I’ll give you a warning right now: This isn’t going to be an easy read. Hell, this is going to be a horrific write from my end, so if you’re not in the mood for a majorly depressing post? Might want to go ahead and check out something else.
I’m saying it loud and I’m saying it fuckin’ proud folks: I survived post-partum depression and anxiety, not once, not twice, but three times. I say “survived”, because there is no other way to describe it. And while I really do not want to write this particular essay, I’m doing it all the same, because to not write it? To not put it out there? That’s a slap in the face to anyone who’s been through it, or is currently struggling with it. To not write this post with complete and total honesty is equivaelant to me saying there’s something wrong with having to struggle with any form of mental illness.
I’m not going to give you statistics or definitions, because you can read those on any website dealing with mental illness, babies, pregnancy, and about a million others. Because statistics and definitions have nothing to do with each individual person. They have nothing to do with what I myself went through.
I’m not going to sugar coat this. For some of you reading this, you know this story, because you were there. You fielded those phone calls, and held my hand and just listened when things were so incredibly dark, I could not see how I’d ever get back to me. If twenty-four months ago someone would have told me I’d happily pack all three kids up and head out to the park and enjoy myself, I’d have laughed, and then I’d have curled up into a ball of misery and sobbed until the Xanax kicked in.
Post-partum depression and anxiety are ugly. They’re painful. They’re soul-wrenching, and when you are in the thick of it? Everything is laid to waste in ruin all around you.
I became a mother for the first time six weeks before I turned twenty-eight. There are no words to describe that feeling of elation when Amethyst Mirrabella came sliding into the world, right on her due date, perfect, gorgeous and so very much her own person. Despite spending two hours pushing her out, she had this perfectly round head, and I was asked repeatedly if I’d had a cesarean. I’ve never bought into the concept of love at first sight: but this beautiful baby girl had me from the first moment I laid eyes on her. It’s amazing: most women bitch about their husbands not putting the toilet seat down, but give us a fat, chubby, and bald baby? They can’t wipe their own ass, but yet its the cutest thing when they squench up their faces and crap.
For the first week, I was flying high. When she was a week old, right on Christmas morning, she managed to spray urine two feet across the bedroom and hose me down with it, and I laughed and then actually called people on the phone to tell them about it.
After that first week, things started to slide. I wasn’t sleeping much, and the lack of sleep was starting to catch up to me. Amethyst had no interest in breast feeding, and well meaning friends and family members all felt it was necessary to weigh in on the issue. Looking back on it, the best thing I could have done at the time was simply order them to shut the fuck up. I was doing a fine enough job of beating myself up over the fact that my daughter refused to breast feed from me. It took our lovely pediatrician telling me that for whatever reason, some babies just do not take to the breast, and what was most important was if she was eating or not. So rather than do the sane thing and let it go? I pumped. And pumped. And then did it some more. My day would go something like this: Feed Amethyst a bottle, change her, pump breast milk, store it, wash the pump parts, change the baby again, and then feed her again. Repeat every two hours. Throw in laundry and other miscellaneous house hold bullshit I needed to get done, and when was I supposed to be sleeping? Add to that self image issues due to the fifty pounds I gained during my pregnancy, and my body forcing me to go cold turkey from all the lovely hormones that flowed so easily during pregnancy? I was on a slippery slope that was comprised of razor blades and ended in a pool of broken glass.
I know now it was normal to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. I know now that sometimes, a baby is going to cry, no matter what you do, because that is the only way a newborn baby can “talk” to us. I know now that some women? They have an easier time of it, and yet others unfortunately, go through much worse than I did. But that did not stop that internal monologue from going on, and on. “You’re fat. You’re worthless. You were a c-cup pre-baby and you can’t even feed your own child with those bad boys.” And in perfect harmony was the peanut gallery, weighing in their opinons: “Quit complaining about being so tired! You shouldn’t feel depressed, you just had a baby! God, what do you do all day long; I’d be so bored if I stayed home with my kids.” And on and on to the point where I could no longer ignore it, no longer block those words out, and I began to believe them as truth.
I began sleeping a bit more when Amethyst began sleeping through the night. For a short few months, it was a welcome relief, and I figured that if post-partum depression was going to hit, it would have done so already. But then sleep started slipping away again. At it’s worse, I’d spend five nights getting one or two hours of sleep before my mind would have me so riled up I was pacing the floor. On the sixth night, my body would finally force its self to shut down and I’d get about six hours. I finally went to the doctor when Amethyst was ten months old.
I was officially diagnosed with postpartum depression. I had no idea that it was possible to be diagnosed with it any time in the year post-delivery.
After a long discussion with my doctor, I began taking Zoloft for the depression and Lunesta for the insomnia. The Lunesta did what it was supposed to: knocked my ass flat out so I could actually sleep. The Zoloft took a bit longer since it is a medication that works best the longer it accumulates in your system. The lead-up to it becoming beneficial though, was its own particular brand of hell: I was nauseated, light-headed, and it felt as if my skin had a second degree sunburn. After talking to other moms on message boards who had gone through the experience themselves, I stuck it out.
Side effects of medications are expected. What was not expected was the attitude of most people I made the mistake of confiding in. There was the “friend” who managed to turn my post-partum depression into one-up contest, because isn’t it everyone’s dream to be more miserable than everyone else? There were the people in the “Think Happy Thoughts” camp who made me actually feel worse. There were those that rather than try and educate themselves, decided to lecture me on how I wasn’t getting enough exercise or vitamins in my diet. The worst though, was when we had a few people who came over to visit and see Amethyst in all her almost one-year old glory. I was working on crocheting a baby blanket for my brother and his wife’s first baby, and when the ball of yarn I was using rolled off the couch and I muttered, “Shit” under my breathe, they all looked up in fear, as if I was brandishing a dagger and screaming, rather than a crochet hook and speaking barely above a whisper.
I wanted these people, who should have been more understanding, to just shut the fuck up. To take my hand and tell me that it was not my fault, and that they were there for me. Instead, I was treated like a homicidal maniac, or worse, a drama queen. That treatment only furthered my feelings of worthlessness and isolation.
Eventually, things finally evened out. I had debated not having any more children; as much as I loved Amethyst, and enjoyed all children, the fear of being back in that dark, hateful hole of depression again was stronger than the need to have another baby. But in January 2006, my nephew Luke was born, and holding him for the first time, the benefits all outweighed the risks. I tossed my birth control and we started trying.
And trying. And trying yet again.
For twenty long months, for three rounds of clomid that ended with me having hyper-stimulated ovaries and looking six months pregnant, we tried. I finally threw my hands up and shouted, “Uncle!” and just went about life. A few months after quiting the attempt to add to our family, we found out we were in fact pregnant.
I can not describe the joy at seeing that second line form on the pregnancy test. How high I felt, how amazed I was that we were finally going to be blessed a second time.
It’s even harder to describe how easily your heart can be shattered when you miscarry at five weeks.
If I’d been shocked at people’s reactions to my post-partum depression, I was completely knocked on my ass to their response to my miscarriage. The most shocking of which was people acting as though I had done little more than stub my toe. I’m not trying to start an arguement over when life begins. But to me, it had begun in that grain of rice sized baby the moment I found out I was pregnant. That was, and still is, a son or daughter I wanted more than anything else in the world. And they had been ripped away from me. Yet people acted as though I had no right to be heartbroken.
I spent the next several months in a fog, and I shut everyone but Brian and Amethyst out. I could not let myself feel for anything or anyone, because I was as finely laid as a crust of ice on the top of a pond at the onset of winter. I would have shattered, and became no more.
My brother and his wife found out they were expecting their second shortly after I lost my baby. They were sensitive and kind, and not once did I feel anger towards them; why should I? There was no reason at all for them to arrange their family planning around my fucked up and useless uterus. But the heartache of knowing I would have been just a few weeks ahead of them was so incredible, I was certain at times I might just give up. If not for Amethyst, and her needing me, I just might have done that. But to give my life up for the sake of a hypothetical child, and to neglect the actual child who was in my arms would have been the most selfish thing I could have done.
A week before my nephew Tyler was born, I found out I was pregnant again. I was so terrified. Any twinge was cause for alarm and me running to the bathroom to make certain I was not bleeding. But two days before Thanksgiving that year, we were blessed with our second daughter, Autumn, coming into the world.
At first, things seemed much easier than they were when Amethyst was born. Autumn was a decent sleeper, pulling four and five hour shifts each night, taking a bottle or breast, then going right back to sleep for another three hours. If things became overwhelming, I would do what I told my then four year old first born: Use my words. If I had a rough day with both kids, when Brian arrived home from work, I’d get out of the house, even if it was to just go to Starbucks and take a short drive alone. I forced myself to let the laundry slide, and I always made sure to take a shower once a day, to give myself a five minute window when it was all about me.
But after a very emotional move, I began experiencing chest pains and a racing heart. I’d brush it off as not enough sleep, too much coffee. The episodes would be over quickly, but the more time that went on, the more often they occurred. Five months after Autumn was born, Brian rushed me to the emergency room since I felt like I could no longer breathe.
“Everything looks fine. You’ve suffered from an anxiety attack,” The E.R. doctor informed me after x-rays and tests had been ran. I went home with a prescription for Xanax, and made up my mind to visit a psychiatrist.
I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty details of my trip to the psychiatrist. We’ll leave it at this: She didn’t listen, and when I started on the Prozac she had recommended to treat the issue, I had such a severe reaction to the medication, that I fell under the category of people who the medication makes suicidal. I shudder to think what might have happened if my husband had not come home from work early, and if my younger brother had not stayed on the phone with me, talking me through those horrific feelings until Brian arrived home to take over.
The next day, still shaky from those horrible thoughts in my head, I called my OBGYN’s office to ask if the anxiety I’d been experiencing could be related to postpartum depression. What is it about the words, “I need help,” that can cause you to break down, sobbing? My doctor’s office was, as always, understanding and supportive, and fit me right in. Driving in, I wondered how long I was going to struggle this time.
After a consultation with my doctor, I was given a prescription for Zoloft to treat the postpartum anxiety long term, and another for Xanax to treat it until the Zoloft had accumulated in my system. I went home feeling defeated, isolated, and exhausted. I was also resolved to not be open about it, except with a counselor.
Once I signed up with a therapist, the hard work began, and three years later, I’m still doing the hard work. There is something humbling about laying everything hurtful you’ve gone through in your life flat out on the table like a deck of battered cards. You cannot half ass your way through therapy, not if you want it to have any real effect on your life. For me, I’d go in feeling trepidation, and leave feeling like someone had ran a cheese grater not only all over my body, but over my soul as well.
The most important statement my therapist ever stated during our sessions? “It is not your fault.” Somehow, even the people who truly loved me during my first and second battles with post partum depression and anxiety had neglected to tell me it was okay to feel however I may have been feeling.
When my daughter was nine months old, a trip to an emergency clinic for what I thought was a stomach flu became the beginning of the most amazing miracle of my life: my son. Despite years of infertility, failed fertility treatments, and a heavy dose of birth control to treat Endometriosis, I still became pregnant.
I stopped the Zoloft immediately for the baby, and while I did not suffer from withdrawal, I still had occasional panic attacks throughout my pregnancy.
Three weeks after my son was born, I was slammed with both postpartum depression and anxiety, and I was slammed hard. I knew it was coming, and I made jokes about it throughout my pregnancy, telling my OBGYN to just go ahead and write me the prescriptions for anti-depressants when he signed me out of the hospital. But accepting it, and asking for help, that was exceptionally painful. I had a 1% hope I was done being sucked into the deep, sticky, muddy depths of the illness.
Two memories stand out in my mind from that time, and both still hurt to remember. The first was the day I came home from the hospital with my son. My husband was about to leave to pick up my pain medication from the pharmacy, a trip that would take maybe twenty minutes. It hit me out of nowhere that I would be alone with a five year old, an eighteen month old, and a newborn. “Just don’t go. Don’t leave me alone with them. I can’t handle it,” I’d sobbed, almost hysterical with the fear of the responsibility of three small children, only one of which who was potty trained. But I needed the medication; I could hardly sit without whimpering in pain from my episiotomy stitches.
The second memory, the one that will haunt me for the rest of my life, took place when my son was only three weeks old. Sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and at the end of a rapidly fraying rope, I’d broken down sobbing. My husband took the baby from me and when he’d settled our son down with a bottle, I looked at him and said, “I’m going to end up fucking these kids up. I don’t deserve to be their mother. They’d be better off if I’d just leave. I’m going to fail them.” He took a deep breath and said, “The only real failure would be your leaving them. I’d never forgive you for that, but more importantly, they would never forgive you.”
The next day, my doctor’s office called to schedule a post-delivery appointment. When the receptionist asked me how I was doing, I mentioned that when I came in for my appointment, I would want to talk to the doctor about starting something for postpartum depression and anxiety. “Hun, do you need something now?” She asked, and I burst into tears. I knew I needed help, I had every intention of asking for help, but saying the actual words? I could feel my heart breaking.
The receptionist was able to get my OBGYN on the phone immediately, and he said, “I have to ask this, so do not take it personally: Are you thinking of hurting yourself or the baby?” When I told him that no, I wasn’t thinking of harming myself or my son, but I was seriously considering getting in my car and driving as far as it would take me. He scheduled me in for the next morning, and called me in prescriptions for Zoloft and Xanax. When we hung up the phone, with me promising to call him if I felt overwhelmed, I called and made an appointment to see my therapist.
You are not rational when you suffer from postpartum depression and/or anxiety. I had thoughts that in a hormonally balanced body I would never have thought of. In retrospect, if I were to view someone else going through what I myself went through at the time, a five year old and two under two, I’d of seen a mother doing the very best she could with what she had to work with. I’d see a mother that no matter how exhausted still managed to keep up with the laundry, to make balanced meals, to pump breast milk since her son would not breast feed, to always work one on one time in with her older two children. And I would give that woman a standing ovation for kicking ass and doing more than anyone expected her.
The problem is that we are our own worse enemies, and our very worse critics, who have nothing good to say. I’ve written about the “asshole inner voice” before, and thick in the middle of hormones bottoming out, sleep deprivation, and a horrific self body image due to magazine covers having such a limited idea of beauty, that asshole inner voice drowns out every positive thought or word you might have. You see yourself in a distorted mirror, and anything good you might see is quickly covered by everything bad you’re feeling. Add to that mix well meaning friends and family that offer unsolicited advice and suggestions, and you have a ticking time bomb. Because no matter how well intended? When suffering from postpartum depression and/or anxiety, those suggestions are taken as insults.
Highwater Rising came out with a song called “Wasted Days” a few years ago, and the lyrics truly can sum up how it felt, at least to me, to suffer from and pull through the tar-pit of postpartum depression and anxiety:
Well I waited for the sun to set that day
Before I made up my mind I’d be on my way
And I looked back in time to catch a glimpse of you
But I didn’t see anyone I knew
So don’t believe them when they say I’m coming back
I need a while today
I need to get away
I’d give my eyes for a new yesterday
Can’t stand one moment more
Of these wasted days
Isolated I am trapped at my front door
And I wait until dark and I walk through this cold
I don’t trust anyone
And the last thing you said
Was don’t believe them when they say I’m coming back
Forgive me if my eyes should fail
And if I fade to black
I keep on walking towards horizons
And I try not to look back
The people left behind me
All have vanished there’s no tace
And I can’t say that I’ve been better
But I’m glad to be gone from this place
Two years after my son was born, I’m off the Zoloft and Xanax, and have been for some time. I still continue on with my therapy sessions, and those have been a life saver at times, because I can get an outside, unbiased opinion. I have bad days, but I also have good days, and the good days far outweigh the bad ones. I will probably always struggle in some small way with depression and anxiety, but I’ve learned how to best handle those bad moments.
Despite all the above? The tears, the heart ache, the fear? I’d go through much worse to have my children in my life. I’ve also been inspired by my incredible therapist and what she has done to help me, and am currently pursuing a degree in psychology with the hope that one day, I can help women how I myself have been helped.
It took me close to five months to complete this essay once I started writing it. This essay has been one of the hardest I’ve ever written in my life, but for me to not have written it totally honest and open would be a slap in the face to my experience, as well as those who have fought their own battles, not just with postpartum related depression, but with any type of depression.
If anything, I can use my experience, and use my voice to talk about an issue that very few people want to talk about. I opened this essay with similar words, but I’m repeating them: To shy away from this topic gives it shame, and there is nothing shameful, nothing horrible and nothing wrong with suffering from depression, or any mental illness.
Say it loud, and say it fuckin’ proud:
My name is Amber, and I suffered through and survived postpartum depression and anxiety.