I knew I would struggle with PPD.
I knew I wouldn’t help myself until it was too late, until I was in the dark and fog, my feet planted in muck.
I knew I would be exhausted and self-questioning, under pressure and scrutiny in my new role as a first-time mother. And I knew that this part, the part about being in my head, would be harder than giving birth at home, harder than getting up in the night to nurse, harder than trudging onward into parenthood.
By the time I knew all that, though, it was already too late.
I started, by all indications, preterm labor at 34 weeks. I had been slaughtering rabbits in the summer morning heat. I called my midwife and we talked about my options. We discussed bed rest, and the fact that it’s proven to have little or no effect, but that choosing to not go on bed rest would open me up to potential regret; if I continued on with day-to-day life and had a preterm baby, I might never forgive myself.
I chose bed rest, knowing that bills and work orders and personal papers were strewn across my desk at work. Not knowing that bed rest would make the end of my first pregnancy a desolate, unproductive, stir-crazy deadzone. And so 34 weeks became the threshold into my tunnel of depression.
After the birth, I had no appetite. Eating was most uncharacteristically a miserable task easily overlooked without my husband’s oversight. It was this observation, mentioned by my husband as we prepared to depart from the final 6-week postpartum appointment with my midwife, that gave her concern.
The darkness and volatility that crept over me at the end of pregnancy had been since masked by the run-of-the-mill exhaustion and emotional turmoil of new parenthood. I was no longer looking for it. I had a child to care for and worry about; I didn’t have time for me.
The depression part was an inevitable chapter in my lifelong story through which mental illness has snaked and swum. It became PPD only because I was simultaneously in a postpartum period, but to call it such made me feel embarrassed, like it was some dramatized “special” depression. And therefore, maybe it was “all in my head.” Which of course it was.
I was asked more times than seems reasonable whether I was sure I had “postpartum depression” or whether it was just the ordinary kind. I was pressured regularly, overtly, to get a more positive attitude and stop making a big, ugly deal about everything. Quit letting the stress get to me. Start cherishing the moment.
Depression is not the sadness, sensitivity or stress that accompany it. Depression is the inability to cope. Not just with a major event, though one may incite the vicious vortex, but increasingly with the most minute hiccups in day to day life. With my own thoughts.
I was furious with myself for withering away, for not smiling at my sweet baby, for letting my arms go slack as she howled through colic and fussed incessantly for six months straight. I was furious at my husband for hating me, for blaming me, even as I alienated him. I couldn’t making him understand, so I tried to quit trying. I forgave him nothing. I forgave myself nothing.
From the first six months of my daughter’s life, I remember only fleeting, hazy moments and the images stored away as photographs. Every motion of life was as if conducted through a thickening sludge. I do remember dragging heavily, slowly, across the driveway at my office, my shoulders curling over the great emptiness in my chest. I felt that my pain was visible to even the least discerning eye.
I lost fifty pounds, dropping from my full-term pregnant +35 to a number I hadn’t seen on the scale since high school.
I only talked to two people about how I felt. It seemed as though I needed to prove that it was all real, that I wasn’t just a tired new mother with a foul disposition. I knew I needed medication– the same one I’d taken for nearly a decade until two years prior– to escape the whirlpool in which I was ensnared.
But I wanted to be rescued. I wanted my husband to tell me, You need help. I’ll make you an appointment. Let’s fix this.
In the end I found myself alone in my car halfway down our driveway. Tears streamed onto the steering wheel. I dialed my dad’s former psychiatrist, which seemed like a relevant number, but got a voicemail. Then I dialed 411 for a suicide prevention hotline.
I wasn’t going to kill myself. I wouldn’t have left my daughter and the sliver of hope that the rest of my life might not be like this. But my thoughts were dangerous. My mind had turned on me, and I knew that I alone could not combat it.
Next, I dialed my doctor’s office. I told them the prescription I needed, that I understood I might need an appointment to get the prescription, but if so, I needed that appointment urgently. Like, tomorrow. I was seen 14 hours later, Friday morning.
By Sunday, the demons were beginning to dissipate.
It’s funny, after I eradicated the depression and the clouds parted, stress reentered my life. Because I started caring again. But the worrying of motherhood, the basic concerns, felt refreshing. They were my rightful job, and I was once again able to function in this role.
Shame lingered for the time I’d missed and damage I’d done in my marriage. But mostly I was grateful to be alive. Really alive.
I promised myself that when it happens again, and it will– after I’ve again strengthened and tapered off of antidepressants and an event, maybe another birth, brings on an episode– I won’t let it get so far. I’ll do what I must to keep myself present in mind, for my family and for myself.
I don’t pretend I’m not afraid. Intentions and promises now, while I’m whole, may grow thin in the crippling state of depression. For all the awareness and precautions and recognized risk factors, somehow I failed before.
As a mother, taking care of myself is taking care of my family. That, I hope, will be my incentive.