My Journey with Postpartum Depression + Anxiety
Being a mom is one of the most challenging things I have ever done. And it won’t end, it will only get a tiny bit easier in 17 years. There is no pause button. There is no off. I am always wearing my mom hat. The midnight feedings, the whining, the crying, the diaper changes — it is endless, and relentless.
My daughter was born July of 2015 — right after a summer storm. My husband and I joked about naming her ‘Storm Born’ but decided she would have it tough enough as it was, without adding a literary tribute as a middle name. She was a happy, strong-willed infant.
I was drowning in new mom frustration. She wouldn’t latch. Breastfeeding was impossible. I bought every contraption possible to help her, to help me. I paid lactation consultants, I went to classes, I had nurses visit me at home. No matter what anyone told me, I couldn’t get over this intense feeling of guilt: I failed my first motherly duty. I felt that I was missing out on that sweet mother-child bond that magically happens during feedings. I watched with shame as my mom group posted breastfeeding pictures. I mostly though, thought that if this was 50 years ago, my child would die. I wasn’t fit to be a mom.
So what did I do? I pumped. I pumped every three hours. I pumped for at least 20 minutes at 3, 6, 9 noon, 3, 6, 9, midnight. Even if that wasn’t her feeding schedule, that was when I pumped. I would be up at 3 a.m. to pump until 3:30, and then she might be up at 4 to eat. There was no rest. And I wasn’t producing. I would pump sometimes for 45 minutes and get 4 ounces, total. I would massage, shower, smell a blanket, drink yeasty beer, eat expensive and disgusting lactation cookies, drink nothing but gatorade. No matter what — I just wasn’t producing.
But I still did it. The guilt was so large that I pumped for six months. No one prepares you for that. If I could do it all over again, I wish the nurses smiled at me when she wouldn’t latch and said, “You can give your baby formula, and everything will be ok.” But they didn’t. I wasn’t even offered formula until the third day of my hospital stay after her birth. I guess we can’t throw the term nazi around anymore — but those nurses were breastfeeding nazis.
Then there were issues — gas, constant crying — for some reason the doctors call this ‘colic’
Doctor: Oh, you have a colicky baby?
Me: No, I have a baby who won’t stop crying no matter what I do she is inconsolable from 4–7pm each day.
Doctor: That is colic.
Me: That’s a shit term to describe this.
I didn’t know it, but I was in the beginning throes of what would become a deep, dark, depression. It would derail my entire life. It would wreak havoc on my marriage. It would try to destroy my career. It was a quick flame that engulfed any remaining friendships I had.
In less than a year I would be paralyzed by anxiety. Unable to get on a bus. To get in a cab. To go to the office. To function. I was a shell of my former self. Incapable of anything. Driving to Target was off the list. I could no longer take the 40 minute trip to my parents house. I think the longest I went without leaving the house was a month. An entire month in my apartment.
It started slowly. It creeped in easily. I had a c-section. I wasn’t allowed to take the stairs to our 4th floor walk up for 8 weeks. I was on a crap-load of painkillers. They killed the pain, but they intensified my anxiety. It was painful. Everything hurt.
Wait. Let’s rewind a bit more. During the pregnancy (42 weeks long) I suffered from something called Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG). They call it extreme morning sickness, but that’s a very sweet way of saying non stop vomiting. I was throwing up 10–30 times a day. And here’s the thing about extreme morning sickness: everyone is an expert and gives unsolicited advice.
“Have you tried soda water?”
“Only eat saltines and flat Sprite.”
“Try several small meals.”
Me: Gee. I never thought of trying to eat saltines. Thank you.
Also Me: *dry heaves into paper bag*
I lost 30 pounds. I was in the hospital three times a week for IV hydration, vitamins and the anti nausea medicine that they give to chemo patients. When I couldn’t get an IV of the medicine, I had to take dissolvable tablets of Zofran because the pill form would make me throw up. I was in the hospital constantly from six weeks of pregnancy through 24 weeks. It went away for most of the third trimester. When my coverage almost capped out, the nurses who knew me by name and medical record number told me how to make an OTC version of the nausea medicine. (Half a 25 mg unisom tablet and a B 12 vitamin.) FFS I was paying $10 a pill for HALF A UNISOM TABLET AND SOME FREAKING B 12!
Remember that creeping thought I had earlier, about being an unfit mom? Well this is where that seed was firmly planted — pun definitely intended. During my incredibly weak, vomit inducing days I had the thought, for the first time that if I was this sick, I wasn’t supposed to be a mom. There was no way this baby would survive without modern medicine.
One of the worst things about pregnancy is you aren’t allowed (or supposed to) talk about it during the first 12 weeks, because that is when most common miscarriages and losses occur.
Our first visit to confirm the pregnancy with our doctor — after four positive pregnancy tests — was a somber reminder of what could lie ahead. There was no heartbeat, and they “couldn’t confirm the viability of the pregnancy.” Which is the harshest, most medical way of saying, “this might not happen for you guys.”
And I was starting to get incredibly sick at this time. The doctor encouraged me, saying that it was a good sign that the pregnancy is moving along. But I was lost in my head. “What if this was my body’s way of rejecting the pregnancy?”
As you already know, the pregnancy took, and at our next appointment we heard a very strong, very fast little heartbeat.
But I still couldn’t fucking tell anyone. I had just started a new job and the thought of terminating the pregnancy to avoid being the new girl at work who happened to be pregnant definitely crossed my mind. I never said anything to anyone, but I thought about how much easier it would be, and what it would mean for my career if I wasn’t pregnant.
So, I was the new girl at work trying to impress my team and I was hiding a pregnancy, vomiting and hospital visits. It was hard, and I can see now, very clearly, where the chips that would eventually lead to a breakdown, began to quickly stack up.
Pregnancy is a lot like facing your own mortality.
You know how the story ends, but you want to spend as much time ignoring the actual inevitable thing as much as possible.
I went to a birth class through my hospital. I live in San Francisco. There were nine couples in my class, and my husband and I made it an even ten. One of the first topics covered in our birth class was the topic of pain management.
Our nurse practitioner slash lactation consultant slash grandma was very kind. She had a chart with different faces on it and she walked us through the different phases of labor, and what the pain would feel like. We practiced techniques to help us through contractions, like holding a fistful of ice or breathing. During one of the classes the instructor asked how many of us wanted to use pain management, like an epidural, during labor. We each shared our ideal ‘birth plan’ to the larger group. All nine women said they planned to give natural births, they wanted to labor as long as they could at home, and have the baby with as little medical intervention as possible. When it was my turn to talk, I said very clearly what I wanted:
“I want all the pain medicine that is legally allowed. And then, maybe even a bit more, just to be sure.”
It’s not that I have anything against these women, it’s just that I have a feeling all nine of them got epidurals. Because epidurals are kisses from heaven.
I was pregnant for 42 weeks. The last two weeks were hands down, the longest weeks of my life. It wasn’t just the swollen feet, the heartburn, the kicking, or the constant “any day now” comments I had endured that last three months. It was the false labor. I was induced four times. All of them, unsuccessful.
Induction is very simple. I went to my OB, she started the process and sent me home. Once the contractions were 2–3 minutes apart, I could be admitted into labor and delivery. My contractions were about 5 minutes apart and stayed that way. I called the hospital. I couldn’t be admitted.
A few days later, I was induced again. Sent home. Given instructions. I did everything to get labor going. I had a birthing ball. I ate spicy food. I watched Lifetime movies. Contractions never got closer that 5 minutes apart.
I was induced and sent home a third and final time. When that failed, they scheduled to see me, at 41 weeks and 6 days. I checked into the hospital.
They gave me pitocin to start my contractions. I asked for something for the pain right away. My husband got me a hamburger and what would be my last milkshake. (I am lactose intolerant. During my pregnancy, I was able to drink milk/digest dairy, because I was getting the enzyme from the baby. Needless to say I had a milkshake almost every single day.) We watched 30 Rock. I labored for 12 hours.
The doctor came in to check on me. I was one centimeter dilated. One. Centimeter. She gave me my options. I could labor all weekend, and still risk having an emergency c-section because I wasn’t progressing and/or the baby was too big, or we could get the baby out in the next hour and do a non-emergency c-section.
I did not want to be pregnant anymore, that was the overwhelming feeling. Underneath that, though, was waves of fear and doubt. Again, my inability to progress or deliver safely was another chip stacked in the ‘doubtful mom’ column. It seemed that every step I took on my path to motherhood, was a misstep.
I felt like I had failed my daughter, multiple times over — and I hadn’t even met her yet.
My husband took two weeks for paternity leave. On his first day back, he was let go. In addition to the stress of finding my place in the world as a mom — I was now the sole breadwinner for my very new family.
I wasn’t ready for that responsibility. Sheryl-Fucking-Sandberg tells us to ‘lean in’ but all I wanted to do was run away. I knew I loved this tiny infant, but I was so compounded by stress, and anger and sleep deprivation, and frustration that I did not kiss her until she was a month old.
At some point, around five months old, I completely lost it. I called my parents crying. I went to a new mom support group at Kaiser, only to find out it was cancelled. I was reaching out for help. I joined a mommy and me class. Everywhere I went, it was impossible to find what I was looking for. I remember thinking, amidst so many tears — it would be so much better if I was never a mom. I would be so much better if I wasn’t a mom. I didn’t want to do any of it anymore. This is where I should have gotten help. But it would be another 8 months before that happened. When I had a real, actual, tangible, breakdown.
I’m not sure which happened. If it became easier to stay in the house, or harder to go outside of the house, but over the next five months I would get to the office about once a month, and each time I would have a mini-nervous breakdown. I would cry. I would vomit. I would get the shakes. Until finally, one day, I lost it.
I knew I should love my daughter, but I felt empty. I didn’t feel nothing toward her, but she felt like someone I was babysitting. She would cry and I would feel angry. She would reach for me and I would sit and cry, both of us in tears for very different reasons.
I thought postpartum depression was black and white. You had it or you didn’t.
What I didn’t realize is that there are waves of depression, and it isn’t just the lady who drowned her kids in the bathtub. There is an entire spectrum of postpartum depression. I was lost. I was empty. I needed help, and after about the third day of complete and nonstop crying, I was enrolled in an intensive psychiatric outpatient program.
I needed moms.
I needed someone to tell me, “This is normal. This is hormonal. You didn’t cause this. There was nothing you could have done to prevent this.” I needed a village.
I needed my friends with kids to share their stories of PPD with me so I wasn’t blindsided by my own.
I’m still healing. I’m still on what will no doubt, be a long journey of recovery and self-discovery. I’m sharing my story to help normalize PPD and PPA. You are not alone. This is not your fault. It will get better.