Dark Thoughts: A Story of Postpartum Depression
The silence of the desert surrounded Claire. Sitting on the porch swing in the dark, she stared out at the lava rocks that covered the front lawn. “That’s how they do things in the desert,” she raised the tall Styrofoam cup she had gotten from the restaurant in a salute to the decorative rocks. Porous stones danced in her inebriated view. Blinking she tried to focus on one spot, but the alcohol in her system created a wave of motion. Steadying herself on her right hand, Claire used her left hand to pull open the front of her brown summer dress and fanned herself.
Frustration from the day tightened her shoulders. Leaning back, she rotated her neck to stretch the muscles. Tendrils of thick, wavy auburn hair stuck to her skin and made her itch. The night was humid and the air felt heavy. A large mosquito clung to the off-white stucco around the living room window. Claire didn’t have the energy or stability to give it a good smack so she sat and watched the insect. Slow, haunting whispers began to emerge in her head, “Take the baby, just the baby. A fire, start a fire.” All day the voices had come and gone. During business hours, Claire kept busy and could ignore them, but often in moments that she had to herself they would taunt her.
It had been six months since she had her last child. Early on in the pregnancy Claire’s employer had relocated the family to Hemet, California a retirement community that lacked the energy of youthful families. The subdued activity of the town did little to alleviate the stress of the day. She spent hours arguing with elderly clients on the phone and tried to keep up with staffing all the while caring for her four year old, two year old and six month old. Between the feedings, diaper changes, potty training, supervising and cleaning, Claire rarely got a break.
On this particular night Claire had snuck out to escape the voices, the business and her family. Leaving after everyone had gone to bed, she went out for drinks and a late dinner at her favorite restaurant. Now as she sat in the stifling heat, her cheeks flushed from the liquor, the night sky felt oppressive. No sounds of insects or birds came from the nearby shrubs to soothe her, only the occasional car passed by the house; its bright headlights disrupted her quietude. Heat from the day rose up through the cracks and bubbles in the cement producing perspiration on her back, neck and between her breasts. Overwhelmed by the humidity, Claire took off the cheap plastic lid of her cup and noticed all of the ice had melted. Dipping her hand in the cold water, she wiped her face and neck. The cool liquid dribbled sensuously down her skin. Bringing the cup to her lips, Claire took a long drink then placed the cup on the ground and got off the swing. She steadied herself by grabbing the chain of the porch swing, took a deep breath and sluggishly moved toward the front door. She opened the screen door slowly to minimize its creaking and thumping.
Claire stepped into the hallway and could smell grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken noodle soup. The house was still and cool. A soft glow from the stove light in the kitchen illuminated the room. It was one in the morning, but she did not feel fatigued. As she passed the living room she reviewed the scattered toys. Izzy’s dolls rested neatly on the window seat with cups spread out for a tea party. A pirate ship sat on the coffee table where Jethro had arranged the action figures around the ship in preparation for battle. The baby’s playpen lay open in the corner. She leaned against the uneven wooden trim of the archway. Her stomach was sour and unhappy. Voices in her head hissed, “Start a fire.”
“Shut up!” she forced the words from her lips.
Anger and fear burned in her chest as she turned and walked to her bedroom. Originally, as a matter of convenience while she breast-fed, she shared the room and her bed with the baby. The intense bond between them had begun in the hospital while Eric tended to the other children. Now, Claire was extremely protective of their connection and did not want to let go.
Silently, she slipped into the room and peered down into the baby’s crib, the child rested on her back, breathing softly, looking divine. Claire’s anger and fear dissipated upon seeing her beautiful baby. She loved her daughter more than her heart could bear. Recently, she had become overly protective of their relationship. She had been thinking of hurting the older children so she could just be with the baby. Thoughts of slipping off with her precious little girl were alluring. Of course, Claire had not shared these thoughts with her husband, Eric. He would think she was a nut case, regardless of the fact that she had birthed three babies in four years. This had created quite a strain on their marriage. Claire sensed Eric distancing himself from the family, working long hours, becoming emotionally unavailable. She felt he was clueless about her feelings.
Standing by the crib, Claire heard the dark whispers again, clouding her mind. “The drinks helped for a bit,” she mumbled to herself as she clumsily made her way to the bathroom. “I want to cuddle with the baby but I shouldn’t wake her,” she slurred at her reflection in the mirror. Mascara had caked under her bloodshot eyes. For a long time she stood and watched her face move and began to wonder how it would feel to slowly run a knife down her left cheek. Shaking her head to erase the thought, she flopped onto the gray linoleum floor. “What’s wrong with me?” she wondered aloud. On her hands and knees, she crawled on the shaggy carpet out to the hallway and listened for sounds that Eric might still be awake. She wanted to tell him about her disturbing thoughts, hoping that it might open up a much needed dialogue between them, though she was fearful of his reaction because it was so late. “He loves me,” she reassured herself softly. A burp rose up in her throat, the taste of tequila, Heineken and Shanghai chicken wings filled her mouth. Careful not to wake the children, she dragged her body along the wall. The cold, flat surface guided her down the hallway toward Eric’s room. Minutes passed before she knocked. Then raising her right hand heavily, Claire knocked twice. Knowing he used earplugs, she applied more force with a third and fourth tap. He exhaled a deep sigh, the iron frame of the daybed creaked as he got up. Sleepily he opened the door and looked down at Claire through groggy eyes. “Glad to see you made it home. I heard you leave,” he said, his forehead wrinkling.
“We need…we need to talk,” she stuttered, not making eye contact with him.
“It’s late. Can’t it wait until morning?” he said hiking up his cotton pajama bottoms.
“I’m having bad thoughts…voices in my head.” She looked up at him through hazy eyes.
“I gotta go to work in a few hours,” he countered.
“When can I talk to you? You leave at 4:30 in the morning and when you get home you pass out for two and a half hours,” she blurted angrily before she realized the trouble she had created.
Eric glared down at Claire, eyes dark and angry. “You’re drunk,” he said accusingly, rubbing his eyes and turning to shut the door.
“Please…Eric,” she begged.
He turned back toward her, and scratched his bare chest. His brown hair was spiked up on the left side and he had a large red sleep line across his cheek. Claire forced a feeble smile. Leaning against the wall she awkwardly brought her body into a squat. Balancing her weight shakily, she stood and motioned for Eric to go first.
“Let’s go into your bathroom and talk,” he suggested. They silently moved down the darkened hallway and tiptoed through her room past the baby’s crib. Once in her bathroom, she sat on the floor by the bathtub. Eric quietly shut the warped plywood door behind him. He took a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the bright light in the room.
“You got out tonight. What’d you do?” Eric quizzed her lounging against the door.
“I got dinner and drinks,” Claire fidgeted with the dark blue nubby bath rug underneath her bottom.
“Alone?” he tested Claire.
“Yes,” she said with an aggravated tone. “I need to tell you…”
“I commute an hour and a half to and from work, Claire. I just don’t have anything left when I get home,” he paused then added, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go out anymore on weeknights. You can’t handle it.” He changed his stance, putting his hands behind his back.
“I work full-time too,” she said, “Jethro and Izzy have to entertain themselves. I had to clean up the poop they used to color on the wall today. Don’t you think they are trying to tell us something?” her head bobbed with frustration.
“They’re kids, Claire!” Eric stuck his neck out to strengthen his point.
“They feel neglected! You aren’t helping me!” she shouted, her voice echoed off the walls.
“I don’t have to stand here and listen to this!” he brought his arm out and slammed his left fist down on the counter top.
“Ssshhhh! You’ll wake the baby!” she whispered loudly.
Recognizing the anger on Eric’s face, Claire suddenly felt small and vulnerable sitting on the floor. His eyes narrowed with disgust. He cracked his knuckles with an angry, jerky motion staring down at her. “You’re just a spoiled little cunt,” he said coolly.
Fury exploded inside Claire and she was off the floor lunging for his throat. He grabbed her wrists to keep her from scratching his face. “You fucking dick. I gave you three healthy, beautiful children, supported your ass during your alcohol rehab, your ongoing recovery and you have the fucking nerve to call me a cunt?” she screamed at him.
Tears spilled down her cheeks. “All I can think about is setting fire to this house while Jethro and Izzy are napping and you’re at work so I can leave with just the baby,” she confessed between sobs.
Eric released her wrists like she was contagious and backed away. It took him several minutes to process what she had just said.
Her face wet with tears, Claire fiddled with the drawstring of her pants. “I love all of our children so much. These dark thoughts are coming more quickly and they’re overpowering. I want to hurt myself to make them go away,” Claire said aloud for the first time nauseated with fear and embarrassment. Silence filled the room and they both stared down at the floor. Claire began counting the gray linoleum squares. She wanted him to hold her and to make her feel safe.
“I need a smoke,” Eric finally stated without looking at her.
“Okay,” she murmured. Feeling defeated, Claire took a seat on the ledge of the bathtub.
Eric opened the door and quickly left the room. After a moment, Claire followed him stopping to check on the baby. She turned on the mobile and the baby rolled onto her left side. Then she slipped in to check on the older children. They had kicked off their sheets, but were sound asleep. She kissed their foreheads and moved back toward the door. An image of fire caught her eye. Claire could see it clearly, bright orange and yellow flames melting the blinds. She blinked the image away and softly closed the door. The darkness of the hallway closed in around her and the ceiling felt abnormally low. Agitated, Claire rushed toward the front door desperate for fresh air.
A humid breeze fanned her face as she opened the screen door and stepped out onto the porch. Eric sat on the swing smoking his cigarette. Claire sat down at the other end of the swing and they sat facing the street in silence. She privately prayed that Eric would tell her everything would be alright. He sat quietly and took drags of his cigarette but did not look at her or speak. Sitting stiffly next to him, she took a deep breath and let it out. The stillness and the heat of the night enhanced the tension between them. Claire could not recall ever feeling this awkward in her marriage. Flicking his cigarette onto the lava rocks, Eric turned toward Claire and said, “I’m saturated. I’m going to bed.” He rose from the porch swing and calmly opened the screen door and closed it behind him, leaving Claire alone.
Minutes passed as Claire sat stewing in frustration and anger. The effects of the alcohol were wearing off and she felt drained in body and soul. An old beat up Lincoln Town Car rumbled loudly around the corner. The headlights blanched the stucco on the front wall of the garage and made Claire squint painfully. Then the voices began again. She felt the panic prickling her back causing goosebumps on her neck and arms. “Just the baby, you and the baby. A fire, set a fire.”
She massaged her scalp as if to rub away the dangerous thoughts. Hands shaking, she awkwardly got up off the swing. As she moved towards the front door her left foot kicked the buoyant disposable cup spilling its liquid down the porch steps. She swayed and stooped to pick it up and spied Eric’s lighter lying under the swing. “Take the baby, just the baby.” Claire grabbed the lighter and flicked it once, twice, three times. A small blue and white flame flickered. She squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to block out the vision of her burning down the house.