him. And now I didn’t know where home was.
Suddenly I couldn’t feel my way back to where he was any longer. The connection had snapped, and even when I gingerly tried to piece it back together again, it fizzled and went silent in the darkness.
Choosing to Believe
My husband’s lunch breaks were now centered around getting out of the house and driving me around, even if for a few minutes with our new baby tucked snugly in her car seat. I would gaze out the window and ask him over and over again if our life was okay. I kept asking if it would get better, and if I would feel what he was feeling too. “It will happen. I promise. I know you’ll feel it too. Soon.”
I chose to believe. I kept focusing on that trust we had built together and believing it would happen for me too.
He never judged me, but I could also tell he didn’t understand. The love struck lightning bolts had hit him hard with our daughter, but I wasn’t there yet. I wanted to want her with every fiber of my being. But instead my nerves were frayed and swinging in the wind, where every bump would make me wince and shout out in pain.
But I began to feel something. I had a longing to be better physically and mentally, even though I felt like was running head first into a hot sandstorm and trying to find the oasis. Grit and sand filled my mind, and I couldn’t think my way out of a paper bag, let alone a problem like this. It felt hopeless.
Though hopeless would have been an improvement over what I was feeling. Feeling said would have been a welcome reprieve. I would have scaled a burning building to get back to a place of sadness.
But I had longing, and I held onto that feeling as hard as I could. I knew it meant something could change.
And that’s when I felt a thread in the darkness. My longing for things to be different and be present and filled with joy in my life like other Moms created a thin, fraying thread that lead back to myself.
There was no epiphany once I felt my way back to myself by that thread. There was only refusal and fear in living a life in such weighted agony. Like feeling a vice on my chest while trying to take care of a perfect little baby who needed my attention as I tried to breathe through the palpable pain of a body and mind betraying me.
My daughter deserved better. And I knew I would never get better on my own.
My doctor prescribed an antidepressant and within a few weeks, I felt neutral. Like the world’s problems were still around me, but that they were also not so chaotically deafening. Existing was manageable.
I pushed myself to do the things that mattered so much to me before. I put my baby in the Ergo and walked as far as I could while still recovering from a C-section. I took her to the park and held her while I read books and tried to get to know her. The weight lessened.
Soon my heart came flooding back to my chest where the vice had once been and I fell in love with her, too. It had happened.
I laughed for the first time in months, and my husband sighed a breath of relief. We made it back to a place where our connection was stronger and trusted that I would heal fully.
I decided to be proactive in my recovery and get out and walk as much as possible. I let myself be vulnerable and ask for help to those around me. We took our new love to restaurants and on month long trips back to New York in an illegal sublet we were using like a time share with friends. Life was new again.
And I determined that my freelance work would matter. That it would mean more than extra money for vacations and bills. That it would be a necessary part of our income and my career trajectory to have the kind of life we wanted. And I used my freelance career as a tool to focus my mind on moving progressively forward. I would focus on researching and writing and editing my way through a mental process I very much needed to complete.
My mind had betrayed me once, but I felt safe wrapping myself up in the processes of my work. I took pride in building something viable from scratch.
Within a few months, I felt more like myself. Like someone with a wide variety of emotions from joy to sadness that had an incredible life and one worth fighting for. I stayed on my medication for about a year and slowly weaned off and my mind, body and spirit still felt stable.
Over time, the memories of my postpartum depression faded to a meta form. Like remembering the emotions, but not actually re-experiencing them. It was almost as if they had happened to someone else, and I even chose to have another baby and was prepared this time around for the storm.
I wondered why I had been so hard on myself. Why I had not extended myself the same grace and dignity I offered to those around me? Why I couldn’t love myself in those dark, vulnerable moments?
This is Real
My only answer is I believed that as a mother I should be able to overpower it. Not overcome it, but muscle my way through it with brute force and validate my strength as a mother. And the fact that I ever felt that way in the first place made me a truly horrific person. I believed I deserved nothing less than my resistance and dismissal of myself.
In reality, the experience just makes me a very real person. One who left behind a full and rewarding life in NYC, went through seismic shifts from cross-country moves, and embraced career changes. I was a person who lost touch with herself after coming into parenthood recovering from surgery, anemia and insomnia.
Postpartum depression is something that happens to your brain and creates a domino effect on your mind, body and soul. Only the dominoes weigh 5,000 pounds and are being hurdled off 10-story buildings to the ground below and exploding next to you. You jump and cover your ears, but you can’t escape them no matter where you run. In the meantime, the people around you want you to slow down and work through the terrifying chaos with the same ability you could in your old life.
They want you to be the old you that can overpower the situation. But that person is gone.
And because ‘depression’ is incorrectly and interchangeably used with sadness, it creates confusion with both the depressed person and those around her. Telling someone to just ‘be happy’ or ‘be grateful for your baby’ makes them feel utterly and categorically worthless. It validates that they should be doing something different, only they can’t figure it out. Or that they are, as they suspected, horrifying.
You wouldn’t tell someone to just ‘be happy’ to get over their liver problem or stomach bug. Nor would you tell them to ‘be grateful for your baby’ to combat an infection after a C-section. Postpartum depression is a serious and potentially dangerous medical issue that requires professional intervention.
You can’t think your way out of being depressed. You also can’t use positive affirmations to shift the axis back in your favor. It takes time to heal. You likely need professional help (even if you’re afraid to ask, and even if you’re a man who can also suffer from a form of postpartum depression).
And you need an intensely understanding support system to get you through it.
But this is the real point of this entire piece. There is optimism waiting for you. Your postpartum depression is solvable. This intense weight whether manifesting as depression or anxiety or obsessive compulsiveness or psychosis? It’s totally and completely fixable.
It gets better. There is hope. There is momentum. There is a better version of you waiting out there to embrace you and welcome you back. There is a breathtakingly inspired day after the storm waiting for you. The “You” you’ve lost is still there. You can find her again. You can hold onto the thread and find your way back.
You are not alone. I am with you.
(I write about freelancing, business and empathy. How can I help you? email@example.com)